Sunday, November 11, 2012

Formative Albums

Formative Albums I’ll start at the beginning: Albums didn’t exist in the modern sense until the early 1960s. Before that a Single would be released and then another and another. Then a Compilation Album. In 1963 The Beatles came along and they had the idea to release all of their songs at once…and even write specifically for a collection of songs. Yellow Submarine, Let it Be, The White Album and my favorite….

Abbey Road. A track by track essay would take forever so I’ll leave that for my afterlife career in writer’s purgatory. For now, the highlight is the first track, “Come Together”. The octave sliding bass line played by Sir Paul McCartney is priceless and locks you into the music. The Lennon-sung lyrics are proto-rap and risqué for the time. “I know you, you know me, one thing I can tell you is you got to be free.” This was the basic advice the Fab Four had at the end of the 1960s. Somehow the Oceanic gap between London and New York had preserved the group’s originality and soul. They were not folk and they were not rock and they weren’t the dominant rockabilly and blues that had inspired them to pick up instruments in the first place. They were inspired and impossible to imitate (even they couldn’t imitate themselves) and their music totally transcended the time. I was introduced to the Beatles first by my father’s Greatest Hits record and later by the ultimate enthusiast Robert G. in Yosemite. Robert schooled me in The Beatles and also in another album that should make this list but doesn’t because I don’t want two albums by the same artist.

Tusk – I know, Rumors, the album released by Fleetwood Mac before Tusk is ridiculously good. The tracks are all time great 1970s light rock. But the under-appreciated Tusk, released at the end of the decade is absolutely phenomenal. I think Lindsey Buckingham, the group’s guitarist and lead male singer, said it was the band’s Pet Sounds, which is like saying that it’s conceptually their high water mark. I have to agree because if you as a listener are in the right mood then this will grab you by the ears and massage your pain away. Rumors has better songs but as a collection Tusk has better diversity and scope. The selections are a bit haphazard and bipolar and ADD, but so am I. The top song has to be the powerful Stevie Nicks showcase “Storms”. My favorite song on the album is “Think about Me”. Fleetwood Mac is named after my all time favorite drummer, Mick Fleetwood. Drummers are baffled when I name him as my favorite because he’s completely without the requisite flair and solo drama of the Neil Peart or Ringo Star. There are almost no drum solos in Fleetwood Mac music, but if you really pay attention to the percussion in their songs you’ll see that Mick Fleetwood does his job as rhythm master. He has to do more with less and his short licks and dynamic attacks appeal to my ADD. Yes, Rumors can’t be overlooked, but Tusk is the album I always turn to without fail.

Late For The Sky – Jackson Browne How did I miss this exceptional album? Because I grew up in 1982 New England and Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson were all that my radio station played. You know the Dancing with the Stars host guy Tom Bergeron? He hosts the despicable American’s Funniest Videos also. Well, he was a lowly disk jockey at WHEB radio station in my hometown and during 1981-1984 I blame him for introducing me to nothing but pop music. I could sing Cutting Crew and Flock of Seagulls songs that washed ashore during the New Wave era but the only Jackson Browne song that got radio play was the catchy “Somebody’s Baby” from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So, it took a gift iPod with all of my Stepfather’s music library on it and a chance encounter with a song that I picked solely for the title as a soundtrack for a photo slide show for opening my ears to Jackson Browne, the King of Introspective Folk. “For A Dancer” is a song that moves me every time I hear it and I even get choked up when I sing it. There are only 8 beautiful songs on this album, all featuring Jackson Browne’s voice and David Lindley’s violin. The talent here is matched only by the blatant confessions of a man who is either faking authenticity very well or is some kind of savant genius at confessing his sins in song. No one covers Jackson Browne songs because he basically cannot be topped. Unlike Bob Dylan who writes songs that other artists sing better, Jackson Browne’s versions are the definitive version…every time. “The future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems, it would be easier sometimes to change the past.”

Astral Weeks. I was on a beach in Baja confessing my sins to the universe while placid waves washed the sand back and forth between the ears of dark whales clapping their tails on the stormy waters of my confusion. And then I heard a distant melody and driving purity coming from the speakers. There was the song and then there was a second song going on behind the first song. And then there was a singer. And then a flute. It was like four or five pro studio musicians had agreed not to rehearse while a poet with the fluency of Homer rifted on a variety of obscure subjects all relating to our place in the universe. I forgot my problems and checked the iPod and saw “Astral Weeks” - Van Morrison. I thought Van Morrison was that dude who sang that monotonous song “Brown Eyed Girl” Yeah, it was the same artist but I could tell that this was the real Van Morrison. He hit the jackpot with “Brown Eyed Girl” and none of the songs on Astral Weeks will ever be played on the radio but if you are on the beach and thinking loathsome thoughts and the song “Slim Slow Slider” comes on the radio then your sins will be washed clean by the multi-layered absolution. I swear it sounds like that’s exactly what they were written to do. The upright acoustic bass guitar, the saxophone, the seemingly drunk flute, the voice of Van Morrison speaking his truth with the lilt of Irish blood fighting to find his sound and transport you from this flesh and blood plane to an Astral one. This album is like a mental vacation for me to a land next door to Jazz and within sight of Heaven.

Glass Houses – I blame this on Tom Bergeron. Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen and Madonna and Michael Jackson and Prince were about 90% of the music played on my local station in 1984. They also dominated MTV. Maybe I shouldn’t complain but in retrospect I was cheated out of some excellent music that I had to find later in life. Glass Houses was the first album I owned and it really established my fundamental musical tastes. I’ve expanded through pain and stubbornness but everything about this album still sounds very good to me. At some point you would think I would find something wrong with the album but the basic groove and adult themes it communicated, despite being basically a rock album that didn’t feature a piano, makes it excellent Billy Joel. The song that really made me feel naughty for a ten-year old kid was “Sometimes a Fantasy” It starts off with someone dialing a number and the phone ringing. “Though it’s awful hard to try to make love long distance…(heavy breathing)” “Still Rock N Roll” is the song from this album that everyone knows. Glass Houses won’t make many lists of Top Albums but it’s an example of timing and the haphazard ways of the world and life that put this on my record player in 1980 until I wore it out and replaced it with Kurtis Blow. It’s more of an example that you can’t ever escape your musical era because you were too dumb to think independently

Zep IV – WHEB didn’t play any Led Zeppelin and since I was going to be a professional baseball player I didn’t fraternize with drug users so I never heard any Ozzy Osbourne or Judas Priest or Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. What a crime! I had to go all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska in 1989 where during my first and only semester I fraternized with every drug user in Fairbanks, almost died of alcohol poisoning, pissed on a poster of Rick Springfield in the girl’s bathroom, saw my baseball dreams flushed away by a doctor’s X-rays and also heard all the artists above. I vividly remember someone asking me if I had listened to Zeppelin. I had no idea who they were talking about. They put in the first compact disc I’d ever seen…and I heard the crescendo scratching guitar sounds of “Black Dog”. “Hey Hey Mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.” HOLY SHIT! All the hard work done at WHEB playlist programming that was supposed to indoctrinate me to light rock and English Pop failed to protect me from the pure sexuality evoked by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and John Bonham. This music reeked of Marijuana and casual sex and that’s exactly what it led to. They say rock music is devil music and I can’t argue with that. When you are a Freshman in college then either your Puritan ways will be tested and prevail or they will be tested and fail. Mine failed the Heavy Blues test. Zeppelin unzipped my zipper.

The Wall – If someone could go back in time and prevent me from listening to The Wall then they might change the course of History. My buddy, Ethan D. was an only child with parents who seemed to be engaged in a B.F. Skinner psychological experiment to see how overbearing and controlling you could be and manage to keep your child alive. I think they accepted he would never be well adjusted but they seemed to delight in seeing how close they could get him to suicide. (His parents would hang up on me if I didn’t announce myself on the telephone, “Hi, this is Oggy, may I please speak to Ethan?” …a habit I still can’t break.) Ethan and I started out as 5 year olds going to 1st grade, competing in vocabulary recitation contests, playing kickball…etc. Ethan was the first person to show me a pornography video when I was probably 12 years old. It (the video) was insanely wrong and involved naked body painting and oral sex by women with heavy chests and hairy crotches. The only previous experience I had had with sex simulation was a broken signal in Boston that showed a static twisted couple banging away for a few seconds before the static returned. So it comes as no surprise that one day Ethan called me over for ham sandwiches and led me to a dark, empty wooden room with a record player (that he was allowed to use for 30 minutes a week). He put on a record and the carnival sounds of a tone deaf squeeze box was shattered by David Gilmour’s punishing blues rifts. I would never be the same. “So ya, thought ya, might like to…go to the show?” sings Roger Waters and I still imagine Ethan’s gap toothed grin as he watched the innocent Oggy’s lip curl in confusion and embarrassment. I didn’t want to go to the show…but maybe I did. The thin ice of my childhood cracked forever and although I fled before the final song, I could never replace the loss of youth. “Another Brick in The Wall” is a quintessential song from this album that is totally and criminally out of context when the radio plays it after a Boston or Jethro Tull track. No, The Wall is meant to be appreciated as a whole and it’s even better if you are 12 years old and still believe in Santa Claus because it will rattle your little brain. Not many years later Ethan handed me a black bag in the High School hallway and told me to, “Get to the woods…fast.” He was gone before I could argue and of course I was now carrying a stolen VCR from the Chemistry Lab. Ethan found friends more suited to his tastes, he smoked cigarettes, stopped playing football, bragged about 5 liter Mustangs with wide tires that smoked when you did a brake stand. He rolled joints in my closet while I sorted baseball cards. His vivid reenactment of fucking a girl at nearby camp pretty much tainted sex in my mind for ten years. Between that and a terrible Sex Ed class at the local Unitarian Church and the HIV scare I was resigned to virginity. I lost track of Ethan but The Wall and Pink Floyd are permanent fixtures in my musical library.

Tea For The Tillerman – Cat Stevens is the earliest music I remember (although it could be a tie between this and “Hello, I Love You” by The Doors.) I was born the year this album was released and my parents owned a big 8 track player and this was one of the cassettes they owned when we lived in Maine. “Morning Has Broken” was not written by Cat Stevens but for some reason the liner notes give him credit for this psuedo-spiritual song that showcases his voice perfectly. This is folk/pop of Early 70s at its best and maybe it brings back memories of an intact family in a wooden house with a fireplace or maybe it really is good music. “Moonshadow” has been voted one of the worst songs of the century and I guess it is a testament to my prejudice that I cannot understand how. The lyrics are pure Buddhist acceptance. “If I ever lose my eyes I won’t have to cry no more.” Cat Stevens, incidentally, was the top celebrity/singer of the early 1970s and he still had three albums left before he converted to Islam and retired to prayer and controversy. Cat Stevens actually was influenced by the English diva Petula Clark and the Hollies and Herman Hermits and Dave Clark Five before Mohammad influenced him. His craft is much more devoted to the melody and song but his lyrics manage to find a way to speak gently of love and life. No one can compare to Jackson Browne for confessional lyrics but Cat Stevens is definitely in the same league.*

Blue – The first girl I had sex with introduced this album to me. She was 22 and an Latin American Studies exchange student from Wisconsin and we met in Ecuador when I was 20 and exploring the world of obscure philosophy. She had smoky blue eyes and had long long blonde hair and smoked Ecuadorian pot as often as she smoked cigarettes. Come to think of it, the first puff of pot smoke I breathed came from her mouth as she blew it down a crude bamboo pipe into my lungs as we lay in a hammock in a banana grove in the jungle a day before we drank a peyote mixture that had us riding dragons in the sky. Needless to say my baseball playing days were long behind me. So, she had a cassette player and a few Grateful Dead albums that I ignored but anyone who knows early Joni Mitchell can remember the first time they heard “Case of You”. I mean, Mitchell plays a dulcimer. There isn’t anything more retro-folk than a stringed dulcimer. It’s literally an instrument that defined the folk music revival of the ‘60s. My girlfriend finished her semester and left me behind with sorrow and tears and Blue. She probably would’ve been better off with casual sex amongst German travelers but I couldn’t resist her long hair and Guatemalan clothes and quit wit. What she saw in me is still unclear. I got confused looks amongst the devout Catholic pharmacists in Ecuador when I asked for “anti-contraceptivos” I should’ve been asking for “Anti-Conceptivos” but was basically asking for something that would prevent contraception and not something that would prevent conception. But nothing matched my panicked look when my girlfriend said she thought she was pregnant. Looking back, that may have been a ruse to get me to celebrate her anti-conception with a dinner and gifts. Ha ha. What a good joke to play on young Oggy. Tell him you’re pregnant. Real funny. And people wonder why I don’t trust women? But I trust Joni Mitchell, a Canadian woman who had a kid as a teenager, gave her up for adoption and went on to record some of the best folk of her age and then completely reinvented herself as a demanding jazz songstress. It’s hard to believe the Joni Mitchell of today recorded Blue but greatness can’t stand still.

Aerial Pandemonium Ballet – Harry Nilsson is the most recent discovery and one that I have no explanation for. Everyone knows the power Ballad “Without You” and the song from Midnight Cowboy, “Everybody’s Talkin’” but the Aerial Pandemonium Ballet is an album that defies the odds. Nilsson sounds like a gimmick/jingle writer with a twisted sense of humor and loads of talent who managed to record exactly what he wanted to record as a means to entertain himself and he still was a success. That’s so rare I can’t even begin to justify it. His music doesn’t reek of commercialism at all and it is so individual that only Nilsson could have invented it. He is one of the few examples of a person who had enough musical talent and gifted instinct that his first choice was also the right choice. He really was a natural. He was under appreciated, of course, but not everyone can be Eric Clapton. I’ve met people who remind me of Nilsson and none of them have the patience with recording and the process of creation for a mass market. They all end up as resentful wage slaves. Basically, Nilsson was writing complex parody songs that only he knew were parodies and everyone else thought were good folk/pop/rock. So he was misunderstood in the right way. His career was based on people being too dumb to understand what he was doing…and that would annoy most complicated people but Nilsson managed to tolerate the stupidity of humanity and eventually trashed bar rooms in Los Angeles with John Lennon and got Lennon to produce his album Pussy Cats. Nilsson also destroyed his own priceless vocal cords with pointless screaming competitions until he ended up as a fat karaoke act, lip-syncing his own songs for a fee. The diversity and complexity in Aerial Pandemonium Ballet is unmatched. Vocally, he might be the most talented on my list and his overdubbed vocal tracks are a delight to hear. Like one of his producers said, “His voice sounds great with his voice.”

Somewhere in France - There are no blues albums on my list because they can all be summed up by this live recording by Ray Bryant. I was trapped in heavy traffic in Boston, going nowhere and totally stuck to my pitiful life. I had returned from Labrador and nothing had changed with the doomed Arctic Wolf and I had no direction and couldn’t even remember why I was in Boston waiting for a light to change…and then I heard blues piano coming from the public radio station and I was completely fixed on the music. Cars honked their horns with no reaction from Oggy. NEVER HAVE I HEARD SUCH PERFORMANCE. The shining complex world view of the pianist was instantly clear and I knew I’d never heard him before. At first I thought it was Oscar Peterson but the more I listened I knew it couldn’t be because there were no other instruments. It was a recording of something I had never heard before: A Solo Blues Piano Concert Recital. I pulled over to a No Parking Lane and did nothing but listen to the music with a pen in hand so I could write down whom I was listening to. I had the windows down and twice I watched a pedestrian do a double take when they were passing the window. They wanted to ask me what I was listening to but kept walking. Then the announcer came on and said that it was Ray Bryant from the Album “Somewhere in France” and it was a tribute because Bryant had died that day. I like to describe Jazz as “music that expresses personality” You listen to a solo and that’s a person describing himself with music. They are communicating with notes as they improvise. Jazz is for people who think words aren’t enough. Well, Ray Bryant turned Blues music into his personal translation media and the message he is sending will take the rest of my life to understand. “Blues in G/Willow Weep For Me” can compare to any Vladimir Horowitz recording ever made. It is as dynamic and powerful and expressive like a J.S. Bach Mass….as long as Bach was born poor and black in Alabama. I love this album and I like to think Bryant has made himself immortal with this expression of his personality. It’s a challenge to me that if I don’t have something to say that is original then I should probably just shut up. Music is not a means to make money or be famous. It’s your personality being recorded. Maybe some artists don’t know who they are so their music sounds dead to me. Their songs are lifeless and pointless and forgettable and monotonous. Static. A flat line for 3:20. But Ray Bryant’s music makes up for everything.

Runaway Horses- Belinda Carlisle broke off from The Go Gos and soon hit a home run with “Heaven is a Place on Earth” a song that completely and justifiably dominated my Senior year in High School. Carlisle is sultry and in control. I was not mature enough to publicly appreciate her music so I blame myself for missing her third album Runaway Horses. Almost 20 years after it was released I was building guitar effects pedals in my garage in Los Angeles when the song “Leave a Light On” came on the internet radio station and I stopped work and went into the computer to find out the artist. It sounded like The Go Gos but…then I learned that was because it was their lead singer’s solo album. I downloaded the whole album and since I was still enjoying my life in Los Angeles and in fact was hypnotized by the sun and false tans and fake smiles and plastic tits of the cultural ghetto the songs of this album made me think anything was possible. Even the songs with sad themes are very positive. Things were going to be OK. If you believe the Hollywood facade is real then it is real. These songs are the kind written by gay men in their bedrooms with a specific singer in mind. The band is all studio pros for hire except for George Harrison on slide guitar. 90% of music you hear these days is written in this model and all that is missing is the talent. The lyrics are generic...“You and I on runaway horses…ooooh ooooh, baby hold on tight.” But in the hands of a dynamite voice like Belinda Carlisle and an A+ producer like Rick Nowels it’s pure pop/rock magic. I’m not gay or a teenage girl but I know good music when I hear it and Runaway Horses can play at my prom any day.

*"Morning Has Broken" isn't on Tea for the Tillerman but I remember that song on the 8 track we had in Maine. So we probably had Cat Stevens Greatest Hits cassette in 1975. I use "Where do The Children Play" as a first song lesson for anyone wanting to play basic folk guitar because the strumming is fundamental. "Hard Headed Woman" is a song that I sometimes agree with and sometimes I don't.


Allen said...

I like it but you could broaden the scope a little. Heavy Metal was some pretty formative music. Punk/whatever you call it too. Violent Femmes? Metallica?
But I do like your selections.

Oggy Bleacher said...

I think I neglected to clarify that these are not necessarily my favorite albums but the albums that I see as important to the development of my worldview. THe theory is that we are what we listen to and sometimes we listen to something and it influences us in ways we didn't expect. and sometimes we hear something intentionally to influence us and it works out that way. I remember the first time I heard Marley's Legend album and it was a meaningful encounter.
I love The Clash but can't pretend they influenced me at all.
Right now I listen to Southern Gospel but that's a genre I never heard of until this last summer.

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