Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

April 20, 2009

Mix Tape Goes Digital

I know, I know: old news, right? Maybe for you, tech-savvy young'un, but grandpa here just purchased his first mp3 player and is having a blast programming it, which brings me to the subject of today's civics class.

Programming music is an art, one that should be a highly prized social skill. (Why most people care far more about, e.g., the layout of a garden or the presentation of snooty food is utterly beyond me. But I digress.)

Let's begin with issues of top-down structure. I'm old enough to remember when albums were meant to be listened to in totality, in sequence. Thus, my player contains as many complete albums as I could fit onto it (roughly twelve). These are then categorized by genre (jazz, classical, folk, rock, electronica), a feast of full works as the artists intended them.

There are, of course, times when a listener wants a little of this, a little of that. Sure, I could simply use the "shuffle" function but that's too random for my tastes. As one who prefers to program the music's peaks and valleys, I've created a Top 150, a digital jukebox if you will. It too has an overarching structure: one song per artist. This simple dictum in place, we're ready to blast into sonic nirvana. Allow me to introduce you to some of my musical heroes ...

As any performer will tell you, you want to start and finish with a bang. For me, that means kicking off with Game Theory's "Leilani" (a chiming, surreal ode to my beloved via her pseudonym), "Broken" by The Guess Who (the most under-appreciated B-side of all time; Kurt Winter's solo is stunning), and "The Family of Man" by Three Dog Night (what's the sound of one jaw dropping
Danny, Chuck, and Cory, in that order, showing off their pipes). The latter two hearken back to '71-'72, back to my youth, back to the first music I heard that had mojo.

From here we weave our way into and out of the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and occasionally '00s, rarely in that order. We rage in teenage indignation with Husker Du's "In a Free Land," shake our cerebellums to Japan's brainy synth-pop ("Still Life in Mobile Homes"), imbibe the pioneering ambiance of Pink Floyd ("Echoes"
yes, the full 23 minutes), and soulfully "Drift Away" with Dobie Gray.

At Song 24 comes our first thematic pairing: "Venus" by Television and "Venus" by The Shocking Blue. (Compiler's note: Bananarama's "Venus" would be both redundant and inferior. As for Frankie Avalon, not a fucking chance! This mp3 player is cheese-free.)

Song 38 introduces the "sunlight" section of the proceedings. Jonathan Edwards' clipped, caustic "Sunshine" is followed by Richie Havens' exuberant remake of "Here Comes the Sun." Add the trippy "That Ole Sun" by modern psych-meisters The Sunshine Fix and you've got your daily dose of Vitamin D and then some.

Some pairings aren't quite so obvious. Consider Songs 45 and 46, Nick Drake's "Northern Sky" and "Life in a Northern Town" by The Dream Academy. I didn't know until recently that the latter was written for/about Nick Drake. Perhaps not coincidentally, both share an ethereal, mystical quality.

Then there are the strictly musical marriages. For instance, at Song 112 I love the way the final chord of Moby Grape's galloping "Rounder" segues into the almost-identical opening of "Kinder Murder" by Elvis Costello. (Note too the completely unconscious "-er" pairing!) The Washington Squares ("New Generation"), Tracy Chapman ("Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution"), Gordon Lightfoot ("Steel Rail Blues"), and Joan Baez ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") form a shimmering folk quartet at Song 97, and let's hear it for this salvo o' soul at Song 106: "Why Can't We Live Together" (Timmy Thomas), "Let's Stay Together" (Al Green), "Funky Nassau" (The Beginning of The End), "Sex Machine" (James Brown). Ow!

I enjoy making "lineage" pairings as well. Though (deliberately) not chronological, the sequence of Teenage Fanclub, Small Faces, The Who and Paul Weller at Song 137 makes eminent musical sense to any student of rock. In a more cultural vein, check out the trio starting at Song 82: "Woodstock" (Matthews' Southern Comfort), "With a Little Help From My Friends" (Joe Cocker, live at Woodstock), and "Moonshadow" (Cat Stevens). The festival's euphoria is first told by a band (and songwriter) who weren't there,
shown in process, and spat back in your face through an early-'70s confessional.

As mentioned earlier, it behooves us to end with a flourish, so without further ado I offer The Crescendo, from Song 145: Kate Bush, "The Man With the Child in His Eyes"; Jefferson Starship's epic "St. Charles"
; The English Beat, "End of the Party"; The Waterboys, "Spirit"; and Santana's "Every Step of the Way," a white-hot rush of molten fusion ecstasy. If you listen carefully all four touch on transcendence through love, personal or transpersonal.

And once you've fired all your guns, what else to do but lay down your weary tune in the form of Song 150, the hypnotic "Universal Copernican Mumbles." Turn 'em every which way but loose, then let 'em down easy. Sure, this Paul Kantner
/Grace Slick tone poem arguably violates the one-song-per-artist rule, especially situated a scant four songs from the Starship. But in that spirit, I beg off with words from Herr Kaptain himself:

There are three rules of rock 'n' roll;
unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
- Paul Kantner, after W. Somerset Maugham

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