what i watched last week
music friday: otis redding, “i've been loving you too long”

only love can break your heart

Phil Dellio and Scott Woods are nearing the end of their fascinating and entertaining Facebook group, “Phil & Scott’s Top 100s.” Phil explained the thing at the beginning:

Very shortly, my old co-author Scott Woods and I will begin counting down our 100 favourite songs here on Facebook. This’ll be the fourth time since 1989 that I’ve done this: first when I used to do a show on CIUT, then in Radio On a couple of years later, again on CKLN five years ago, and now we’re hopping on the social networking bandwagon for a revisit. We’ll each be posting once a day for the next three-plus months. [Emphasis added.]

I didn’t add the emphasis because of the British spelling, although Phil and Scott are Canadians and that informs their choices to an extent. No, I emphasized favorite because I’ve always accepted, even promoted, the difference between “best” and “favorite.” You might define “best” as “favorite,” and I wouldn’t argue with you … canon construction is, to a large extent, built on the consensus favorites of “experts,” who then hide behind claims of inherent value while pretending their lists don’t just tell us what they like. While I like to pretend I am anti-canon, the truth is I’m a bit of a fence straddler. I once taught a survey course American literature, and I managed to get The Wire in the syllabus, but I also included The Great Gatsby.

This has been brought home to me as I watched Scott and Phil’s lists grow. Basically, I forgot early on that this was a list of their favorites. I marveled at their bravery for including songs from flexi-discs, stuff I had never heard of, and just plain oddities (Scott put a Tracey Ullman song at #3). And what I realized about myself is that, even if I made the ground rules, and even if I created a list of favorites, my list would be bound by certain unspoken rules about the canon. I mean, I would include “Respect” by Aretha Franklin in any case, but I would also feel obliged to include it, even if I was the one person on earth who didn’t appreciate its greatness. My list, in other words, would be much less idiosyncratic than the lists Phil and Scott have offered, and would as a result also be a lot more boring.

Phil just posted his #1 song … Scott’s will follow, tomorrow I expect. Phil’s #1 song is “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young. Now, if I had a list, Neil Young would appear on it. I couldn’t imagine a list without Neil Young (canonical, after all). My choice for which Neil Young song to choose, though, would be personal … it would be my favorite Neil Young song. So on the one hand, I would feel obliged to include Neil Young, but on the other hand, I’d feel I had a free hand in choosing which song to put on the list.

Phil’s explanation of his choice reflects the impact the song has had on him personally. He mentions how long he has been in love with the music of Neil Young. He talks about searching high and low for cover versions of the song in question. He notes that After the Gold Rush is his favorite album of all time. And he talks about the importance of melody in his idea of great music.

These are all explanations, but they grow out of the selection. That is, first Phil chose “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” as his #1 song, because it was his favorite and this was a list of favorites, and only then did he try to explain why it belonged where he placed it. (Obviously, I’m making assumptions here that may not be accurate.)

I wish I could do the same. I, too, would eventually get around to explaining my choice, but first, I’d have to go through a long process of deciding what should be #1 … and “should be” is probably the key phrase, since there is no “should be” in “favorite.” But I can’t help myself. So first, I’d decide that Neil Young belonged somewhere on my list … not #1 in my case, but certainly in the upper half. Then I’d choose the song based on cultural importance, if I had something to say about it, and yes, finally, how much I actually liked the song. I don’t know what the most culturally important work of Neil Young’s career might be … perhaps Rust Never Sleeps, when he emerged as one of the few boomer rock artists to come to terms with punk. If I had to choose something where I have an anecdote, I might choose Rust Never Sleeps as well, since my wife and I are in the audience for the film version. Once I got around to what I liked, though, when I finally focused on what was my equivalent of Phil’s love of melodies, I would know that whichever Neil Young song I picked, it would have to include lots of long, noisy guitar solos. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is my favorite early Young album because it has two such songs … After the Gold Rush only had the fairly short solos in “Southern Man.” I love all of Zuma, which has “Cortez the Killer” (and I still remember an article about Lou Reed from around that time where Lou, another favorite guitar player of mine, said he loved Zuma and that Neil Young was a great guitarist). In the end, I suppose I’d go with “Like a Hurricane,” although why that and not “Cortez” or “Cowgirl in the Sand” is unclear.

What is clear is that I would worry myself sick trying to balance all the elements that would lead me to choose “Like a Hurricane” (or whatever) for my list. But a part of me believes you should be able to list your 100 favorite songs in about 20 minutes, that that concept of “favorite” refuses to allow for too much over-thinking.

I’m not saying Phil and Scott haven’t thought about their choices … if you read the comments they include with every choice, you can see the passion, but you can also see the thought processes. But it seems to me they are picking favorites and then explaining, where I would explain and then pick favorites. I like their method a lot, and I’ll miss the Facebook group when they are done.

And what would be my #1 song? “One Night” by Elvis from the ‘68 Special. I don’t have to over-think that one … it’s been my #1 for a long time. I guess I’ve already done my thinking in that case.