Following a blogging trend (because I’m that kind of hip guy) I’ve decided to post my musical biography – a roughly chronological record of my listening habits.
Birth – 7 (1955 – 1962) – My parents bought me a pink portable record player™ when I was five or six years old. This may have led to later gender confusion. My first records were 45 RPMs, purchased by my parents. They included various Disney songs sung by Mickey Mouse (“I’m a Happy Mouse”) and Donald Duck (“Quack quack quack went Donald Duck/In his sailor suit/ Quack quack quack went Donald Duck/Gee I think he’s cute”). It’s amazing how this stuff stays with you. My first album was the soundtrack to the movie The Alamo (the John Wayne early ‘60s version). At one point I went around the house singing:
Back in 1836
Houston said to Travis
“Get some volunteers and go
Fortify the Alamo!”
I suspect my parents later regretted that album.
I requested several 45s for Christmas/birthday presents, among them “Dominique” by The Singing Nun (a uniquely ‘60s phenomenon in which a nun in full penguin regalia strummed a guitar and sang a French folk song very earnestly; this was actually a hit record), “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” by The New Christy Minstrels, and “Laurie” by Dicky Lee, a tale in which a guy meets and falls in love with a mysterious, pale girl, takes her to the prom, dances with her, gives her his sweater because she’s cold, loses sight of her, and then finds his sweater the day after the prom. On her gravestone. Man, I ate this stuff up at age 7. I thought it was the coolest stuff in the world.
Age 7 – 14 (1962 – 1969) – At some point in early elementary school I acquired the aqua transistor radio. This saved my life. Exploring around my Columbus radio dial, I discovered WCOL AM, a hip station that played rock ‘n roll, and which featured a screaming pitchman/DJ named Spook Beckman. I loved Spook, and later discovered that there’s an exhibit dedicated to him at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Spook told bad jokes, read the weather, did commercials for laundry detergent, and in between played some of the most amazing music I’d ever heard. The first song that I can recall actually getting excited about was called “Money.” You might know it; The Beatles later covered it on their first album. But this was the Barrett Strong Motown version, and it was the first African American voice I can recall ever hearing, and it knocked me flat. “Your lovin’ give me a thrill/But your lovin’ don’t pay my bills,” Barrett sang, and I found myself hopping around my bedroom, engaging in what I like to flatteringly think of as “dance.” I liked this rock ‘n roll stuff.
Shortly after that The Beatles came along. I watched them on Ed Sullivan. I wore an I Love George button to school, but Sister Alexine made me take it off. For some reason the Walker’s, a pious, churchgoing family who lived across the street from my parents, decided to hop in the wood-paneled station wagon and drive up to Cleveland to see The Beatles in September, 1964. They invited me along. And so I attended my first concert, which was not that fun. We sat in the next to last row. Girls screamed and screamed. Being three foot ten, I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t hear anything. But I was there.
That prompted me to request a Beatles album for my ninth birthday. It was my first audacious music request. My parents didn’t like The Beatles, preferring Mickey Mouse and John Wayne. I was sure they would refuse. But sure enough, my birthday came and I opened the flat package and in it was The Beatles Second Album. I played it over and over again, and kept listening to Spook Beckman.
Interesting things were happening in music. It was the Mythical Golden Age, that magical time in which the best music actually happened to coincide with the most popular music. And so I got the usual AM radio rock ‘n roll indoctrination, listening to The Beatles and The Stones, Bob Dylan, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, James Brown, The Kinks, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, The Beach Boys, etc. etc. But this era has been so romanticized that people forget that there was a lot of schlock, too. I uncritically loved all of it, everybody listed above, along with Herman’s Hermits, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Freddie and the Dreamers, Leslie Gore, Petula Clark, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, etc. etc.
I bought Beatles albums faithfully as they came out. I bought Simon and Garfunkel albums. My parents, having moved on from Mickey and The Duke, bought me Neil Diamond albums, which I hated, except for the song “Solitary Man,” which I liked, and still do. It was the rugged individualist motif, and I could dig that as I laid out my Catholic school uniform and prepared to dress like everybody else.
The High School Years (1969 – 1973) – Like everyone else who has gone through this experience, the musical tastes grew both more diverse and more refined. The album collection grew exponentially. People/bands I liked a lot: Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac (who were still a blues band at the time, well before the Stevie Nicks/Embraceable Ewe bleating incarnation), Chicago, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, early Pink Floyd. Jethro Tull. I memorized the lyrics to entire Jethro Tull albums, and thought that Ian Anderson was a genius. Now, more than thirty years down the line, I still think he’s a genius. Neil Young, particularly Harvest and After the Gold Rush. Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young). My little cadre of friends and I prided ourselves on our appreciation of Celtic rock bands/musicians such as Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Tir Na Nog, Richard and Linda Thompson, and Nick Drake. Nobody else was listening to this stuff, but we were. It still sounds great to me. Joni Mitchell wrote the soundtrack to my life, and I was deeply in love with her. I was particularly enamored of a long-haired hippie named Shawn Phillips, who had an incredible vocal range and who sang songs about lovin’ your brother, man. People I didn’t like that other people liked a lot: Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane. The appreciation for those folks would come later, but it wasn’t there in high school. I bought my first jazz album, Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, which I hated.
The College Years (1973 – 1977, 1979 – 1981, 2003-2004). Okay, some of us keep going back to college, trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up. But I’ll confine myself to the first enlistment here, the years I spent at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Athens in the mid-70s was a laid-back, hippie-infested, every-day-is-Woodstock, bluegrass and country rock kind of place, so it’s only fitting, I suppose, that I discovered bluegrass, country rock, and country music during this phase of my life. Pure Prairie League were sort of the campus house band, and they made great country rock. So did The Eagles, Poco, John Prine, Mason Profitt and The Talbot Brothers, and Jonathan Edwards. I bought a then little-known record by The Byrds called Sweetheart of the Radio, and was shocked to find shitkickin’ country music instead of the usual chiming twelve-string electric guitars. I hated it at first, but came to love it dearly, which led me down a trail to The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, and Emmylou Harris. But the biggest musical “discoveries” during these years were Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Al Green. Of course, I knew of them before college. But I had never paid that much attention. Now I snatched up as much Dylan and Van and Rev. Al as I could find, a pattern that continues to this day. It’s difficult to name favorites, but I don’t think I would be too far off if I named those three. Oh yeah, Bruce Springsteen arrived on the scene at this time. I saw him play in front of about 100 people in 1974, shortly before Born to Run was released and he was transformed from a virtual unknown into a superstar. He was great then. He’s great now.
I also became a Christian during this time. I bought a lot of CCM, some of which is pretty good and which I still like – Larry Norman, Daniel Amos, Phil Keaggy, Second Chapter of Acts, Keith Green, Mark Heard, Tom Howard, Ed Raetzloff (who actually played some amazing blues-based guitar; where is he now?), Resurrection/Rez Band, Randy Stonehill. I went through a brief period where I only bought “Christian” music. I threw away a few “worldly” albums. Then, a couple years later, I decided that a lot of Christian music sucked (e.g., Honeytree, Evie, Amy Grant, Carman, etc.), and I went through my counter-reformation, throwing away some bad Christian music and re-purchasing a few of the albums I had tossed. In 1975 I discovered Bruce Cockburn, a Christian who made music outside the CCM ghetto. I loved him. He’s been the model for me ever since, consistently showing that it is possible to make intelligent, creative, God-honoring music that isn’t bounded by clichés and platitudes, and that isn’t afraid to ask questions, expose the sin within, and apply the truths of the gospel to the fallen world around us.
The Post-College/Pre-Kate Years (1977 – 1981) – Punk and New Wave, baby. Favorites were The Clash, The Undertones, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, The Pretenders. I was once wrote an Apologetics paper for a seminary class using the lyrics to the Clash’s first album as the basis for my argument for Christianity. I got an A, amazingly enough. I was never a punk, couldn’t play one if you gave me a Mohawk, stuck safety pins in my ears, tore up my clothes, and threw up all over me, but I sure loved the music. Other favorites from that time: Dave Edmunds, who played great rockabilly, Nick Lowe, Richard and Linda Thompson (just pencil them in regardless of the era), Springsteen, and the first glimmerings of the phenomenon that was U2 (Boy, which I bought when it first came out). I also discovered blues, and bought a bunch of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Robert Johnson, etc.
Early Marriage/Pre-Kids (1982 – 1986) – Very early in my marriage Kate saw me sitting on the sofa one day. “Why don’t you do something” she asked me. “I am doing something,” I replied. “I’m listening to music.” She’s since gotten used to it. Big favorites: U2, Springsteen, The English Beat, T-Bone Burnett, Tom Waits, Sam Phillips, Laurie Anderson, REM. This was also the time when I discovered jazz, thanks to my brother-in-law Bill, who gently pointed me away from the atonal fusion of late sixties Miles and pointed me to the late fifties Miles. I think I probably bought hundreds of jazz albums during these days. My favorites are the usual suspects: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, etc.
Late Eighties Through the Nineties – Lots of all of the above, plus new influences from world music, particularly from South African, Bulgarian, and Celtic sources. My favorite band of the late eighties? The Pogues, who sounded like the Sex Pistols if they had grown up in the traditional pubs of Dublin. I mostly missed the Grunge Explosion. It just didn’t do much for me; I’m too much a fan of melody. But power pop, influenced heavily by The Beatles, was (and remains) big for me, and some of my favorite bands playing that genre during this time period were The Posies, Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, Velvet Crush, The Eels, and Michael Penn. I went through a huge New Zealand pop/rock phase for a while (The Chills, The Bats, The Clean, Bailter Space, Tall Dwarves, Straitjacket Fits, Crowded House), and to this day think that Kiwi Rock was the best thing that came out of the early ‘90s. The mid- to late-nineties saw me scooping up vast quantities of alt-country/insurgent country/roots rock music, as practiced by Steve Earle, Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Wilco, Cheri Knight, Old 97’s, The Jayhawks, Lucinda Williams, Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams, etc. The best band of the ‘90s? Uncle Tupelo, hands down. At least I think so. Special mention needs to be paid to five of my favorites, Christians one and all, who don’t fit easily within any particular genre: Vigilantes of Love/Bill Mallonee, Victoria Williams, Over the Rhine, Innocence Mission, and Buddy and Julie Miller.
The 00s – The beat goes on. I listen to almost every genre of music imaginable, and find value in all of it (or, more correctly, in some of it in all of it). Newer bands/performers I dearly love: Radiohead, Death Cab for Cutie, The Weakerthans, The New Pornographers, A.C. Newman, Joanna Newsome, Iron and Wine, Sufjan Stevens, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, jazz saxophonist James Carter, Amos Lee. In the last few months I’ve heard great albums from new discoveries such as Milton Mapes (that’s a band name, not a person), Deathray Davies, soul singer Raul Midon, McCartney clone Sam Ashworth, jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux, Tom Waits compatriot and weirdman Danny Cohen, rockabilly revivalist Webb Wilder, and early bluegrass/country music pioneer Charlie Poole. There’s great music everywhere. It will take me a lifetime to discover it all, and I still won’t be finished.