In the new John Sanford mystery, the protagonist receives an i-Pod as a gift, and refuses to load it until he has determined exactly which 100 songs he wants to include. He spends the novel composing his list, while entertaining suggestions and defending against criticisms from his friends. At the end of the book, he publishes the list. To his credit, Sanford goes out of his way to exclude the Beatles. (I have always said that I would put up Side Two of Bringing It All Back Home against the entire Beatles collection.) But, like most lists of this kind, I found Sanford’s a little too lacking in consistency.
In the recent novel Seven Types of Ambiguity, there is an interesting discussion about how people are defined in large part by their tastes. What they like. What they appreciate. In others. (I tried to express something similar to this about twenty years ago in a book that’s either rotting in my attic or floating in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; except I’m sure I didn’t express it nearly as well.)
In high school, Russell Jaffe and Keith Kornman and I used to talk about “The Tape” – a hypothetical mixed tape with the essential 90 minutes of songs. One of the big debates, I remember, was “Jungleland” versus “Thunder Road”? (I think there was a rule that you couldn’t have more than one song from a single artist.) I also remember that “Bad” was on The Tape, as was Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”; “Sympathy for the Devil” was probably included, and “Stairway to Heaven” or “Babba O’Reilly.”
In college, I thought that I could live on five essential albums. I know one was a Bob Dylan album, but I can’t remember whether it was Blood on the Tracks or The Times They Are A-Changin. Then there was U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, James Booker’s Piano Wizard Live, and Beethoven’s Ninth, and either Nina Simone’s Pastel Blues or Miles Davis Kind of Blue. Can’t remember. Something blue.
At some point, each of the 91s in Alpha Chi picked a song, and someone made a tape, which was kind of like The Tape, and actually it was pretty good. But there is always some joker that’s going to pick some Beatles song or try to make a statement with some punk or rap or heavy metal b.s. or put on some goof like Tiny Tim or Tom Jones or something just to be funny, which ruins the whole integrity of the project.
Which leads me to the point, namely: What is the integrity of the project?
What are the criteria?
We all know there are songs that we love because they remind us of a time, or a person, or a place, or just because they make us feel good; but we know they aren’t really “good” songs. (Sometimes we might even hide them away in the back of the shelf because we are a little embarrassed about liking them.) We know there are songs that have good music, but the lyrics aren’t really that good; or the songs with good lyrics, but the music is fairly pedestrian. There are songs that we appreciate as musically, or culturally, significant or progressive in some way. There are the sappy songs, that we think we shouldn’t like, but do. And, of course, the songs that we “should” like, or, for whatever reason, want to include, because of what we think that says about us.
So, taking all this into account, the standard I came up with for my list is this:
What are the ten songs that, if I were stranded on an island, I would want to have there with me, because I might never get to a Tower Records, or an Amazon.com, or an i-Tunes again?
Which, in alphabetical order, are:
2. The live version of Ain’t Gonna Whistle Dixie No More on The Best of Taj Mahal
4. The version of Caribbean Girl that’s on Crescent City Serenade
5. Idiot Wind
6. The version of Let Them Talk that’s on Piano Wizard Live
7. Nina Simone’s version of Love Me, Leave Me
8. Purple Heather
10. The live piano version of Thunder Road from the Live in Concert: 1975-1985 box set.
Notes – Dr. Michael White apparently had a falling out with his old record label, so, unfortunately, I am not sure that you can get Crescent City Serenade anymore. He has another version of Caribbean Girl on the Soul of New Orleans album, but it’s not as good. There is another song on Crescent City Serenade, The Chant of Bechet, which I think is actually “better” than Caribbean Girl, but it’s a little too dark for stranded on a desert island. Also spent a lot of time debating between the live acoustic Chimes of Freedom version of Born to Run and the live Thunder Road. Also on the cusp: The Live in Concert version of Little Wing and Pearl Jam’s Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town. But what would you replace?
P.S. – At this point, I would replace Caribbean Girl with St. Philip Street Breakdown. Other contenders would be the live version of Bartender from DMB Live Trax Vol. 6 at Fenway, a live version of Landslide where she goes up instead of down on “rise above” and either Yellow Ledbetter or the Stevie Ray Vaughn version of Little Wing. But, again, what would you replace?