Month: November 2013

There Is a Light That Never Goes Out

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“A while back, when Dick & Barry & I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you *are* like, Barry proposed the idea of a questionnaire for potential partners, a 2 or 3 page multiple-choice document that covered all the music/film/TV/book bases…It amused us at the time… But there was an important & essential truth contained in the idea, and the truth was that these things matter, and it’s no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently, or if your favorite films
wouldn’t even speak to each other if they met at a party.”

“Is it wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.”

— High Fidelity, Nick Hornby


If this post and my last one are any indication, I’m clearly preoccupied with identifying favorites.  I have a habit of pop-quzzing others with favorite lists [e.g., top five favorite Michael Jackson songs: (which are, of course) “Rock with You,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Beat It,” “Billy Jean.”  Discuss.]  You can learn a lot about a person by doing this. I don’t claim that this predilection makes me especially unique, though. Nick Hornby’s Rob Fleming is similarly bedeviled in High Fidelity (I won’t lie, it’s an influence), and Hornby wrote another book that’s essentially a paean to his favorite mix tape.  Rob Sheffield did the same.  Chuck Klosterman has built a career on publicly dissecting these decisions.

But just because it’s not an especially original idea doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  As Fleming muses above, what you like matters.  I build my own lists with great care not just because I assume people will judge me by them, but because I hope they will.

For this same reason, it should come as no surprise that I hate having books or music in storage.  If it’s worth owning, it’s worth displaying — you never know who might stop by.  My wife once told me I collect books because I like to surround myself with them.  She was only half right.

A few years ago, I read an essay in The Atlantic in which the author lamented the advent of the tablet and the iPod because those devices render it impossible to tell what someone is reading or listening to from a distance.  His argument runs thusly: if everyone’s bookshelf eventually becomes virtual, then we lose an admittedly incomplete but nonetheless reliable indication of what the person likes and is like. Far from linking him with other likeminded souls, this new technology prevented him from making connections.  I tried using the essay with my students, but they just couldn’t relate.  I suppose the argument seemed hopelessly quaint to a generation of people who share everything about themselves, all the time.

Here’s an example of what we’ve lost. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Patti Smith recounted a memory of meeting Lou Reed in the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel.

“I was carrying a book of poems by Rupert Brooke.  He took the book out of my hand and we looked at the poet’s photograph together.  So beautiful, so sad.  It was a moment of complete peace” (p. 27).

I would’ve experienced the Rapture right then and there.

This post, then, is a way of reclaiming lost ground, with the full understanding of an inherent contradiction: that the very technology that makes this feel necessary to me is the same tool that facilitates discussions about it.

What follows is a recent conversation between me and two college friends of mine — Ian, a suitemate, and Anthony, an Australian exchange student — with whom I’ve remained close, in large part because of our shared enthusiasm for music.  We had challenged ourselves to identify our top-twenty favorite albums of our high school years (1985-1989).   We chose that era because it represented music that we loved more intensely than anything before or since — largely, I hypothesized, because these albums were released before “The Great Digital Fragmentation.”  These were the last albums we could love as whole units.  The conversation then evolved into a discussion of our top-ten favorite songs of all time, which was even more free-wheeling…and maddening.

The dialogue here highlights the care and precision (and agony and angst) required in these kind of selections — when albums, books, songs, and John Hughes movies approach the symbolic.

First, the rules:

  1. The album has to have been released during the years we were in high school (we later felt unduly constrained by this decision, and much teeth gnashing ensued — no Squeeze! — so we punted it.)
  2. The album has to have influenced your musical tastes (which means you can omit all the lame dance music or obscure knock-off Smiths bands you listened to and at the time loved but are now embarrassed by — I call it the “Erasure Rule”; it could also be called “The Railway Children Rule” or “The Lilac Time Rule.”

My selections:

The High School Years, 1985-89

(1986) The BoDeans, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams

(1986) Crowded House, Crowded House

(1989) The Connells, Fun & Games

(1987) The Cure, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me

(1988) drivin’ n’ cryin’, Whisper Tames the Lion

(1985) Echo & the Bunnymen, Songs to Learn and Sing

(1985) Hoodoo Gurus, Mars Needs Guitars

(1985) INXS, Listen Like Thieves

(1989) Tommy Keene, Based on Happy Times

(1985) Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Easy Pieces

(1986) New Order, Brotherhood

(1985) Oingo Boingo, Dead Man’s Party

(1985) The Outfield, Play Deep

(1986) Pretty In Pink Soundtrack

(1985) R.E.M., Fables of the Reconstruction

(1989) The Reivers, End of the Day

(1989) The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul

(1986) The Smithereens, Especially for You

(1986) The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead

(1985) Talking Heads, Little Creatures

(1987) 10,000 Maniacs, In My Tribe

The Songs: (no restrictions, but much metaphysical agonizing)

Ian: I’m obsessing on this top 10 songs thing… just can’t do it. It’s creating a spiritual crisis.

All songs are not equal. But I offer the notion that all GREAT songs are equal. Or should be to the individual.

A truly great song is the ultimate, there’s nothing better, so no other song should be better.

 So… even with one person’s limited knowledge, I can still think of dozens, probably hundreds of songs I believe to be actually great. So to rank them…

Is it the ten songs that I love the most right now?  The ten songs I loved the most when each particular song meant the most to me in my evolving relationship with it? I can name my favorite ten songs now, but maybe none of them mean as much to me as my favorite 10 meant to me in 1986 or 2001. Or more realistically my ten favorite now mean MORE to me now than my favorites then… but that seems like cheating.

 How can I make a list without a Bowie song? Without ten Bowie songs?! ChangesOne Bowie more than any record probably influenced the course of my life to date, but none of those songs are in my current 10.

 Can I seriously consider “No Distance Left To Run” by Blur? Yes, I can.  That song stabs me in the heart.

 It really is maddening!

“Ocean Rain” is on the list. I can tell you that. Does that mean it’s my favorite song?I don’t feel like it is. But it is seriously the only one I think of & don’t doubt immediately.  My choices:

Echo & the Bunnymen – “Ocean Rain”

Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is To Fly” is officially on as well.

The Faces – “Ooh La La”

The Band – “It Makes No Difference”

American Music Club – “Firefly”

Steve Earle – “Pilgrim”

Van Morrison – “Into the Mystic”

David Rawlings – “I Hear Them All”

Little Feat – “Willin'”

That’s nine I could live with tonight. At this hour. At this minute.

After all the songs/artists that are important to me on some personal, almost spiritual level, including all those I listed, there is a whole other list of AMAZING songs that I could argue for, even if I don’t have a deep connection to them. See Beatles, Buddy Holly, Zombies, one-offs like Human’ League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” “Life In a Northern Town,” “Spirit In the Sky” … endless.

And then there’s this. Which totally destroys me. I mean this exact version.

Anthony: You know, I agree with everything you’ve said.

 Your email though has given me a lot to mull over.

The more I thought about the list, the more I realised, top 20 would be easier. That way I could add “Pride” by U2. Or “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins, “In a Big Country” by Big Country, “Run to Paradise” by  The Choirboys. “Raspberry Beret” by Prince. I love “Solitary Man” by Neil Diamond or covered by Crooked Fingers. Kate Bush. Nick Drake. Some INXS or Midnight Oil. Some truly great songs that didn’t make the cut.

And like your Bowie stance, I love at least a dozen REM songs, early stuff, mid-career stuff like “Half a World Away” or “World Leader Pretend.” Even their new stuff. All good.

Do I still listen to them all? Well, except for Lloyd Cole, whose songs I don’t actually love with the same intensity that I once did, I still do love these songs.

I’m going to have to think about how to respond.  But what a thing to wrestle with!

Lee: (I was on a plane at the time Ian and Anthony were wringing their hands; otherwise, I would’ve joined in.) I’m going to go with these, not in descending order.  There’s no way I can cut it to ten.

“Back on the Chain Gang” — Pretenders
“Fall on Me” — REM
“Just Like Heaven” — The Cure
“Frances” — Dillon Fence
“World Where You Live” — Crowded House
“The Game” — Echo and the Bunnymen
“Highwire Days” — Tommy Keene
“This Must Be the Place” — Talking Heads
“Settled Down Like Rain” — The Jayhawks
“Fun & Games” — The Connells
“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” — The Smiths
“Bizarre Love Triangle” — New Order
“Tenderness” — General Public
“Your Love” — The Outfield
“Driver 8” — REM
Ah, to be at home with one’s record collection….

My Favorite Book

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Two good friends, Jamie and Garrett, alumni of Durham Academy, which is where I work, recently came up with the idea to convene an alumni book club.  This idea is hardly revolutionary in and of itself, though it should be fun, as it always is when interesting people get together to quasi-discuss literature.  My contribution to the idea was to call the book club “My Favorite Book.”  The premise is simple: each book the group reads will be the favorite book of the evening’s host.  It will no doubt add an interesting dynamic to the experience, for as you read, you’re continually confronted with the question of why your host picked that particular book.  The book becomes a kind of rubric for evaluating the chooser.  All book clubs could use the tension born of such scrutiny.

ImageToo bad the process of choosing your favorite book is maddening.

If you care about the decision and what people might think it says about you, the process begins to paralyze you; it’s akin to the embarrassment one feels (or should feel) about being coerced into a public display of affection; part of you might enjoy it, but the exposure will likely make you very self conscious.  Your favorite book is a private love affair between you and the author, and revealing it feels unseemly somehow.  You also suspect you’re due to be judged for planting this particular intellectual/cultural/psychological flag in the ground and for the unavoidable pretensions such audacity represents.

Favorite books are symbolic and revelatory in ways that other favorite things aren’t.  For instance, it’s different from making someone listen to your favorite song or album (playlist?).  Reading someone’s favorite book requires real time and energy, and it’s easy to imagine someone reaching the end of your choice and thinking, “Really?  He likes this better than To Kill a Mockingbird?  What an idiot.”

What is worse, in my case, the people attending the “My Favorite Book” Club are people I really want to impress, and I feel that pressure pushing my selection in different directions.  Should I pick something cool and hip, like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (is that book still cool and hip?).  Something from the McSweeney’s posse (i.e., something young people find cool and hip)?  Something witty and ironic (Vonnegut or something British)?  Something intellectual (L’Etranger)?  Something canonical?  (“Pass the pretzels, folks — time to dive into Madame Bovary!)  I grow old, I grow old….

And finally, what constitutes a “favorite?”  How can you be sure it’s the one?  I remember less than 10% of the fiction I’ve read over the last three decades; surely there are some favorites lost in the ether.  Many of the books I’d list as favorites are books I’ve read in the last few years, which makes me suspicious.  Most of these books haven’t been with me long enough; we hardly know each other.  Is The Swiss Family Robinson actually my favorite book?

But enough. In honor of Rob Fleming, here’s my top-five list of favorite novels.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke): Harry Potter for people who like books.

The Rotters’ Club (Jonathan Coe): a coming-of-age story in 1970s England.  Hilarious and moving.  Gandalf’s Pikestaff!

The Magus (John Fowles): a mind-blowing journey.  Each time I read it, it reveals secrets.

Goodbye, Columbus (Philip Roth) [all-time favorite]: For a certain period of my life, I would give a copy of this book to my girlfriends (who are now, not surprisingly, all ex-girlfriends).  As I said, pretensions revealed.  Still an amazing novel, though, which Roth published at age 26…and promptly won the National Book Award for fiction.  If you’ve ever felt on the outside looking in (and what adolescent hasn’t?), this novel is for you.

Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut): Every college student needs to read Vonnegut.

There it is.  Judge…and be judged.