(some of) the music of my life.

Pitchfork‘s 5-10-15 feature offers artists the chance to talk about the music of their lives, five years at a time. Here’s my headphone journey, five years at a time. I tried to find songs from that specific age, songs that serve as a hyperlink to then, not necessarily my favorite songs of all times–just of those times. So a lot of what I love that’s not here: no jazz, no country, no hiphop, no R&B. What is there shows how blessed we all are for a life enriched by music.

5: I’m old enough to remember when a home stereo was a piece of furniture, a large one. Ours was about the length of a couch, a sensible brown woodgrain cabinet, with a gently lifting lid. Inside was a radio dial, a compartment for about twenty albums, and a turntable.

Parents of five-year-olds in 1974 probably fed their children a steady diet of Carole King, Elton John, James Taylor. Jim Croce, etc. I didn’t grow up with any of that. When I was a freshman at UT Austin, two of my friends teared up at a diner when James Taylor came on — I looked at them like they were from Mars and sneered, “Doesn’t heroin usually lead to good music?” But I digress.

The turntable at Casa Garza in 1974 usually had Eydie Gormé y Los Panchos on. If you’ve been sung to at a Mexican restaurant, you’ve probably been sung to like Los Panchos did — tight harmonies, intricate fretwork, soaring choruses, big finishes. That makes me tear up. “Piel Canela” is a really catchy upbeat song, a love song that’s joyful. It took me years to recognize that Eydie Gormé’s accent wasn’t great, but then again, I’ve always had a thing for Jewish girls.

10: Sometimes after soccer games on the weekend, my parents would take us all out to have a hamburger. There was a jukebox at the place. Around this time (1979), you’d see non-disco acts pulling disco into their bag of tricks. I really like disco. I’m really persuaded also by those revisionist music historians that see a not so subtle homophobic / white supremacist strain to disco haters.

The Doobie Brothers were hippies, the kind of musicians that Jim Henson was thinking of when he assembled the Electric Mayhem. “What a Fool Believes” isn’t really their sound, but then again Hotel California isn’t really the Eagles’ sound. It’s a hit. It’s catchy and bouncy. It has a buncha guys singing really high harmonies. It has a pre-chorus and a chorus. It has a bangin’ piece of modulation in the second verse that introduces a subtle but noticeable high descending keyboard line that you didn’t know the song needed. There’s no guitar solo — and at the end, it’s just Michael McDonald riffing through the fadeout.

If I saw them live, I’d have been very tempted to bootleg them for that song alone.

15: I’m going to have to work sometime soon on how David Byrne shaped me for good. Sometime in high school, I began taking on my own musical tastes and not just leaning on my siblings’ impeccable musical choices. Talking Heads was a gateway into a whole lot: Contemporary bands with similarly angular sounds, the possibilities of blending art & music, of blending Africa & America, the realities of a rock band as a kind of art project, the fact that a drummer could do away with the ride cymbal altogether, the fact that there’s a loopy beauty in / to suburban spaces. Talking Heads also introduced me to Brian Eno’s vision and Eno introduced me to worlds and worlds.

This song, though, is the end of a kind of era with Talking Heads. This is their third & final album with Brian Eno producing. I’ve always loved when a band sounds like one big instrument, but I’m always disappointed when the band I love no longer sounds like that band. I get growth, I get experimentation. I am disappointed for the bassist I love, disappointed for the drummer I love on a song like this where the whole thing seems hijacked by the singer-songwriter-genius & the producer-genius.

It’s organic & programmed — hand claps looped, shakers & Fairlight beats, spoken word & studio trickery, panning from speaker to speaker in whizzing flurries. A single bubbling of escalating pings, an echoing that dies abruptly.

And then a voice — not singing, but speaking. A story about change & regret, or regretting change or changing from regret. Or something else.

20: I was one of those Gen Xers whose musical tastes got blown away by Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and David Byrne, bringing back sounds from their travels–sometimes for their own stuff, sometimes for a compilation album. That’s how I ended up in the world beat bin at Sound Exchange on the corner of 21st & the Drag my freshman year at UT Austin. The B-Boy stance of the cover got me, and I bought it without knowing a single song, artist, or even the label.

I never understood the words, and I’ve never looked them up. I could have picked any song on The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, and I chose this one. They’ve all got close rich harmonies, they’ve all got guitar work that is of another world, both rhythm & lead, support & countermelody all at once. And every now & then Mahlathini comes growling in for a verse. Every voice in place. Enduring lesson: Every instrument a rhythm instrument.

25: There is music that makes you smile, and there is music that makes you smirk. Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks work both kinds well. Their instrumentation (circus organ, saxophone, sousaphone, sometimes banjo) harken back to when entertainment was gas lit, when performers used greasepaint, when the man at the mic wore tails and knew how to make you laugh between songs. This live video, although not of the original band, gives you a sense of what it was like way back then, between rock shows that I saw a couple of times a week. Steve Carter sings with no vibrato, no front guy “filter”, no performing tricks –– like Sade, like Chrissy Hynde, like many of my favorite singers, he sings about like he talks. And his lyrics always make you feel like you’re in on a joke and like you’re smart to laugh. Here, he retells the temptation story in Genesis with Frank Sinatra as the hip but justice-dispensing God. 

30: Yo La Tengo is a band that, for much of their catalog, breaks down into two kinds of songs: feedback driven lengthy Velvet Underground inspired space jams, and sensitive Velvet Underground inspired love songs. They include a married couple (the singer/guitarist, the drummer/sometime singer); they’re renowned for their Hannukah shows. They have a couple of albums that are titled with complete sentences, a creative decision that I love in any genre. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One is their pinnacle, I think & Pitchfork thinks. On I Can Hear, the balance of movements and sounds, the arc of the album, the packaging and the moment all came together perfectly. “Green Arrow” is five minutes of countrified calm in an album  that is lovely and noisy.

35: Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her is “late” mature Almodovar. Like so many of his movies, it’s a thoughtful & transgressive movie that celebrates full-contact relationships, human bodies, and art in all forms.

Michelle found a theater that was playing it — she’d already seen it but knew I’d really love it. It was about forty-five minutes away. We were the only two in the theater. Caetano Veloso sings “Cucurrucucú Paloma”, a song I knew first as a big brassy mariachi song. I had discovered Caetano through David Byrne’s seminal Beleza Tropical anthology of Brazilian music from the 70s & 80s, music that blended samba with rock & funk. I wasn’t prepared for him to take on this Mexican song, for him to move through it with such languid grace, for the cello to take center stage in a way that made me teary-eyed & woozy, and I looked over at Michelle and knew that, if I stuck with her and kept myself from doing anything really stupid, I’d have moments like this throughout my life. The rest of the movie is amazing but not nearly as good as this few minutes.

A few weeks later, for Valentine’s Day, Michelle & I each got each other the same gift–the soundtrack to Talk to Her–attached to the same non-Valentines card from the same store. Really.

40: I’m recognizing the further I get into this playlist that it’s the playlist of my desk, of my work, of my walking, of my thinking, of my writing. The drive to school is DJ’d by my kids; the soundtrack of my school gym is DJ’d by the coaches there; the soundtrack in class is DJ’d by the students. What remains is a space I recognize as meditative, a compass pointed toward thought and silence. Music that’s almost not music –– lyrics removed, verse-chorus-verse-bridge-etc patterns vanished, an aural mind set. The sound of deep, and sometimes brave, thinking. In this case again, a cello holds the place that in pop music is reserved for the rhythm section. Emerging from the waves of that resonant deep long-bowed line, like a light rotating and fading toward an away from the listener, is a woman’s voice. Beckoning? Encouraging? Enchanting? It’s one note, not even a word. It’s enough. 

45: Spiritualized is not a band of subtle gestures. Big guitars, big suffering, big choruses repeated dozens of times loudly (like here at a show I saw in 2019). They emerge from a kind of acid rock group that I loved, but which developed in Spiritualized into a sound with soul. This song, however, is as one of their album titles suggests, pure phase. Voiceless looped keyboard figures, building & building, never letting up. Every couple of minutes into the song, you can pick up a new color, a new pattern, each time convincing yourself that this is the main line. 

50: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians entered my collection sometime early in my twenties. I don’t know who recommended it to me. I never put any of it on a mix tape. I’ve never listened to it with anybody. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve listened to it probably once every three days for decades. There have been entire months of my life when I’ve listened to nothing but this album. This is the first time that I’ve written about it or talked about it. Really.

It’s an austere title and a challenging idea — a mostly instrumental album but with voices deployed as sounds rather than word-vessels, rather than melody centers; an on-the-surface mercilessly repetitive album that reveals even on the first listen a variety of colors & tones, dynamics & movements, motifs & threads. Depending mostly on breath & wood, focus & perseverance, it sounds downright mechanical, like gears moving in varying rotations against & with one another. A classical piece challenging in its relentless non-swinging rhythmical patterns, it is a virtuoso ensemble piece, not a piece to support virtuosos. For 18 musicians, its most dramatic moments depend on single non-flashy entrances (of chimes usually) and abrupt exits (of woodwinds usually).

It still fills me with wonder. All of this music does.

10 responses to “(some of) the music of my life.”

  1. OMG – I love this stroll through your musical mind. I’m going to return to it and listen more the ones I’m not familiar with. AND I want to hear more about your Bowie connection.


  2. Wow! I checked out Pitchfork and have now entered the way back machine to remember the music from my childhood. I remember 10-year-old me being a huge fan of Jim Croce and being devastated when he died. “If I could save time in a bottle” is a favorite.


  3. Joel, you’ve created an incredibly immersive experience by including the links. The texts feel like liner notes to a life in progress. A look back while also helping the reader appreciate all the shaping happening in the background – makes for a powerful mentor text as a gentle and artistic on-ramp for memoir writing.


  4. I am both astonished and inspired by this. It is both personalky revelatory and majorly nerded-out musically, which is a pretty sweet spot for me. So much going on here. I love the structure.

    And reading the most 5 year olds in 74 section out loud to my spouse made us both giggle . You fall in age between us. His parents probably wouldn’t be familiar with the artists you mention – the 8 tracks at his house would have been solidly country at the time. My parents record collection of that time period was horrifying. Heavy on the James Last…..


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