1. Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan — Yeah, I know. Safe choice. Old choice. Predictable. As marbeleized into the collective Top Ten as Citizen Kane is on movie lists — mine as well as God knows how many others. So what?s the big deal?
I defend both selections the same way: show me something more interesting, more captivating from beginning to end. It always comes down to incandescence. Show me something else that you can never get to the bottom of, with more fascinating depths. Chances are you’ll be able to come up with something on your own list — that’s what lists are for — but I likely won’t be convinced. In my case, Blonde on Blonde will always have the past on its side. Through hundreds of listens, it has never gotten old, and it very often gets new.
I started listening to it as a poor freshman in college, because I had read such a list somewhere (I think Pete Knobler, from the long-deceased and not-much-mourned Crawdaddy was the impertus). I borrowed the double-LP from a friend, checked out a centuries-old classroom record player from the school library, and recorded it on a little Panasonic cassette recorder I had gotten for Christmas. Told you I was poor. I still have this tape somewhere and listen to it in nostalgic moments, if only for the ambiance; my 18-year-old self, in a dorm room on a late Friday night, as I recall, can be distinctly heard mixing a glass of tea somewhere in the middle of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
I soon found myself listening to it every afternoon, for a lot of reasons. High on the list was trying to figure what “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” was really about, and what all those wild images of smoked eyelids and grandpa shooting a fire full of holes and Shakespeare in the alley added up to, and whether Texas medicine or railroad gin would get you through the weekend better. There was also a theory floating around at the time that the song was only punning on Mobile, Alabama, and that the singer was actually comparing his own life to being an out-of-balance figure in a hanging mobile. Probably nonsense, but I liked reading that kind of thing back then, and I’ve always been a sucker for the spiritual and intellectual suggestiveness of the seemingly banal. Then I wondered what “Visions of Johanna” was about; actually, I think I spent a long time trying to decipher the words — I may have graduated before I learned that the line that troubled me for so long was “The night watchman flicks his flashlight and asks himself if it’s him or them that’s insane.” And what’s the deal with leaving those Arabian drums by the sad eyed lady’s gate?
Every Bob Dylan album is full of these fascinatingly obscure questions, opaque observations, and puns where you aren’t sure about the joke, and it may be forever before the clarity of a given line suddenly jumps out at you — but it still does, to this day. With Blonde on Blonde there was, also, the music, which was effortless and playfully spontaneous, not unlike great jazz. I still get a terrific kick from the dynamic piano on “One of Us Must Know,” or the interplay between Al Koopers keyboard and either Kenneth Buttrey’s or Richard Manuel’s drums on “Memphis Blues Again”– those guys seem to be having their own party.
So was their leader, who as always was following his own tune. In a great year for music, in which the Rolling Stones would release Aftermath and the Beatles would release Revolver, Dylan topped both with an album that starts off with a pair of throwaways: “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35″ and “Pledging My Time.” Granted the first was a hit, braying Threepenny Opera horns and all, but I’m fairly sure no one ever calls out the second in concert. There are a couple of other tunes on the record I more or less endure: “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” and “Obviously Five Believers.” But that’s often the deal with great albums or great anything: they usually aren’t perfect. Artistic glory is sometimes a byproduct of headlong excess, of too-muchness, of a reckless imagination. Despite its lows, Blonde on Blonde delivers an embarrassment of highs. “Visions of Johanna” is an elliptical Waiting for Godot narrative with High Romantic touches (“the ghosts of electricity/Howl in the bones of her face.”); “Memphis Blues Again” is a surreal road trip, “I Want You” and “Just Like a Woman” are gorgeous love songs, “Fourth Time Around” is a cinema verite account of a nasty break-up and a somewhat dicey reunion, and “Sad Eyed Lady” is one of those enigmatic masterpieces in Dylan’s canon where he can’t seem to stop adding verses, each of which peel away at a mystery and add to it at the same time.
2. Moondance, Van Morrison — Van the Man made a lot of fantastic records, has written many great songs, and possesses one of the purest rock voices in history. As far as his records go, I suspect that it mainly comes down to choosing one of two classics, Astral Weeks and Moondance, or possibly a third, Into the Music. Astral Weeks is a gorgeously spiritual work, and whenever I play I like to listen to it all the way through — it’s not a record for skipping around. You have to give yourself an hour to it and let Morrison’s soaring vocals, the brilliant arrangements and the first-class musicianship (especially the bass playing of Richard Davis) just wash over your senses. When Morrison says “we are going to heaven,” you believe him. It is also a record, song for song, of highs and lows, not so much artistically as in mood and melody: every other song is tuneful, while the rest are more meditative. The album weaves them together that way: long and distended, short and brisk, melodic and not, heaven and earth.
On Moondance, Morrison harnesses the occasional longeurs of Astral Weeks into traditional song format, and creates a perfect album as well as a great one: ten excellent songs, and as soon as one is over, I can’t wait to hear the next. If the liner notes by his then girlfriend, Janet Planet — which, by the way, are so sappy I’ve never been able to finish reading them — are any indication, Morrison wrote the album while deeply in love, and it appears to have brought out the best in him. From “And It Stoned Me” to “Moondance” to “Crazy Love” to “Into the Mystic” to “Come Running” to “Glad Tidings,” I can’t think of another album that is such a start-to-finish joy.
3. Forever Changes, Love.
4. 1969, Velvet Underground. “Good evening, we’re the Velvet Underground, better believe it,” says lead singer Lou Reed to a sleepy crowd at some Texas dive. “Glad you could all make it.” He sounds a little happier than they are, and tries to rally them with a little schmooze: “We saw your Cowboys today. They never let Philadelphia even have the ball for a minute. It was 42 to 7 by the half. You oughtta give other people just a little chance. In football anyway.”
So begins this extraordinary two-disc set, culled from live performances throughout the band’s next to last year, only a little less unfamous than when they started. We hear them charging ahead through a four-year catalogue of great songs that never got airplay and road-testing some new ones slated for Loaded, the forthcoming studio LP that will prove to be their last. But where the best live albums have a highly-charged crowd as part of the listening experience, the Velvets’ audiences don’t quite seem to get it. Their claps are lame, and forget hoots and hollers — this band doesn’t even appear to have a core group of fans. Maybe the audience is stoned, maybe they’re indifferent, maybe they’re deaf. Here is a band that has arrived, and no one is there to greet them.
Strangely, to this date 1969 is likely the least known of the six official records from the band’s glory years; presumably for copyright reasons, it wasn’t even included on band’s five-disc Peel Slowly and See box set. Recorded on a home tape deck, the sound is definitely lo-fi, and Reed’s vocals at times are almost swamped beneath his and Sterling Morrison’s blazing guitars. If you notice this at all, you not only get over it but warm up to it: this is one of the most intimate live albums ever made, and even when it sounds bad it sounds good. Besides being a near-perfect introduction to the band, it also shows how well the Velvets had meshed as a band. “What Goes On,” from their third LP, becomes a pulsing, torqued-up parry-and-thrust between guitar and organ, each trying to outdo the other at holding a rhythm at warp speed. By contrast, “Sweet Jane,” not yet the anthem it would become, is presented here at a loping barbiturate crawl, and “New Age,” that seedy Tennessee Williams-esque drama about a fading actress, takes on a completely different direction here. (Both these radically altered versions were covered, respectively, by the Cowboy Junkies and Tori Amos.)
The group would go their seperate ways not long after the tape machine was shut off, but 1969 is a blissful reminder that there, for one brief shining moment, was the Velvet Underground. Better believe it.
5. The Pretenders. I’m in the process of writing a novel in which The Pretenders’ 1980 debut plays a significant role. I may as well quote from it:
“[I was] going on at some length about how the Pretenders’ first LP was like some German Expressionist film set in the late 1970s, when the sexual revolution didn’t know it was in its death throes, and that it always made me think of love flowering amid despair: of dying Chrysanthemums, of too much rather than not enough. There’s a very subtle sense of exhausted pleasure to the record that not everyone gets and maybe it’s just personal on my part, this tendency to see things in terms of their aftermath. Or it’s just hard to separate the band from its history.
“She put the record on, and handed me the cover as she sat beside me on the floor, legs hiked up. We scanned the faces. Two of these four were drug casualties within a year of each other, I said; James Honeyman-Scott, the angel-faced wiry fellow with shades, and Pete Farndon, the English hood with the Triumph jacket, who looks like he might have been one of Sidney Poitier’s students in To Sir, With Love. You know the porn doyenne in the zippered red leather jacket and fingerless lace gloves; Chrissie Hynde, template for jaded rock chicks everywhere. The other guy is Martin Chambers, the drummer; he was fired I think. A purely American band but very international, very cosmopolitan, a melding of cultures; Hynde’s Cleveland home town and whatever was left of English punk. It’s an American record but it doesn’t look like one. It looks like a poster for a Fassbinder film. Chrissie Alexanderplatz or something.
“The Pretenders is a love story that is full of heat … It begins in desire, and ends in bitterness and contempt and mutual recriminations. It’s about blackmailed emotions and emotional blackmail, interspersed with some dark comedy and a smidgen of warmth. It’s about a woman who wants to be as tough as the men who hurt her, but she’s too vulnerable, a fact she admits in a barely audible whisper: “I’ll never be a man in a man’s world.” Of course, that’s probably Chrissie Hynde talking about herself, trying to be the Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of her band. She loses more than she wins, but at the end she claims a mental victory she alone knows about; she may or may not be telling herself this to feel good. She’s cutting her losses. She says she had dreams like everybody else but they’re out of reach. It’s the soundtrack to love as a pitched battle, a battle that reaches its dramatic conclusion not on the outside but on the inside. On the outside, things may or may not trail off. On the inside, the singer has reached a resolution as temporary as love itself.”
The other five:
6. London Calling, The Clash
7. Beggar’s Banquet, The Rolling Stones
8. There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Sly and the Family Stone
9. Squeezing Out Sparks, Graham Parker
10. Never Mind the Bollocks, Sex Pistols
The Also-Rans: Layla, Derek and the Dominoes; Speaking in Tongues, Talking Heads; Elvis Greatest Hits, Vol. II (Ten Million Elvis Fans Can?t Be Wrong!) Elvis Presley; Something/Anything? Todd Rundgren; Nevermind, Nirvana; Dictionary of Soul, Otis Redding; Shoot Out the Lights, Richard and Linda Thompson; It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back! Public Enemy; Uncle Meat, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention; The Beatles; Running on Empty, Jackson Browne; Pirates, Rickie Lee Jones; The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, Bruce Springsteen; The Band; 1999, Prince; St. Louis to Liverpool, Chuck Berry; Call Me, Al Green; Live at the Apollo, James Brown; Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell; Blue Valentine, Tom Waits; This Year’s Model, Elvis Costello; Warren Zevon; Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Neil Young and Crazy Horse; Led Zeppelin II; Pleased to Meet Me, The Replacements; Marquee Moon, Television; Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon; Two Steps From the Blues, Bobby “Blue” Bland; Broken English, Marianne Faithful; Dusty in Memphis, Dusty Springfield