Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Music for a Desert Island

A cynic is nothing but a bruised romantic. I remember Kris Kristofferson making that observation once, but it sounds like the kind of remark quoted without attribution by those attempting to sound wise.

But I digress.

I am a cynic, as cynical as they come, yet I must be a romantic, bruised beyond healing but a romantic nonetheless. It is why of the ten tracks on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album, I listen only to “Wild Horses,” the most gorgeous of the rock and roll band’s many ballads (and there are many lovely Stones ballads, including “As Tears Go By” and “Ruby Tuesday”). “Wild Horses” is not mentioned in Nick Tosches’ essay (cumbersomely titled “The Sea’s Endless, Awful Rhythm, and Me Without Even a Dirty Picture”) in which he considers the album he would take with him to a desert island. Tosches picks Sticky Fingers, but admits he is bothered by the “dullness of my choice.”

Tosches’ musings inspired some musings of my own. Of course, the question was always hypothetical, and in the age of so many high-tech gizmos, it’s downright silly. Why take an album when you can fit a dozen or more on an MP3 player or some other device? How the hell would I end up on a desert island, anyway? The question is still fun to ponder.

I wouldn’t take Sticky Fingers no matter how much I love “Wild Horses,” and I wouldn’t take anything else by the Rolling Stones. I like them, but I don’t love them. Therefore, I’ll leave them.

Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in the West may very well be the disc that I listen to the most, at least at the time that I’m writing this, and its melancholic mood would be an appropriate companion for my own melancholy. But except for the whistling in the “Cheyenne” theme and that operatic ooohing on the title track, there are no human voices to be heard on Morricone’s masterpiece. Misanthropic though I am, I would probably want to hear a human voice.

Of all the great film composers, Morricone’s only competition for my admiration is the late John Barry whose scores for the early (I prefer to say “classic”) James Bond films have been imitated but never duplicated or improved upon by 007’s composers in the Pierce Brosnan/Daniel Craig era. You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are Barry’s masterpieces. Still, even something as haunting and evocative as the latter’s “Journey to Blofeld’s Hideaway” is still James Bond music, and not really appropriate for the solitary journey on which I am embarking.

The score for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon was adapted by the late Leonard Rosenman who won an Oscar for his efforts, but except for a few tracks by the Chieftans, the music is the work of Handel, Mozart, and other long embalmed classical composers. It’s as magnificent as the film itself, but, again, it’s purely instrumental. I would want to hear a voice. I would want to hear some words.

Would I want to listen to Christmas music? I doubt it, but the Rotary Connection’s Peace would be the album I’d take even if it doesn’t include a version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” my favorite Christmas carol.

Gospel music? Something by the Clark Sisters might make the grade. The members of the Rotary Connection were black, and the Clark Sisters are black women, so their inclusion, though not an intentional nod to political correctness, prevents this list from being exclusively white and male.

Getting back to the white guys . . .

I’ve always loved Elvis, and of his many albums my favorite is his second RCA Victor release, the rather unimaginatively titled Elvis. Other than “Love Me” (“Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel”), it doesn’t include any of his famous hits, but this eclectic mix of rock and country is my choice as his best collection. “How Do You Think I Feel” and “How’s the World Treating You?” are exquisitely performed country ballads, and on the other side (you remember album sides, don’t you?), the King rocks at his 1950’s best with a version of “Long Tall Sally” that sounds like it was recorded on a sweltering night in Hell.

There was a time in the mid-1970s when I, like many others, was a fan of Elton John. I remember he once described “pop” music, including his own, as “disposable.” Wading through his album catalog, I’d have to agree. His best album remains his first U.S. release from 1970. The somber cover photograph captures the mood of the music which, for Elton, is uncharacteristically downbeat. There’s a classical atmosphere throughout with the harpsichord-dominated “I Need You to Turn To” and the cinematic “First Episode at Hienten” the highlights. With each progressive album, John’s music became lighter just as his persona changed from serious singer/songwriter to glitter-drenched clown.

Another glitter queen was David Bowie whose albums from 1971-1980 are among my favorites, but the best, 1977’s Low, might wear out its welcome on a desert island. It has a distinctly chilly, even cold atmosphere, perfect for hearing on a bleak winter’s day, but like a bleak winter’s day, its cumulative effect is depressing. Lou Reed’s 1973 album, Berlin, is the best thing that the Godfather of Punk has ever done and I rank it as the greatest concept album ever, but its songs detailing a dysfunctional love affair are even bleaker than Bowie’s album and might make me want to drown myself.

Who doesn’t like the Beatles?

Well, Nick Tosches, the man who inspired these musings, claims to be immune to their charms (“with those silly little suits and silly little haircuts and silly little songs”), but he’s as rare in that respect as he is in many others. Despite recording for only seven years (their first British album, With the Beatles, was released in 1963, and though Let It Be hit the shelves in 1970, it was recorded before 1969’s Abbey Road), the Fab Four’s output is unrivaled for its diversity. It’s hard to believe the group that recorded “Tomorrow Never Knows” in 1966 had been singing “She Loves You” only three years earlier. Choosing a best from their discography is a daunting task.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
is generally regarded as the Beatles’ masterpiece, but there are plenty of listeners who would reserve that honor for Revolver or Abbey Road, or the two-disc set from 1968 that everyone, even Paul McCartney, calls The White Album (but whose official title is The Beatles). Certainly, no other album in history, by the Beatles or anyone else, was an event the way that Sgt. Pepper was, but as a collection of songs it falls short in my opinion to the American version of 1965’s Rubber Soul (which replaced some of the UK version’s tracks and added some others). But Rubber Soul is altogether too upbeat for a solitary desert island experience. Sgt. Pepper has its share of good vibrations (“With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Lovely Rita”), but you know that it ends in despair. “A Day in the Life,” the album’s brilliant climax, though my single favorite Beatles recording, casts a gloomy pall over the proceedings. I’m a serious guy, but “A Day in the Life” is somewhat sinister, eerie, and, when heard in the dark at a high volume, even a little frightening.

If the Beatles are out, that leaves Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, lone men with guitars which automatically increases their appeal to me, a loner who shuns groups and prefers to go his own way.

I maintain that 1966’s Blonde on Blonde, rock music’s first two-record set, is Dylan’s greatest album, but other than “I Want You,” I don’t really listen to it all that much. I prefer 1976’s Desire with Scarlet Rivera’s somber violin and those duets with Emmylou Harris, especially the long ballad about Joey Gallo that moves me in spite of the fact that I know the song is one of the most dishonest that Dylan ever wrote (in collaboration with Jacques Levy). I probably listen to 1981’s Shot of Love even more, but of its 10 songs, only the hymn-like “Every Grain of Sand” seems to possess desert island durability.

Like Dylan, Leonard Cohen originally reached listeners through other artists. Judy Collins was the first singer of note to record his songs, but no one ever covered Cohen as superbly as Jennifer Warnes whose 1986 album, Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, is the only collection of Cohen covers equal to the man’s own discography.

Cohen was once described as “the poet laureate of pessimism” whose songs were “music to slit your wrists by.” His third album, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate, is as dark and gloomy as it gets, but songs like “Avalanche” and “Joan of Arc,” though ineffably sad, have a comforting quality, as does most of Cohen’s work. I love it, but I think I would take Cohen Live, his 1993 concert album. Cohen’s voice may be the most human of all. This is a man who understands all there is to know about heartbreak and solitude, and communicates his knowledge better than anyone ever has. “Sisters of Mercy,” the live version (not the callow-voiced studio cut from 1967), could help me survive innumerable lonely nights, and “Suzanne,” with its lyrics about “Jesus was a sailor,” would be perfect when surrounded by a vast body of water.

Leonard Cohen’s Cohen Live it would be.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


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