Sunday, November 23, 2008

Who Am I (Part One)

Let’s start off with a quote from the movie “High Fidelity” –

“A while back, Dick, Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films, these things matter. Call me shallow, it’s the fucking truth.”

(For the record, one of the things that I like is “High Fidelity”. I’ve got the DVD, seen it many, many times. Loved the movie, enjoyed the book.)

People with a shared interest in a particular book or movie have something to talk about. People with a shared interest in a whole bunch of particular books or movies have not only those stories to talk about, but each person can also figure out where enough of their commonality lies to suggest other stuff that the other might be into.

I’d like to strike up a romantic – and, you know, sexual – relationship with a woman who’s into (at least some of) the same stuff that I am. I’m sure that the reverse is true – anyone interested in testing out me as a potential boyfriend or sex partner would want some similarity of interest as well. Which is the point of the “Who Am I?” posts. Not who I am sexually or kink-wise (you get enough of that in all of my other posts here), but who I am regarding my non-sex interests.

There’s the train of thought that says that what you like IS what you are like. Change the wording of the classic “You are what you eat” to “You are what you consume” . . . and then broaden the meaning of the word consume. You are what you read, you are what you listen to, you are what you watch on television or in the movie theatre. (You are what you masturbate to, you are what you fantasize about.)

There’s so much to choose from. Music, books, TV, movies, food, hobbies, and so on. I’ve decided to start this series off with music.

My musical tastes are eclectic. I’m don’t really like country and western or rap. (But there are certain song-by-song exceptions to that ‘rule’.) I like rock. I like alternative (and by alternative, I mean the stuff that MTV used to call ‘alternative’ right before they would play it on their very, very mainstream channel). I’ll listen to the blues. I’m not a huge fan of classical, but there is some of it that I do indeed groove on. People tell me, based on my music collection, that I should be listening to more ska. I don’t know. My selections are from all over the board.

I was raised on country and western. Which is to say that musically, I was raised in a sort of cultural prison. Country and western was the only music that Dad would allow in the house.

The first acceptable break from country and western (this when I was about 10 years old or so) was Neil Diamond. My cousin was heavily into Neil Diamond at the time. (This has been the only beneficial contribution to my life that the otherwise worthless sack of shit has made to date.) And so Neil Diamond albums were being played as background music during a family function at my aunt and uncle’s house one day. And I absolutely loved it. I asked Mom, Mom asked Dad, Dad said he didn’t mind, and it wasn’t long before I was in possession of a Neil Diamond Greatest Hits album. And it wasn’t too much longer before I had a stack of Neil Diamond albums filed next to my assorted country and western selections.

Eventually, something else happened that opened a little peephole into the world of non-country and western music for me. That something was called Color Sounds.

Color Sounds played music videos. The same stuff that they were playing on music videos, but with subtitles, some of the words highlighted in various colors. It was a PBS thing in the mid-80s, and intended as an aid to learning English. Not having cable at the time, it was also my first exposure to music videos.

What I always saw was just a single video (to keep the station from broadcasting dead air in between the 25 minute long episode of Doctor Who and the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour). When I checked Wikipedia the other day I discovered that it was an actual program – half-hour for TV broadcast and a special 15 minute version for in-classroom play. (Weird. I never knew.)

Apparently each ‘episode’ version of Color Sounds had a theme (noun, verb, adjective, etc.), and those words were highlighted in red. It also, according to Wikipedia, added on-screen notes correcting the spelling/pronunciation mistakes and bad/questionable grammar of the song lyrics.

Anyway, whereas Color Sounds opened up a peephole in the door that was OTHER MUSIC, that Christmas I was given the equivalent of a key to that door. It was a fairly recent development in technology (God, I feel old) called a Walkman. Little cassette player with headphones. A way of listening to music without bothering Dad with ‘noise’ that offended his one-note musical taste. The walkman was a wrapped gift found beneath the tree. The Christmas stocking held a tape: Cyndi Lauper’s “She’s So Unusual”.

My musical tastes continued a very slow evolution until I got into high school. People would lend me tapes of artists whose videos I’d liked on Color Sounds. I started listening to a little non-country radio when Dad wasn’t around. Borrowing more tapes. In high school I got a job, and start buying tapes. Then somebody invented something called the compact disc. (Still feel old.) Eventually Santa brought me a CD player, and I switched from buying tapes to buying CDs. (That’s also when I discovered music clubs like Columbia House and BMG.)

I’ve revealed what some people would consider to be embarrassing pieces of information about my sex(less) life in the pages of this blog. So here’s an embarrassing piece of information about my musical history: I really, really liked ultra-bubble-gum-pop, famous-for-concerts-in-malls, teen sensation Tiffany. One of the first two CDs I ever owned was a Tiffany CD.

My senior year in high school, friends started having me listen to bands like Aerosmith and Guns-n-Roses. The stuff that everybody else was listening to. That’s about when I met Casper (not his real name). Casper and I quickly became good friends, and he did something that mutated my brain and changed my life forever. Casper turned me on to the Beatles. I quickly copied Casper’s library of Beatles tapes (something like 17 of them).

Senior year in high school was when I got sick. Spent a lot of time in bed, plugged into a multiple generation copy of the White Album, taped from a record where the needle jumped in the middle of ‘Rocky Raccoon’. (Even after years of White Album on CD, ‘Rocky Raccoon’ doesn’t sound right without that little skip in the middle.)

In addition to being at the beginning stages of (a currently 20 year long and counting) chronic illness, my parents also sort of kicked me out of the house. Not really. But sort of. We lived next door to my Grandmother, who wasn’t using the upstairs of her house for anything but storage. And my young twin siblings were at that stage where they could no longer share a single bedroom. So I got moved next door, and my sister took over my old room.

My grandmother was a pro-wrestling junkie. She watched WWF Superstars on Saturday mornings, and Portland Wrestling on Saturday nights. (So did I, for that matter. But grandma believed it was all real. Unplanned, and a real sport. She’d scream at the television set when the bad guys pulled crap. It was sometimes more fun to watch her than it was to watch the actual wrestling itself.) Anyway, one day we were talking about wrestling and I mentioned one of the other wrestling organizations I’d heard about that was on cable. My grandmother looked at me, stunned. “They have wrestling on cable?”

Two weeks later, we had cable. Grandma had her wrestling. I had MTV.

Strangely, the next big adjustment to my musical tastes didn’t come from MTV, but – as odd as this sounds – an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures. They did an MTV parody episode, and two of the ‘music videos’ they played were from songs by They Might Be Giants. “Who the fuck,” I wondered, “are ‘They Might Be Giants’? And why do those two songs compel me to seek out more? More! More!”

The next time I was offered a ride into Salem I found a They Might Be Giants CD (“Flood”) in a music store’s Alternative section. It had both of the songs from Tiny Toons, along with 17 other tracks, most of which were as good if not better. “Flood” contains my favorite lyric of all time, in a song titled ‘Dead’: “Now it’s over, I’m dead, and I haven’t done anything that I want; or, I’m still alive, and there’s nothing I want to do.”

After sharing my discovery with Casper, between the two of us we quickly assembled the entire TMBG catalog. All four albums of it. (Three studio albums and a b-sides compilation.)

Then I started asking myself, “What is this ‘Alternative’ section that TMBG disks and tapes are housed in? What else is in there?”

I asked this question of MTV, and MTV showed me videos Sundays at midnight, during their two-hour long alternative showcase, cleverly titled “120 Minutes”. This made Casper and I start buying more tapes and CDs.

I seem to recall a little band called Nirvana having a video or two that strayed outside the boundaries of MTV’s ‘alternative’ section. Other bands followed.

Here’s a weird way to go about things: Casper and I discovered a band called the Breeders, fronted by Kim Deal. Then we discovered Frank Black, formerly known as Black Francis. Then, several years later, we finally sought out the Pixies – the seminal alternative band that brought Black Francis and Kim Deal (along with David Lovering and Joey Santiago) into the musical scene long prior to the existence of the Breeders or Frank Black’s solo career.

We’d find something we’d like, and we’d scout around to see what else we could find in the same genre. We both dug Dr. John, and the world music influences on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and “Rhythm of the Saints” albums. So we looked into world music. Casper thought it was okay, but nothing to write home about. I thought it was missing something. (Probably Paul Simon.)

I was a big David Letterman fan, back in the day. And every time that Warren Zevon would fill in for Paul Shaffer, I’d say to myself, “I should really pick up some of his stuff – it seems like I’d really enjoy it.” I didn’t actually follow through with this instinct until I’d heard that Mr. Zevon had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and given mere months to live.

I stopped listening to the radio in the early 90s. I had enough CDs that I knew I had a solid stream of music I knew that I liked vs. radio’s few songs I might like interspersed among potentially crappy songs and tons of commercials. Then MTV discovered reality television, and quit playing music videos. So I don’t hear new music anymore. My musical tastes actually stop back about the mid-90s. I still accumulate new work by artists I’m already into, but it’s become hard for me to get into newer stuff. I think that the OCD-addled part of my brain looked at my (vast) music collection and decided, “Okay, this is the music I listen to. This and only this.”

Anyway . . .

Last time I checked my Livejournal friends’ page, I noticed that there was a Top 10 Desert Island Albums meme going around. I don’t think that I could ever pick a definitive list that would last more than a day without revision.

But today, if forced to choose, my top ten desert island picks would be (in alphabetical order by artist) . . .

A.) Aerosmith “Pump”
B.) The Beatles “White Album” [possibly a cheat, being a 2-disc set]
B.) Frank Black “Dog in the Sand”
C.) Leonard Cohen “I’m Your Man”
C.) Counting Crows “August and Everything After”
H.) Hole “Live Through This”
P.) Liz Phair “Exile in Guyville”
S.) Paul Simon “Graceland”
T.) They Might Be Giants “Flood”
Z.) Some kind of Warren Zevon “Greatest Hits” or “Best Of” Compilation

A previous meme (several years ago) had asked me who was on my current playlist. I opened up a new word processor document and copied the names down, rearranged them in alphabetical order, and posted them. At the time, it was a large playlist, and apparently held songs by Aerosmith, the Amps, Adam Ant, the Bangles, the Beastie Boys, the Beatles, Belly, the Blues Brothers Band, the Breeders, Beck, Chuck Berry, Harry Belefonte, Pat Benetar, Frank Black, Edie Brickell, Jimmy Buffet, David Byrne, Counting Crows, Crash Test Dummies, Credence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Phil Collins, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Everclear, Eminem, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Garbage, Genesis, Guns N Roses, Hole, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Horton, Imperial Teen, Billy Idol, Billy Joel, Kid Rock, B. B. King, the Lemonheads, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Mono Puff, Muddy Waters, Nirvana, Oingo Boingo, the Pixies, the Police, the Presidents of the United States of America, the Pretenders, Primus, Tom Petty. Liz Phair, Queen, the Refreshments, REM, Shakespear’s Sister, Simon and Garfunkel, Soul Asylum, the Stone Roses, Sweetwater, Paul Simon, Tatu, They Might Be Giants, George Thorogood, U2, Urge Overkill, the Violent Femmes, Suzanne Vega, Ween, Hank Williams Jr., XTC, Weird Al Yankovic, ZZTop, Warren Zevon, 10000 Maniacs, 2nu, and 4 Non Blondes.

Like I said, my tastes are eclectic.

As I sit here writing this, I’m listening to Christmas music. Have been for awhile now. And if the usual pattern holds true – with the exception of short bursts of other stuff here and there – I’ll listen exclusively to Christmas music until about mid-January or so.

Ah, Christmas music. Mom was big on Christmas music. From the moment we got home from Thanksgiving dinner at my Aunt’s house until January 6th (or a little after), the Christmas music played. Most of my friends these days can’t stand the stuff. Too many people working jobs where it plays as muzak for the entirety of their shift for way too many weeks. But me? I can’t get enough of it.

Now, while I do enjoy the traditional classics, the majority of the Christmas music that I listen to nowadays is the more alternative stuff. New Christmas songs performed by specific artists, along with some of the more ‘novelty’ songs of the past. Mel Blanc singing “The Hat I Got For Christmas Is Too Beeg” in a Speedy Gonzalez style Mexican accent. Selections from the Christmas Albums from artists like The Refreshments, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Harry Connick Jr. The stuff that you don’t hear on the in-store muzak tracks.

I’ve got three Christmas playlists on my computer. The big one clocks in at nearly 17 hours, and contains MP3s ripped from all my Christmas CDs, along with other miscellaneous stuff downloaded from here and there. The small one is pretty much just the ‘good’ stuff. Non-traditional songs you only ever hear performed by the artist who wrote them, stuff by the aforementioned Mel Blanc, the Refreshments, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Harry Connick Jr., along with the Pretenders, Cyndi Lauper, REM, Chris Issak, Weird Al Yankovic, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and They Might Be Giants. That’s the playlist that my Christmas music hating friends can tolerate. No Jingle Bells, no Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, no White Christmas. Most of the people I know will even sing along to “The Hat I Got For Christmas is Too Beeg”.

The mid-sized Christmas playlist contains the entirety of the small one, along with a selection of traditional Christmas music for me. By ‘my’ artists if I can get them (Cyndi Lauper, Neil Diamond, etc.), but by the generic whomever if that’s all that’s available to me. That’s the one that gets the most play.

This isn’t something that I even realized until I started writing this post, but I’m starting to wonder if my love of Christmas music doesn’t stem in part from the fact that it was always a nearly month and a half long break from Dad’s country and western mandate. Yee-haw became ho-ho-ho. Parole from cultural prison.

Anyway, that’s who I am – more or less – musically. Any questions?

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