My prized possession as a teenager was the transistor radio I got for my 15th birthday. During my teenage angst years when I thought all my friends were having a better life than me and my parents were so lame I couldn´t even be in a room with them, I’d sit on the back step in the dark with my radio listening to the latest pop music from both the US and the UK.
The transistor radio, big curlers, cool shades, and bellbottoms
Now the internet has literally opened up an entire world of radio possibilities. The radio truly is “wireless” in a new way and I rediscovered an old friend, BBC radio. Not a whole lot has changed since the 50s when we’d listen to crackly broadcasts of half hour comedies and witty wordy panel shows on the world service. The names and the games are different, but the fare is pretty much the same. I’ve lost my taste for British humor in the intervening years, but I still enjoy the game shows like Just a Minute, The News Quiz, and Round Britain Quiz.
My favorite guilty pleasure is Desert Island Disks, which has been running continuously since 1942. Celebrities are invited to choose the records they would take with them if they were stranded on a deserted island. It’s really just a gimmicky way of doing a celebrity interview but their choices of music are often quite entertaining and surprising. Whoever would have figured horror meister Steven King for a Rihanna fan? (There’s a massive archive of celebrities to dip into.)
It’s pretty much impossible to listen to the show without thinking about what eight pieces of music you would take. So for my own entertainment and I hope your listening pleasure, here are mine. I´m willing to concede that my choices are entirely predictable for an old hippy baby-boomer and that I am a philistine: no classical. My chief criterion was that songs had to have stood the test of time: I listened to them years ago and still have them in rotation on my MP3 player today, so yes, they are oldies. I do love a lot of contemporary music but we’ll see how much of it I’m still listening to in 20 years.
One: Love Minus Zero written by Bob Dylan and performed by the Walker Brothers. I think this is the most beautiful love song Dylan wrote but it needs a sexier voice than his to do it justice. The Walker Brothers were wildly popular in England in the 60s, where I played this luscious version on my record player over and over and over in my London flat in 1967: picking up the needle and dropping it down in the groove as the song ended. I had not heard this version in years until I stumbled across it on youtube and got goose bumps. I now play it repeatedly, just like I used to 40 years ago. You might find it cheesy, but I love this video because it’s so evocative of the time plus it was great to see Scott Walker, my teenage crush.
OMG, he was so cute!
Two: Desolation Row by Bob Dylan. If I could only take one artist with me to this island it would be Dylan. I heard him for the first time on that transistor radio singing The Times They Are A Changing when I was about sixteen and was totally gob smacked. I’d never heard a voice, a sound, lyrics like that and it’s not hyperbole to say it changed my life. I’ve stuck by Bob all through the weird and mumbly years, buying everything he releases and seeing him in concert countless times. The hard part was choosing just one song (well, I cheated a bit with song number one). I finally settled on this one because I find some new imagery in the lyrics every time I hear it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9T0zNfO8t0
PS: When the Daily Telegraph newspaper asked readers to vote for their favorite DID artist this year, Dylan was overall second only to The Beatles and number one favorite individual male performer.
Three: Into the Mystic by Van Morrison. I’ve never met anyone of my generation who doesn’t love this song. I can’t count the hours spent, somewhat impaired, discussing whether this should be played at your wedding or at your funeral, and what exactly it’s all about. I heard an interview with Morrison, who said he didn’t know either. Whatever! After all these years, whenever he wails out that line about rocking your gypsy soul, the hair stands up on the back of my neck. I had a peak experience listing to this in the car while on a road trip around Ireland.
Irish road trip: playing Van Morrison as the
cliffs of Moher disappear into the mystic.
Well, at least into the mist.
Four: One Love by Bob Marley. I was introduced to reggae in the early 70s when I lived in Notting Hill Gate, London. It was not the trendy place it is now, but mostly a West Indian ghetto with this strange, cool music blasting from open windows during a hot summer. I remember when Bob Marley first played London and the entire city was talking about him. There was a time in my life when I was struggling to be happy that I played this song first thing every morning, sometimes several times, to lift my spirits. It still does.
My Notting Hill Gate flat. I lived on the third floor
Five: Red Dirt Girl by Emmylou Harris. How much do I love Emmylou? She’s another I’ve enjoyed for decades and who in my book can do no wrong. I met her briefly in 1977 when I was working for the Wembley Country Music Festival, but I was too star-struck to engage her in conversation though she seemed approachable. I debated over choosing one of her earlier songs when her voice rang like a silver bell or a post Wrecking Ball one when she was writing most of her own songs and her voice is more mature. I eventually picked this one. I like story songs and as many times as I’ve listened to this, I still tear up when Lillian lays that hammer down. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXCZbPkfgL8
PS: Emmylou did a Desert Island Disks show in which I finally heard the straight-from-the-horse’s mouth story about her and Gram Parsons.
Six: Pancho and Lefty by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Like I said, I love story songs and this is a fine one. Some of the lyrics are astonishing. “You wear your skin like iron and your breath is hard as kerosene.” I have four versions of this on my MP3 player. The original by the writer, Townes Van Zandt; a beautiful acoustic one by Emmylou; a duet by Willie and Bob Dylan; and this one that I chose because I get the bonus of Merle Haggard, who I think has one of the best voices in pop music. It’s also a great road trip song for driving in Mexico.
Pancho and Lefty is a great song for road tripping in Mexico
Seven: Biloxi by Jesse Winchester. I first heard this in the mid-seventies when I was spending a summer on a Greek Island and the lyrics, although written about a place a world away, seemed so apropos of the life we were living. Because Jesse Winchester’s career was pretty much derailed by his fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft, it’s really hard to find any video on him. After I lost my vinyl version years ago, I wasn’t able to hear this song until I found a CD in one of Austin’s amazing music stores. Sadly, the best I can offer you is this poorly recorded version of him singing it at the New Orleans Jazzfest this year. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89a1xVjCTC4&feature=related
That Greek Island summer
PS: When Biloxi was devastated by Katrina, legendary KCRW disc jockey Tom Schnabel did a tribute show and played a cover version of this. I emailed him and asked him to play the original and he wrote back saying he loved it but couldn’t find it. Since I lived two blocks from the station in Santa Monica, I downloaded the album onto my computer then dropped the CD off for him. I never had a response, but I suspect people were always leaving CDs and demos for him and he never got it.
Song number eight was the hardest to choose. The first seven were must-haves, but then the field got huge: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, Ray Charles, any blues guitarist, Johnny Cash … argh! In the end, how could it not be The Beatles?
Eight: Hey, Jude by The Beatles. Collectively and individually, they provided the soundtrack to my adolescence and early adulthood. I danced to them, made out to them, studied to them, traveled to them and they permeate almost every cherished memory I have. Hey Jude is perhaps a cop-out choice since in poll after poll it’s the most popular pop song ever so it was easier to just pick it rather than agonize over their entire repertoire (although I did kill a couple of happy hours listing to Beatles’ songs today). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDdI7GhZSQA
So what are your eight? Feel free to post them in comments.