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In the grooves, part three

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In parts one and two, inspired by the exhibit “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records” at the Oakland Museum of California History, I began revisiting the role that albums played in my life from my childhood in the ’60s until I stopped listening to the bulk of my music on vinyl in the early ’90′s. In the conclusion: Earthquakes, personal and geological.

College: 1975-79

I’d heard tracks from Bruce Springsteen’s first two records played on Boston’s FM station, WBCN, and I liked them. But, for some reason, I didn’t buy a Springsteen album until Born to Run, and even then, not until a year or so after it was released in 1975. But then something clicked and down I went into the rabbit hole of Springsteen fandom; I belatedly bought his earlier albums, and became enchanted by the cinematic story-songs and beatniks-on-the-beach vibe of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. I wore out “Rosalita” and “New York City Serenade” as I made up for lost time. So when “Prove It All Night” was released in the spring of 1978 as a teaser single for his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, I was like a stick of dynamite ready to explode.

I remember my junior and senior year of college as a blur of Bruce. I saw my first E Street Band show in May 1978, then spent the rest of the summer counting the days until he came back to Boston in September. Darkness was the first record that I instantly, viscerally, understood — the narrator’s despair at living a small life, his desperation to be his true self somewhere else, spoke to me in my circumstances as a girl from a blue-collar family, filled with ambition but not much faith in myself. I parsed every word of Darkness reviews by Dave Marsh (Rolling Stone) and Kit Rachlis (the Boston Phoenix), pieces that approached the album the way we approached classic novels in my English Lit. classes, and I knew that I wanted to write about music this way. You know how people say, “Omigod, this album changed my life”? OMIGOD, THIS ALBUM CHANGED MY LIFE.

So Much Music: 1979-81

In senior year of college, I started writing record reviews for the free music papers that showed up in record stores around town. I met a kindred soul named Holly Cara Price, a Bruce fan, poet, photographer and aspiring rock writer. She persuaded me to start writing music reviews for an unlikely publication, a feminist weekly called Sojourner. Somehow, Holly convinced the editors that their definition of “women’s music” should expand beyond Teresa Trull and Sweet Honey in the Rock (no offense to those pioneering artists), to include all strong female rock and punk voices. So we wrote about Patti Smith, Rickie Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt,  Joan Jett, even — I swear — Donna Summer’s Bad Girls album, all for a Cambridge radical/feminist/lesbian audience. They drew the line, however, at our attempts to educate our readers about Bruce. But I did learn about some amazing traditional women’s music artists, including the charismatic Ferron, who was pretty much the Springsteen of lesbian folk music. So, all in all, I think it was a mutual broadening of horizons.

When we weren’t fighting the patriarchy one Blondie review at a time, Holly and I were obsessing over Bruce together. It’s because of Holly, and Bruce, that I made my first trip to New York City for the 1979 No Nukes Concert at Madison Square Garden. That’s when I first laid eyes on Bleecker Bob’s, the legendary Greenwich Village record store, where I bought this Springsteen bootleg. Geek details: It’s pressed on red vinyl, has no credits and lists then-unreleased songs we’d later come to know as “Thundercrack” and “Bishop Danced” under the titles “Angel from the Inner Lake” and “Mama Knows Rithmatic, Knows How to Take a Fall”.

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After I graduated college, I kept my job in the campus library (the journalism offers weren’t exactly pouring in), but I continued writing for the free music papers. I was paid in promo albums, which is how I accumulated a Who’s Who of “Who’s that?” Do you remember Moon Martin? How about Horslips?  Yep, if there was a record that nobody else wanted to review, give it to the new kid. I didn’t care. I was getting a byline and trading in the crap promo records for albums that I really wanted.

And there was so much music to want in 1979 and 1980. This was as formative a period as 1970-1971. One part of me was all about Bruce. The other part was in an Anglophilic swoon over British new wave. Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces and Get Happy!!!, with their dazzling wordplay, sealed the deal on a deep admiration that has lasted through Costello’s many changes of persona and genre. The Clash’s London Calling launched a passion equal to that of my Bruce fandom; I remember buying their Sandinista! on my way to a December 1980 Springsteen show at the Boston Garden, stashing it underneath my seat and feeling like my musical worlds were colliding.

Ah, Sandinista!. This is what albums could do that CD’s and MP3′s can’t. The Clash packed an entire world, a movement, a community inside that album sleeve. Not only did the package contain three records for the price of two (including one side of dub reggae and electronica that sounds startlingly contemporary now), there was a tri-fold, punk ‘zine insert with lyrics, credits, notes and hand-drawn cartoons crammed onto every inch of its six pages. Sandinista! was a manifesto and a world-music party that you could hold in your hands.

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And then there was Chrissie Hynde . . . When I first heard the Pretenders’ debut album,  it was Tapestry all over again;  I felt like Hynde was speaking to women who loved rock and roll in our own language. Although she fronted a male band, she wrote from an aggressively female perspective, about sex, love, pregnancy, birth control, rape. The melodies were swervy and the rhythms jagged and hard, but Chrissie’s achingly beautiful voice, her singular phrasing and cooing vibrato, put her femaleness front and center. She didn’t wear dresses, though, and she didn’t flirt; she played a rhythm guitar as sharp as her cheekbones and bristled at being included in the condescending “women in rock” stories that filled the media in ’79 and ’80. Chrissie was everything I wanted and needed her to be. And the album cover shot of her in a bright red leather jacket, her kohl-rimmed eyes staring defiantly out from under Carnaby Street bangs, was, to me, the epitome of cool.

 

Rock Critic: 1981-1987

In 1981, I landed my dream gig — I was on the roster of regular music writers at the alternative weekly the Boston Phoenix. And one of the first lessons I learned there about writing rock criticism was this: Do your research. Don’t worry about looking stupid in front of a colleague for asking a question about a band or record. It’s better than looking stupid in front of your readers.

I hate to be all “Back in my day …” about it, but, do you know how hard it was to do your homework on an unfamiliar artist or genre before the Internet, before Wikipedia, You Tube, iTunes, Amazon and Spotify?  Your fellow critics were your Wikipedia and record stores were your iTunes. If the LP gods were kind, you could find the pertinent albums of any artist’s back catalog in one of the many used record stores in Boston and Cambridge. The juicier my assignments got, the bigger my record collection grew.

I loved research (still do). Artists and records that had been just names in Rolling Stone became indispensable favorites the deeper I dug. If there was a buzz around the office, I wanted in. That’s how I got turned on to Richard and Linda Thompson. I bought a last minute ticket to their show in 1982 at the tiny Paradise in Boston, knowing almost nothing about them except that they had a new album called Shoot Out the Lights and my editor was high on it. (It turned out to be their last tour — their marriage was pretty much dead at that point.) I came out of that show ravenous to hear more of their dark, droll British folk, which led me to their back catalogue, which led me to Thompson’s previous group, Fairport Convention, which led me to Sandy Denny, which led me to British folk nerd heaven. A depressing ballad elates me. A hurdy-gurdy throws me into a frenzy. I once counted up my souvenir ticket stubs and, to my surprise,  it turns out that I’ve seen Richard Thompson in concert more than any other band, more than Bruce, more than Elvis Costello. And it all started with this record.

A pile o' British folk.

A pile o’ British folk.

At the Phoenix, I became friends with a twinkly-eyed elf named Mark Moses, who was a computer programmer by day and one of the finest rock critics of his generation by night. (He eventually wrote the pop music column for the New Yorker.) Mark and I both loved bad puns, wicked gossip, lost 45′s from our childhoods and the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. We never thought of ourselves as collectors. We combed through used album stores because we were completists, hungry to hear more. We couldn’t leave a copy of a record we loved to sit unappreciated in some suburban discount department store bargain bin, even if we already owned it. It’s because of Mark that I started to appreciate Gram Parsons, Luther Vandross, Gladys Knight, the Mekons. He also introduced me to the enriching, sustaining beauty of Aretha’s gospel records and Al Green. He came up with the single funniest rock and roll pun I’ve ever heard: “Little Richard Thompson, the manic-depressive R&B-folk singer”. He died of AIDS, 25 years ago this month. I wish I had a photo of him, but who went around taking pictures of their friends before cell phones? I have the music he gave me, though. And it makes me laugh every time I look at that copy of Dusty Springfield’s A Brand New Me and see the price sticker  – he liberated it from a going-out-of-business sale at a New Bedford Zayre’s.

 

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1987-now: California Soul

In 1987, I was offered a job as the daily TV critic for the San Francisco Examiner. My husband and I figured that we’d move out to the Bay Area for a few years, make some real money, then move back to Boston and have a kid, settle down. We pruned the record collection, sold some, gave away some, but still loaded more than 1,000 records onto the moving van for the trek west. I was uncertain, having never lived anywhere but Greater Boston. The records (and my washing machine — don’t ask) were like a security blanket. I really believed that we could just pick up our lives in one place, set them down intact in another and carry on, just as if we were still living in Boston, but, you know, further west.

For the first couple of years, we lived in a kind of limbo, rooting for the Celtics from afar, hanging out with people we knew from Boston, making frequent trips back. But as much as I resisted, California got under my skin. I loved looking into the horizon and seeing mountains, not gray flatness. I loved the dreamy quality of the sunlight on the green Pacific. I loved the unfamiliar flowers and the trees that never went depressing and bare. I was weirded out at first by the friendliness of the people, who actually said hello on the street, but that, too, grew on me. As did National League baseball, the lack of weather extremes, real Mexican food and (gasp) the Grateful Dead. Gradually, the East Coast ties loosened.

One October day, I got home from the office in the late afternoon, looking forward to watching the Giants and A’s World Series game. I puttered around with Kate Bush’s The Sensual World on the stereo. And then the earth began to shake. I ran under the doorway between the living room and kitchen and hung on, while the rented, wood-framed ranch house shook around me like a chew toy in a dog’s mouth. I closed my eyes and listened to dishes rattling in the kitchen, the top-heavy album shelving thudding against the walls of the living room, and the needle bouncing on the record. When I opened them, the first thing I saw was a pile of albums, hundreds of them, all over the living room floor. I keep the ruined Kate Bush record as a souvenir of the day I really became a Californian.

Because I wrote occasional music reviews for the Examiner, I was on record company mailing lists for a long time, but by the early ’90s, they had nearly all switched over to sending CD’s. Which was fine with me, because, by then, I’d had my son and portability of music was crucial if I was going to ever have time to listen at all. We bought a house (never moved back East after all), pruned the record collection again, stored the rest in boxes in the closets. I framed some of the artier album covers – Layla is now hanging in my bathroom. (What? I never claimed to be a decorator.)  A few times a year, I would get an urge to hear something that I only owned on vinyl, but I had long since stopped buying albums.

I never considered selling my remaining records, though — too many memories. And I’m glad that I didn’t. My son has claimed a good chunk of them for his own. His generation is buying vinyl again, making their own memories to the warm sound of (to quote Elvis Costello) “every scratch, every click, every heartbeat.” The circle is unbroken, the turntable spins.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

Gerry Goffin, 1939-2014

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Their marriage was turbulent, his struggle with mental illness well-documented, but out of that volatile partnership, Gerry Goffin and Carole King managed to write some of the most beautiful, canonical songs in the gospel of pop music. Their compositions encapsulated what it was like to be young and yearning — for love, adventure or just a quiet place to dream — in New York City in the ’60s. A mix of R&B and Broadway , much of Goffin and King’s music was soul music, as felt and articulated by two Jewish kids. It remains a melting pot of shared passions and experience as enduring as New York City itself.

As Brill Building songwriters, Goffin and King composed many of the hits that shaped the girl group sound. Some listeners might bristle at the pre-feminist sensibilities of Goffin’s lyrics to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,”  “Chains” and “One Fine Day,” songs in which girls worried about landing and keeping the boy of their dreams, of standing by him no matter how possessive or unfaithful he may be. But it’s wrong to judge these songs as if they were written today, and dismiss them as sexist.  There’s a world of difference between Goffin, who lived in a “Mad Men” culture, writing, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and, say, Robin Thicke writing “Blurred Lines” in 2013.

Besides, the trembly uncertainty of a girl losing her virginity in “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” grew into aching poignance when King sang it from the perspective of a wistful and wise liberated woman on Tapestry. And when you’re listening to Aretha Franklin tearing joyfully into “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” are you really thinking, “Oh, figures, a man wrote a song about a woman made whole by love”?  Please say no.

Here are some of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s greatest hits.

1. “Up on the Roof” (originally recorded by the Drifters, 1963). Urban poetry: “When this old world starts getting me down/ And people are just too much for me to face/ I climb way up to the top of the stairs/ And all my cares just drift right into space …”

2. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (originally recorded by the Shirelles, 1961). The sexual frankness (for its time) is breathtaking. “Is this a lasting treasure/ Or just a moment’s pleasure/ Can I believe the magic of your sighs/ Will you still love me tomorrow …”

3. “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” (originally recorded by Aretha Franklin, 1967.) “When my soul was in the lost and found/ You came along to claim it/ I didn’t know what was wrong with me/ Till your kiss helped me name it …”

4. “Goin’ Back” (originally recorded by Dusty Springfield, 1966; version below by Carole King). One of those songs that hits you harder the older you get. “Now there are no games to only pass the time/ No more electric trains, no more trees to climb/ Thinking young and growing older is no sin/ And I can play the game of life to win …”

5. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (originally recorded by the Monkees, 1966). Concise social commentary in lyrics that propel  the melody forward. “The local rock group down the street is trying hard to learn their song/They serenade the weekend squire who just came out to mow his lawn …”

6. “Oh No, Not My Baby” (originally recorded by Maxine Brown, 1964; version below by Merry Clayton was recorded in 1972, with Carole King on piano and backing vocals). Goffin was famously unfaithful; he had a baby with the lead singer of the Cookies while married to King. All of which puts an ironic spin on these lyrics. “When my friends told me you had someone new/ I didn’t believe a single word was true …”

7. “Some Kind of Wonderful” (originally recorded by the Drifters, 1961). Lush romanticism. “When I’m in your embrace/ This world is a happy place/ And something happens to me/ That’s some kind of wonderful …”

8. “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad About My Baby” (originally recorded by the Cookies, 1962). Tough girls in love. Also, see “Oh No, Not My Baby,” above. “He’s true/ He’s true to me/ So girl, you better shut your mouth …”

9. “One Fine Day” (originally recorded by the Chiffons, 1963). The essence of the girl-group sound and happily-ever-after hopefulness. “One fine day/ We’ll meet once more/ Then you’ll want the love/ You threw away before …”

10. “I’m Into Something Good” (originally recorded by Earl-Jean MacRae of the Cookies, 1964;  Herman’s Hermits had the hit, also 1964). The sunny side of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”: “He walked me home and he held my hand/ I knew it wouldn’t be just a one night stand …”

And a personal favorite that Goffin wrote with Barry Mann, “Something Better” (originally recorded by Marianne Faithfull, 1969).

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

 

In the grooves, part two

Instructions from vinyl exhibition, OCMA ©Joyce Millman

Instructions from vinyl exhibition, OCMA
©Joyce Millman

In part one of this post, a visit to “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records” at the Oakland Museum of California got me thinking about the records that meant the most to me during my childhood in the ’60s up until I stopped buying vinyl in the early ’90s. This isn’t meant to be a “best-of” list, but rather, a personal history told through records. All albums pictured below are from my collection. Those who are fastidious about the condition of their vinyl might want to look away.

Pre-history: 1960 to 1964

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The copy of West Side Story, above, used to belong to my parents. I found it while going through the boxes of hundreds of albums I’ve relegated to a back closet. Inside the sleeve, I found, sans cover, the Julie Andrews-Rex Harrison Broadway soundtrack of My Fair Lady. How did it end up there?  Needless to say, both discs were scratched beyond playability. Clearly, I’m not a very good curator.

From as early as I can remember, I was listening to my parents’ show tunes albums on their blonde wood hi-fi. West Side Story, South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Kiss Me Kate … you name it and I had a song-and-dance routine ready to perform for any captive audience. How I wasn’t stuffed in a sack and dropped in the river before my sixth birthday remains a mystery.

Childhood: 1964-1969

 

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And then came the Beatles, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones. I fell hard for all of them. But until I was old enough to buy my own records, I had to get my fix from a transistor radio and Ed Sullivan. The first record I bought with my own money (Chanukah gelt? Tooth fairy?) was the 45 of “Eleanor Rigby”/”Yellow Submarine” in 1966, when I was 9. I can’t remember where I got it;  there were so many places to buy records, from five-and-dimes like Newberry’s and Woolworth’s to discount stores like Bradlee’s and Zayre’s. My corner drugstore even had a rack of records in the back next to the pharmacist’s counter.

Usually, I could only afford to buy singles — the largesse of relatives and babysitting money only went so far. My favorite source of 45s was the record department annex (entered via weird subway-type turnstile) of the old Jordan Marsh department store in downtown Boston. To buy a single, you stood at a long counter and the clerk would fetch your choice from the 45s slotted alphabetically, their titles written in black marker on long white plastic place cards that stuck out above the rack. When I was around 11 or 12, I would take the subway into Boston with my girlfriends and  spend Saturdays buying love beads and penny candy before hitting the singles counter at Jordan’s. To pass through the enchanted turnstile only to find an empty rack beneath the place holder for “Love Child” by the Supremes was like … I still can’t talk about it.

My most-played album of this period was the 5th Dimension’s Age of Aquarius. The 5th Dimension were an elegant pop-soul quintet — two girls, three guys and all amazingly fashion-forward — who were a favorite of Ed Sullivan. They’re often lumped under “easy listening” now, but you have to admit, they had impeccable taste in songwriters; their long string of Top 40 hits included songs from Jimmy Webb (“Up, Up and Away”), Laura Nyro (“Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Wedding Bell Blues”) and Ashford and Simpson (“California Soul”). I played the Age of Aquarius album constantly;  as an 11-year-old in 1969, I was fascinated by the title medley of “The Age of Aquarius”/”Let the Sunshine In” from the hippie musical Hair, which I was too young to see. So I thank the 5th Dimension for allowing me to fly my freak flag in an age-appropriate way. Also, for turning me on to Laura Nyro and Jimmy Webb long before my critical sensibilities kicked in. The variety and quality of what was on the charts during this whole period of AM-radio-driven pop music history still blows my mind. (The “Age of Aquarius” video below is audio only, but this is what the record sounded like to my 11 year-old ears.)

A word about equipment

I can’t remember exactly when, but I seem to have acquired my own record player in the mid-’60s. I have vivid memories of playing my 5th Dimension album on a rectangular red and white portable plastic phonograph; it had a carrying handle and a turntable that was the size of a 45, so when you played an album, it would hang off the sides.  There was also an AM radio in it. This record player was my most beloved possession. I don’t remember the brand or what became of it when I got a real stereo with a turntable and speakers for my 13th birthday. But I can close my eyes and picture The Age of Aquarius and my Monkees records wobbling on that tiny turntable. I can almost hear the tinny scritch of “I’m a Believer” coming out of its speaker. I tried Googling portable record players of the era to find a picture of mine, but the closest I got is this Columbia model made for the Japanese market, which has become quite a collectors’ item, I guess. I’m sure my record player was a knock-off of a knock-off; it definitely didn’t play upside down (and, believe me, I would have tried). But it looked very much like this. Can anyone help identify my record player?

 

Hormones: 1970-1971

It happened overnight. Puppy-eyed Davy Jones was no longer man enough for 13-year-old me. In his place ambled a more grown-up type of heart-throb, a sensitive singer-songwriter dude, with patched jeans and hippie hair, singing of broken hearts and wild worlds, hinting of darker pain. At pajama parties with my girlfriends, we’d play James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Deja Vu and rank the guys in order of cuteness. Usually, James Taylor won. But a young girl’s heart is fickle. Yes, that is a mustache drawn on Sweet Baby James.

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But not even James Taylor singing “Fire and Rain” could top the saddest, most sensitive hippie-hunk of them all. Behold, the greatest rock-opera ever recorded. My Broadway geekiness reawakened, I spent many hours in my room singing my heart out (quietly) to “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and wishing I was Mary Magdalene. For a Jewish girl, this felt very daring.

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1970 was a big year for big albums. Jesus Christ Superstar was a double record set. But the soundtrack to the movie Woodstock was a triple. Just as I had been too young for Hair in 1969, I was too young to actually go to Woodstock. This was a source of much frustration as I plunged deeper into my wannabe-hippie adolescence. I received the Woodstock album for Chanukah, 1970;  I was so eager to open the shrink wrap to get at the live Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tracks inside that I sliced three fingertips on the side of the sleeve, resulting in wicked paper cuts. In hindsight, I’m not sure it was worth it.

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Back to the hormones … Looking through my albums, I realize that 1971 was a pivotal year. My musical tastes, driven by maturing sexual curiosity, were changing. The tender singer-songwriters had given way to full-on, howling golden gods, testosterone-dripping guitar-rock, whammer-jammer dirty blues. These are a few of my best-loved records from that year.

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I was also listening to Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, the Faces’ A Nod Is as Good as a Wink to a Blind Horse and the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (of course). This music was dangerous and sexy — not that I knew all that much about sex. In the ’80s, when Tipper Gore went on her nutty campaign to put warning stickers on albums, I thought about myself at age 14, swooning over Robert Plant and Mick Jagger, thrilling to the dirty mysteries of black dogs and midnight ramblers. I’m grateful that I was permitted a Tipper-free puberty.

Who Am I?: 1971-75

I was listening to a lot of albums made by men. Sometimes, there were female backup singers, but more often, women existed on these records only in the lyrics, as gin-soaked barroom queens or ethereal muses with love in their eyes and flowers in their hair. I was boy-crazy, for sure, but deep down, I knew the women those boys sang about were not me. Where did I fit in? Was there a place for me in the rock and roll paradise of my imagination?

It’s hard to convey exactly what Carole King’s Tapestry meant to me when it came out in early 1971. Here was a woman who didn’t look like a rock star — no make-up, unruly hair, imperfect features, perched on a window seat with a cat in sun-dappled serenity. She (co-)wrote the songs, she played the piano, she sang in a white-girl soul voice that made up in immediacy and longing what it lacked in polish. Though King was singing about subjects that were years beyond my experience (marriage, breakups, balancing career and family), the female-ness of Tapestry spoke to me. I understood that King was working out her place in the world, just as I was, even if she was further up the road. I was looking for a possibility of the woman I wanted to be, and Tapestry (and later in 1971, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and the following year, Bonnie Raitt’s Give It Up), were my guides. I played the hell out of Tapestry, so much so that when I pulled it out of the box a few years ago, the scratched disc fell through the disintegrating cover. I replaced it with the CD, which is why there’s no photo.

But as much of a rock and roller as I was, old habits die hard. The inextinguishable Broadway trooper in me was just a teeny bit obsessed with Liza Minnelli, who was at the height of her career after starring in the movie version of Cabaret. I was very into the soundtrack album to Liza with a “Z”, a (still awesome) TV special from 1972. I used to hang out on the front porch with the boy next door — who was as big a Liza fan as me — and we would reenact the show, song for song, in all its Bob Fosse-sway-backed, jazz-handed glory. Every lyric, Liza-ism and audience interaction on this record is burned into my brain. If you ever need a Liza impersonator on short notice, I’m your girl.

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Throughout high school and continuing into my first two years of college,  I listened to music constantly, and I read the record and concert reviews in Rolling Stone, Creem and the two local alternative newspapers, the Phoenix and Boston After Dark. I was picking up the vocabulary that would later allow me to write about music for a living. And that was my nascent ambition — to be a rock critic. But as many records as I bought, I didn’t really have an absolute favorite artist. I wanted to feel passion and inspiration but, instead, I was strangely adrift.

Until I heard this album.

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More to come …

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

In the grooves, part one

 

©Joyce Millman

©Joyce Millman

I recently visited an exhibit about “the sound and culture” of vinyl, as in record albums. It was mounted by the Oakland Museum of California, a wonderful and feisty museum that I adore and that really needs your support, so please go see its eclectic wonders sometime. The vinyl exhibit was set up in one large room with a half dozen turntable-and-headphone listening stations and numerous milk crates of albums “curated” by notable Bay Areans like author Michael Chabon and music journalist Sylvie Simmons. Each crate featured a written blurb explaining the story the curator intended to tell through the records. Some were personal lists of albums that meant something to the curator at various milestone moments of his or her life. Others attempted to track genres of music from a California angle, from folk-rock to L.A. punk to Oakland hip-hop. The idea was that the visitor could flip through those albums, listen on the turntable and maybe hand the second pair of headphones to someone else so they could  share an old fave or new discovery.

The problem was, to get the full story of any curated crate, you would have to hog a listening station for the duration of 20 albums. Because in the heyday of vinyl, artists created and people listened to and talked about rock albums as a whole, as a thematic work. It’s certainly the way people still listen to jazz and classical records. Yes, there were singles released from albums, but they were teasers for the greater story the album told. To stand at a listening station and only play “Hot Burrito #1″ from The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin, or “Idiot Wind” from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, or “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” from X’s Los Angeles, is to hear only a frustrating fragment of the story. Ironically, the listening stations simply enabled, in analog form, people to consume music the way they do in digital form: one song at a time, often at random, downloaded with no album context.

I visited the exhibit on a Sunday, but it seems like Friday nights and Saturday afternoons are the better way to go, when DJ’s and guest speakers play records to the room and talk about the music and about collecting. That’s a great idea, to bring people together as a community to share and think about recorded music. I wish that communal aspect had been better represented in the standing exhibit.

I also wish that, instead of having the albums in crates and record-store bins, there had been an installation of what, say, 1,000 record albums looks like on shelving. Without that, visitors who don’t collect records or are of an age where they missed the vinyl era entirely, have no sense of the physical, palpable challenges that come from storing and displaying a large collection of 12″X12″ albums. It’s no joke; my friend Milo Miles had to move because the floors of his rented apartment were bowing under the weight of shelf upon shelf of albums. The visceral impact of what it was/is like to live with this unwieldy art form could have been more strikingly communicated.

The exhibit’s overall effect on the Sunday I visited — the beanbag chairs in the middle of the room, the “sleeve face” selfie station, the detailed operating instructions on the turntables, the “pick 5 albums that tell a story and write them down on a postcard” station — reminded me of an interactive exhibit in a children’s museum. Except that most of the visitors were middle-aged folks who seemed pretty happy amid the nostalgic jolt of coming across albums they once owned, before they gave them all away to Goodwill and bought a CD player.

Am I being a crab? Probably. My family and I did have fun digging through the crates. And I have no doubt that, because of this exhibit, someone will visit their local record store in search of an old album they heard at one of the listening stations, or to buy the new St. Vincent on vinyl rather than download it. There’s nothing bad about that.

I guess I just expected more from the exhibit, when, in reality, I should be doing a better job of appreciating my own vinyl collection. I have a closet full of albums, hundreds of them, winnowed down from the 1,000+ that moved to California with me in the ’80s. Once upon a time, I had the furniture in which to store and display these albums, purpose-built record cabinets and shelving that lined the walls of the living room and my office. But when we moved to our current house, we gave away the cabinets and stacked the albums in alphabetically labeled boxes, in the big closet in the den. There they remain, among the extra blankets, old jackets and scrapbooks.

My millennial son made off with stacks of my records, which he listens to on a suitcase phonograph; his interest in vinyl and in album cover art seems in line with the vinyl renaissance among his peers. But while I still have my old turntable in working order, I don’t play my albums as much as I should. I’ll admit it: I do most of my listening on CD or iPod while I’m driving, cooking or working out. But whenever I do play a record album or old 45, that warm, flawed, scratched and popped quality of sound (I’m not an audiophile, far from it) takes my breath away. There is nothing more immediate and intimate than that sound; it makes you stop whatever else you’re doing and LISTEN. There is no multi-tasking while a record is playing. It’s all about the music.

A while ago, I got the urge to hear Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. I don’t own a digital copy, and when I dug out and played the album, all the tactile and cerebral pleasures of listening to records came back to me. I opened up the gatefold sleeve and got lost in the lyrics (deciphering the teensy lyrics on CD’s, if they’re even included, requires getting up to find my reading glasses), and in Norman Seeff’s icily beautiful black and white photos of Joni in black, skating on a snowy pond, the embodiment of the album’s themes of female independence, artistic isolation and solo flight. Inspired, I went looking through the other boxes and found albums I forgot I owned, and albums that were constant companions in my youth, and albums whose covers were held together by now-brittle Scotch tape. It was like unwrapping a mountain of Christmas presents inside a time machine.

In part two of this post, I’ll open up the closet and put together my own (virtual) exhibit of records that mean something to me. For now, take a look at a Pinterest board of my favorite album covers. (Click “See on Pinterest”.)

 

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

Record Store Day, the updated list of releases (as of April 1, 2014)

 

The Boss has two exclusive new releases for Record Store Day!

The Boss is represented by TWO exclusive new releases for Record Store Day!

In no particular order:

CHRIS MARTIN, GOOP ON THE TRACKS. The Coldplay frontman’s heart-wrenching first solo release, inspired by his uncoupling from Gwyneth Paltrow. Includes the epic “Tangled Up in Goop.” Pressed on compostable vinyl.

KANYE WEST AND KIM KARDASHIAN, WEDDING ALBUMA Record Store Day exclusive! Kim and Kanye prove that they’re more than just “Kimye” with an album of stunningly avant-garde experimental music. Side one consists of the couple calling each other’s name for 22 minutes. Side two is a 30-minute extended remix of Kim’s dance classic “Jam (Turn It Up).” Comes packaged as a souvenir wedding album containing a photocopy of the couple’s gift registry, a temporary tattoo of the Vogue cover and a coupon good for 20% off the Kardashian Collection at Sears. The deluxe picture disc version (first 500 pressings) illustrates the scene from the “Bound 2″ video where they have sex on a motorcycle.

VARIOUS ARTISTS, WORKING ON A DREAM:  SOME OTHER SONGS OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. A star-studded lineup interprets the songs that were left off of all the previous Bruce Springsteen tribute albums. Artists include Arcade Fire (“Queen of the Supermarket”), Mumford and Sons (“Outlaw Pete”), Robin Thicke featuring Pharrell and T.I. (“Reno”) and the Kidz Bop Kids (“Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”).

ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE KLEZMATICS, ALMOST JEW. He’s made a country record, written a classical ballet score and, most recently, recorded a hip-hop album with the Roots. Now, just in time for Passover, Elvis Costello breaks another musical boundary in a bold collaboration with Grammy-winning Yiddish music masters, the Klezmatics. You don’t have to be Jewish to dig these Klezmerized reworkings of some of Costello’s greatest songs — but it helps if you like clarinets!  The Seder table will be rocking to tracks like “Hebrew National Ransom,” “This Year’s Mohel” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Unleavened Bread.” Produced by T Bone Burnett’s cousin, Shank Bone.

VARIOUS ARTISTS, YOUR MOTHER AND I ARE SEPARATING. If you want to hear the hottest bands around, as curated by New York club legend Stefon, I know just the record for you. This album has everything:  Diarrhea Planet, Bear Hands, Bosnian Rainbows, Quilt, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, Leprechauns with Hep C, Furtlenecks, Hoomba, Yeti-Cab, A Shaved Lion that Looks like Mario Batali, Human Fanny Pack, DJ Baby Bok Choy, Teddy Graham People, Donald Duck Having a Vietnam Nightmare. Pressed on Ecstasy-flavored vinyl.

DESITIN’S CHILD, BOOBYLICIOUS. The long-awaited debut 12″ from second-generation superstars Blue Ivy Carter and North West! The baby-ladies bring it with their sassy dance hit about needing mommy’s breast milk — RIGHT NOW! Backed with the DJ Baby Bok Choy remix featuring British rapper Li’l Prince George.

THE LUMINEERS, YOU ARE GETTING VERY SLEEPY. Seventy minutes of “Ho Hey” on one limited edition CD. Rolling Stone calls it “hypnotic white noise.” Pitchfork hails it as “sonic Propofol.” The Better Sleep Council says, “Guaranteed to cure even the toughest case of insomnia.” Comes with exclusive Record Store Day eye mask.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, STUFF I FOUND ON A FLASH DRIVE IN THE GLOVE COMPARTMENT. The Boss continues to delve into his vast cache of unreleased material for this Record Store Day exclusive. According to the Springsteen-penned liner notes, the four-song EP came about when “I was eating a Doritos Locos Taco Supreme in the car (don’t tell Patti!) and I needed a napkin, so I opened up the glove box and – whoa! There it was! Half of a Subway foot-long Meatball Marinara! And this flash drive.” The four tracks are: “Love at the 7-Eleven,” “Outlaw Pete Comes Back,” the “Laverne and Shirley” theme song (recorded live at Miller Park in Milwaukee, WI in 2003) and a cover of “Shaddap You Face,” the 1980 chart-topper by Australia’s Joe Dolce, recorded in Springsteen’s dressing room at the Melbourne arena on the E Street Band’s recent Australian tour. “I would have opened the show with it,” writes Springsteen, “if the band hadn’t locked me in my dressing room.”

DAFT PUNK, IT’S THE MOTHERSHIP, CHARLIE BROWN. The long-awaited reissue of the robotic duo’s soundtrack album for a Peanuts special that never aired. The storyline for the special was no great departure from the successful formula of previous hits like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown – the Peanuts gang doesn’t believe Charlie when he says that the end of the world is nigh and they must all prepare for the arrival of the aliens. So why was it never shown? Well, as any schoolchild could tell you, CBS was forced to cancel the show just two days before the scheduled broadcast, when the human race was attacked by extraterrestrial destroyer ships hovering over the White House and every major city on Earth. Network bosses deemed the timing of the special “too soon.” The soundtrack album, however, went on to achieve modest success in France, while Daft Punk continues to enjoy a long reign as Our Supreme Robotic Overlords, long may they prosper, die humans die.

(Record Store Day is Saturday, April 19 — for real. Head to your local indie record store and check out this year’s  special vinyl releases and celebrate the joy of buying music in a form that you can hold in your hands.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

On women writing about music

As a woman who has written about pop music since the days when people who wrote about pop music were called “rock critics,” let me add my two cents to the discussion that began with Sarah O’Holla’s adorkable blog, “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection.”

In case you’re smart enough to enforce Internet downtime in your life and have no idea what I’m talking about, O’Holla, who works as a librarian and is not a professional music critic, is reviewing all 1500 albums in her husband’s record collection, in alphabetical order. (Her husband, Alex Goldman, is a producer for NPR and a major music geek.)  The blog blew up this week across the Internet and while a lot of people like it, some women music writers have lamented that the premise of the blog is inherently sexist, in that it reinforces gender stereotypes about music geekdom being the domain of men, and that the acclaim for O’Holla, who is a self-proclaimed know-nothing when it comes to deep knowledge of music, is a form of gender bias in itself. Meaning, male music geeks would happily read the musings of a non-threatening novice who knows less than them, whereas women who write about music professionally are perceived as a threat to their manhood that must be crushed.

As the original debate was cooling, Jezebel posted a piece called “Oh, the Unbelievable Shit You Get Writing About Music as a Woman,” in which music writer Tracy Moore approaches the O’Holla blog uproar as a jumping off point to detail the creepy and deeply sexist comments, behavior and threats she has been subjected to in her career. There is currently a robust sub-discussion online stemming from that piece, in which women music writers have been sharing their own similar stories of sexism and gender bias.

I’ve got my own battle scars from my career as a music and TV critic. Before I air them, here’s the thing, though:  I don’t think that the existence of “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection” devalues women who write about music professionally. It’s one blog from the viewpoint of one woman and maybe it got some attention for the wrong reasons, but it is not going to negate every serious piece of music writing ever written by women. We need to stop the self-victimization and stop looking for gender bias in this blog. It’s simply not there. Look, some — definitely not all — male music writers and fans are going to try to mansplain to us. It’s what they do. It doesn’t invalidate our opinions as women music writers. It just means that they’re jerks. Ignore them and keep at it. Writing well is the best revenge.

Allow me to set a spell in my rocking chair and reminisce about the days when I was coming up in the music writing world. This was the late 1970s, early 1980s. At the time, music writing was truly a boys’ club, with few women I could look to as rock critic role models. Ellen Willis, Ariel Swartley, Janet Maslin. Lisa Robinson and Sylvie Simmons. That’s about it. My mentors and editors in the music writing field were all male. And somehow, even in those prehistoric days, I was never made to feel lesser, stupid, objectified or that my opinions were undervalued. If it were not for Kit Rachlis, Milo Miles, Dave Marsh and Mark Moses, I would not have had a career. They were my champions and they treated me as an equal. Was I just extraordinarily lucky?  Maybe so. It’s depressing that some young women writing about music today feel so unwelcome in the job and the scene that they love, are subjected to more open sexism and flat-out workplace harassment now than I was then. We’ve gone backwards and I don’t know the answer to this problem, except to keep fighting for equality.

Look, I encountered my share of asshole guys in the music writing community. But I contented myself with the knowledge that I could write circles around them with one hand tied behind my back. And while I interviewed a lot of male artists, I can only think of one who directed a sexist remark at me.  The readers, on the other hand, were another story. The majority of the letters I received were from from male readers, and they were sexist, gross and hurtful. Oddly enough, I was never called a whore or a groupie, but “dried up feminist bitch” used to come up a lot. (The fact that I was married seemed to piss readers off too; what that has to do with credibility as a music writer, I don’t know.) I was not well liked, let’s put it that way. Maybe I was ridiculously naive, but I looked around at my male colleagues who were also getting hate mail, and I just figured, “Eh, it comes with the territory.” In most cases, it was clear that the vitriol I received from fans and bands always stemmed from and was, at bottom, directed at the “harshness” of a review, not simply at me for being a girl. And, it needs to be said that not all of my hate mail came from men. Some of the loudest complainers were women that I had written unfavorable reviews about. Fun fact:  The performer who got me dropped from the roster of freelancers at Rolling Stone was not a guy,  it was a right-on, sisters are doing it for themselves woman. Imagine that.

Here’s the other thing:  Women writing music criticism today need to know that piggy comments from male readers are not reserved solely for women music critics. When I was a TV critic, I was subjected to comments that were a million times more explicitly sexual, sexist, gross and hurtful than any that I received as a music writer. ( I even got a death threat once as a TV critic — a TV critic! — that was serious enough to be turned over to the FBI.)  The Internet was, in this respect, the worst thing that ever happened to critics of any field and gender, music, film, TV, male, female, LGBQT, whatever. Commenting, and trolling, is oh so easy now. Which is why you should NEVER READ THE COMMENTS.

I’ve had a lot of awful shit thrown at me by readers in my career as a critic, but, at the same time, I know male critics who have been torn apart by readers in similarly non-productive and hurtful ways. So this is the lesson I’ve taken away from all of this:  It’s not that I’m a woman, it’s that I’m a critic. Nobody loves critics. If you expect blanket approbation of your critical writing, you are in the wrong field. Certain people are so insecure that they are threatened by strong opinions that differ from their own, whether they are expressed by female or male writers. But you must remember that the stronger, more confidently your opinions are expressed, the bigger a target you will be. Wear that target proudly.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

Breaking up with my celebrity crush

selma

Jeff:  I need you to go into my house, okay, go up to my bedroom. To the left of the TV, there’s a cabinet by the bookcase there. Open it up, move the linens in there, move ‘em to the side, push on the back door, and it’ll open up. Inside there, I have, like, seven, eight porn tapes. A couple of magazines, all right?  I need you to get ‘em out of there. You gotta get it out of there, because if something happens to me …

Larry: Oh, you’re thinking, like, the anesthesia, something goes wrong …

Jeff:  Anything goes wrong…

Larry: So in case you die, you don’t want your wife to discover your porno stuff.

Jeff:  She doesn’t understand that.

– Curb Your Enthusiasm, “Porno Gil” 

In the beginning, when there is only blind infatuation, you never think of the detritus. You never think that someday, all of this will end and you will be overcome with revulsion over your folly.  And then you will sit on the floor with your head in your hands and wonder what the hell you were thinking. And how the hell are you going to dispose of the evidence of your 10+ year-long celebrity crush, an obsession catalogued by a pile of crap for which you once paid top dollar on eBay, but is now so worthless on the open market, you can’t even give it away.

If I were to walk outside right now and get hit by a bus, this is what my loved ones would discover when they sift through my belongings:

A four-drawer filing cabinet, one-and-a-half drawers of which is devoted to the aforementioned celebrity crush, crammed full of newspaper clippings, magazines, foreign newspapers and magazines, stacks of 8X10 glossy press photos and I don’t even know what else.

A bookshelf filled with choice finds pertaining to the career of celebrity crush, including script books, unauthorized bio, weird random memoirs by other celebrities in which crush is mentioned and movie tie-in novelizations.

Two shelves of movies on DVD and (woe is me) VHS, and another of bootleg tapes and DVDs from European sources and homemade stuff taped off the TV.

A book-on-tape, read by celebrity crush. I don’t even have a machine to play it on anymore.

An autographed photo that someone obtained for me, that isn’t even autographed to my correct name.

Three movie posters, rolled up in the closet.

Four action figure likenesses of celebrity crush, one of which remains sealed in its original package (the only items in this absurd collection that I actually wouldn’t mind keeping).

I deleted all the fan fiction in a pre-surgery panic, like Jeff on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a few years ago. So, that’s something.

I know you’re probably wondering why I let this happen. The truth is, I don’t know. I wasn’t unhappily married, sex-starved or a hoarder. Maybe it was menopausal hormone wackiness. Maybe I needed a hobby. Look, the “why” of it is not important. Neither is the “who,” so don’t ask.  My problem right now is “how”. How do I get rid of this stuff?

Most of it can’t just be dumped in the trash. Have you tried to get rid of a video tape lately?  They are among the least recyclable objects on the planet. Even my local library has a stern “ABSOLUTELY NO TAPES” sign next to its donation bin. I’d burn them, but it would probably destroy what’s left of the ozone layer. I suppose I could make it all Goodwill’s problem, but that seems like the coward’s way out. Yard sale? I would rather die than identify myself as the owner of nine cassette tapes of obscure BBC radio plays of the 1980s and a borderline gay-porn indie film that the former object of my admiration not surprisingly leaves off his resume. Why does a spring cleaning of the soul have to be so embarrassing?

When you’re in the throes of celebrity crushdom, you feel giddy every time you gaze upon your temple of spoils. It’s your obsession made tangible. But when you finally snap out of it, you see that it’s just a big, stupid pile of shame. And it’s not even cool shame! I once owned every issue of 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat from back when I was a kid in love with Davy Jones. Could I not have had the foresight to save those?  At least that bundle of vintage pop artifacts would have been an adorable reminder of my youthful innocence, unlike this albatross of midlife insanity I’m now saddled with.

And it kills me that the dregs of an inexplicable passing fancy live on, while my collection of Springsteen tee shirts … oh, now here’s a sad story. I safely carted my precious E Street Band tour tees (going back to 1978!) on a cross country move, but 16 years later, when we moved three streets over, I somehow left them in a big green garbage bag in the garage and moved a big green garbage bag full of car-washing rags instead. I didn’t discover the mistake for months, and by then it was too late.

I still mourn the loss of my Born in the USA tour sweatshirt. Come to think of it, there was a sweet Grateful Dead-themed tie-dyed Lithuanian Olympic basketball team tee in that bag, too. And a Clash “Sandinista” shirt. And a My So-Called Life tee shirt distributed to TV critics, with the show logo on the front and handwritten messages from the cast and crew on the back. Claire Danes! Jared Leto! Gone, all gone. And yet, my pile of shame remains, mocking me, eternal as nuclear waste.

Breaking up with a celebrity crush is not like breaking up in real life; when the spell is broken and crush leaves you feeling nothing but queasiness, you can’t just tell him to pack up all of his lousy possessions and go. So, to anyone having a dreamy little thing with a celebrity, I advise this: Keep it dreamy, like, entirely in your head, because once you start accumulating actual, physical memorabilia, you are so screwed.

Oh, and if you can guess the celebrity who inspired my pile of shame, you’re welcome to (almost) anything  from it. But I’m keeping the action figures, and you’re paying the postage.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

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