It’s all in the ear of the beholder, isn’t it? For a blues hound, a guilty pleasure might be ZZ Top. If you’re a soccer mom, maybe it’s 50 Cent or Kanye West. For classical music buffs, it could be anything composed after the 18th Century.
For me, it’s really quite simple… Given that some of my friends and family members are a little nutty about American roots music, it’s usually anything that would make these music snobs recoil in horror if I admitted that I own it, much less listen to it.
In the movie Office Space, a computer-programming Michael Bolton calls his more famous namesake an “ass-clown” – then tries to ingratiate himself with a couple of soulless consultants (the two Bobs) when he tells them that the other Bolton is “pretty good.” In one of the movie’s best moments, the first Bob then confesses, “I celebrate his entire catalog.” So basically, a guilty pleasure is like admitting you’re a bit of a Bob, or even worse.
OK, I don’t think I’m quite there yet. But I’d rarely put the entire contents of my iPod (21,000 songs and counting) on shuffle in mixed company, because I never know what kind of crazy shit will pop up. Just the other day, I nearly drove into oncoming traffic when my iPod segued from Coltrane to Coldplay – mainly because I couldn’t find the advance button on my steering wheel.
Recently, I connected with an old friend from college. We quickly shared notes on stuff we’ve been listening to – turns out both of us are addicted to Sixties jazz – then we started talking about albums we couldn’t do without back in the Seventies. It got even better when we compared our expansive playlists of songs from the era.
Both of us listed the obvious culprits: the Rolling Stones, Taj Mahal, Joni Mitchell, the Allman Brothers Band, the J. Geils Band, Bob Marley, Little Feat… then things started to get a little more debatable, with forays into blooze-rock limbo (Humble Pie, Foghat, Savoy Brown), prog-rock purgatory (Yes, Genesis, the Moody Blues), and glam-rock hell (David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music). Now I enjoyed listening to the latter dreck back in the day, just like any other self-respecting stoner, but it’s hard to slap on the Pie’s Rockin’ the Fillmore or Yes’ Fragile today without a healthy dose of ironic detachment – the old wink-nod, as they say. And god help the ass-clown who whips out The Best of Bread.
Most of my guilty pleasures probably fall more into the category of cocktail music, and I can probably blame college life for this too. Back when I was struggling to graduate from Ohio University (see my earlier post on “Guns, Drugs, Money and Vinyl…”), I fell in with a few misanthropes who had lost the will to rock – probably the result of spending countless hours during our teen years in front of huge banks of PA speakers, head-banging to the Pie. We were searching for more sedentary pleasures involving smoking jackets and cocktail dresses (from Goodwill, of course), mixing high-balls in front of the hi-fi, and slow-grooving to Frank and Dino.
Yeah, I know… it’s a tired cliché. But it worked for us at the time. And we somehow convinced ourselves that we weren’t turning into our parents, mainly by throwing a few contemporary artists into the mix. The clear favorite? Robert Palmer… blue-eyed soulman Robert Palmer, that is – not the guy who hit the jackpot on MTV with his backup band of supermodels. (Back in the Eighties, one’s preference regarding the two Palmers seemed like something worth arguing about… today, not so much.)
Anyway, Palmer put out a few albums in the Seventies that seemed to us like unabashed love letters to the cocktail culture – particularly “Pressure Drop” and “Double Fun.” Since then, I’ve discovered the obvious pleasures of reggae legend Toots Hibbert, which makes it even more difficult to listen to Palmer’s cover of the Maytals’ "Pressure Drop." But some of the stuff on these records holds up surprisingly well, in an earnest, pseudo-soul kind of way. Just don’t toss out any Marvin Gaye to make room for it on your CD shelf.
As I grew older, I abandoned any pretense of being “relevant” and started celebrating the catalogs of other artists from the original cocktail set. And I’ll thank the movie Big Night for giving me a greater appreciation of Louis Prima and his sultry sidekick, Keely Smith. The movie is really an extended riff on “Waiting for Louis.” In short, a hapless entrepreneur and his brother, a master Italian chef, bet that their fortunes will change when Prima pays a visit to their struggling restaurant (he never shows up, but the party goes on without him). It’s also a commentary on the age-old struggle between elitists and “philistines,” as the chef – wonderfully played by Tony Shahloub – likes to call diners who don’t appreciate his carefully prepared seafood risotto.
I certainly was familiar with Louis Prima before I saw the movie. You had to be if you spent any amount of time in an Italian neighborhood. But I used to think of him more as a jokey purveyor of novelty songs (Just a Gigolo, Angelina/Zooma Zooma), as opposed to a real player, with a first-rate band run by New Orleans R&B badass Sam Butera. For hard evidence, check out "Oh Marie" from the Big Night soundtrack.
Louis Prima and snobbery – cultural, musical, culinary, you name it – are just two of many topics covered on Treme, HBO’s new series about post-Katrina New Orleans. I’m getting a little tired of the show’s constant trashing of tourists, the very people who help keep the city afloat. And I’m still hoping to find one character I actually like. But the music alone makes Treme worth watching. In one episode, an especially annoying DJ portrayed by Steve Zahn refuses to play any of the old warhorses – like "Iko Iko" or "Walkin’ to New Orleans" – during a fundraiser for his radio station (you'd be hard-pressed to find more self-righteous blowhards in one program). Instead, he sits back and savors the joys of a less-obvious choice, Prima’s "Buena Sera." A nice moment, musically speaking – but not exactly what I’d call “sticking it to the man!”
There’s really no moral to my story, other than this: With a little time and the right context, one man’s garbage can turn into the same man’s gold. Or vice versa. And if you visit New Orleans, don’t be afraid to request "Iko Iko."
At the risk of losing my mail-order degree in ethnomusicology (and your attention), I’ll leave you with a few more of my guilty pleasures:
- Reggae Pulse 2 Hit Songs – Jamaican Style: Reggae versions of Motown and soul hits like "Just My Imagination," "Ain’t No Sunshine" and "Papa Was A Rolling Stone"… Beats the polka covers.
- Dolly Parton – "Jolene": Honky-funk?
- Ramsey Lewis Trio – "The 'In' Crowd": It’s a real toe-tapper, daddy-o!
- Junior Brown – "Venom Wearin’ Denim:" Sometimes the name of the song is all you need.
- Dazz Band – "Let It Whip:" The Bucket Shop was the ultimate den of iniquity in my hometown, Akron. When this song started playing at glass-shattering volume, you’d just blown right past the point of no return.
- Greg Allman – “Laid Back”: The Voice of Southern Rock croons over big, orchestral arrangements. Hey, give the guy his Sinatra moment!
- Mahavishnu Orchestra – "The Dance of Maya:" Head-banging for nerds, in a time signature I couldn’t even begin to identify.
- Robert Gordon: Reheated rockabilly… But when your guitar players are Link Wray and Danny Gatton, who cares?
What are some of yours? If you prefer to send them anonymously, don’t worry… I’ll only share your true identity with a few friends and family members.