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Across My Universe

(Pictured: the Beatles on TV, 1968.)

In April 2006, I began using LastFM to keep track of the music that plays on my laptop every day. In 10 years, it’s recorded over 153,000 plays. In a recent post, I wrote about the top jazz artists on the list. This post is about the non-jazz stars I listen to most. I’m not going to count these down because there’s not much suspense, really.

1. Van Morrison. Because my library plays on shuffle most of the time, it privileges artists with more tracks. And I have a ton of Van Morrison, so a day without Van is most likely a day when I’m not on the laptop. Most-played track: “Caravan.”

2. Elton John. It figures that a child of the 70s such as I would still be listening to Elton John. Most-played track: “Your Song,” primarily because every single live album and bootleg contains a version of it, so it’s inescapable.

3. Fleetwood Mac. I liked Fleetwood Mac’s radio hits well enough, but I didn’t start exploring their back catalog until the last decade. The pre-Buckingham/Nicks years were spectacular, even if the records didn’t sell much. Most-played track: “Monday Morning.”

4. Rolling Stones. Like Fleetwood Mac, the Stones were a band I liked on the radio, but I didn’t listen beyond the hits until relatively recent times. At their peak, they really were the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. Most-played track: “Brown Sugar,” which is news on par with the sunrise.

5. Steely Dan. Officially my favorite band. I have many, many bootlegs in addition to all of their officially released material, and I’m not quite sure how they’re not #1 on this list. Most-played track: “Josie,” which is because they play it at every show and it’s on every bootleg, and not because it’s a favorite. I can name quite literally 50 Steely Dan songs I like better.

6. Beatles. New data indicates indicates that two-thirds of the people listening to the Beatles on Spotify are under the age of 35. This is happening while oldies radio has largely dropped them (and other artists from the 60s) in the belief that they’re relevant only to those of us approaching retirement age. Radio remaining slavishly loyal to ancient dogma and refusing to keep up with the times? Color me shocked. Most-played track: “Across the Universe.”

7.  Boz Scaggs. I suspect I get more enjoyment from any random Boz cut than from any other artist who pops up on shuffle. Most-played track: “Lowdown,” and how. Various live versions rank #1 on my Boz list, and the studio version from Silk Degrees is #2.

8.  Rod Stewart. Rod has been in my music library even longer than Elton, ever since I bought “Maggie May” in the fall of 1971. Most-played track: “Mandolin Wind,” from Every Picture Tells a Story. 

9.  Bruce Springsteen. My most-played Springsteen album is The Seeger Sessions, and six of my most-played tracks are from that album, with “Erie Canal” and “Pay Me My Money Down” tied for first. That strikes me weird, but it’s OK: “Pay Me My Money Down” would be among my favorite Springsteen songs of any era, if I made a list.

10. Rosanne Cash. There’s no artist currently working for whom I have greater respect than Rosanne Cash. Although “daughter of Johnny Cash” will be in the first line of her obituary, she’s not overshadowed by him. She’s created her own great art and her own indelible image. And if you dip into her four-decade catalog at any point, you’ll find something highly worthwhile. Most-played track: “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” which is one of her father’s songs.

Add these 10 to the top five jazz artists in my earlier post (Jimmy Smith, Grant Green, Jimmy McGriff, Kenny Burrell, and Willis Jackson) and you have my 15 most-played artists. The next five are Lucinda Williams, the Eagles, Richard Groove Holmes, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the Electric Light Orchestra.

My single most-played track is one I haven’t mentioned to this point: “Ruby My Dear” by Thelonious Monk. LastFM doesn’t differentiate very well between versions of the same song on different albums. I have four different versions of “Ruby My Dear,” so its prominence is mainly a shuffle anomaly. But I don’t mind. Here’s a good version.

My Romance

(Pictured: pianist Bill Evans at work, shortly before his death in 1980.)

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. This April also marks 10 years since I started using LastFM to keep track of what plays on my laptop. So this is a post about the most-played jazz artists in my library these last 10 years.

10. Houston Person. I first saw Person’s name in the first chart book I ever owned, Star File, detailed data on the American and British charts of 1976, which my girlfriend brought home to me from a trip to England in 1977. As many jazz players had done by the middle of the 70s, Person had moved away from straight jazz toward a pop style, and he was rewarded with a minor two-sided hit on the Hot 100, “Disco Sax” and “For the Love of You.”

9. Bill Evans. Evans’ early 60s recordings at New York’s Village Vanguard with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian are magnificent, including my most-played Evans track, “My Romance.” Evans’ life and career were dogged by tragedy. LaFaro died in a car wreck just days after the Village Vanguard sessions, and in 1980, Evans completed what a friend called “the longest suicide in history,” dying from various maladies complicated by drug use in the wake of his brother’s suicide the year before.

8. Miles Davis. I cannot always follow where Davis went: we start parting company at In a Silent Way, and I am not sure I have ever made it all the way through Bitches Brew. I am much more interested in Miles as he sounded with his small combos in the 1950s. My most-played track, “Dear Old Stockholm,” recorded in 1957, features a Murderer’s Row of players: John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. All but Jones played on the legendary Kind of Blue in 1959—and so did Bill Evans.

7. Jack McDuff. Soul jazz is my favorite thing, R&B-influenced, often found on urban jukeboxes in the 60s, and occasionally on the singles chart. McDuff is one of the great soul-jazz organ players. His lone Hot 100 hit, “Theme From Electric Surfboard,” charted as 1969 turned to 1970.

6. Richard “Groove” Holmes. Another master organist, another soul-jazz star. Holmes’ biggest hit charted 50 years ago this summer: “Misty,” which was released on 45 in a sub-two-minute edit.

5. Willis Jackson. Sax man, often accompanied by Jack McDuff. Can honk like he’s dancing on the bar, but can also whisper in your ear like he wants to take you home from the bar. His best-known song is probably “Bar Wars” from 1977, on which Jackson is accompanied by organist Charles Earland, who had the best nickname in jazz: “The Mighty Burner.”

4. Kenny Burrell. Guitarist, Director of Jazz Studies at UCLA, and a giant with a highly recognizable style. Most-played track: “If You Could See Me Now,” which proves that smoky, late-night Burrell is the best make-out music in the world.

3. Jimmy McGriff. Philadelphia was quite the hotbed for soul-jazz organists: Holmes, McGriff, and Jimmy Smith (see below) were all natives of the area. McGriff scored a huge R&B and pop hit with the Ray Charles song “I Got a Woman” in 1962, and he hit the Hot 100 four other times in the 60s.

2. Grant Green. Guitarist often found in the company of organ players including Big John Patton and Charles Kynard, and a sideman on recordings by other bandleaders, including Houston Person. Most-played track: “Sweet Slumber.”

1. Jimmy Smith. The master of the Hammond B3 organ, who ranged across more styles than any player this side of Miles Davis. He recorded with a full orchestra and in small combos and even took a vocal now and then. Most-played track: “Back at the Chicken Shack,” which features Burrell on guitar.

Honorable mention, or bubbling under the top 10: the aforementioned Charles Earland, John Patton, and Red Garland, plus Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphonist and sometime collaborator with Green and Patton.

Each of the artists mentioned here, including the honorable mentions, are among my 50 most-played artists according to LastFM. Smith, Green, McGriff, and Burrell are in the Top 10. Before this week is out, I’ll write about some of the top pop and rock artists on the list.

Popular Enough

(Pictured: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page doing what they do.)

I tweeted a Salon piece the other day titled “10 Classic Rock Songs That Radio Stations Need to Stop Playing Right Now.” Pieces like this are fairly common around the Interwebs, and whenever I click one, I always check on the identity of the author. Every young rock writer does one sooner or later, happily slagging music they have no natural affinity for, as if generating aggrieved comments from olds were a journalistic rite of passage. So give credit to the author of the Salon article, Annie Zaleski, who appears to be in her mid 30s. Even though the headline and subhead sound like they were written by a callow young intern, the substance of her piece is mostly right on.

I could add a few songs to Zaleski’s list:

—“Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers (replace with “Melissa” or “Blue Sky”)

—“Feel Like Makin’ Love” by Bad Company (replace with “Live for the Music” or “Silver, Blue and Gold”)

—Nearly all singles by Billy Joel, but especially “Movin’ Out,” “Only the Good Die Young,” “Big Shot,” and “Piano Man” (replace with “Stiletto,” “Everybody Has a Dream, “Get it Right the First Time,” and of course, “Sleeping With the Television On”)

—“Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger (replace it with anything, just as long as you don’t play “Old Time Rock and Roll” anymore)

—“Born to Run” and “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen (replace with extreme deep cuts “Thundercrack” from the Tracks box and “Wreck on the Highway” from The River)

—“Just What I Needed” by the Cars (replace with “Dangerous Type” from Candy-O)

—“Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton (see “Old Time Rock and Roll”)

—“All Right Now” by Free (replace with “The Stealer”)

—“Magic Man” by Heart (replace with “Kick It Out,” “Bebe Le Strange,” or even “Dog and Butterfly”)

—“The Load Out/Stay” by Jackson Browne (replace with “You Love the Thunder”)

—Anything you’re tempted to play from Led Zeppelin IV except “Going to California” (replace with “The Rain Song,” “Trampled Under Foot,” and “Boogie With Stu”; if there were a classic-rock station that played “Boogie With Stu” as much as most of them play “Stairway to Heaven,” I’d listen to it all the time)

—“Take It on the Run” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon (replace with “Golden Country” and the mighty “Say You Love Me or Say Goodnight”)

—“Angie” by the Rolling Stones (replace with “Waiting on a Friend”)

—“Hey Nineteen” by Steely Dan (replace with “Midnight Cruiser”)

—“The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band (replace with “The Stake”)

—“Hold the Line” by Toto (replace with “99”)

Although there’s research to suggest that radio can still be a powerful force for new music discovery, many radio programmers and ownership groups are highly resistant to change. As a result, the songs on Zaleski’s list aren’t going anywhere. And it’s not just programming conservatism. People like those songs. I’ve written about this before: you might wonder why anybody wants or needs to hear “Hotel California” or “Sweet Home Alabama” again, but hundreds of thousands of other people whose relationship with music isn’t strong enough to make them fans of a low-rent blog such as this one like ’em just fine.

Plausibly Related: A reader asked earlier this week why Led Zeppelin’s officially untitled fourth album was in the Top 20 on WLS in April 1976 when it was originally released in November 1971. My strictly anecdotal explanation for this is as follows: although album-rock stations played “Stairway to Heaven” from the very beginning, it wasn’t until the middle of the 70s that Top 40 stations like WLS began playing it, and when they did, it found an entirely new audience. By the spring of 1976, “Stairway” was popular enough among the general run of teenagers to be the prom theme at my high school, and I’m sure we weren’t the only one.

Gonna Find Out What It Is All A-bout

(Pictured: Eric Clapton, circa 1970.)

The other night, I was driving around in the Minneapolis suburbs after teaching my class, looking for a place to get a quick sandwich.

The job is not strenuous—I do not unload freight cars—but it can be wearying. I have to be “on” for my students for up to six hours at a time, friendly and encouraging and responsive, and I spend most of the time on my feet. It can be frustrating: some groups this trip contained students from several different schools, and they were weirdly paralyzed by the presence of kids they didn’t know personally. (Getting them to participate took every trick I know, and for the first time I can recall, the tricks didn’t really work.) And it can be isolating: apart from interacting with my students, the only people I talked most days were convenience-store and hotel clerks, waitstaff, and the occasional bartender.

Despite all this, I do not necessarily pine for home on these trips. The majority of my other work is always done on the laptop, so I continue to do it wherever I am; being away is merely a change of scene, like one of my trips to the bagel shop extended to a week. If I pine for anything on these trips, it’s the same things I pine for at home: lost innocence, second chances, that kind of thing.

I was in a hurry when I filled up the CD bag for the car ride, so I grabbed a handful of discs from the Time-Life Sounds of the Seventies series, which I bought back in the 90s. Back then, I was happy to add so many memorable songs to my library. Now that my library is much, much larger (and contained almost entirely on an external hard-drive that attaches to the laptop), it seems less important to have “All Right Now” on CD. I don’t listen to those CDs much anymore. When I do, they don’t contain any surprises—they’re made up of one old warhorse after another.

So I am trying to find a decent sandwich the other night and growing annoyed with my limited options. I am not really listening to the music, it’s just there, as I scan the horizon for something that’s not going to be too heavy for 9:30 at night (McDonalds, Burger King, etc.) or something that’s not Subway (which I eat only when there’s absolutely no alternative). So add to the weariness and frustration of my class the growing desire to find some goddamn thing to eat so I can go back to the hotel and take off my shoes.

Then “After Midnight” comes on,” followed immediately by “Green-Eyed Lady” and “Fire and Rain,” all of which were on the radio that first fall I discovered it, the fall of 1970. And there it is: a glimpse of my lost innocence. For about nine minutes, I am reminded how it was to be 10 years old, unformed clay, about to learn what I am supposed to be. I will learn it from Eric Clapton, Sugarloaf, James Taylor and all the rest of the people on the radio, especially Larry Lujack and the other WLS DJs. And since I am 10 years old, nearly all of what I have yet to do remains undone, so a river of second chances flows away in my distance.

Those songs, and the other songs from the fall of 1970 and in the years beyond, the ones that I hear in my head even without a radio . . . it occurs to me that they have done everything for me across all the years, everything but save my life, and I suppose they’ve probably done that too.

They told me who I would be, and now they tell me who I am.

If this were fiction, I would crest a hill and find a little diner with a perfect menu and a waitress who looks a little like my mother. But I end up buying a nondescript convenience-store sandwich and a bag of chips, because sometimes it gets late and you really need to get home.

Well, not home, exactly, but back to the hotel. Those old songs had already taken me home, to the place in my head and my heart that’s home, in a way no other place is ever going to be.

The Music or the Misery

(Pictured: John Cusack in High Fidelity.)

Although I haven’t watched it in years, High Fidelity is one of my favorite movies. There’s a 2003 entry in my journal written shortly after I finished the book on which it is based. I copied great swaths of text from the book that seemed to be relevant to my life at the time. Thirteen years later, I find that they still are.

I have just finished reading High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, the story of Rob, a man in his mid 30s who owns a failing record shop in London and is trying to figure out his relationships with women in general and one woman in particular. Rob and his music-freak employees like to make endless compilation tapes and opinionated lists, such as the Top Five Bands or Musicians Who Will Have to Be Shot Come the Musical Revolution—Simple Minds, Michael Bolton, Bryan Adams, U2, and Genesis. (“Barry wanted to shoot the Beatles, but I pointed out that someone had already done it”—the book’s funniest single line.) So I knew going in that I would feel a bit of a kinship with Rob. But some of the lines Hornby puts in Rob’s mouth contain more truth than I had expected.

About Charlie, fourth on his chronological list of Five Most Memorable Split-Ups (fourth chronologically, but hands-down number one in terms of emotional devastation), Rob says:

I had kind of hoped that my adulthood would be long and meaty and instructive, but it all took place in those two years; sometimes it seems as though everything and everyone that have happened to me since were just minor distractions. Some people never got over the sixties, or the war, or the night their band opened for the Rolling Stones at the Marquee, and spend the rest of their days walking backwards; I never really got over Charlie. That was when the important stuff, the stuff that defines me, went on.

And in the next paragraph, after listing some of his favorite songs, which include “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young, “Call Me” by Aretha Franklin, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” by anybody, “Love Hurts,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” and “She’s Gone”:

[S]ome of these songs I have listened to around once a week, on average (three hundred times in the first month, every now and then thereafter), since I was sixteen or nineteen or twenty-one. How can that not leave you bruised somewhere? How can that not turn you into the sort of person liable to break into little bits when your first love goes all wrong? What came first—the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?

People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands—literally thousands—of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. . . .

And later on, wondering if he wants to be like a customer at the shop, who seems, unlike him, to be “a grown-up man in a grown-up job”:

But I find myself worrying away at that stuff about pop music again, whether I like it because I’m unhappy, or whether I’m unhappy because I like it. It would help me to know whether this guy has ever taken it seriously, whether he has ever sat surrounded by thousands and thousands of songs about . . . about . . . (say it man, say it) . . . well, about love. I would guess that he hasn’t. I would also guess that Prince Philip hasn’t, and the guy at the Bank of England hasn’t; nor has David Owen or Oliver North or Katie Adie or loads of other famous people that I should be able to name, probably, but can’t, because they never played for Booker T. and the MGs. . . . 

So they might have the jump on me when it comes to accepted notions of seriousness (although as everyone knows, Al Green Explores Your Mind is as serious as life gets), but I should have the edge on them when it comes to matters of the heart. . . . I’ve spent nearly thirty years listening to people singing about broken hearts, and has it helped me any? Has it fuck.

. . . Maybe we all live life at too high a pitch, those of us who absorb emotional things all day, and as a consequence we can never feel merely content; we have to be unhappy, or ecstatically, head-over-heels happy, and those states are difficult to achieve within a stable, solid relationship. Maybe Al Green is directly responsible for more than I ever realized.

Keyboard Hero

(Pictured: Keith Emerson, 1972.)

My reactions to the recent deaths of various musicians, as expressed at the moment I heard about them:

Natalie Cole: “Hmm.”

David Bowie: “Really?”

Glenn Frey: “Oh!”

Keith Emerson: “Goddammit!”

Now maybe it was exasperation over the way losses are beginning to pile upon losses, and how every week somebody else who matters to us is dying. That’s something we’d better start getting used to, however. The gods of the 1960s and 1970s are pushing past their biblical three-score-and-ten, and we’re going to lose them with disturbing frequency as the next few years unfold.

It’s more likely, however, that my reaction to Emerson’s death on Friday was due to the fact in my world, Keith Emerson was as cool as anybody could get. It’s a stupid damn world where somebody like that can die.

You could not become a fan of Emerson Lake and Palmer at the impressionable age of 15, as I did, and not see Keith Emerson as the rock star you wished you could be. The way he bent the keyboards to his will, using violence if necessary, flipping the piano or organ over, stabbing it with a knife, even making the damn thing fly. The way he tamed a rack of synthesizers. The bottle on the piano, signifying the kind of take-no-shit attitude every nerdy teenager wished he could pull off. The man’s obvious virtuosity—the fascination of watching and listening to someone do things you are unable to do.

The first real rock concert I ever attended, on June 9, 1977, starred Emerson Lake and Palmer with the incredible shrinking Works tour orchestra. Five months later, on November 8, they played Madison again as a trio, and I was there for that show, too. The version of “Peter Gunn” they played on that night remains the coolest concert opener I’ve ever seen. There has not been another moment in my life that felt like that.

Keith Emerson gave me that moment.

Most pieces about Emerson praise “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a nine-minute keyboard epic that became a hit single in England. It’s fine, but I think there are others that better display what he could do, and his remarkable range. As a kid with only enough piano lessons to make me into a stumbling one-fingered player, I couldn’t listen to ELP’s version of the Aaron Copland composition “Hoedown” without wondering how Emerson could play like that. Ultimate Classic Rock published an insightful piece that suggested he was rock’s first keyboard hero since Jerry Lee Lewis, and his debt to the Killer is easy to hear on “Are You Ready Eddy?,” a track that’s tacked onto the end of Tarkus like a throwaway, although it’s most definitely not. Emerson was also capable of improvising like a jazzman, on synth as he did on the Welcome Back My Friends version of “Aquatarkus,” or on piano when playing “Take a Pebble.” Do not doubt that his piano playing was firmly based in the old school, as on “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” a straight-up stride number written by Meade Lux Lewis, or his original “Barrelhouse Shakedown,” both from Works Volume 2.

If you’d like the whole history of Keith Emerson’s career, from his earliest days in anonymous British rock bands to his breakthrough with the Nice through ELP’s heyday and its reformations over the last two-plus decades, read the Ultimate Classic Rock piece. While you’re doing that, I’ll be over here listening to Brain Salad Surgery again. And “Peter Gunn.” And Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends. And. . . .

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