From time to time, I'll realize how much a certain album has influenced me for one reason or another. Maybe it was the album that got me into jazz, or made me realize something about myself, or served as a soundtrack at a turning point in my life. I decided to put them all down on paper and see if I could figure out which were the most important. Some choices were easy. Others quite difficult.
In the end, I came up with ten, which I'm going to present in chronological order of when they came into my life, along with a brief description of why they were important.
I've decided to divide my list into two parts, else I may never get anything posted. We're moving over the next couple of weeks, have the first event in our new poetry series at a local public library next Friday, and summer sessions are in full swing at the university, among other things.
Some of these albums are well known, and I'm sure they've been important to many other people. Other choices are a little more obscure. These are not necessarily my favorite albums, though some of them would be on that list as well, but all of them played a role in my musical or personal development.
One thing I realized in doing this list was how grateful I am to friends I've had who turned me on to some wonderful music in my life. Also, a nod to Steve Caratzas, who did a list of Top Ten Life-Changing Albums on his blog. His list is infinitely more interesting than mine, too.
I'd be curious to know what albums have been important to the rest of you, so consider this a meme, and you've all been tagged. (Or not.) You don't have to do 10 albums, but maybe 5?
So, drum roll, please . . .
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Beatles – I can't say for sure if this was the first album I ever owned (it might have been Help!), but it plays that role. In the early 1970s, my mother started going to weekly gatherings at the house of a cool Catholic priest named Fr. Dick Berg. The house had wooden floors, was mildly hippie-ish in decor (it was Austin in the early 70s), and we took communion while sitting on a rug. I have many warm memories of those evenings. Fr. Berg had been at St. Edwards University but wound up taking a position at the University of Portland, where he eventually became Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and is still connected to the university to this day. When he moved away, he gave me some of his Beatles albums, including Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. For a kid who loved the Beatles, this was heaven.
It's probably impossible to explain to people who grew up later what it was like to be a kid in the late 1960s and early 70s, listening to the Beatles. As La Reina said the other day, the Beatles were more than music, they were like the air of our childhood. They surrounded us. The day I got my first paycheck, at 15, I went to the record store and bought every Beatles album I didn't own. That's how important they were to me. When I was in my 20s, post-punk and increasingly cynical, I thought I had moved beyond the Beatles and didn't listen to them for a long time. Then, around my mid 30s, I gave them a whirl again, and it all came back. And having listened to a lot of other music in the meantime, I came to appreciate them even more. It's amazing to me that these four lads from Liverpool who shot to fame as teenagers in something of a Boy Band could wind up turning their fans on to the likes of "Tomorrrow Never Knows," "Love You To," and "It's All Too Much."
Of all the different Beatles albums, Sgt. Pepper was probably the most influential on me as a kid because it was so grand, multi-layered and exotic. Presented almost like a play, the opening "welcome to the show" appealed to me, because I felt like I was entering into some kind of wonderful carnival. The musical range of the album made each song seem like a different booth in this strange and marvellous show. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was magical and dream-like, and my love of the song now seems like a harbinger of a later interest in surrealism. "Within You, Without You" seemed totally out of this world. The lush, mysterious, and expansive atmosphere of George singing over Indian sitars was something extraordinary for a 10-year old boy in Austin, Texas. The world seemed like such a rich and fascinating place. The herd of animals rushing from one speaker across to the other at the end of "Good Morning, Good Morning" simply delighted me. What is this wondrous zoo?!
Listening to the Beatles isn't like listening to another group for me. It's part great music, part nostalgia/memory and part yearning for something we've lost as a people. Cynics make fun of "All You Need Is Love" and the hippy-dippy Sixties. But today, listening to their music, especially some of John and George's spiritually searching songs, I realize how lucky I was to grow up with the Beatles as my "air."
2. Dark Side of the Moon: Pink Floyd – I may have been intrigued by the Indian strains of "Within You, Without You," but musically my childhood was incredibly normal. My mom had some Neil Diamond records (it was the 1970s and she was single and in her 30s),some Dave Brubeck and Elvis, but there wasn't a lot of music in the house. Besides the Beatles, I owned a few 45s of the big hits (Barry Manilow's "Mandy"!), listened to Top 40 radio, and had a couple of albums by the Bee Gees (Saturday Night Fever!) Then, one day, when I was about 13, my friend David Esensee brought over this album and said, “You’ve got to listen to this.”
My life has never been the same.
If Sgt. Pepper felt mysterious at times, Dark Side of the Moon totally blew my pubescent mind. I just didn't know music could be like that. It seemed to tap into a different part of my brain. The moody bass lines and atmospheric synthesisers created a musical world that seemed related to the Beatles, but utterly different. It seemed heavier, darker, and edging deeper into a zone of which I was just becoming aware.
Listening to the album for the first time was a major turning point. After that, I ditched the Top 40 singles, started listening to the rock and roll radio station, and began to explore music and the world at large a little more. Suddenly, I was buying albums by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Who and other bands I had missed as a child. Oh dear. Adolescence was calling. And I was ready to rock and roll.
3. Never Mind the Bollock’s, Here’s the Sex Pistols: The Sex Pistols – It was 1979, and I was a junior in high school. Since the 4th grade, I had had two of the best friends in the world. We really were The Three Musketeers. But around 10th grade, we each started moving in different directions. We were still really close, but definitely changing.
A new sound had hit Austin, and I loved it. My two best friends did not. They made fun of my B-52s album. They hated that "punk" group, the Police. They hated that geek Elvis Costello. I was feeling torn up. One day, at Inner Sanctum, the great punk record store in Austin at that time, I picked up the Sex Pistols album. I had heard a lot about them by then, knew they had played a confrontational and disastrous show at a country & western club just a few miles south in San Antonio. Knew they had gotten in trouble for their song "God Save the Queen." They marked a dividing line at the time. It didn't matter that they could barely play their instruments - this was it. I could play it safe and stick to Boston and Styx. I could pretend I was cool and get the Cars. Or I could jump full-force into the hurricane. I was 16 years old. I wanted something more. So I bought the album.
The raw energy was electric. The snide singing and outright anger of Johnny Rotten touched something in this increasingly rebellious teenager. The music was fast and furious and wanted to knock against the walls of the world.
To this day, I can remember my friend Steve thumbing through my records, trying to find something to put on. I was in another room, listening to him mumble as he went through the collection. "The Doors? No. Led Zeppelin? No. The Beatles? Nah." Suddenly, silence. Then, shouting across the house: "What in the hell is this?" He had found the Sex Pistols.
I liked other groups much more than the Pistols, especially the Clash and Joy Division. But buying Never Mind the Bollocks, even knowing it would cause division with my longtime chums, definitely marked some kind of passage into a new and different "self." Before that, I had been afraid of what other people thought about me, especially my closest friends. No longer. The Three Musketeers would remains friends through high school, but we hung out less and less. Now, I was headed off by myself into an unknown direction.
4. Stardust: Willie Nelson – Ironically, at the same time I was desperately trying to establish my own identity and listening to the Sex Pistols, I also bought this album. I can actually remember thrashing around my room one night to the Pistols and, after exhausting myself, putting on Stardust as I went to bed. Who knew at the time that this too was my identity. I denied it for a while, because at age 17, good punks weren't supposed to be listening to old fart's music like Willie Nelson.
But I loved the tunes. And, in the end, Stardust had much more of an impact on me musically, because it was through this album that I learned about people such as George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington. I began to look these people up. Who were they? What was their music like? Later, as I started listening to jazz, I came across their names more and more. And these tunes would show up on a Billie Holiday record or a Louis Armstrong record. It was like someone saying, "Welcome, Come On In to Jazz."
Willie Nelson had spent all of the 1960 as a country & western songwriter (Patsy Cline's "Crazy," for example). In the early-mid 1970s, he did a few country albums of his own, none of which were particularly popular. Then he came up with the idea for a country & western concept album called Red Headed Stranger, and one of the singles, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, " became a big hit. So what does a country singer do then? Well, an unsual one from Austin gets Booker T. Jones to produce an album of old standards by Gershwin and Hoagy and Berlin. It's Willie's same ol' country band, but now everything has changed. The selection of material was excellent, especially Hoagy Carmichael's two songs, because much of his jazz always did have a rural, country feel to it. And Willie tapped into some of those older, deeper music connections, like Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, cutting records with a young Louis Armstrong. Ray Charles, also, would've been an influence, crossing over between jazz and country and the blues. And Texas itself has a rich jazz history (though no one talks about it much), along with folk, country and the blues. In many ways Stardust goes back to that time when folks would sit out on the porch on a warm summer evening and someone would get their guitar and start picking at a few favorite tunes. That's the atmosphere Willie created on this album.
Booker T.'s production still sounds great today - roomy, lush and atmospheric. Willie's acoustic guitar takes on a haunting, nostalgic quality that captures Gershwin beautiful and aching "Someone to Watch Over Me." Mickey Raphael's wailing harmonica moves out of the honky tonk and becomes a mournful songbird on a summer evening. And, perhaps I'm biased because I heard Willie sing these songs first, but I think he does an amazing job with them vocally. He did some other albums of standards, but this one is far and above the best. It's even ranked 257 on Unnamed Corporate Music Magazine's Top 500 of All-Time, not bad for a country singer doing old jazz standards at the height of the Rock and Roll Era. The album remains one of my all-time favorites, and I highly recommend it.
5. Blood on the Tracks: Bob Dylan – In high school, I had gotten into a lot of 60s and 70s music, but I never liked Bob Dylan. That voice! Who could stand it? But my first year in college, a new friend and fellow poet loaned me this album and said I should really listen to the words.
At the time, I was living in north Austin, and the railroad ran close to the house. Sometimes the trains would stop, and as I drove by, I'd notice that some of the box car doors were open. "How easy it would be," I thought, "to just hop in one of those box cars and go." I had just turned 18 and I was restless. College was okay, but it felt just like high school. I wanted to travel, to journey, to wander.
That's when I started listening to Blood on the Tracks. Even the title was cool, I thought. The opening song, "Tangled Up in Blue," was all about drifting around and experiencing interesting things. And the guy's voice didn't seem that bad now. In fact, I liked it's ragged, earthy quality. He sounded like a dirt road. And the lyrics were phenomenal! How could I have missed all of this?! "Idiot Wind" was like an epic novel. He had some of the Pistols anger, but he seemed really different. He sounded wiser and more experienced.
And there were women involved. Dylan wasn't singing stupid love songs, he was singing about sex and relationships. I was 18 and going through my first love affair. It was terribly dramatic and intense. I wanted to run away with this girl. She was my muse, my lover, my goddess. And Dylan seemed to know all about it. He gave out warnings about how much pain might be involved. Ironically, a few years later, after my love and I had run away, and then broken up, this album really struck a deep chord. My heart and soul tore itself up in agony as Dylan sang, "If You See Her Say Hello," because I had lived the song now.
I started buying up all the Dylan albums I could find. My friend Walter, who had loaned me Blood on the Tracks, and I went through a feverish friendship that first year in college, both of us totally into Dylan. It was one of those rare but special occasions when you can share your musical madeness with someone else. We started a literary magazine together. Went to see foriegn films together. Shared an aprtment. Drove out of town in the middle of the night to go exploring, or to hang out in some truck stop cafe at 4 am. I dropped out of college the next year and worked full-time at a supermarket. Then I left Walter and Austin behind, as my girlfriend and I headed to the mountains of Colorado to chase down our romantic dream. Dylan was the soundtrack to that dramatic time of my life. I couldn't have asked for better.
After all is said and done, Bob Dylan has probably had more influence on me than anyone else artistically, though I don’t listen to him nearly as much anymore. If I was headed to a desert island and could only take one Dylan disc, I would struggle between this album and Blonde on Blonde. Nostalgia would make me choose Blood on the Tracks.