ONCE A MONTH or so, The Weeklings editors are each required to respond to a single cultural question in this wildly popular parlor game. Music, movies, television, books, dance, sex, sports, art, and death are all up for grabs. There are no correct answers, no political correctness allowed, and only one rule: sheer, brute honesty.
As always, please, no wagering.
“What’s the one album you’d give anything to hear again for the very first time?”
For too much of my life I listened to music that was second rate, songs from albums by bands that were inscrutable but hip. Guitars clogged my ears. I slaved to the unknown algorithm of cool. Eventually I skipped off to New Orleans, and there the guitar made less of dent. It was a town famed for its horn players and pianists and drummers. So, while still keeping time with the noise brigade on guitar, I went out and got a trombone, and started working on an accordion. Eventually, an upright piano took up residence in the apartment. A friend worked at a now-closed record store on Decatur St. I’d request obscure albums while we traded cigarettes and stories of the night before. It’s where I first heard the Fugs and The Beasts of Bourbon and the last Velvet Underground record, the one without Lou Reed. But he also slipped in Richard Davis, whose double bass work makes Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks so delightful. In Slipped Duke Ellington and Max Roach and Charles Mingus’s Money Jungle, as marvelous an exploration of a trio as ever has been put to wax. In slipped Joy Division, who I skipped in the 80s because, as my pal put it, I was a dolt. So it isn’t any album really, but the experience of stepping into Dick’s Rock and Roll Collectibles and hearing the needle set down on some slab of mystery. I miss that experience the way you miss the dog who taught you how to be less of an asshole to the world around you.
I’d like to go back to my virginal experience of The Band’s second record, The Band. I was a high school girl, and had come to them via Dylan’s Planet Waves and also the movie The Last Waltz. Their songs were in my consciousness, and I knew they were crucial and seminal and all of that, but I hadn’t taken in the real scope until I heard this record. I liked the fact that I was finding something that felt timeless and still fresh—porch music that could end up on AM radio. Also, not one but three incredible singers (Danko, Manuel, and Helm). Wildly great musicianship that still felt loose and right on the nerve. A song about the Civil War (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) pulled my teenage brain away from the maudlin love songs that gooped up the airwaves. “Rockin Chair,” about old men, reminded me not everyone was young. Nobody has done what they did since, despite the many attempts (and no, The Felice Brothers do not sound just like The Band). So, yeah, I’d like to feel again what it was like to be blown away by that miraculous mix of Canadians and one Southerner, a bunch of guys inspired by roots music and still sounding just like the roots themselves.
First albums… I say that in the plural because I can think of about five I wish I could hear again for the first time. This is not necessarily about the album, but also the moment, something of a time I wish I could hang onto now or could have seen more clearly, could have held to the light to appreciate but probably blinked away way too fast. So, those albums: Slint Spiderland, Liz Phair Exile in Guyville, PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea; Basement Jaxx Rooty. That one was played over and over at work, at The Face the year I moved to London, and the record is still suffused with a longing for New York and a sound that felt like the Lower East Side, while I was going out to parties in Brixton, where Felix and Simon also lived and DJed. This was staying out till pubs closed, lockdowns, dancing, drugs (or how they should sound at least as I actually rarely did them)… But mostly the one sole record I’d want to hear again for the first time: Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted. That was the first CD I owned.
I remember the stereo and where it was in my railroad apartment on the Lower East Side, and the boyfriend I’d broken up with and the one I’d taken up with. And, then there was this music, which, yes, channeled the Fall but also was non-synchronous. Stephen Malkmus’s lyrics seemed new, seemed to be something of a moment, one that was important. I can’t even say what that moment or importance was now, not exactly. I mean, I could repeat what others wrote about his lyrics. Or, I could try to write about the way “Summer Babe” felt… Equally I could write about how the streets in New York felt that spring and summer and playing pinball in the afternoon at Max Fish or about this being a time in my life where I believed I could become great at pinball. Why? I wonder now. What made pinball a need? There was the guy, the boy, who taught me how to get good at it. Strung through this are guys, lovers and fights; hanging out and humid nights and summer streets, because if I could listen to it again that’s what I’d want to hold onto. Similarly there was buying that PJ Harvey album. It was a year after it came out. I found it in the used CDs at Other Music (remember trolling through record bins?) on West 4th Street in New York City. This was after 9/11, and her album was threaded through with a sweetness and love of New York, somewhere I was desperate to return to. I had this idea of jacking in my life in London for New York, a city I was terrified I’d lost. Now I think of that day as I stood there in Other Music with my husband, who was the reason I’d moved to London, and we looked at CDs together. What stands out is that we could look at CDs, that they were tactile, that you could go out to do this, that there was a physical experience of the jewel cases…and maybe that is also what I want to hold onto, a tangible moment.
In the slow, cold winter of 2011, Drake’s sophomore album Take Care came into my life, marking the beginning of a beautiful, albeit one-sided, love affair. Nothing was the same again. At the time, I was living with my mother and brother in Duxford, a small village in Cambridgeshire, England, and applying for graduate programs in journalism in New York. I was excited and nervous about moving thousands of miles away, and sick at the thought of leaving my family and friends, and closing off a relationship that hadn’t worked, but that still got to me. Drake saw me through that transition, as I sorted through my feelings about leaving and waited (as I saw it then) for my life to begin. I’d drive with Drake through country roads, sit with him in my ears at the office job I took to save for the move, and listen to him in my headphones when I couldn’t sleep, his soothing, gravely voice keeping me steady, calm, and hopeful. Listening, I felt like I was on the brink of something. The whole album pulses with possibility — it’s about getting past the past, feeling through the motions of a messy breakup, and figuring out who you are and where you’re headed next. As I struggle to get over another relationship, I’d give almost anything to hear that album for the first time again. I know Drizzy would make everything better. On one of the album’s best songs “Crew Love,” he says “I think I like who I’m becoming” — when I’d just arrived in New York, I could say the same thing. And now that I’ve adjusted to my life in the city, I’m growing restless again. I don’t know what’s next, but I’m on the brink again.
I’m tempted to go with something truly iconic like White Light/White Heat or Abbey Road, just to avoid any notion of cool inscrutability. I love this question because I often wonder while listening to something brutally overplayed and presumably mediocre from the 80′s or 90′s (think Hall & Oates or Blue Oyster Cult), What if this track was just released? Would we think “Rich Girl” or “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was some sort of retro-genius if we heard it for the first time today? Would we actually admire the bald pop songsmithing because it’s not drenched in nostalgia or enforced familiarity? In any case, I’m going with the Stooge’s Funhouse. I still crave it all the time, even now, after a million listens and essentially using it as a life raft to get through college. The raw, sweaty, stupid dirge of Funhouse is exactly what I want when something heavy and abrasive and completely unselfconscious is required. It’s a slab of simplicity that I rarely hear in contemporary music, and would love to be shoveled in the back of the head with afresh.
I still remember everything about it. Fall semester, senior year. The more I learned at college, the more I understood how little I knew. Something, obviously, was working. I was wise, prescient or just plain lucky enough to sign up for an elective called “Introduction to Jazz”. I knew the genre was vast, intimidating and would take considerable effort to navigate; I’ll always credit this class for giving me a framework to acquaint myself, a three credit Rosetta Stone® for my Rosetta Stone. We’d gone through the century, decade by decade, and it got better as we went. Yes, Bebop was what I’d been missing all along without realizing it. But it was what came next, the more formless expression that started creeping out of the margins like lava oozing through ancient stones, that portended obsession. Those names: Mingus, Monk, Miles, Trane. And then, as we tackled the topic of “free jazz”, a cat who had the audacity to name his 1959 (the best year in musical history, by the way) album The Shape of Jazz to Come. Ornette Coleman, the canary in the post-bop coal mine. Like all iconoclasts, initially greeted with indifference, then disgust, then fear. Chords? We don’t need no stinking chords, his compositions scoffed, a freak flag flying out of the underground into the avant-garde. I still remember how quiet the room was and how concerned my ears got: What is this? Like nothing I’d never heard or felt; a new language, a new sensation, a new way of seeing everything, that first amoeba slithering onto shore. How is it possible, I thought, to make instruments scream in agony and shriek in joy, at the same time? (And those song titles, telling everything you needed to know: “Lonely Woman”, “Congeniality”, “Focus on Sanity.”) I walked around campus after, the autumn sky all schizophrenic yet serene with colors. And those notes I couldn’t get out of my head. This is it, I thought. This is music. This is addiction. This is love. This is the first day of the rest of my life.
Problem is, most truly classic records were already established classics by the time we were old enough to enjoy them. Is anyone making truly classic records anymore? How many have we had in the last twenty years as opposed to the twenty years before? So I hope you are proposing some sort of bicycle time machine where I can peddle through the tunnel down Sweet Water Lane and come out on record release day of the classics that shaped my life. Riding to the Musicland at the Westwood Mall, roaming the racks with ten bucks in my pocket. Picking just one after studying the front and back cover fifty times. Riding home with the bag under my arm, anticipating the electric smell of new vinyl and ripped plastic wrapper. But which one? Pink Floyd, The Wall? G’N'R’s Appetite? The Cult Love? Dirty Deeds? KISS Alive!? Never Mind the Bollocks? A stuttering time loop of October, 1979, full moon rising and Stevie Nicks singing about the sea of love where everyone wants to drown? Pick up the needle and start the record back over again? Soundtrack to Purple Rain? It was punk, funk, dance/rock, rhythm & blues, neo-classical pop. It was everything. Nothing like it before. Nothing since. Peddle all the way back to the Rolling Stones Now!? Here’s Little Richard? Kind of Blue? Ah, what the heck. I want a ’78 Camaro, cherry red, and an 8-track of Ted Nugent’s Double Live Gonzo. If nothing else so I can drive eighty-five miles an hour through the cotton fields cutoff road just outside of town with the lights off and the windows down, blasting “Stranglehold” for the very first time.
Upon my arrival at the Album That Blew My Fucking Mind, I had already sailed through a number of musical obsessions, naturally beginning with a KISS fetish in the mid-70s, winding into a feverish Doors worship at the dawn of the 80s. By age 14 I had already cultivated an expansive appreciation for all things classic rock, thanks as much to Boston’s dueling rock stations, WAAF and WBCN, as to a part-time job that allowed me to unpack boxes of Levi’s all day while smoking copious amounts of dope with a group of older guys who were only too happy to educate me on the unqualified majesty of bands like Zeppelin and the Stones. By the time my friend turned me on to Quadrophenia, I felt like I had heard it all, and I was therefore entirely ill-prepared for the siege of emotions that pounded against the hull of my psyche when I played that album for the first time. Pete Townshend’s superb 1973 rock opera told the story of a young kid caught up in the Mod movement of 60s London and all it’s posturing, drugging and fighting, set against a score of chest-beating anthems, scorching pop hooks and sparse acoustic balladry. Perfectly-sequenced from top-to-bottom, Quadrophenia is all killer, no filler, yet what imbued that inaugural experience with such magic was Townshend’s perfect expression of the tension between the torrents of rage and vulnerability that had thoroughly hijacked my early teens. I couldn’t relate to living in London in the 60s, but I sure as hell knew what it was like to feel “less than” everyone else, confused about who I was supposed to be and lonely as hell. Quadrophenia was the first album that I authentically related to on a spiritual level and from that moment forward, the limits of music forever disappeared. I’d give anything to have that first listen just one more time.
Music is our love letter to the universe, so to tell you which album I would give anything to hear again for the first time, I have to tell you who I loved for the first time. Who made my heart swell and made me bounce and gasp and cry and dance. That’s easy. Bowie. I became hopelessly obsessed with his eye shadow and hairdo on the cover of Aladdin Sane. He was everything my new wave cheerleading heart yearned for and nothing at all like the hicks in my cowtown. My Aladdin Sane cassette tape was my talisman and I took it across the world to Bombay, India where I lived for a year as an international exchange student. David Bowie blew my badly streaked hair back and tainted my narrow mind—expanded it to something much more interesting and hopeful, something a tad bisexual and totally flamboyant; something just fucking OTHER. I became unhinged and gender ambiguous. I shaved my hair off and sported a futuristic black leather jacket. Like a wino on payday, I guzzled The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars with equal fervor, memorizing every single word and beat like I would suffocate without it. Next came ChangesBowie and the song “Ashes to Ashes”: “I never did good things, I never did bad things, I never did anything out of the blue.” Bowie was the first concert I went to with my own money. Not only did he teach my heart to swim, he kicked me off the cliff in head to toe Kansai Yamamoto and I was never the same again.
I tend not to like anything on first listen. In fact, if I like something too much, my ardor usually cools, and I wind up getting sick of it very quickly (see also, “Wayne, Fountains of”). It’s rare when I love something from the gate and I love it after repeated (and repeated and repeated) listens. So I’m going with Billy Joel’s Songs in the Attic, the live album he put out of songs he wrote before The Stranger dropped and he became too big for his own good. The first track, “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” is far and away his best song, musically and lyrically, and remains my favorite song of all time. The song is a sort of sci-fi thing where the US government has declared war on New York City, and razed it, told from a guy in Florida years later. It’s embarrassing that the guy who wrote this incredible—and, in the wake of 9/11, prescient; “I watched the might skyline fall,” he sings in 1975—ode to Gotham also penned the extreme piece of shit “New York State of Mind.” Listen to that opening piano line! Marvel at Liberty DeVitto, Billy’s longtime drummer, freed from the shackles of the Lite FM producer Phil Ramone, pounding the fuck out of the skins, unlike on the too-slow shitty studio version they play on the radio, the rare times this song is on the radio. “Broadway” ends and he goes into “Summer, Highland Falls.” The rest of the album is great, but those first two tracks stand with anything. Anything.