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Number One with a Bullet: Some great songs

Steve Rostkoski ran a terrific zine in the last Apa Centauri annish extrapolating from an idea professed by his friend Paul Williams. Paul wrote a book several years back called Rock and Roll: The Best 100 Singles that set out to list, in chronological order, what Paul considered to be the finest 45s ever released. What makes Paul's book special, Steve reveals, is that he discusses each song in its own unique light. As Steve says, "each essay reveals its own close, personal musical affair."

Steve goes on to talk about how Paul encourages readers to come up with their own lists, since we all have our own musical tastes. Steve's list from AC 108 included songs by Springsteen, Rickie Lee Jones, Bob Dylan and others, and completely reflected Steve's idiosyncratic tastes. He promises more chapters of the zine - Steve discussed a mere seven songs, though I'm sure he can think of many, many more worthy songs.

Contained in this section are my reflections on the same question: which songs do I consider the most meaningful, exciting, or interesting to me? I chose nine songs that I feel are very special. All nine songs are unique, thoughtful and passionate. I hope that even if you disagree with me, you can see my reasons for choosing them. I left out a bunch of terrific music. There is no Beatles, no Stones, no XTC or any of my other favorite bands. Maybe I'll do another "Number One with a Bullet" in the future. This type of piece is amazingly fun to write.

In the meantime enjoy this zine. You may or may not agree with me on any or all of the songs I include. Cool. Write your own list. It's fun.

Beck, Loser

Not just a tremendously catchy song, but also a revolutionary song. This is one of the first songs to integrate sampling along with lyrics along with a beat to create something transcendent. Beck Hanson effortlessly integrates samples, beat box, sitar, guitar and voice in a unique and exciting creation. It's an amazing song that is nothing like any song that has come before.

And yet what makes the whole song so great is that Beck pokes fun at himself. In the chorus he songs "Soy un perdador/I'm a loser, baby/so why don't you kill me?" ("Soy un perdador" means "I'm a loser" in Spanish, if you are bilingual or something.) Which subverts his whole message, whatever it is. In other words, Beck's song perfectly sums up the eloquent aimlessness of so many people in America today. Some people call it "slacker cool -" the same spirit that infuses the films of Kevin Smith.

The music itself in spectacularly exciting, but if anything, the words in the song are even more thrilling. They emerge from Beck Hanson's mouth in an eloquent tumble; it sounds like he is making them up on the spot and yet they seem right on the verge of having real meaning. What are you to make of the following words? Are they brilliant or babble? Do they have meaning or are they gibberish? Or is the gibberish itself meaningful?

Forces of evil in a bozo nightmare
Bent all the music with a phony gas chamber
‘Cause one's got a weasel and the other's got a flag
One's on the pole, shove the other in a bag
With the rerun shows and the cocaine nose
The daytime crap till the folksinger starts
He hung himself with a guitar string
Slap a turkey neck and it's hanging from a pigeon wing
They can't write if they can't relate
Trade the cash for the beat for the body for the hate
And my time is a piece of wax, falling on a termite
That's choking on the splint

I just love this stuff. The song sounds fantastic and it's got a great beat and you can dance to it and it even has sitars, which is always a bonus for me. This song rocks.

Liz Phair, Divorce Song

Liz Phair's album "Exile in Guyville" is easily one of my ten favorite albums of all time. Many people object to what they see as the album's strident feminism and see it as attacking men at every turn. Indeed, many of the songs on this album - "Never Said," "Fuck and Run, "Explain it to Me," the spectacular "Soap Star Joe -" have an element of attack in them. However, the attacks are couched in Phair's terrific songwriting. Each of the 18 songs on this CD are written with a different mood, a different feel, and a different outlook. "6'1"," a song that just barely missed the cut for this essay, is a transcendent story of a woman finding power within herself, while "Dance of the Seven Veils" is a spooky depiction of a very fucked up relationship.

In my eyes, though, the most amazing song on Phair's album is "Divorce Song." This has to be one of the most unsentimental songs ever written on the subject of divorce. The song is set in a minor key and seems to drag itself along as if the simple activity of playing the music and singing the words are too painful to contemplate. But amble along the song does, filled with an incredibly sad vocal by Phair. The way she elongates the word "sound" in the line "if I'd known how it would sound to you" is spectacular and the way she articulates the whole song is amazing, filled with mixed regret and happiness and anger and accusation. In one short 3 minute and 20 second song, Phair seems to run through the whole gamut of emotions involved in divorce.

This song has no chorus in it, an effect that can sometimes be annoying in the hands of a lesser songwriter. Phair, however, turns the song into an something that is part interior dialogue and part rant at her husband. The song dwells on the petty problems that lead to major problems:

It's true that I stole your lighter
And it's also true that I lost the map
But when you said that I wasn't worth talking to
I had to take your word on that

The song is so transcendently sad and yet so moving at the same time that it is compelling. It also has a fabulously open ending with Phair singing:

But you've never been a waste of my time
It's never been a drag
So take a deep breath and count back from ten
And maybe it'll be all right.

And then we hear a mouth harp that seems to symbolize freedom and release. But is it freedom from a bad marriage or freedom from anger and frustration and towards a new beginning in married life? The song is deliciously unclear.

Cowboy Junkies, Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park

The very first time I heard this song I was completely captivated in it. A meandering song that seems to move like the sultry air in a trailer park on a hot summer evening, this song mixes a compelling tempo with a spectacular vocal performance by Margo Timmins to create a fascinating audio portrait of one moment in time. The song is a four- and-a-half-minute short story, a tale told in vocals and guitars and drums and bass and words and energy. This song is one of those amazing creations where each of the different elements come together to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.

It's a sly and sultry piece of music that begins simply at first, with a simple recitation of facts that could come from a police procedural. As the song proceeds, through evocative lyrics by Michael Timmins and amazing vocals by Margo Timmins, the song seems to open to take in a whole landscape of people whose lives are changed in ways both large and small ways by the murder. The song is like a scene in a film where the perspective grows from one small speck on a map into a view of a whole large geographical area. It begins with "Mrs. Annabelle Evans found/with her throat cut after dark. Then it takes in Anna's neighbor Peg who, we are told "lets out a holocaust sound." The pictures grows wider, taking in George Evans sitting at the Waterton, who only cares about his gambling. A whole range of experiences are contained and brought to light by this song. Everything is tainted, everything is touched by the murder. The life of a whole community is diminished by a murder.

The Velvet Underground, Rock and Roll

It was almost impossible for me to choose between this song, ‘Sweet Jane" and "Pale Blue Eyes." All three Velvet Underground songs are spectacular and powerful and exciting. "Pale Blue Eyes" might be one of the most beautifully sad songs ever written. Lou Reed's vocal performance in that song is so complex, so mixed with intimacy and sadness and love, that it can move the hardest heart. There is one section of this song - the part that begins with the line "It was good what we did yesterday/And I'd do it once again" and ends with "But it's truly, truly a sin" sends chills down my spine every time I hear it.

Then there's "Sweet Jane," one of the most tender and fun songs ever written. It features a vocal by Lou Reed that seem to overflow with warmth and excitement and the endless drive to have a good time. The way Reed songs the line "Jack he is a banker/and Jane she is a clerk" is so overflowing with joy that you are completely fixed in the moment. And then, which makes the song even more terrific, Jack and Jane listen to classical music by the fire."

But "Rock and Roll," man, that is pure joy. It is pure energy. It is nothing but release:

Jeanie said when she was just five years old
There was nothing happening at all
Every time she turned on the radio
there was nothing going down at all
Then one fine morning she put on a New York station
She couldn't believe what she heard at all
She started dancing to that fine, fine music
Her life was saved by rock and roll.

What this song is all about is the transcendence of rock music, about how the release and rebellion and joy of rock can even be felt by a five-year-old girl. The joy is so transcendent that Lou Reed has to squeal when singing the reprise of the first verse.

And, oh, the guitar solos in this song! It starts with squealing guitars to drag you in and ends with squealing guitars to rock you all night. This song is pure joy. It is, as Lou Reed squeals, "fine, fine music." Or, to use the highest compliment of the Velvet Underground, it was "all right."

R.E.M., Begin the Begin

The beginning of it all for me. This was the first song on my first R.E.M. album and my life was changed in a small but real way by it. I was a devotee of what was then called "alternative" music and this song helped turn my devotion into love. "Begin the Begin" comes from R.E.M.'s album "Lifes Rich Pageant," an album that seemed to represent everything that was important to me at age 19 - political consciousness and the hope to make change - "young despite the years/hope despite the times" as lead singer Michael Stipe sang it. The album also had cryptic storytelling in "Swan Swan H" and a manifesto in "I Believe" and the pure joy of silly old songs in "Superman."

But "Begin the Begin" was the first song on the album and perhaps the most captivating. It is an explosion of naive energy. The song starts with thundering guitars and talk of insurgencies beginning and finding things, "Miles Standish proud" (how many people would get that reference, anyway?) and talks of forging new beginnings of making a new place, of throwing out old assumptions and starting anew, beginning the beginning if you get the point. This is a song about youthful rebellion, but a different type of rebellion than Elvis or the Beatles represented. This is about political and personal rebellion, the yearning and striving for a new paradigm both inside and outside yourself.

Which is getting pretty deep for what is basically a song with lots of loud guitars and energy and excitement. The pleasure of a song like this is that it can be enjoyed on a number of different levels. It rocks. It's fun to listen to. But if you look deeper, there are other meanings below the surface that are also interesting to probe.

Interestingly, the songs on this album led R.E.M. into a more overtly political phase in their next two albums, "Document" and "Green" which they eventually explicitly rejected in "Ignoreland" which appeared four albums hence. It's interesting that their political consciousness swelled as they were in their early 20s and then seemed to die down as they reached their 30s. It certainly parallels my life. I wonder how many people had the same experiences with their lives. Maybe that is part of why I feel such an affinity for R.E.M.'s music. They seem to be going through many of the same phases in their lives at the same time that I am. The era that "Begin the Begin" represents for me is a really great time in my life. I look at it really fondly now. I wonder if the R.E.M. boys feel the same.

Bob Dylan, Visions of Johanna (from the album Biograph)

It's a stereotype about Bob Dylan that he can't sing. So many people hear that gravelly and unique voice and think that the man's voice is like fingernails on a chalkboard. This song, this amazing, radiant, gorgeous, spellbinding, supernatural song, is proof that not only can the man sing, but that he is one of the finest and most expressive vocalists of our time.

I sometimes think of this song as "the middle of the night song" because it so evocatively captures the feel of the world when most people are asleep but you're awake. "Ain't it just like the night," Dylan sings the first line, "to play tricks when you're trying to be so quiet." There are mentions of "all night girls whispering of escapades up on the ‘D' train" and night watchmen. A "country music station plays soft, but there's nothing, really nothing to turn off", just as it might be played by someone lazily awake in the middle of the night.

Equally important, the song has a dreamlike quality. Dylan's voice and guitar seem to exist on another plane. The lyrics are dreamlike:

See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the moustache say, "Jeeze
I can't find my knees"

and there is a tinge of despair in the lyrics - "he's sure got a lot of gall to be so useless and all," "Name me someone's who not a parasite and I'll go out and say a prayer to him." And, most stirring and depressing of all, there is the ever-elusive visions of Johanna, a glimpse of the divine, mocking everything. The visions of Johanna successively, "conquer [his] mind," "take [his] place," "keep [him] up past the dawn," "make it all seem so cruel" and finally is "all that remains."

This is a complicated and fascinating song. It was the Dylan song that really launched me into being a great fan of his. The song's haunting beauty comes to me in quiet moments, times when my visions of Johanna conquer my mind. The search for transcendence is a lifelong struggle. This song reminds me of that.

Prince, Raspberry Beret

I know I've talked about this song a ton of times over the years, but I can't keep it off this list. See, Prince may be the greatest writer of pop songs in our time and this might be his masterpiece. Why, you ask, is it so great? What is that certain something that makes this a more amazing song than "When Doves Cry" or "Sign O the Times" or "Pop Life?"

I think its greatness lies in the simple acknowledgment that despite the day-to-day stressors in your life, you can still go out and have a good time down on old man Johnson's farm. It doesn't matter that Mr. McGee is giving you at hard time at your job at the Five and Dime, or that it's overcast, or even that the eventual sex "ain't the greatest," as Prince sings, "but if I had to do it all again I wouldn't change a stroke." When your life is getting you down, he says, just go have fun.

Okay, so this isn't Sonny Boy Williamson or Blind Willie McTell singing the blues. It isn't even Kate Bush imploring Peter Gabriel not to give up. This song doesn't try to be. It's a cheerful song about sex. It's a brilliant song about sex and it's got a killer beat and cool female voices and you can definitely dance to it.

X, Los Angeles

Strong. Vital Discordant. Energetic. X was all of that. Perhaps the greatest American punk band, a group that never sold out their principles and produced dozens of terrific songs. But their masterpiece was their very first single, "Los Angeles."

"Los Angeles" is a 2 ˝ minute burst of energy, a song of passion and release with a simple beat behind it. A woman has to get out of Los Angeles:

She had to leave
Los Angeles
She found it hard to say goodbye to her own best friend
She bought a clock on Hollywood Boulevard and then she left
They felt sad, they felt sad, they felt sad.
She had to get out! Get out! Get out! Get out!

It's simple. It's direct. And the intermixing of the voices of John Doe and Exene Cervenka, sharing lines of the song, make the song something special. The song always gets me up and going. It's got an awesome sound and beat and tells an interesting story. It's cool. It's transcendent. It made X's reputation. And that's really all you have to know about ‘Los Angeles" because this is one of those songs that is so much better when you hear it than it is when you only hear about it.

There you go. Nine songs. So what nine songs would be on your list? I really would love to know.

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