It has been far too long since I wrote a Random Shuffle and I hope that this is the beginning of a renaissance for its return. Thanks for returning if you've read this column before, and if you haven't, well thanks for coming now. Each week (or as I get around to it) I put my music collection on shuffle and talk about what comes out. I'm less interested in reviewing the songs as I am in rekindling some memories the songs stir, or talking about the emotional resonances the music creates.
"China Cat Sunflower>I Know Your Rider" – The Grateful Dead
From Live in Waterbury (9/23/72)
I've been back from China for a few months now and slowly (ever so slowly) I am digging through all of our boxes in storage and sorting out all of our stuff. The other day I found a little metal briefcase where I keep a big stash of Grateful Dead bootlegs. Most of these are shows that I did not put on the hard drive before we left for China and thus I haven't listened to them in over a year.
I've spent the last couple of days going through them, ripping them to my new external hard drive, and listening. Reminiscently impressed is the word. It has been a long while since I've given the Dead a good shake. While I didn't put most of the briefcased music into my China collection, I still had probably a hundred hours worth available to me while I was over seas. The thing is, I rarely listened to the Dead while over there.
For most of my adult life the Grateful Dead have been my favorite band. I love them. I collect them. I have more music of theirs than anybody else. By a long shot. Yet over the last year or two I have slowly stopped listening to them. The thing with the Dead is that much of their music (especially their live music) needs serious listening. A thirty minute "Dark Star" is not for the casual listener. You need time to really digest what they are playing, and for along time I simply haven't had the patience for it.
I used to listen to the Dead while making commutes to work. Those long musical jams are perfect for jams of the traffic variety. The winding road enabled me to both listen to the music, and yet not get bored with a 15 minute instrumental. Having my mind distracted by driving, and yet not too distracted as I knew the road well, created the perfect listening situation. This is something that simply wasn't possible in China. For one, I didn't have a car, and for two traffic in Shanghai was way too chaotic to listen to anything seriously. For a variety of other reasons I simply stopped listening to the Dead very much at all.
So, here I am back in the United States, still not driving long distances, but having the leisure to sit in my upper room and give them a good shake. Holy crap! The things that I had forgotten about this band. Their ability to put half a dozen instruments on stage, creating a panoply of music without anyone player getting lost in the mix is quite simply, amazing. Some of my favorite moments occur between songs like "China Cat Sunflower" and "I Know You Rider." The Dead often smooshed two or three (or half a dozen) songs together creating something of a very long medley.
What they (and very few other musical acts) were able to do is to go from one song to another without anyone hardly noticing. Between these two songs there is not a noticeable pause, or transition, as they go from one to the other. Instead there is but a jam where they slowly stretch out "China Cat" and at the same time slowly stretch into "Rider." When they do this well it is nearly impossible to tell where one song ends and the other begins. Those transitions are sublime.
It has taken me a long time, but I can finally remember why I became a Deadhead in the first place. Hallelujah.
"Enjoy the Silence" – Depeche Mode
It was eight grade, or at least I think it was, and we were having a Christmas party. The class was chorus, and it was the class to be in at that age. I don't know why the class in which you wear funny robes, sing goofy songs and often dance like a nutter was the class of the popular kids, but it was. Maybe it had something to do with the new, very blond, very hot teacher. At any rate the hottie decided to throw a Christmas party and have us exchange gifts. The pressure was very much on.
I was in no way what you would call a popular kid and I wanted very much to have a very cool gift. The night before the party my brother took me to Wal-Mart and we looked all over for something suitable. The problem was it was Wal-Mart and it was running out of stock. It must have been the night before a lot of Christmas parties because they had very little in terms of cool items for teenagers trying to get an 'in' into the popular crowd.
While I was very much the shy, awkward, unpopular kid, my brother was just the opposite. He wore the right clothes, had the right hair, and was in every way, much cooler than me. I decided to give him the keys to my kingdom and let him pick out my gift. He went right to the music. As there was a price limit to this gift giving, full albums wouldn't do and thus we scoured the singles selection. As noted, there wasn't a lot, and my brother quickly became disappointed that there was no Depeche Mode singles. The band was very hot at this time, and their seminal album, Violater was very much on the tongues of my more popular classmates. Alas all there was were wimpier, less cool singles. Time has wiped away what I did purchase, but I do remember it was a third stringer single.
At the Christmas party everyone was sizing up the gifts and they all quickly noticed that my gift looked very much like a cassette. I was quick to add it was my brother who picked it out and not me to extend it some cool cred. This made it the gift to get. We drew numbers and played a game that was something like "Dirty Santa" except that no one was allowed to open anything until the very end. As each number came up a person could choose a new gift or steal it from someone else. My cassette was passed around and around and the excitement grew as to what it could be.
For some reason I pretended like I didn't know which cassette we had purchased and kept telling everyone that it was my brother who picked it out. I guess I was enjoying the fact that my gift was so popular and didn't want to burst that bubble with admitting the song sucked. Eventually though, of course the tape was opened and everyone saw that it sucked. There was, quite literally, a groan. I then quickly emphasized that I didn't know what it was and that it was my brother who picked it out. For sure I wouldn't be so lame to get a crappy single.
Man, there isn't a day that goes by that I'm not glad to be out of high school.
"Fake Palindromes" by Andrew Bird
From The Mysterious Production of Eggs
For a number of years my wife and I lived in Bloomington, Indiana. It would be just another dusty, back-woods country town built up by the limestone production in the area were it not for Indiana University. With the university comes a great chunk of culture. Downtown there is the usual university strip with its greasy spoon joints, pseudo-hippy head shops and more than a few record stores. It also contains some really wonderfully unique things as well including some fantastic ethnic restaurants (including one owned by the Dalai Lama's brother) a great old book store with volumes literally falling of the shelves and a really magnificent public library.
It is the library to which me and my wife darkened the most. I simply love a library. A building full of books is something out of a beautiful dream. This particular library not only had a great selection of books, but a marvelous media library as well. Rumor had it that they had purchased an old movie store when it went out of business and thus its movie library was full of obscure and marvelous titles. They might have bought a record store too for all the CDs that lined their shelves.
My wife and I made trips to the library nearly once a week and we always came out with a bag full of goodies. I must admit that we got into the habit of taking home our limit of CDs and then ripping them to our hard drive before returning them. More than often this occurred even if we hadn't actually listened to any of the music. To this day I have a stack of CDs that came from those library shelves, including several Andrew Bird albums. Those were the wife's picks yet it still makes me smile when I remember how the nerdy librarian checking her out raved about Bird and his music.
We live in a much smaller town now and the library here is not nearly as magnificent. They have a healthy selection of books, but very few movies and even less music. My music collection is all the worse for it. With high speed Internet my ability to hear new music hasn't really lessened due to the move, but I surely miss looking through the bins and finding something to get the nerdy librarian all giddy.