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What do you listen to? part one

I’m working in the lab with my students this summer. As is typical for students of this generation [1], they have a rotating playlist of songs. Early on, they asked me Sam, do you want anything on the playlist? I said Astral Weeks, by Van Morrison. So, once in a while I get to hear Richard Davis’s amazing bass lines and Van’s equally amazing voice in the midst of whatever they listen to. They haven’t really commented on it at all, but they’ve dealt with the less poppy, more introspective music.

Today, they wanted more than that [2]. In particular, they asked What kind of music do you like? They were not happy with my response of I will listen to almost anything [3,4]. They wanted groups and songs. I wasn’t up to a long discussion, so I said something like You already know that I like the Rolling Stones. I also like the Beatles. If you want individual songs that I love, add Roadrunner by the Modern Lovers and Los Angeles by X to the playlist [5]. I also promised to make today’s musing about my musical tastes. So here we go.

I listen to a wide variety of music, from classical to straight-ahead rock to traditional jazz to punk to acapella to classic country to soul to cowpunk power-pop to classic rock to Americana to garage to folk to choir music and beyond. The particular music I feel like listening to varies from day to day, and from hour to hour. I enjoy being surprised by hearing an old favorite come up. I also enjoy finding new music I like. I tend to prefer melodies, but I’ve been known to listen to Sonic Youth, Sonny Sharrock, and the Swans [6,7].

It may be easiest for me if I write about the development of my musical tastes.

My parents liked both classical and folk music [8]. My mother was fond of having me guess the composer while we were listening to music in the car, usually on WBUR, if I remember correctly. I’m sad that over the years, I lost that ability. Too much pop interfered. Mom had also served as a secretary at Peoples Music, so I grew up on a diet of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the Weavers. She regularly brought me to the Christmas Revels, and so those forms of music resonate.

At some point, I inherited some Beatles albums from one of mom’s students and grabbed mom and dad’s copy of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home and the folk anthology Folk Song and Minstrelsy from the downstairs stereo. I love the Beatles. I still remember when they broke up. But I stopped playing the Beatles as much when John Lennon died [9]. It’s not that it hurt to listen; it’s that I heard so much Beatles music on the radio at the time that it ended up feeling a bit too much for me to take.

When I was twelve or so, mom asked her students what records to get me. They recommended Sloppy Seconds by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show and Tommy by the Who, More Hot Rocks (Big Hits and Fazed Cookies) by the Rolling Stones, and Band on the Run by Paul McCartney and Wings [10]. Two of these seem strangely inappropriate for a pre-teen [11]. Were mom’s students having fun with her, or serious? I’ll never know. But all three are albums that I continue to enjoy, in different ways. Certainly, every time I listen to Keith Moon’s drumming, I hear something new. And while none of the Dr. Hook songs are what I’d call great music, I still love them all. I know that More Hot Rocks is a mishmash of leftovers, but I loved it, and still do. I still hear the Stones, rather than Buddy Holly, when I think of Not Fade Away. Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy joined the bunch some time afterwards, as did most of the Wings albums, Dylan, and a bunch more. At some point, I started listening to Cat Stevens [12].

Some time in high school, I started exploring music more actively. I was prompted, in part, by my friend Andrew, who had amazing and eclectic tastes [14]. As an addictive sort, I ended up reading a bunch of different resources for interesting music, including The Rolling Stone Record Guide, The Trouser Press Record Guide, Christgau’s Record Guide, and Stranded [15]. I enjoyed scouring the bins at Nuggets and the other record stores in the Boston area. During that time, I picked up many albums that remain favorites: The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Modern Lovers, Nuggets (and spin-offs like Pebbles), Music from Big Pink, Astral Weeks, almost anything by Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, and more.

But I liked things other than rock. I continued to enjoy Pete Seeger, the Weavers, David Mallett [16], and more. I enjoyed music from classic musicals, as well as newer ones like Sweeney Todd, Company, and A Chorus Line [17,18,19].

At some point along the way, I was visiting a friend’s house and commenting on the cool albums that his father had, most of which were then out of print. His father suggested that those were the music of his time, and I should pay attention to the music of my time. When I went off to college, I took that to heart, and tried to look for interesting new things as well as the classic albums. I spent way too much time at Second Hand Tunes [20]. During this time, I fell in love with the music of X, The Blasters, Nick Lowe, Jonathan Richman [22], the Clash, The Turbines, and more. I saw R.E.M. and the Violent Femmes at the Living Room in Providence. I saw X, the Blasters, Los Lobos [23] and more live in Chicago. I saw Hüsker Dü, Richard Danko and Levon Helm, X, Buddy Guy, Jonathan Richman, and a bunch of other bands I forget live at the UofC [24].

I also took Gerald Mast’s courses on The American Musical, and continued to enjoy those great songs. I fell in love with Ella Fitzgerald’s interpretations of many of those songs, as well as the many other things she did. But Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter songbook and Ella and Louis are certainly long-term favorites.

Looking back, I regret that I did not take advantage of the University of Chicago folk festivals while I was an undergraduate or graduate student. I’m not sure why. I was probably too busy with Doc Films. Looking backwards, I missed some incredible performances.

This musing is already getting too long, and I’m just through college. Let’s take a break and perhaps list a few of the albums and songs from this period that remain on my special albums and special songs lists, or at least make me happy whenever I hear them. Since I’m only spending ten minutes on these lists, they are woefully incomplete.

Some favorite albums from this time period, in somewhat alphabetical order

  • A Chorus Line original soundtrack
  • American Beauty (Rose) by the Grateful Dead
  • An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer by Tom Lehrer
  • Astral Weeks by Van Morrison
  • Broken English by Marianne Faithfull
  • Catch Bull at Four by Cat Stevens
  • Chipin’ by The Persuasions
  • Cigars, Acapella, Candy by the Belmonts
  • Company original soundtrack
  • Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald
  • Folk Song and Minstrelsy by various artists
  • Greatest Hits by Sam Cooke
  • Howlin’ Wolf by Howlin’ Wolf
  • Jonathan Sings! by Jonathan Richman
  • Los Angeles by X
  • Let it Be by the Beatles
  • Loaded by the Velvet Underground
  • Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy by The Who
  • Mona Bone Jakon by Cat Stevens
  • More Fun in the New World by X [25]
  • More Hot Rocks (Big Hits and Fazed Cookies) by The Rolling Stones
  • My Aim is True by Elvis Costello
  • Non Fiction by the Blasters
  • Nuggets by Various Artists
  • Pennsylvania Sunrise by David Mallett
  • Please, Please Me by the Beatles
  • Pure Pop for Now People by Nick Lowe
  • Reckoning by R.E.M. [26]
  • Rubber Soul by the Beatles
  • Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash by The Pogues
  • Sloppy Seconds by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show
  • Songs by Tom Lehrer by Tom Lehrer
  • Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens
  • Teaser and the Firecat by Cat Stevens [27]
  • That Was The Year That Was by Tom Lehrer
  • The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks
  • The Last Waltz by the Band
  • The Modern Lovers by The Modern Lovers
  • The Point by Harry Nilsson
  • The Ramones by The Ramones
  • The Stompers by The Stompers
  • The Temptations Greatest Hits by the Temptations
  • The Velvet Underground and Nico by The Velvet Underground and Nico
  • The Weavers Greatest Hits by the Weavers

Some favorite songs from this time period (not included on the above albums), also in somewhat alphabetical order, but only a few because I’m out of time. Most of the Motown hits belong here.

  • A Million Miles Away by the Plimsouls
  • American Pie by Don McLean
  • Because the Night by Patti Smith
  • Brown Eyed Girl by Them
  • The Dark End of the Street by James Carr
  • Everything Turns Grey by Agent Orange
  • I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye
  • Jackie Onassis by Human Sexual Response
  • Jackie Wilson Says (I’m in Heaven When You Smile) by Van Morrison
  • Papa Was a Rolling Stone by the Temptations (just in case it’s not on the greatest hits album)
  • Piss Factory by Patti Smith
  • Sitting on the Dock of the Day by Otis Redding
  • That’s What I Like About You by the Romantics
  • That’s When I Reach for My Revolver by Mission of Burma
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Theme Song by Hüsker Dü
  • Total Destruction to Your Mind by Swamp Dogg
  • Trouble by Cat Stevens
  • Wa Hey by the Turbines
  • When Things Go Wrong by Robin Lane and the Chartbusters
  • You Can’t Always Get What You Want by The Rolling Stones
  • And way too many others to mention

Whoops. That was more than ten minutes. And this list feels like I’m just scratching the surface. There’s a reason that I didn’t want to answer my students’ question. Maybe I’ll work on some playlists for my kids.

[1] And, likely, students of every recent generation.

[2] I don’t think it’s that they particularly loved Astral Weeks; it’s more that they were interested in what I listen to.

[3] That response is true.

[4] I usually say my musical tastes are catholic, with a small c.

[5] That’s not my exact statement, but it’s close enough.

[6] Do my students know who any of those artists are?

[7] I don’t mean to say that none of these individuals or groups are melodic. It’s just that in my experience, melody is not the primary attribute I’d assign to their music.

[8] That’s not quite true. I know that my mother liked classical and folk music. I’m not sure what my father liked. I know that there were times he certainly liked silence. His brother loved jazz. I do remember that he loved the soundtrack from Guys and Dolls.

[9] If I remember correctly, my friends and I heard about it the shooting while we were sitting in the lounge in The Village.

[10] I’m sure of the first few. I’m less sure of Band on the Run.

[11] Shel Silverstein wrote the Dr. Hook songs and many of them dealt with sex and drugs even more explicitly than was common for the time. Tommy, of course, starts with a traumatic murder.

[12] I probably listened to Cat Stevens because of Harold and Maude.

[14] Andrew has been in a variety of bands (with released CDs) since high school. I think he’s still playing actively.

[15] Stranded is a fantastic book of rock critics writing about their favorite music.

[16] A Maine folksinger, perhaps best known for writing Inch by Inch.

[17] No, they were not all by Sondheim.

[18] My uncle took me to see A Chorus Line in NYC some time early in the original run. It was awesome.

[19] I know there is some controversy about the authorship of A Chorus Line. If I recall correctly, many of the original performers did not receive adequate compensation for their contributions to the show; many of the stories in the show are based on their own experiences, and they deserve more than they got.

[20] Second-Hand Tunes was conveniently across the street from Harold’s Chicken Shack [21].

[21] I would be remiss if I did not recite Dwayne’s statement: When the gods on Mount Olympus tire of nectar and ambrosia, the go out for Harold’s.

[22] I already had a few albums by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. But seeing him live and solo expanded that love.

[23] With Phil Alvin joining them on stage!

[24] At the time, we called the University of Chicago UofC rather than UChicago. We also used 1892 as the founding data, rather than 1890. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s still the same institution.

[25] It certainly wasn’t their best album, but it was the album they were promoting when I saw them, and many of the songs still resonate in my brain.

[26] I find that my R.E.M. albums have not aged as well as many other things I loved at the time.

[27] I’m not sure why I listed four Cat Stevens albums and did not list nearly as many Beatles albums, particularly since all of the Beatles albums are probably more essential. But as I looked through the song listings on the Cat Stevens albums, all of them resonated.

Version 1.1 of 2017-06-29.