"By the way, which one's Pink?": Pink Floyd

When I was a little girl, my dad sometimes took me to church functions known as "daddy-daughter camp-outs". Dad's not overly fond of camping, but I have a few memories of going. I know it had to be a daddy-daughter outing because I'm pretty sure there were pine trees outside. I was in the cab of the truck and a song came on that Dad turned up. When I stole a glance at him, he was staring off somewhere else ("Perhaps the road?" snickers jaded Retrospection), and gently tapping his fingertips on the dash.

The lyrics startled me, and they stuck with me. A minnowish pinch of the song, mournful and vaporous, swam little circles in the tidepool of my child-mind. It came to me sometimes like an aural ghost, once in a while, to make me wonder and not forget.

Give or take ten years later, I was a freshman in high school. A friend in Spanish I, with whom I would eventually form a kind of unofficial musical duo and have many adventures for a few short years (wherever you are, hi), asked me one day, full of musing: "Have you ever listened to 'the wall'?" He offered no clarification because he wanted to test me, as he liked so well to do that year, when he still thought of himself as a kind of older brother/protector/mentor. So I dutifully probed. "You know, The Wall, by Pink Floyd."

I told him I had not heard it. He smiled the way he did when he knew I was about to thank him for the education, and told me he'd burn it for me.

As soon as I saw the track-listing, and that the first track of the second disc (Side 3, Track 1 in vinyl terms) was a song called "Hey You", I got a chill. Such a mundane phrase but I found myself thinking that my secret mystery song might be solved. I almost forgot to really tune into it, the first time, when I knelt beside my stereo, and whooped and crowed to myself in recognition. I have to admit, it took me a couple of weeks to make myself listen to the first half of the album, so fascinating and eerie was the second.

I personally like Pink Floyd best when I'm somewhere out by myself, surrounded by nature. I once took a walk, for instance, with just my headphones and Wish You Were Here, in the desert on a partially-rainy afternoon. The sunlight streamed bright white-gold through the clouds, which were dense and gray as pigeons, and the rain fell so lightly it sparkled as it fell. The air, uncharacteristic of the area, was perfectly still and silent. It felt so otherworldly and bizarre, I honestly wondered if I hadn't stepped into another dimension.

But Pink Floyd, for all its darkness and weirdness, is beautiful too, and never more so, I think, than under the stars. I love taking Pink Floyd on midnight drives on the highway, windows down til I find a quiet spot to pull over and think for a while. Like the night, it is dark, but it is beautiful. Do you think they're mutually exclusive, or is a little darkness okay on your playlist?

For your playlist: A-Side
1. "Breathe In The Air"/"On The Run" from Dark Side of the Moon (and in my mind these 2 technically distinct tracks are inseparable)
2. "Comfortably Numb" from The Wall
3. "Bike" from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (I understand the demented duck-sound at the end is Syd Barrett's laugh, sampled, and looped backward)
4. "Wish You Were Here" from the album by the same name

For your playlist: B-Side
1. "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" from Ummagumma
2. "See Emily Play" from Piper at the Gates of Dawn 
3. "Dogs" from Animals
4. "Welcome To the Machine" from Wish You Were Here

Here is my first-ever attempt at a Floydian drawing- behold, a very vague and dissimilar David Gilmour. I wish I'd done the photo justice, but I was having to use my iPad for the image. 

And for anybody who knows the story of Pink Floyd, I'd like to submit that yes, I know who Syd Barrett is, and yes, I consider Piper at the Gates of Dawn an interesting piece of work. But there is an element of experiment that bordered on silly during the Barrett years that doesn't move me. So you'll have to forgive me. I'll lay down flowers in tribute to the heartbreaking mythology of Pink Floyd some other time. Right now I'm just talking about how the seeds were planted in me. You who are in the know may also wish to note that if I had to choose a side between Waters and Gilmour, my ears tell me Waters and my heart tells me Gilmour- judge me not unkindly!

Coming up next: an artist whose birthday is on Monday! and who worked with the same producer in his early recording years as Pink Floyd did for The Wall in the late 1970's. Guess who? ;)

"He's got his eye on your soul, his hand on your heart": David Bowie

David frickin' Bowie. Even his name gives me chills. This, for me, is where it all began. I was twelve when I saw Labyrinth (oh, those infamous tight trousers!) and that was my first witting encounter with David Bowie. It was actually his voice, not his awkward wardrobe, that made the deepest impression on me.

Awkward wardrobe is a good place to start if you're trying to explain him to somebody who has never heard of him (indeed an unfortunate uncultured cretin). Well, not awkward, but certainly varied and interesting. In the late Sixties and earliest Seventies were the man-dresses, then the flamboyant jumpsuits and leotards and no eyebrows and kabuki makeup and that rooster-red mullet, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, if you please. Then there was the lean, lean, coked up Thin White Duke, all German and vocal swagger. Then the late years of the Seventies with less image than sound and the Berlin trilogy. Then the ghastly Eighties with the blonde hair...

But what I really like about David Bowie's history and catalogue is that he was a kid who had a dream to be famous and to be true to his art and himself, and he went and made it happen. He was absolutely fearless. No two records sound identical, and many of them are absolutely distinct from the ones before and after them. I love that his body of work isn't perfect. There were a couple of albums that left ya scratching your head, "What-on-earth-was-THAT?", and I think that's to be expected in a career as long and varied. But I didn't know all this at first. All I knew was that "John, I'm Only Dancing" had about the sexiest "Ow!" interjected at the closing of a song that I had ever heard. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VrqCBsbeuc is the disconcerting but fascinating video for it... if you're squeamish about "weird" I'd probably turn up the volume and but not watch the video)

That first summer when Dad gave us his cassette tapes, the one I wanted most of all was ChangesOneBowie, which is his first Best Of collection. I don't think even my parents know how many times I listened to it. For me it was almost a sacred ritual that summer. I would wake up early and slip down to the basement where my dad's drum set quietly snoozed next to a sleek silver portable stereo, and, with headphones in, commune with Bowie for a while before the household got up. It just... Moved me. There is something about his voice, in all its seasons and ages, that captures me.

That was it, then. For months, I had no other serious musical relationships whatsoever. I entertained a few others on the side, yes, but I basically breathed Bowie. Before I started buying CDs my dad literally resurrected his other Bowie tape by transplanting the film into what had been a Judas Priest cartridge, and I will tell you, my dad isn't a surgeon but after that memorable 45 minutes, I'd be pretty comfortable with him in an OR. The first album I bought on CD was, I am pretty sure, Ziggy Stardust.

2003 was a really painful and beautiful time to come into your own as a fan, though: the album Reality came out with a supporting tour that year, and I saw the Phoenix show on 2/5/04. One of the most thrilling nights of my life. He was, it was, beautiful. And then, a few months later, there was the emergency heart surgery, the abrupt end of a critically praised tour, and then, nothing but scraps, whispers, and crumbs, for almost 10 years.

It felt like I had fallen desperately in love with someone who then had to leave. My wonderful new Sailor had shipped out, and I thought he would return in a year or so, as he had always done. Then the letters home became rarer and rarer. People started to use the word "retired". Every year around his birthday we'd hear the music mags nod in his direction and say he's reported to have no interest in returning to the music industry. Through the disappointment, I tried to make myself be happy for him. Good for him, right?

Then, as I think all of us will remember, there came another shot heard around the world. This year for his birthday, he gave us a new single, literally out of the blue as far as all of us were concerned, and there will be a new album accompanying it in 41 days, from the current date, in the US.

I have tried many times to explain my fascination with David Bowie, and even more times to transfer it (oh, you poor kids I used to babysit). I have come to conclude that if you are innately a David Bowie super-fan, you know it right away, and no other artist will do for you exactly what he does for you. I believe you can learn to like him, but unless you have that weird chemical or emotional predisposition, you might never truly ever "get it".

That said, I am not against exposing everybody I meet to Bowie, or my love of Bowie. I plant songs and references like a devoted little Johnny Appleseed, hoping that someday, someone will say, "Who does this song? I really like it."

For your playlist: A-Side
1. "Heroes" (get the original album version, the long one) from the album by the same name
2. "Suffragette City" from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
3. "Modern Love" from Let's Dance
4. "Golden Years" from Station To Station

For your playlist: B-Side
1. "Rock & Roll Suicide" from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
2. "Somebody Up There Likes Me" from Young Americans
3. "Fall Dog Bombs the Moon" from Reality
4. "Fantastic Voyage" from Lodger (which, with Young Americans and Scary Monsters, might be my favorite album)

Check it out on Spotify at Eye on Your Soul: David Bowie

"At a certain age, an artist comes along and really captures you for the rest of your life, and you never let them go, and they can never disappoint you." For me, it's David Bowie. Who is yours?

Up next: a band that knows a little bit about astronomy, zoology, writing postcards, construction, and going insane. Guess who? ;)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

"Better Mend Your Tracklist"

I heart cassette tapes.

I know, I know, cassettes are the lowest form of life in their category. If you get them wet, do they not drown? If you snag the film on something, does it not wrinkle? They can snap, they can warp, the sound quality is pretty meh, and cars can't play them anymore (that's true, by the way- the last car that rolled off the line with a cassette player did so several years ago) so you really can't use them anywhere.

But did you ever think about the time it takes to make a mix tape, versus a burned CD? Mix tapes are made with comparatively intense TLC. You, the maker, have to record them in real time. That means you have to listen to each song as it's playing and be there to punch Stop and Record. That means you have to pick the precise length of time per side so there are no awkward silences at the end, and no abrupt cutoffs. It means you have to listen carefully as you start and finish so you don't try to record over that three or four seconds where it won't take. And while you're at it, you might as well make the songs flow together. I have to say my playlist style owes a lot to my time as a mix tape maker, which occurred well into the 2000's, and put me pretty behind the curve of my CD-burnin' coming-of-age contemporaries.

Woooo! Look at how much fun that guy is having! That's like me, jamming to my Alice Cooper mix in my '88 Ford pickup when I was 16. This is the model of cassette I favored, 45 minutes a side.
Image from http://discountbatterysales.com/product/MAXUR-90.html

I learned a few tricks besides attention to detail after I switched to CDs, such as giving the list a memorable title, or keeping it a courteous length (12 tracks being a little on the brief side, 14 being quite comfortable, and 16 being long enough) if you're giving it to somebody. But my quest is still on for other elements of the perfect playlist.

So far, I hypothesize that there should be at least one very quirky, possibly nonmusical, usually surprising track for a change of pace, and I believe in including one outstanding instrumental track. I do not believe in coding secret messages (first of all, that element gave rock & roll a bad name... how DO you play a record backwards? I never knew; second of all, you pretty much have to be either psychic or twins to pick up on stuff like that). In the next few posts I will talk a bit about what else I like to put on my playlist.

Is there anything you always do on a playlist, whether you're drafting it for yourself or for someone else? Does everybody else just slap stuff on a CD and say "Look what I made for you?" Do you like getting mixes from other people?

"So This Is Where [We Came In]"

In 2003, when I was fourteen, I gathered a fistful of courage and asked my dad to teach me about music. He'd already been trying, bless his heart, to do that all my life. You'd think that my actually asking for it would have come as a joyous surprise. And maybe it did. But it was with an air almost of reluctance that he dragged out the box of cassettes my sister and I had asked about, and made a few caveat- and disclaimer-ridden recommendations.

My life essentially changed that night. On the feel good, "Awwww" level, it opened the door to a veritable aural meadow of Common Ground I discovered I shared with my dad. On another level, it triggered a passion I've shamelessly fed since then. He gave me his tapes, then his records. Then his turntable- the one he bought when he was about nineteen, and fastidiously cared for over the years, with the beautiful marble body. The day we finally got it set up and working, we filled the house with the glorious, warm, slightly apoplectic noise.

This blog isn't about my relationship with my dad, although I'm bound to mention him, and other people I know. It's actually about my relationship with music. I am not a musician. I played the violin for a few years as a kid. I was the lesser half (female vocalist) of a musical duo that was very famous around my small-town high school. But finally I had to admit to myself that I didn't get the gift of musical composition. I can't make up a good tune to save my life. I've done it in my dreams, but in the waking world such a burst of inspiration has the lifespan of a soap bubble. And burst it does.

That's why I finally, like my mom, took to saying "I play the radio" when someone asks me what I play. Because I love music, but I can't compose it. So I make a hobby of enjoying it. And drafting playlists.

I'm a child of two worlds, here. On the one hand, I relish a solid album. My dad taught me that only posers like artists based on their hits, that the non-radio tracks really tell the tale. But sometimes, when you're making a bowl of fruit, you gotta cherry pick. I am no more or less guilty of iTunes single-song downloads than any other music junkie in the digital age. What about you? Album/artist devotee, or Spotify acolyte? Do you only get the songs you like, or lock down for the whole ride, filler and self-indulgent intro tracks notwithstanding?