I was eight or nine when a local folk group came to my school to perform. After I got home my mom asked how the show was and in my first effort at a review, I said that they sang nice but they did the songs wrong. After all I had grown up with many of the Irish folk songs they performed and that made me the expert, right? Always a fan of the teaching moment, my mom pulled a stack of records out of her collection and made me sit down in front of the record player. She then played three different versions of Whiskey in the Jar by the folk artists The Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners, as well as Peter, Paul and Mary.
She pointed out how every version was slightly different, that no version was ‘right’, and each one was good in its own way. I’ve always wondered what she would have thought of the Thin Lizzy or Metallica versions. I suspect not so much but she is responsible for me liking them and she’s partially responsible for my love of chimera genres, most specifically Celtic Punk like Black 47, Flogging Molly and The Dropkick Murphys. There are people in our lives who direct us to music, who influence our tastes, who help us build our collections and even give us reasons not to listen to certain artists.
We are all a collection of musical ticks and pops, with too many folks stuck in the sounds of their teenage years or what their parents listened to but most of us have a few focused moments that make up our tastes. I well remember sitting in a girl’s bedroom listening to all of her copies of Barry Manilow, really wishing I was someplace else but desperately wanting her to like me and thinking this might help. Big surprise, most people can tell when you are torturing yourself as a favor to them especially when your only response to their questions of what you thought about their favorite music is, “It was alright, I guess.” The fact that I can’t remember her name but I can remember how much it hurt to sit there is a pretty clear indicator of the impact Barry’s music had on me. Also if you notice from the writers credit on the record Barry didn’t Write The Song, Bruce Johnson did. But there are times when you come away with something that makes you better, a more musical person, even from your parents.
My father built his own stereo set up from one of the science magazines complete with the tubes that hummed as they warmed up. His tastes ran to jazz and classical, music that as a kid I really didn’t understand. It wasn’t until I hit my most angsty teen years and figured out that Beethoven had some shit going on, that I ‘borrowed’ his box set of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s The Nine Symphonies. Seven albums and I ruined every one of them with my POS record player. My dad made me buy a new box. They are out of print now but you can find good ones for $250 or so. The one I had to buy back in the 70’s cost around $65.00 which was a hell of lot of shoveling driveways and delivering papers. So just like Alex I used Beethoven to escape and empower, except without the rape fantasies.
After my grandfather died, my brother had come up to help with the whole process of boxing things up and cleaning the cabin. Out of the blue (for my unbirthday) he gave me an album by a woman I had never heard of named Kate Bush. It was her least popular album The Dreaming but I was enthralled. I hadn’t come across anything so beautiful and went out to find everything by her I could find. That album turned into the hardest one to replace in my collection and the one I wanted the most. It includes the songs Suspended in Gaffa (gaffa being gaffers tape or duct tape, perfect for an Alaskan), Pull Out the Pin a song about the Vietnam War, and The Dreaming title song that uses Australian aboriginal instruments well before other rock musicians had discovered the wonders of the didgeridoo. Perhaps because it was the least popular, it was the last album of Kate’s albums that I’ve been able to lay my hands on to rebuild my collection. It is beautiful, haunting and an album I recommend anyone own
After my mother died when I was thirteen, the Kegler family was a safe haven for this kid when things got too tough at home. One thing that could be counted on was the wide variety of music being played including live by Maryanne on her five string guitar (a banjo strung like a guitar – no I don’t know how it works either). She would write her own songs and made it clear that life brought its own moments of inspiration That you didn’t have to count on the ‘stars’ to provide you with your music. Drinking Guinness and listening to people who had incredible talent but who played just for the joy of it, gave me an understanding of how important music is beyond the commercial.
The one artist that has stuck with me over the years from the Kegler house was Tom Lehrer. For anyone who has wondered about my sense of humor, much of it can be blamed on Tom Lehrer. This is the man who wrote such wonderfully snarky and socially unacceptable songs as Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, The Masochism Tango, and Smut. He was a child prodigy who went to Harvard when he was fifteen and got his MA, Phi Betta Kappa. After serving in the military and working at Los Alamos, he taught at MIT, Harvard and University of California, Santa Cruz. All through this time he wrote and played music in nightclubs to help pay the bills.
His first album, Songs by Tom Lehrer, was self-pressed and he sold it at the college bookstore but pretty soon word of mouth had him getting orders from clear across the country. The album went viral in a time when there was no internet just people playing it at parties and passing it around. Since it included songs like “I want to Go Back to Dixie” that slammed the South for its civil rights actions, even if it did it in a jaunty way, in 1953, you can imagine that the album was cutting edge. It also has Be Prepared, which makes fun of the Boy Scouts and The Old Dope Peddler, a song so prescient that Two Chainz samples it in his song Dope Peddler. When asked if it was okay to use the song, Tom Lehrer said he was proud to have his song sampled sixty years after he recorded it. Going on to say “As sole copyright owner of The Old Dope Peddler, I grant you motherfuckers permission to do this. Please give my regards to Mr. Chainz, or may I call him 2?”
Tom Lehrer stopped performing in 1970 having only done three albums but his dark sense of humor and twisted genius will live on. It is really hard to find comedy albums in good condition on vinyl, they tend to be rode hard and put away wet. The MND found me a nice copy of An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer but I haven’t had much luck with Songs by Tom Lehrer and More of Tom Lehrer. I recommend you get these in any format you can. They will cheer you up in ways you can’t imagine. Until you’ve seen Daniel Radcliff do the Elements Song you don’t know joy.
There are times when someone will introduce you to a new artist at just the right moment. You probably would have liked them anyway but they were just what you needed right then, a glass of water after walking across the desert. The Master of the Needle Drop has introduced me to a vast variety of music and his suggestions are usually solid. I know he isn’t always as thrilled by some of the stuff I have subjected him to, most especially the box of 45s that made up If I Were a Carpenter, the album of Carpenters songs covered by alternative bands from back in 1994 but I still say that Sonic Youth’s version of Superstar was genius.
Anyway, things have been particularly bad this year with so many great musicians passing on to the great concert in the sky and after writing one too many tribute columns I was feeling seriously ready to hurt myself. That’s when the MND dropped Deap Vally on me. Two ladies out of LA, Lindsey Troy on guitar and Julie Edwards on drums, Deap Vally are like Jack White’s tough and nasty younger sisters. Sharing the vocal duties, they play a wonderful kind of rusted metal lo-fi, garage blues. They were the perfect band to pull me out of my funk, to point out that no matter how bad things looked there was new talent out there breaking through every day. They only have two albums at this point, Sistronix, and the newly released after three long years of waiting Femejism. As you might be able to tell from the album titles Deap Vally is completely unapologetic about their feminism. Songs like Gonna Make My Own Money and Women of Intention lay it out in the clearest of terms. For anybody who misses the days of Riot Grrrl bands or just loves good music, you can’t go wrong with Deap Vally.
When my daughter went to Italy she discovered that the little shops over there had a lot of vinyl, most of it old and American. The album that drew her attention as a gift for me was one put out by the UAW union in 1964. Called This Land is Your Land – Songs of Social Justice, it has an amazing assortment of artists including Billie Holliday, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Joan Baez. What made her grab it was the songs on the album, which include If I Had A Hammer played by Odetta, that she remembered me singing to her when she was a baby. Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye by the Clancy Brothers was probably something she had heard as well. This is an amazing album with many songs that aren’t available in digital format. This version of Billie’s Strange Fruit is just haunting. So my kiddo still carries the songs I sang to her as a baby around in her head, which mostly consisted of the union songs that my mother taught me and Guns and Roses Sweet Child of Mine.
Side note on This Land is Your Land, when I pulled it out I was pretty sure there was no chance it could be played. The album didn’t have a sleeve, it was covered in cat hair, scratches, the grooves were mashed in and here were grease spots. When I handed it to the Master of the Needle Drop, he just shook his head. I got two or three reports about how nothing could be done. Then one night a cryptic message that I owed him a tall one. Much to my surprise I was blessed with a needle drop from the album that was nothing short of brilliant. He spent a week washing, buffing, washing it again, cleaning each groove, recording and cleaning that up. You can listen to The Terriers sing Drill Ye Terriers Drill and it feels authentic.
I know that music isn’t as important to everyone as it is to me but just like music the people in our lives contribute bits and pieces to our soul, to the way we taste the world, to our way of viewing life for good or ill. I have been lucky to have people with unique and varied interests help build the perpetual motion machine that is my musical tastes. Music really does give us a doorway to the past as well as connection to people who might have moved out of our lives.