Music for a desert island

The BBC 4 radio program “Desert Island Discs” turned 70 recently. If you’ve never heard of “Desert Island Discs,” the show features famous people talking to an interviewer about the eight records  (not ten — maybe it’s a British thing) with which they’d like to be shipwrecked on a desert island. According to the exhaustive “Desert Island Discs” website (you can read the lists of every castaway’s choices, and stream most archived episodes),  Helen Mirren’s life would not be worth living without “Pass the Dutchie” by Musical Youth,  while “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford held great emotional resonance for Princess Margaret.  Beethoven’s No. 9 Symphony in D minor is very, very popular;  “We Are the World,” by USA for Africa … not so much. (Well, at least Archbishop Desmond Tutu likes it.)  And George Clooney chose William Shatner’s version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” because, as he explained, “If you play William Shatner’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” you will hollow out your own leg to make a canoe to get off this island.”

When “Desert Island Discs” first aired on January 27, 1942, the concept was pure whimsy. How could you listen to records on a desert island?  Poppycock!  Nobody knew that it would one day be possible to carry thousands of songs around on a tiny, battery-powered gadget in your pocket.  But that gadget in your pocket would eventually run out of juice, so let’s forget about technology and plausibility and focus on the contagious quality of the “Desert Island Discs” concept.  Music fans, music critics, compulsive list-makers, record store geeks (file under High Fidelity) — who can resist playing the game?

In 1978, Greil Marcus edited Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, an indispensable anthology for anyone who cares about great critical writing, in which the premier rock critics of their day  (or any day) contributed essays about the one album they would take with them to a desert island. And these critics held nothing back, because music writing back then was an all-in proposition. Your taste in music defined you. And so choosing THE ONE album that you could never tire of hearing, even if it was the only music you would ever hear for the rest of your life, was  a serious proposition.

The writers of Stranded  declared themselves with hearts on their sleeves and blood on the tracks:  Ariel Swartley on Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle;  Lester Bangs on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks; Paul Nelson on Jackson Browne’s The Pretender ; Ellen Willis on The Velvet  Underground. These essays read like the writers’ lives depended on getting their choices right. And for a dash of  humor, there was Dave Marsh’s essay “Wanker’s Delight (Onan’s Greatest Hits),” a mock-academic compendium of the Top 10 songs about pleasuring oneself,  which you’d have a lot of time to do on a desert island.  Think about it:  Isn’t the act of making a Top 10 list, with its calculations about which songs are hard-wired into your circuits to produce maximum pleasure, just another form of wanking?

A recent and worthy addition to the desert island disc genre comes from an unlikely source:  actor Sam Neill’s blog. Neill, the star of  such films as The Piano and Jurassic Park and Fox’s new J.J. Abrams-produced TV series Alcatraz, is one of the most knowledgeable and entertaining music fans (and accidental critics) around. He’s also a winemaker in New Zealand, growing and selling under the Two Paddocks label. Neill and his winemaking staff have been compiling lists of  Top 10-personal-music-faves for a few years now on the Two Paddocks blog. Neill’s own lists of R&B and New Zealand music (written under the name “The Proprietor”) are first-rate. He has also called on famous friends, like Marianne Faithfull, Stephen Fry, Toni Collette,  Ian McKellen,  Jorge “Hurley” Garcia and Alan Rickman, to contribute lists, and some of their choices will knock you out.

Of course, there’s a certain amount of voyeurism involved in reading about which songs are on a celebrity’s iPod, and a certain amount of satisfaction  in knowing that, oh, let’s just say, Alan Rickman, for instance, loves “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and “Dancing in the Street” as much as you do. But, back to Sam. If a guest gets it wrong, Neill can’t help himself, he has to chime in:  when someone put  “Kokomo” on her list, Neill wrote, “No, No NO NOAAHH, oh god … you chose the Beach Boys, bless you, but you chose the ONE certifiable stinker they ever sang!”  Neill is 100 per-cent music geek. In another life, he would be running a used record store.

Since I am not famous enough (or, come to think of it,  at all), my chances of  appearing on “Desert Island Discs” are nil. I don’t have any connection to Sam Neill, either, unless you count my compulsion to watch The Piano every time it’s on cable. And, alas, Stranded was (slightly) before my time.  But, like every music critic/ geek, I have been making and re-making my desert island Top 10 for practically my whole life. Drum roll …

Joyce’s Desert Island Top 10 (not eight, no matter what the BBC says, because it’s just too weird)

1. “Waterloo Sunset,” The Kinks. For a song that is sung from the point of view of an agoraphobic, “Waterloo Sunset” surrounds us with the visceral sights and sounds of a magnificent city alive with the gorgeous swirl and flow of humanity. Ray Davies never  leaves his room in the song, but it doesn’t matter;  it’s enough just to look out his window. The message of “Waterloo Sunset” is that a sense of belonging is as much a function of  your  imagination as it is of geography.  When I first heard this song in my teens, I had yet to set eyes on that “dirty old river … rolling into the night”, but I knew I needed to get there.  And years later, when I finally stood on Waterloo Bridge and watched the sun set on the Thames, I was in paradise.

2. “Be My Baby”, the Ronettes.  It’s tender and tough. It’s sugar and sex. It’s Ronnie’s hiccup of a voice standing her wobbly ground in a Phil Spector hurricane of sound. It’s the greatest single in rock and roll history.

3.  “Dancing in the Street”, Martha and the Vandellas. I had no idea that this song made some white folks nervous in the summer of 1964.  I was 7. All I knew was that they were dancing in Chicago, way down in New Orleans, in New York City. And I wanted to go there and dance with them.

4. “I Say a Little Prayer”, Aretha Franklin. Dionne Warwick had the hit, but Aretha’s soaring, gospelized version shows us that this greatest of all Burt Bacharach-Hal David ’60s love songs really is a prayer.

5.  “Prove It All Night” (Roxy 1978 live bootleg version), Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.  When I got the chance to write about my favorite album of all time for a feature on Salon.com, I chose Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.  The critic in me feels compelled to tell you that Darkness is Springsteen’s transitional masterpiece about escape and the price of freedom. And that the studio version of “Prove It All Night”  is as tough a rocker as the E Street Band ever recorded. And that, in concert on the Darkness tour in 1978, Springsteen started fleshing out “Prove It All Night” with a long, mid-tempo piano and guitar intro, and an ecstatic guitar freak-out on the back-end.  And that this version is the essence of the E Street Band’s power and tightness, and of the way Springsteen uses the stage to reinterpret, transform and experiment.  But, the fan in me just wants to say that Darkness pretty much sums up the world I come from. And that seeing Springsteen live for the first time in 1978 profoundly changed me. And that after listening to Springsteen every day of my adult life,  there is no frickin’ way I’m going to a desert island without him.

6.  “Tangled Up in Blue”, Bob Dylan. As many times as I’ve listened to this song, I can’t figure out its chronology, its time frame, even the perspective from which it’s told.  I feel like I could listen to this song forever and still not be sure that I’ve untangled it. Lucky for me, I’m stuck here on this island with a lot of time on my hands.

7.  “Wall of Death,” Richard and Linda Thompson.  The title refers to a gravity-tempting fairground attraction, in which a motorcyclist  rides inside the walls of a cylinder:  “You can waste your time on the other rides/ This is the nearest to being alive/ Let me take my chances on the wall of death.”  Leave it to Richard Thompson, that poet of stark reality, to see the beautiful metaphor for living life to the fullest in a phrase that conjures grisly doom. With Richard sounding almost jaunty and Linda singing sprightly harmonies, you would never know they’d be divorced within a year. But that’s the point:  Shit happens, so take a chance while you’re still breathing. I need this song. I listen to it at least a couple of times a week. It’s cheaper than a therapist and you can dance to it. (Note:  I can’t find a video of Richard and Linda doing “Wall of Death”. This video is a good, full band concert version from one of Richard’s late-80’s tours. That’s Christine Collister doing the harmony — a fine singer, but not Linda.)

8.  “Valerie”, Patti Scialfa.  With three flawless but largely overlooked albums to her credit, Scialfa is one of the most underappreciated singer-songwriters working today. She writes grown-up love songs and tough-tender confessionals about being a woman following the rock and roll dream. Her silky-gritty voice is a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ soul, at once vulnerable and direct.  “Valerie,” the centerpiece of her debut, Rumble Doll, is my favorite Scialfa track. It’s an aching portrait of loneliness and yearning; the narrator is a woman abandoned by her true love, who wants to follow him to Mexico but winds up stranded on this side of the border in a carnival town whose landscape drips with loss and painful memory: “And I rode the coaster there on the fairground/ The twisted backbone of a beast that never heals/ And I left some skin on fortune’s wheel.” Scialfa sings the song with a quiet, mournful sweetness, a honky-tonk angel cast out of heaven and unable to find peace back down in the dust.  Unfortunately, Patti Scialfa videos are hard to come by, and You Tube yielded no “Valerie”. You’ll just have to buy the album.

9.   “I Met Him on a Sunday/ The Bells”,  Laura Nyro and Labelle.   I haven’t been without a copy of Gonna Take a Miracle, Nyro’s album of R&B, girl group and doo-wop covers with Labelle, since it was released in 1971. “Laura Nyro” was a name on the songwriter credits of all those Fifth Dimension singles I listened to as a grade-schooler (“Wedding Bell Blues,” “Blowing Away,” “Stoned Soul Picnic”). But then I hit adolescence and discovered Nyro’s own work (thanks to WBCN in Boston), and I fell in love with her.  She was bohemian and mysterious; she had this amazing voice and she got to hang out with Labelle  (tough black girls!), and sing the girl-group songs I secretly thought were really cool.  This medley starts with a hand-clapping, finger-snapping a cappella version of the Shirelles’ song, then folds into the lush, swooning ballad originally done by The Originals (a male Motown group). Listen to how Nyro and Patti LaBelle’s sopranos swoop and flutter around one another on “The Bells”;  it’s like a soul diva version of the “Flower Duet” from the opera Lakme.  If you’ve never heard Gonna Take a Miracle,  track it down. You’ll fall in love too.

10.  “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine”, James Brown.  I am ashamed to say that I took the roundabout route to James Brown. He first made an impression on me through his disciples — Mick Jagger’s snake-hipped dancing, Robert Plant’s orgiastic screams, Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m just a prisoner of rock and roll” stage routine, Prince’s, well, everything.  It seems that I was a JB fan without knowing it. So now when I’m in need of a funk infusion, I give the Godfather his props and go straight to the source.  I’m gettin’ down!  I’m superbad!  I’m takin’ it to the bridge!  I’m stirrin’ the risotto!  No, seriously, I’m stirring the risotto. I like to listen to James Brown while I’m making dinner.  Don’t judge!

So what’s on your desert island list?  Comments, please.

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2012

10 thoughts on “Music for a desert island

  1. Richard Cobeen February 10, 2012 / 3:12 pm

    I sent here by Milo Miles and I am so excited. I’ve been an admirer of yours since you were the TV critic for the SF Examiner.” You and Walters and Sragow made for the best pop culture coverage ever is an SF daily.

    • joycemillman February 10, 2012 / 4:11 pm

      Thank you! That Examiner Arts section was something very special, lightning in a bottle. I’m proud to have been part of it!

  2. jose louis February 10, 2012 / 6:33 pm

    jose louis

    Dammit! The last thing I need is another blog to keep up with, but this is so much fun. That risotto line sealed it. I’m still chuckling. For my triannual outings, I’m also seriously in need of a clever nom de drag, so I hope you expand that roster. Something between Snow White Trash and Joan Jett Black. Oh, and a woman who’s also a list freak — I’m in love.
    Props to Milo Miles for pointing the way.

    • joycemillman February 10, 2012 / 10:31 pm

      Awwww, thanks. I’m glad somebody shares my weird obsessions and sense of humor. Yes, props to Milo, my editor from the old days at the Boston Phoenix. One of the finest critics and loveliest humans I know!

  3. Not. Milo. Miles. February 10, 2012 / 7:14 pm

    So, Joyce, what’s your take on Nyro without Labelle? Can’t remember you ever said.

    • joycemillman February 10, 2012 / 11:02 pm

      Love her! The first couple of albums with “And When I Die,” “Eli’s Coming”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, etc., is mindblowing when you consider how young she was. It’s amazing that they were such massive Top 40 hits for other groups, considering that some of those songs were just plain eccentric, musically and lyrically. And then there was the whole other side of her, the non-Top 40 “New York Tendaberry” stuff, which was very beat poetess, which I dug too, and of course, the Labelle album. She basically did whatever she wanted to do, and walked away from fame. I respect that, but the result was that hardly anyone nowadays knows her name. She got a bit too self-indulgent and crunchy for me in the latter part of her career, when she came back, but I’m totally fascinated by her.

  4. Not. Milo. Miles. February 11, 2012 / 10:48 am

    (I always thought “Eli’s Coming” and “Mama Told Me Not To Come” had the exact same frequency of anxiety.)

    Have you heard that live album “Spread Your Wings and Fly”? How is it?

    Nyro suggests a true modern folk performer to me — city kid, not yet buried and blurred by mass media, whose sources were showtunes, the Brill Building and Motown along with all the pre-rock pop forms. A bit like Nellie McKay nowadays.

    • joycemillman February 11, 2012 / 11:40 am

      Haven’t heard that album. But, yes, a folkie, you’re right. Didn’t she actually sell “And When I Die” to Peter Paul and Mary (!) when she was first starting out? I should listen to Nellie McKay.

      • Not. Milo. Miles. February 11, 2012 / 5:15 pm

        McKay’s debut and the Doris Day tribute are wonderful albums (she even has her own mode of rap that’s just right for her). The Doris Day is particularly brilliant because it argues that, if you don’t include all the obvious, corny cliched numbers, she was far more classy and sassy than people remember.

  5. Not. Milo. Miles. February 23, 2012 / 12:10 pm

    Joyce, you should check out that live Nyro album. It was recorded during one of the farewell series of concerts when the Fillmore East closed in 1971. I was a little put off at first when I saw it was only Nyro and a grand piano, but the tapes were in crappy shape apparently and a fuller band would have presented many more challenges to fixing them. As it is, the sound is rich and detailed and I don’t hear any crud-ghosts in the remastering.

    The emphasis is just right — on the Gonna Take a Miracle material. The program includes two songs not recorded elsewhere, both minor. Nyro’s feeling for soul has never been more evident. And her connection with numbers like “Spanish Harlem” and “Up on the Roof” is, well, just something you’re not going to find any more.

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