Recently, the inimitable AJ Schnack challenged a group of bloggers, myself included, to participate in a unique project. In his terrific new film About A Son (which, full disclosure, played in competition at the 2007 Sarasota Film Festival), Schnack uses the music that influenced Kurt Cobain as a form of musical biography; A way of defining Cobain's experience without the usual tactic of bringing some form of hokey psychoanalysis to Cobain's own music and lyrics, which is so often a fatal flaw of many a biographer. How many books and articles and fan appreciations have been written about Cobain where the writer mines the depths of songs like Drain You and Come As You Are for nuggets of imposed truth about Cobain's own feelings about his life? Schnack's film avoids it all with a lovely dose of spin which, for my own sake, I hope rings true; Sometimes, you are the sum of what you love.
In an effort to foster a discussion about the film's upcoming October 3rd release and to also throw in a little plug for the terrific soundtrack to the film (available now from Barsuk Records), I thought I would accept AJ's challenge a do a little musical autobiography of my own. It's about to get personal y'all, so buckle up! I promise only to tell the truth.
Tom Hall: A Portrait In 15 Songs
1. The Battle of New Orleans by Johnny Horton
This song is my first musical memory, circa 1971 or 1972, certainly before dates or calendars meant anything to me. My dad is an avid collector of 45's and a huge fan of rock and roll and boogie woogie music from the 1950's and early-60's, and one of my earliest remaining memories in life is being held in my dad's arms and spun around the living room to Johnny Horton's The Battle of New Orleans. The song still reminds me of that soaring feeling of being a kid, safe in your parents' arms but laughing like crazy as the world blurs around you. It may also be why scenes like the ball in Russian Ark and the dancing sequence in Les Destinées Sentimentales always feel so exciting to me; A primitive memory of abandon.
2. Wake Up Little Suzie by The Everly Brothers
OK, so this one is implicitly tied to my first cinematic memory as well, and the story behind this song is a convoluted twisting and turning of memory, narrative displacement and parental guidance. This is probably totally wrong, which is why this song is here, but here is how I remember it (which is most certainly a good deal removed from reality). First, the facts. My mom's name is Susan, and although no one has ever called her Suzie, the chorus of this one is close enough. In November of 1973, right around my third birthday, my dad took me to see my first movie, Walt Disney's Robin Hood. In my mind the equation is: Seeing Robin Hood + "the movie's over it's four o'clock and we're in trouble deep" + "what're we gonna tell your mom" + "we gotta go home" + "Wake Up Little Suzie" somehow has become: My dad and I got in trouble with my mom for not being home on time when going to see Robin Hood. Go figure.
3. Reunited by Peaches and Herb
In 1979, I was eight years old and for the first time, in a long time, things had been settled; I was enrolled in my third (and final) elementary school in three years, my parents had divorced and both remarried and my brother and I had moved with my mom and step-dad into a new house in Flint, MI. This was the time when I finally had my own bedroom and I was given my own record player, a self-contained box with Winnie The Pooh on it (um, hello?) which came with, I am ashamed to say, the first piece of vinyl I ever owned; Peaches and Herb's album Reunited. I love my mom to death, but this record was the first in a long line of gift-giving mistakes where, on a simple word from me ("this isn't the worst song I ever heard"), she would misinterpret my ho-hum response as enthusiasm and try to make me happy. It is the thought that counts and here, in the early days when she was 0-1, all was forgiven.
4. Highway To Hell by AC/DC
When my parents re-married, the families were 100 miles apart, and I inherited a step-brother my same age who had a profound influence on my 'tween' years; He was unapologetically into metal. John and I would stay up late at night listening to comedy albums on eight-track (Richard Pryor was huge for us) and to AC/DC, Judas Priest, Van Halen and the late 1970's/early 1980's metal bands that defined the period. This song in particular holds two stories for me; A day at Flint's Small Mall (yes, it was called Small Mall) with my grandmother, a devoted activist in the Episcopal church, and she gives us each $10 tells my brother and I that we can each have any item we want in the mall that fits our budget. I bought Highway To Hell on vinyl and it caused a big stink, but I got to keep the record. I took it to school the next day for "music day" where two kids could bring in any record they wanted and my AC/DC record was booted in favor of Sugar Hill Gang's Rapper's Delight. The shame!
5. Wolves, Lower by R.E.M.
After a few years of enjoying early metal (still do) and loving the oldies of my youth (still do), I discovered R.E.M. on a trip to Sam The Record Man on Yongue Street in Toronto. My mom and step-dad are world-class bridge players, and we would spend every Easter break there for the Canadian National Bridge Tournament, held at the Royal York Hotel. My brother Chris and I would work at the tournament as "caddies"; Kids hired to carry the decks of pre-shuffled cards between tables so that all of the teams played the exact same hands. We would easily work twelve hour days, hustling for tips and earning a decent amount of money in a week. At the end of the week, my mom let us go shopping in Toronto and by 1984, when I was 13, I was spending pretty much all of my money on records. So, April, 1984, R.E.M.'s Chronic Town had been out for a couple of years, and was sitting in a cut-out bin in Sam's. It was an EP, so it was easy to take a chance on the lower price, and the image of the bored-looking gargoyle on the front was amusing to me, so I gave it a shot. The record was transformative for me and one of the great burdens of my teenage years was never really being able to fit in to any single subculture of teenagers; I liked metal but wasn't "metal", I liked rap but wasn't "hip-hop", but most of all, in my circle of friends, I liked country music because I liked R.E.M. By the time Document came out I was a visionary, but that was a long way away in 1984. I still have my original vinyl copy of this record, which must be inaudible at this point for having been played so often, and this record opened up new worlds to me. Punk would follow, but in the early/mid-1980's, I was all about Athens, GA.
6. Celebrated Summer by Hüsker Dü
1985 was the summer of New Day Rising, my introduction to the power punk of Hüsker Dü. It was a band that would come to define my love of punk rock; I was 14 at the time and a little late to the game, but it was Hüsker Dü who showed me the way. I made a tape of this record immediately and popped it into my Walkman, where it literally reigned for months. It was also the summer of R.E.M.'s Fables of The Reconstruction which was side B of the tape, and these albums dueled in my brain for my hormone-riddled trip to summer camp where, in a fit of teenage pique, I sat by the lake and watched the sunset while listening to Celebrated Summer and pining for the girl at camp I dreamed of kissing. This live version shows the ferocity of the band at their finest. Years later, I would meet and spend a few years hanging out with Bob Mould, and though we have pretty much lost touch since he moved to DC and made some changes in his life, having the opportunity to befriend one of your teenage heroes is something I'll never forget, and though we haven't spoken in a while, I hope all is well with Bob.
7. Handsome Devil by The Smiths
Summer, 1986. My then-best-friend's older sister is dating a drummer and as a couple, they introduce me to The Smiths. I'm now 15 and I have my driving permit. On a trip up to my dad's house, we make a pit stop at the Fashion Square Mall in Saginaw, MI and I have some money on me. I invariably duck into a record store because I want to pick up a copy of The Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist (sans banned poster); I had lost my cassette version and there in the Imports section (ah, the good ol' days) was The Smiths' debut record, The Smiths. I loved that record, and nothing the band ever did hit me more than Handsome Devil, which had a great guitar line and seemed so transgressive at the time. This was a band with which my brother Chris also fell in love, and the band seems like a bridge between us as well, something passed from sibling to sibling, across friendships and families.
8. Impressions by John Coltrane
I grew up playing saxophone. My dad had played the instrument in high school and college and I got his hand me down alto saxophone when I was in the 3rd grade. I took private lessons (thanks, Mom) and by the time I was on my way to my sophomore year in High School (summer 1986), I was given a scholarship at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp to travel to Europe as a soloist in the camp's concert band. I had recently discovered jazz when my best friend's father pulled me aside one afternoon and said" I think you're ready now" before dropping the needle on John Coltrane's My Favorite Things. After I heard it, I immediately started saving my money to buy a soprano saxophone. It was tough for me not to include My Favorite Things on this list, but thinking about which Coltrane record meant the most to me and was the most deeply felt experience, it has to be Impressions. My friend's dad used to live a few blocks from my high school, and I would often skip class, walk over to his place (a creative utopia for me as a kid) and, since the door was unlocked (he was a school teacher too), put on Impressions and just blow my brains out trying to keep up with it on my alto. I love this YouTube clip because it features Eric Dolphy, who was one of my favorites, on alto playing along, and it reminds me of winter days with the stereo cranked, sweat pouring down my face as I tried to learn to improvise.
9. Inca Roads by Frank Zappa
If Coltrane opened up my mind to new possibilities in improvisation, Frank Zappa was all about composition; The amazing musicianship, humor, and extremely dense arrangements that Zappa created were other-worldly; The first time I heard Inca Roads (the first Frank Zappa song I ever heard), I literally could not believe my ears. How was this music possible? What the fuck?!? My friends and I loved the early-1970's Zappa records (One Size Fits All and Overnight Sensation were our touchstones) and if you can imagine a group of teenage guys sitting around playing a game of Hearts or Spades while blasting Frank Zappa records and eating Lay's potato chips after an exhausting day of playing cut-throat on the basketball court or hitting tennis balls, you have an excellent picture of an average Saturday night for me in Flint during my junior high school and high school years. I miss those nights.
10. Only Shallow by My Bloody Valentine
On to college, and one of the great musical revelations of my life; Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. I kissed girls to this record, I walked down the street alone at night to this record, I played this record when I tried serious drugs for the first time, I played this record when I was driving home to Flint for Christmas after skipping another final exam, I played this record when I was writing term papers and poems, I played this record when I was on my way to work, I played this record when I came home from work. For about 18 months, I played this record to the exclusion of almost everything else. I got to see MBV at St. Andrew's Hall in Detroit on this tour, and when the house lights came up for 10 minutes while the band played a single note at the loudest volume I've ever heard, I was destroyed; I simply knew that it could not get any better than this moment. No rock and roll show since has even come close. This record is the sound of college; Of not giving a shit, of wanting to do my own thing, of learning new ideas on my own terms and of afternoons in movie theaters, discovering that my true love was in being in a cinema.
11. Lines and Lines by The Spinanes
Manos and Strand by The Spinanes remain two of my favorite records of all time, and after I had been conquered by Loveless, they remain the soundtrack of transition and change in my middle twenties. They're also two of the most under-appreciated records of that decade and very important for me. Driving to Saginaw Valley Community College (where I was working on getting a teaching certificate) in a torrential snowstorm in February of 1996, I had just picked up Strand on CD, and had a portable CD player hooked up to the car stereo via a tape deck converter. The sound of thunder, of quiet lost love, was overwhelming to me at the time; I had waited three years for this record and it was so much more.... grown up. This was literally the exact moment I made up my mind to leave Michigan, to return to Washington, DC and see what I could do there. Listening to Strand on I-75 in a snowstorm somehow gave me determination that it was time to change, to take my life into my own hands. I left Michigan three months later, never finishing my teaching program, and I have never lived there since. Strand (and Lines and Lines in particular) marks that change.
12. Dvořák Cello Concerto by Mstislav Rostropovich
I love classical music, and no other instrument exists for me above the cello. On the cello, no player I have ever heard moves me as much as Mstislav Rostropovich. Yes, the Britten Cello Suites are perhaps my favorite of his performances, but I think in terms of autobiography, there is no music more beautiful to me than his definitive performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto. This is one piece of music that still haunts me because I think it is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. I don't associate this song with any specific experience, but I see it more as an ideal; This is the standard to which I would hope my own life's work would one day aspire. I encourage you to seek out the entire piece, as it is absolutely incredible, and this performance is as good as it gets.
13. French Disko by Stereolab
No band has had a more profound influence on my listening patterns as an adult than Stereolab and French Disko is probably my favorite of all of their songs. I have followed them religiously since I first heard Peng! almost fifteen years ago (good lord) and as the band have evolved, it seems that their progressions have moved in lock-step with my dreams. If anyone could be said to have a personal score for the adult years of their life, mine would have most certainly been composed and performed by Stereolab. Nineteen albums, sixteen Ep's, 35 singles; I own a majority of the music they've created (though nowhere near all) and the band have been my audio companion from Walkman to Discman to iPod, record player to CD player to computer hard drive and, like my own life, marked by the years and changes along the way.
14. Dig Me Out by Sleater-Kinney
One of my favorite bands of the last decade, the tragically defunct Sleater-Kinney were a constant revelation for me, and Dig Me Out was their best record. I saw the band many many times, and they were always epic. This record, and this song in particular, remind me vividly of the two years I lived in Washington, DC; A constant barrage of government work, having my car broken into, a doomed love affair, apartment shares with large group of underpaid friends, D.C. was also the place where I saw the band for the first time. My twenties were tough; I was finding myself, figuring out what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be. Sleater-Kinney were the muscular, rocket-fueled soundtrack to the mean streets of D.C.
15. Rhapsody In Blue by George Gershwin
The perfect representation of my dream of coming to New York City. Now that I have officially lived here for a decade, it remains the definition of the ideal of this city. This is my home, the place where I fell in love and got married, the place where I am happiest in the world. None of it would have been possible without Manhattan and the dream it inspired in me. "Everybody gets corrupted... You have to have a little faith in people..." My favorite Woody Allen film, ever.
My turn to pass the buck:
Get to it.