Monday, December 05, 2005

5 Important Songs

I am an ignoramus when it comes to music. I don’t know how time is measured, I don’t understand octaves, and I don’t know what a bridge is. Like one of those willfully unstudied individuals parked in front of the gaudy Remington at the art museum, I don’t know much about this particular art, but I know what I like.

I recently loaded up my iPod with a new playlist of 300 of my favorite songs, and enjoyed the drive across Missouri more than ever. Certain songs mean so much to me – they can change my mood and thoughts within a couple of notes. So, even though I can’t promise scholarly analysis or technical observations, what follows is a list of 5 songs that are important to me, and why.

1. Elvis Costello, “Alison”. Alison is the most searing and mature love song I’ve ever heard. It starts out with Elvis’ snarling vocals, dripping with sarcasm and bitterness. “Well its so funny to be seeing you after so long, girl, but with the way you look I understand that you were not impressed.” The intensity in his voice, though, exposes how much he cares, and the listener knows that Alison has a firm grip on his heart, and he can’t help it. His strained casualness is betrayed no matter how he approaches her.

The song goes on to expose just how raw he is, with clever lyrics and a guitar putting up liquid notes backed by a solid, though unobtrusive bass line. “I don’t know if you were loving somebody, I only know it isn’t mine” jumps from a general concern about emotions to a sharply expressed specific carnal longing. “Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say. I think somebody better put out the big light, ‘cause I can’t stand to see you this way” turns his attempted insults back around and becomes a statement about how powerfully sad he is to see someone he loves so damned much not showing the perfection he sees in her.

Alison is a tormented love song, in which the world is killing both the lover and the beloved. A love that, for reasons undisclosed, doesn’t work out, exists like a fresh, salted wound, and Costello’s painful vocals leave us gasping at the beauty and the pain of a failed love. The world cannot contain perfection, and Alison is Elvis’ lamentation of that fact.

2. Bob Seger, “Travelin’ Man/Beautiful Loser”. This one is kind of embarrassing, to the extent that I thought about not listing it. Instead, I would choose something cooler and more sophisticated – something that is broadly accepted as a “great song”, and one with would be more likely to show up in a list of critics’ favorites.

But, truth is, I loved this song in high school. I was a skinny, non-athletic, pimply nerd, awkward with girls and outstanding at nothing. Somehow, Seger’s combination of the world-wise “up with the sun, gone with the wind” travelin’ man with the eager-to-please loser spoke to the kid I was. Plus, the bass line backs up a driving guitar, a silken organ and a thumping drum set.

I know, I know, it’s not great art. But it was music that helped me though a time in my life when I didn’t know that the line “he wants to dream like a young man, with the wisdom of an old man” underestimated the dreams of an old man, but overestimated the wisdom.

3. Dave Brubeck,“Take Five”. Words fail me. This music is the soundtrack to my imagined life in 1950s Los Angeles. Cool, sophisticated, and a tantalizing undertow of mystery. The drums, the alto sax, the piano and the bass take you someplace that feels familiar, but exotic nonetheless. The music nods at you and accepts you into its circle – it doesn’t shout or grab at you. It epitomizes cool. You can imagine stepping out of a subterranean jazz joint into the cool Pacific breeze. Dig it.

4. Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run”. THE anthem of American youth. A screaming homage to youth, death, love and cars. “I wanna know if love is wild, I wanna know if love is real.” And then a sax solo that grounds the song solidly in rock history. “The girls comb their hair in the rearview mirrors and the boys try to look so hard.” Then, pow, pow, pow, pow and the “highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.”

It’s hard to write about Bruce, because he does such a great job of combining the lyrics with the music. The music is loud and pure and adrenaline. It’s tough but sentimental. It straddles Chuck Berry, the Clash, and Nirvana. It is teenage America.

Some day, I want to see him do it live. But till then tramps like us, baby we were born to run.

5. Bob Dylan, “Stuck Inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again). Dylan is as challenging as T.S. Eliot, but as comfortable as Thurber. And with his skilled lyricism and well-matched music, he showed a budding college poet that poetry would not survive as an important art form in an age of recorded music. Dylan, and this song in particular, convinced me that poetry is doomed to be the warring province of anemic intellectuals and vapid crap merchants. A pox on both their houses.

“Oh, Mama, is this really the end? To be stuck inside of Mobile, with the Memphis blues again?”


Blogger emawkc said...


I think you should post your 300-song playlist up on iTunes as an iMix, then link to it from your blog. It sounds like we have very similar taste in music (good picks, by the way).

12/06/2005 9:45 AM  
Blogger AM said...

I hope that you do get the chance to see Bruce do "Born to Run" live because it's really something special... They turn all the lights on and there are 18,000 people singing along and punching the air in unison. I get chills just thinking about it.

I can't even imagine what it must have been like to see Bruce do that song 30 years ago.

12/06/2005 2:13 PM  
Blogger les said...

30 years ago?? Damn, it was. And it was fuckin' awesome, then as now. Although, to my eternal delight, back then it was about 3,000 in a small hall with great acoustics. Ah, I miss Iowa City. Dan, with all the chances, how have you missed Bruce and E-Street? They may be the best straight on rock 'n roll show going--no pyrotechnics except what comes out of the speakers, and that's plenty.

12/06/2005 4:18 PM  
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11/13/2006 10:41 AM  

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