There are several ways to figure out who a person really is, but to me, the best and most reliable way is though that person’s music collection. Could be records, CDs, cassettes, even 8-tracks. I don’t wanna see their book shelves because some people buy the classics or high-minded tomes but never cracked the covers. It’s all pretentious bullshit. But a person rarely buys music and doesn’t listen to it. Doesn’t matter what the format is. They own the music and when the mood strikes for a particular song, artist or genre, just the right selection isn’t far away.
I especially love collections that aren’t all one genre or center on a few select artists. The more eclectic the better with oddball selections mixed in with the more popular choices. That tells me you’re a person who’s open to suggestion and are courageous enough to take a chance on music beyond the mainstream. All the same stuff? Ok..your choice but that tells me you’re neither creative nor an especially adept conversationalist.
So when reading a story in the The Detroit News today about the imminent death of the CD, and music on physical media in general, in favor of streaming, I’m fairly sickened. What am I gonna do, go into someone’s home, ask them to open their Spotify app and show me what they’ve been listening to? That sounds incredibly stupid, if not invasive. I wanna be able to discuss one’s collection. There are often great stories about how a person came to own a particular album, regardless of the medium. I can tell you I was 13 when the Beatle’s Magical Mystery Tour was released. Too young to drive, so I rode my black Columbia two-wheeler, no gears, miles and miles from store to store until I found a copy. Then the bag with the album banged against my leg as I held it in my left hand while trying to hang onto the handlebars to steer the bike.
A guy in college was getting rid of all his record albums after (stupidly) converting them over to cassettes. I traded him an album by Mountain for the Stone’s “Let it Bleed.” I believe I did well for myself, but years later I was haunted by “Mississippi Queen” and re-bought the Mountain LP at an antique mall. Yeah..I could have streamed the song, but the deep cuts were just as satisfying and I wanted that album jacket on my shelf.
One of high school buddies was a nut for the guitar group, The Ventures. He had every album. I have of few from them as well, but Manny Hershkowitz was thoroughly hypnotized by them…especially by one of their biggest hits. In fact, it got a little obnoxious when, if you tried to rush Manny, he’d invoke the title every time, saying, “walk…don’t run.” Oy. What did that tell about Manny’s personality? Well…it predicted his future…as a school crossing guard.
Then there was Al Schmertz. He only collected comedy albums. Especially live performances. He had ‘em all. Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Rodney Dangerfield. Couldn’t carry a tune. Ever. But he was awesome at saying, “thanks. you’ve been great.” We’d sit in his room listening to the laugh masters while eating his mother’s awesome homemade french fries. When it was time to leave, Al sent us off with an enthusiastic, “thanks..you’ve been great!”
I’ve never been the biggest music collector. I have a few hundred LPs as well as CDs. I digitized what few cassettes I had because it’s difficult to find a player and I trashed the few 8-tracks I owned because the quality was such garbage. If you came to visit me, you might be both impressed and appalled. From my college freshman year until five years after graduating, I was employed as a DJ at various radio stations in Central New York State and Arizona. You kinda get sucked in by what you’re playing and I succumbed to the zeitgeist and purchased several Barry Manilow albums and even Helen Reddy’s Greatest Hits. They both still skulk on my shelf, but perhaps the shame of it will catch up to me one day. Barry will be banished to the Goodwill sack and Helen will be pitched into a pond early one Delta Dawn. I do own some strange stuff like the album by the “Masked Marauders,” a total hoax created by Rolling Stone magazine pitching it as a “supergroup” comprised of John Lennon, Paul McCartney Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. Singing on the ersatz gem were some friends of the writers from Berkeley’s Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band, whoever they are. But I have the record, and chances are you don’t.
I cherish my set of Laura Nyro LPs, “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis and “Abandoned Luncheonette” by Hall and Oates. I own albums by comedy troupe Firesign Theater, a double LP of early live performances by Woody Allen before he became creepy. How about a live double LP from a rock festival in the early 70‘s in Puerto Rico called Mar y Sol, featuring, among others, Long John Baldry the Allman Brothers and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the album Carole King cut before “Tapestry,” called “Writer.”
I do own some 45’s including Fabian’s “Hound Dog Man” bought by my brother and a bunch of other singles that were sent to me by various record companies when I was a radio station program director, including this total oddball from actor George Segal called “What You Gonna Do When the Rent Comes “Round.” It was free. A target of opportunity. It’s not really half bad. Let’s not forget a bizarre Steve Martin platter called “What I Believe..A Patriotic Statement). I can only imagine. A needle hasn’t ridden its grooves since before the Bee Gees turned disco. Perhaps this means I was either very open minded… or tone deaf.
I know things change, and that’s fine. But I still comb used record…yes..record stores for vinyl or CDs that catch my interest and as long as I can find a rare live performance or long-forgotten collection, I’ll continue to add them to my collection. Because my collection is physical evidence, aside from some unfortunate stains, of what I’m all about. Plus, you’re not getting near my phone.
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Whether we like it or not, self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles are in the cards. While they may be useful for any number of reasons, I don’t see them sparking any great tunes.
Let’s think about it for a moment. Some of the greatest songs refer directly to someone whose hands are on the wheel or flooring the accelerator or refusing to drive 55 .
A great example is Golden Earrings’s classic “Radar Love” with the awesome opening lines:
“I’ve been drivin’ all night, my hand’s wet on the wheel
There’s a voice in my head that drives my heel
It’s my baby callin’, says I need you here
And it’s a half past four and I’m shiftin’ gear.”
The Doors wouldn’t be caught dead in a self-driving car as they headed for a night of debauchery at the roadhouse:
“Yeah, keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel
Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel
Yeah, we’re goin’ to the Roadhouse
We’re gonna have a real
And before Bruce Springsteen would allow a bucket of semi-conductors to take the wheel, he would rather be hopped up on caffeine and who knows what in order to maintain control of his ride in really crappy weather to see his lady once again in “Drive All Night.” Just another reason he’s “The Boss.”
“Baby I’ll drive all night
I swear I drive all night
Through the wind, through the rain, through the snow”
While I can understand that autonomous vehicles will be extremely useful..especially for those who can’t drive themselves, I intend to hold out just as long as I can before I cede control of my mobility to a machine that’s smarter than I.
And so I offer this ode to autonomy..that you can sing to whatever melody strikes you…as long as you sing it… yourself.
I been riding all night, my butt’s stuck on the seat
Car’s doing all the work, don’t need my feet
I got a place in mind that I wanna go..
Don’t have to steer… this machine just knows
So I sit and watch the world through the windshield
Eyes on everything but what’s in front of me..
No concern about my speed, or any urgency…
No mental traffic when you’re riding in autonomy.
Got a left foot out of work with no clutch to depress
and my right one just stepped in my Taco Bell mess
My idle hands they have no wheel to steer or lever to shift
And I wonder what damn killjoys came up with this
When I’m in real hurry or just wanna go real fast
Don’t wanna watch it happen, I wanna mash the gas
Want my hands real busy, don’t want it done for me
Won’t cede the thrill of driving to a car’s technology
I suppose I could be open to a car that drives itself
operated by a host of smart electronic elves..
I could just sit back, relax and think about my day
Let autonomy just do its stuff
and whisk me in my way
But to whom do I direct my anger and my bile
When a driverless self-driving buggy tailgates us for a mile.
No GPS or LIDAR gives a flying hoot
When you flip them off or swear or give your horn an angry toot.
I’d just as soon stay in control,
On what’s in front of me..
Make all my decisions and mistakes..
Now that’s autonomy!
Tell me you’re a guy who doesn’t admit to playing the drums on his steering wheel when a really great song comes on the radio and I’ll quickly call “bullshit!.” Ever since I was a kid growing up in a 400-square foot garden apartment in Queens I’ve banged on things to great songs. Banged on my workbook in class while those new Beatle songs filled my head in 1964. So much so my twitchy 6th grade teacher Mrs. Newman screamed at me to stop. I’d fill coffee cans with coins and create a poor-kid’s kit, keeping time to Tony Bennett and Charlie Spivak and the Stones and the Doors and even to my parents’ extensive collection of Broadway show tunes. You can’t help it. When an irresistible beat gets hold of you there are a few choices of what to do next: snap your fingers, sing along, dance, tap your feat…or bang something.
In the 1990’s I finally had enough dough and room in my house for a real set of drums. Without a band to play with, I set up between two Pioneer speaker towers and blasted tunes to play to. Rock, jazz, the blues and always, always Tom Petty.
The reasons are simple. For a basement banger like me, the beats are easy and take hold of you like stew spiked with sriracha. The guitars are clear and to the point using three or four basic chords. The lyrics make sense and hit home. And, well, you can’t help just wanting to find a way to play with Petty. That old early 1990-s Pioneer rack unit has a six-disc changer and Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s Greatest Hits always occupies one slot.
My neighbors may quickly tire of it, but I can play along to “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “I Won’t Back Down” over and over again at full volume so it rocks my house..and their’s too…and maybe the guy’s around the block I haven’t yet met but expect to see at my door any day now. One time while I was chatting over the fence to my next door neighbor a car backfired. “Sounds like your basement,” he cracked.
I don’t wanna play those songs with a band. I wanna play with Petty and the boys…some of whom have been with him for 40 years. In 1978 when my wife and I quit our jobs and took off from Central New York to Tucson, Arizona for our next adventure Petty was blasting on the radio and then again when we quickly moved to Atlanta in 1981 for a job opportunity and once more in 1989 as we fought traffic all 700 or so miles when work took us to our final stop, in Detroit. He was just always there with straightahead rock…no BS..no flowery, overwrought, self-conscious, egotistical declarations. Just stories. Wonderful stories. Simply told.
As a journalist, that’s what I always seek to do. Just tell a story. Try to tell it well with lean language that paints a picture, makes a point, is hopefully memorable. That’s what Petty did. Using lean language Tom Petty was as much a mentor to me as anyone. I call your attention to something he said in Dave Grohl’s wonderful film “Sound City.” Referring to the film’s namesake recording studio, he said when he made a record it couldn’t just be good, it had to be great. When I sit down to create something, that simple but clear statement steps forward in my head. Not just good, but great. Who’s to say if something is great. I use my own criteria and let’s be honest, I would be hard pressed to count on one hand or a toe or two anything I’ve done that I would label as such. But having greatness as a goal, prevents you from settling for just OK or good, or mediocre. It counters complacency. There’s that one tweak, reconsideration of a phrase, clearer explanation or technical refinement that can make the difference.
Mr. Petty’s body of work is testament to a man who practiced what he believed, but never preached. I thank him for that lesson, because it’s helped me be a better person. I also thank him for his music, because I love banging those drums till the walls shake, and I maybe meet a new neighbor. I’ll tell them it’s Tom’s fault…and my name’s not Tom. It’s just my attempt to be better than good. RIP Mr. Petty. It’s time to play.