by request: summer of sam (spike lee, 1999)
blu-ray series #17: sans soleil (chris marker, 1983)

music friday: favorites through the years

If I were to make a list of my favorite musicians over the years, the only easy selection would be Bruce Springsteen at the top. But I wonder if perhaps I could offer a chronology of favorites over the years.

One of my first memories (meaning it is entirely untrustworthy) is being a little boy and having to get a shot at the doctor’s office. I cried and ran around the room until my dad promised I could buy an Elvis Presley 45 after we left the office. My memory is it was “Hound Dog”, although that is probably the most untrustworthy part of this whole story. Since I’m trying to concoct a chronological list of favorites, I can’t really use this memory to place Elvis in first place. I didn’t have an Elvis fixation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was merely the only rock and roller I’d heard of at that young age. I lost interest in him after that, and only really started paying attention to him after Greil Marcus’ book Mystery Train. That book took me to the ‘68 TV special, and if you want a favorite, there you are … whenever I fill out one of those “if you could pick one moment in time, where would it be” memes, I choose to be sitting in the audience as The King and his friends played in the summer of 1968. From there, I went on to write my college honors thesis on Elvis, and I’ve never lost my fascination with him. Truthfully, though, it’s the ‘68 Elvis-and-Friends sessions that affect me emotionally … everything else for me is more academic. So Elvis is a favorite, to be sure, but it’s hard to place him chronologically … 1968, when I didn’t notice him? The mid-70s, when Mystery Train came out?

I had a few 45s when I was a kid … there was Bobby “Boris” Pickett with “The Monster Mash”, Link Wray and “Jack the Ripper”, a few more that are long forgotten. The first LPs I can recall (some gifts, some bought by me) include Herman’s Hermits On Tour, Bringing It All Back Home (for “Like a Rolling Stone”, the first Dylan to grab my attention … of course, that album did not include “Rolling Stone”), and the first two American Yardbirds albums, For Your Love and Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds. It would be accurate to say that The Yardbirds were my first “favorite” musicians. I put “favorite” in quotes because The Beatles ruled over everything by then, and I was not immune. (I can remember buying Revolver right when it came out, and someone asking me how I knew it was good before I’d even heard it. “It’s the Beatles!” was my reply.) Finally, to complete this time frame, I had an older brother who lived at home until 1964, and his tastes were very influential on me, plus he had lots of records.

The Yardbirds, “I Wish You Would” (Eric Clapton on guitar)

For the rest of the 60s, my favorites were identified more by albums than by artists, although the Beatles and Rolling Stones were always there. Representing the “San Francisco Sound” were Surrealistic Pillow, Children of the Future, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, and the first Quicksilver album. Oh, and the Firesign Theatre. But I don’t think any of these artists were favorites beyond their best albums. If I had to list a favorite, let it be Jack Casady. One album, though, made such an impression on me that it lifted the artist to a favored spot: Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. His first four solo albums (through His Band and the Street Choir) were often played, and there was plenty to like after that. I finally saw him live in 1998.

Van Morrison, “Cypress Avenue

Not sure I had a favorite for the next few years. Listened to a lot of The Moody Blues in the late-60s. Allman Brothers. Boz Scaggs’ “Loan Me a Dime”. No, the next My Favorite came when I re-discovered Bob Dylan around about the time of Planet Waves. I had liked him since long before that, of course, and The Band was always thisclose to being a favorite … in hindsight, I don’t know if there is a double whammy I love more than Big Pink and the second album. Robin and I saw them on the Before the Flood tour, our first concert together after we were married … we saw Dylan twice more over the years, The Band once more (they were/are a favorite of hers, as well). I buried myself in Dylanology, reading everything I could find, going back to the earlier albums. Then Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes followed … it was a great time to be a Dylan fan. Things went downhill after that … we saw him on the Street Legal tour, and it wasn’t the same … we didn’t see him in concert again for 20 years. It’s hard to get mid-70s Dylan on YouTube (The Band is easy to find), so here’s what I (along, I’m sure) consider the best use ever of “All Along the Watchtower”, the culmination of its use in Battlestar Galactica:

BSG, Starbuck

Then came Bruce … do I really need to say more? My various stories are scattered throughout this blog. My favorite of his songs after all these years is still “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”, and it was 1978 that cemented his place forever in my heart. So here’s “Rosie” from 1978:

Bruce Springsteen, “Rosalita

Punk was probably the musical movement I most loved. Patti Smith could be on this list. But my true favorites were The Clash … it’s really not even close.

The Clash, “Safe European Home

Lou Reed is in there, too … we saw him quite a few times then. The Velvet Underground belongs on this list, but as with Elvis, I don’t know where to place them. We listened to the first album all the time when it came out, and I was aware of the other albums. But it took a long time for me to realize that they were my favorite band, by which point they had long since broken up. The real favorites of the … what do I call it, post-punk era? College rock? Anyway, the favorites were Hüsker Dü. I would vote for the Velvets over the Hüskers overall, but in the context of this post, Hüsker Dü is the right choice. And my favorite of their songs is an easy choice. “So now sit around staring at the walls. We don't do anything at all. Take out the garbage, maybe, BUT THE DISHES DON’T GET DONE!”

Hüsker Dü, “I Apologize

Predating Hüsker Dü by a bit (and thus throwing off the chronology a bit, but I wanted Hüsker Dü in with the punks) was their fellow Minnesotan, Prince. He would be the frontrunner if I decided I had to pick a #2 favorite. Seeing him in a small club in 1981 ranks as one of the finest concert moments of my life. For most of the 80s, he was crucial, and he has never really gone away … saw him in concert just a few years ago.

Prince, “Uptown

Don’t think I haven’t noticed that the above are all guys. I’ve loved many women rockers over the years, going back at least as far as Aretha in the 60s. I mentioned Patti Smith earlier … and there’s Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, and more. But they weren’t my favorites the same way acts like Bruce and Prince were.

And then came Sleater-Kinney. I saw them for the first time in 1998, after Janet had joined the band and Dig Me Out was their most recent album. The first S-K song I can remember loving was “Good Things” from the second album, but Dig Me Out was and remains iconic for me, especially “Words + Guitar” and even more especially “One More Hour”. I don’t think I knew right away how much I would love them. It had been more than a decade since I truly obsessed over a new act … I was 45 years old in 1998, I had Bruce, I didn’t need more. But there was something about Sleater-Kinney. Their concerts were very interesting … I want to tell you what a great live act they were, but the truth is, I could barely distinguish a lot of the noise (Janet’s drums always came through, though). It’s the way they formed a real group out of three women with distinct personalities on stage. In the earlier years, Corin tended to be relatively calm, letting her colossal vocals do the work of expanding her presence to the audience. Janet was simply the best rock drummer since Keith Moon. Meanwhile, Carrie took care of the rock star charisma, and she had it in abundance, her bangs always in her eyes, her energy at once coiled and explosive. On record, Corin’s voice got my attention, and I had a fan’s crush on Janet’s drumming. But the fact was, I could barely take my eyes off of Carrie. They made seven albums, and all of them were good (sample: Christgau gave the albums grades of A-, A, A, A, A-, A, A). I made an S-K playlist for a friend … I ended up including more than 40 songs. The last album, The Woods, was arguably their best, as they released their inner Blue Cheer. And the concerts rolled on … over the course of just under eight years, I saw them 12 times. There was the time they played “Promised Land” on Bruce’s birthday, the many times they would man their own merch tables and I’d get tongue-tied in the presence of Janet.

And then they went on “hiatus” … that was in 2006, and I just about cry every time I think of it. By that point, I was 53 years old, and this time I was sure of it, I would never love another new act the way I loved Sleater-Kinney. “One More Hour” was the last song they ever played together … “i know it's hard for you to let it go, i know it's hard for you to say goodbye, i know you need a little more time”.

Sleater-Kinney, “One More Hour

Another woman has snuck in, though … I don’t obsess over her the way I did with Sleater-Kinney, those days are indeed probably gone. But I’ve seen her five times (the second at the Fillmore, two years after I’d seen S-K there) … she’s just about the only person left not named Bruce who can get my now-61-year-old ass to a show. Pink.

Pink, “So What

So, there’s my slightly botched timeline of my favorite musicians over the years:

  • The Yardbirds
  • Van Morrison
  • Bob Dylan
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • The Clash
  • Hüsker Dü
  • Prince
  • Sleater-Kinney
  • Pink

Comments

Phil

1. Ray Stevens
2. Guess Who
3. Beatles
4. Neil Young
5. Cramps
6. R.E.M.
7. Husker Du
8. Pet Shop Boys
9. Yo La Tengo
10. Imperial Teen
11. Wussy

A pared-down timeline, starting when I was 10, and of course it’s not that clear-cut--some go away and come back (Neil came back a number of times; Ray Stevens did not). I eliminated relatively brief obsessions--the Cramps are right on the fence in that regard--and also perennial also-rans (Airplane, Who, Dylan, Velvets, etc.)

JPK

Beatles
Frank Zappa
Doors
Allman Brothers
Steely Dan
David Bowie / Iggy Pop / Lou Reed
Talking Heads
Elvis Costello
Pet Shop Boys
Bob Dylan

My brother who is a year and a half younger than me liked the Yardbirds and Stones a lot. I had Bob Dylan infatuations going back to the '60s but he was never quite my main man until "L&T" and then mostly because no one else was available. He's been pretty good this century. Bowie, Iggy, and Lou Reed all came in a clump and led to the Velvets and Stooges as well. I should probably include Gary Lewis & the Playboys after the Beatles, but they were always overshadowed by the Beatles.

Tomás

This is so much more than a "favorites" isn't it? There's a process here that's more biographical than just evolving likes and tastes. Not sure anyone but you and a few others could read it right but the fact you can write it for yourself says more about your relationship to music than the music does, to me at least. Anyway, nice read (and listen) as always...

Steven Rubio

Thanks for the comments. Phil, your book probably got me thinking about this, so your list isn't surprising. Also fun to see Jeff's list. Tomás, you are exactly right. I started with my clearest obsessions, skipping the Beatles who belong only because I assume they belong to most people's list who are like me, so there's not much else to say. Starting with Dylan, I had an obsession with everyone on that list. My favorites are not all on there ... I was obsessed with Lou Reed, but the Velvets are my faves, and I didn't really obsess about them except through Lou. In the 60s, I loved Stax/Volt, garage bands, and, I don't know, hippie music? That would include everyone from The Band to Jefferson Airplane, I guess. All of these are favorites, but in the same way as the ones I listed. The Yardbirds were the first group where I had to have all of their albums ... of course, this was also true of the Beatles, but again, that was just assumed, everyone had Beatles albums. Astral Weeks has had such an impact on me over my lifetime that all by itself it marks Van Morrison as an obsession. No one matches Bruce for me ... The Clash and Sleater-Kinney are equal, the problem is The Clash wasn't as good at the end as they were at the beginning, while Sleater-Kinney maintained their greatness. Plus, they were on the West Coast while The Clash were in another country, so I only saw The Clash four times, but saw S-K twelve times. The greatest Clash show I ever saw was better than its counterpart from Sleater-Kinney, but there are more S-K and they were all good. For some reason, when I watch or listen to The Clash now, I might think about the loss of Joe Strummer, but when I watch or listen to Sleater-Kinney, I still get choked up that they went on "hiatus". I never saw any of the Joe Strummer or Mick Jones post-Clash bands, but I've seen the three S-K members twice each in the last few years.

Phil

It'd be fun to try something similar for movies, although that'd be impossible for me. The turnover's much faster, and I really have no recollection of when different films were at #1. My first year of university, 1979, I remember making up a list of my forty favourite films to show to my roommate. Wish I still had it...I'm thinking Jaws may have been #1, but I'm just not sure.

Steven Rubio

Was watching various videos of Son House's "Death Letter" thanks to Tomás, and I realized David Johansen/New York Dolls might fit somewhere on my list. It's hard, because there are the artists I obsessed over, and the ones I loved whether I obsessed or not. I wonder if it's a marker if I've seen someone in concert more than once. (I saw Johansen several times, even went to a Pat Benatar show because he opened ... I left before she came on.) Because we saw him so many times, because he's a fairly typical and likeable entertainer, I thought of him as The Dolls, even though time has shown me how silly that is.

Movies I obsessed over? Bonnie and Clyde is probably first, since I went to see it even though I knew I'd just gotten chicken pox (I didn't tell anyone until after I'd seen the movie). Performance, to be sure, and Nicolas Roeg in general, at least through Don't Look Now. Eventually, though, it all blends into something resembling my Facebook 50.

Phil

I could have put the Dolls on mine, too, right alongside the Cramps. They were my two favourite bands between my belated discovery of punk in 1979, and latching onto R.E.M., Husker Du, and the Replacements three years later. I only listed the Cramps because they were around and making records at the time.

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