I have an assignment! I want all of hearingade’s writers to post a mix of songs that define who they are. A musical autobiography of sorts. I’m thinking somewhere between 8-12 songs should be good. No rush on it. … But eventually, I’d like all of our personal mixes on the site so people can get a feel about who we are and whatever.
So spake Abby, mistress of this here blog, in an email to her minions last week. No problem, right? Except when you’re asked to pick eight to twelve songs that define who you are, you wind up lopping off your own fingers so you can preserve the thumb.
I don’t know that I’m any closer to a definition of myself through this process, except in the Nick Hornby “you are what you like” sense. And even that’s incomplete; in the great bucket of water that is what-I-like, this doesn’t even amount to a teardrop. What it best represents is songs I’ve wrestled with, in my head — they led me to think about them more deeply than other songs, because they appealed to me on some level that is either primal or intellectual, and demanded my engagement. Or they’re a moment in time, crystallized in song, as Rob Sheffield spelled out in his memoir Love Is a Mix Tape … not so much “you are what you like” as “you were what you heard.” There is no “story” of me in these songs … well, okay, there’s one, maybe one and a half. But they’re my songs nonetheless.
This mix was boiled down from a starting lineup of seventy. (That’s 70.) A list of castoffs is at bottom. The total seventy is still not even a thimbleful in the bucket — I’m a complicated man; no one understands me but my woman. So what Abby did was make me turn around to face myself, scalpel in hand, prepared to amputate. And even then I never had the nerve to make the final cut — my mix ended up with not twelve but fourteen songs, just like Paul Westerberg.
Schoolly D — Who’s Schoolin’ Who?
An attack, a nervous foot on the accelerator, a muscle memory. This song jumped up from the 1990 soundtrack to A Matter of Degrees — an indie film about indie rock that nobody saw but whose music cues circulated on tapes through half a million colleges — and latched onto me like a facehugger.
Bobby Byrd — I Know You Got Soul
The best James Brown song James Brown didn’t sing. The separated-at-birth edition of “Sex Machine,” It’s a showcase for his band and for his right-hand-man Bobby Byrd, the soul icon who should have been. Hip-hop listeners will recognize it as the basis for De La Soul’s “You Got It” with Butta Verses, among many other sampled gems.
Dusty Springfield — I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face
Dusty can’t wait, but she’s sure putting it off as long as she can, musing about what to expect when she breaks it off with her beloved. Will he cry? Or will she, and is that why she’s being sort of Hamletish about it? I actually discovered “I Can’t Wait” (composed in 1964 for Pat Thomas, recorded by Dusty three years later) in an ass-backward way, diving through Saint Etienne’s “Nothing Can Stop Us” to find this song sampled for its core.
Van Morrison — Wonderful Remark
Not the overproduced, horn-clotted version found on the 1983 soundtrack for The King of Comedy, but the rare gem preserved from a 1972 Saint Dominic’s Preview session and finally released on the 1998 compilation The Philosopher’s Stone. The cuts on The Philosopher’s Stone, unreleased for years, are transitional points for Morrison — many recorded as his voice was wavering from tenor blues screamer to the foghorn rumble he’s aged into today. He’s simultaneously at his most vulnerable and his most adventurous on these songs, no longer fully in command of his vocal instrument but determined to sing his piece. This one catches that instant when a turn of phrase slaps you about the head and makes you awaken to some truth or possibility you’d willfully left unseen. It’s the Zen master lovingly thwacking the student with a cane. I love it.
The Velvet Underground — What Goes On
This song was playing the first time I had sex. I don’t know that I need to say much more except that the story of the song — a man trying to understand his lover’s mind and finding himself lost within it — is the story of every love song that’s worth a damn.
Nina Simone — Ain’t Got No … I Got Life
Nina interpreted this song from Hair any number of ways; I own four of them. This one is my favorite, ripped from the YouTube video below. (Speaking of hair, love hers.) I’ve never encountered it anywhere else, and it’s precious to me.
Roy Acuff — Wreck On the Highway
Oldtime country gospel meets a MADD public service announcement, and the bereavement leaves an ache. One can only hope the slain were carried home on the wings of that Great Speckled Bird.
Neil Young — Cortez the Killer
That factor heard in Neil Young’s best songwriting, the part where the balladeer seems to come unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim, was noted at length in Jimmy McDonough’s biography Shakey. The liner notes of Decade disclose that this, along with “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down By the River,” were all written during the same spell of 100-plus-degree fever. It feels like that kind of dream.
John Coltrane — The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Famous story: Coltrane tells Miles he’s having a hard time finishing solos to his satisfaction; his spirit wants to soar on and on. How does one conclude a saxophone solo? Miles, laconically: “Take the horn outta your mouth.” Coltrane has taken me everywhere and I love the man deeply, but I’m with Davis: I cannot abide his 19-minute cosmic suites, the ululations that take up entire sides of LPs. Give me his craft in the service of a pop gem like this one, and it’s the next best thing to beatification.
Hound Dog Taylor — Let’s Get Funky
This song is …. just a glorious fucking mess.
New Duncan Imperials — Good Men Are Pukin’ Tonight
Chicago novelty-rock act the New Duncan Imperials had a lot more to offer than just the shtick of their straw hats and blue tuxes, and I was always sorry not to see them go bigger, even nationwide. And now, with the withdrawal of their drummer (who was also their de facto booking agent), it appears they never will. But this song is truth.
13th Floor Elevators — I Had to Tell You
Whom is Roky Erickson addressing here? His lover? His God? The well-documented voices in his head? It could be one of those stealth religious tracts, like “You Light Up My Life” — a pop hook with Jesus working the reel. Doesn’t matter. The singer finds peace when he listens to that still, small voice, and all is well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
(Bonus Track!) The Jaynetts — Sally Go Round the Roses
“‘Sally Go ‘Round the Roses’ — dangerous. Fuck. That’s a wild record. Hey, you take that song, put that with any Dennis Hopper movie, I think you’ll have somethin’.” — Neil Young
(Bonus Track!) The Beatings — A Responsible Person
The Boston group’s full-length Holding On To Hand Grenades appeared in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. I discovered it in the shell-shocked months after that, and this song — about group action for change, the horrors that inspire it, and the excuses we make to avoid committing to it — was an electric tonic. It’s still needed today.
Songs that didn’t make the cut
Los Abandoned, “Van Nuys Es Very Nice”; Ryan Adams, “Nuclear”; Asobi Seksu, “New Years”; Basement Jaxx, “Take Me Back to Your House”; Bishop Allen, “The Monitor”; David Bowie, “Queen Bitch”; Neko Case, “This Tornado Loves You”; The Clash, “Safe European Home”; Cloud Cult, “When the Water Comes to Life”; The Crystal Method, “Smoked”; De La Soul, “Eye Know”; Del Tha Funky Homosapien, “Burnt (feat. Hieroglyphics)”; Digital Underground, “Doowutchyalike”; Fairport Convention, “Matty Groves”; Gnarls Barkley, “The Last Time”; Guided By Voices, “Tractor Rape Chain”; John Lee Hooker, “I’m Bad Like Jesse James”; Howlin’ Wolf, “The Killing Floor”; Hum, “The Scientists”; Humble Pie, “30 Days in the Hole”; Justice, “D.A.N.C.E.”; LCD Soundsystem, “Someone Great”; Ladytron, “Destroy Everything You Touch”; Jens Lekman, “Maple Leaves”; Lindsay Lohan, “Ultimate”; The Long Winters, “Cinnamon”; George McCrea, “I Get Lifted”; The Meters, “Chicken Strut”; The Minutemen, “Take Our Test”; Missa Luba, “Sanctus”; Mountain Goats, “Dance Music”; Naked Raygun, “Coldbringer”; Neutral Milk Hotel, “Holland, 1945”; Okkervil River, “Black”; Pink Floyd, “Fearless”; DJ Quik, “Change Da Game”; Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, “Tramp”; Josh Ritter, “Wolves”; Rondo Brothers, “Take Me Back (Halfby of the New School Mix)”; The Roots, “Here I Come”; DJ Shadow, “Organ Donor”; Smog, “Drinking At the Dam;” Sparks, “Eaten By the Monster of Love”; Spoon, “Dracula’s Cigarette”; Bruce Springsteen, “Tunnel of Love”; Stars, “The Night Starts Here”; The Tallest Man On Earth, “I Won’t Be Found”; Thin Lizzy, “Whiskey in the Jar”; The Troggs, “With a Girl Like You”; Uncle Tupelo, “Still Be Around”; Velella Velella, “Alex Boom Selector”; Muddy Waters, “Sugar Sweet”; Weather Report, “Black Market”; Wrinkle Neck Mules, “Liza”; Wu-Tang Clan, “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'”; Yo La Tengo, “Sugarcube.”