Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Summer encore

One of the fun things about maintaining a blog is discovering whether the pieces you write that you think people would read and like are, in fact, the ones they actually do read and like. I will return next Monday to new material for my blog. Until then, to celebrate the end of summer and the return to school (ugh!), I will "re-run" the five most popular pieces -- in ascending order -- I've written since January 1, 2008. Funny -- none of the pieces I'm reposting is one I would have thought would have been popular.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2008
My Life in 37.2 gigibytes

(Note: I've added 5.6 gigibytes to my life since I wrote this in early July 2008).

All done.

My life is now officially inventoried and compressed, for the digital age, into 37.2 gigibytes. Every piece of recorded music I own is now on my iPod. Like some people and unlike most others, I don't see and hear music as just something that pleases the senses, sooths the soul, unleashes the erotic, communicates aural beauty through sound and makes me wanna holler.

Or cry. Or laugh. Or remember. Or wonder.

For me, my music collection is the running narrative of my life. The iPod revolution has only made that narrative more present and vivid than ever. As a kid, I couldn't take music anywhere. In a car, you were dependent on the good will of the driver to find a good spot on the dial and stay there. At the pool, what you heard depended on what the phase the lifeguards were in at any given moment, or who liked whom and wanted to make an impression by picking the radio station. Then, almost overnight it seemed, everyone owned a Sony Walkman, the way now that everyone owns an iPod. You could record music onto cassettes and take your music anywhere you wanted to go. After the CD emerged in the early 1980s, the portable CD player arrived along with it to allow us to take commercial and homemade CDs wherever we went, including work (well, not me; school, the library, somewhere other than an office) and pop them in our computers and listen to our own music throughout the day. Yes, the CD was even more revolutionary than the long-playing album (33 rpm) medium. But you were still limited in what you could take with you on your Walkman or Discman.

Then came the iPod. All of sudden, you could put your entire musical life on a tiny hard drive and take it with you even more places than the previous generation of portable music players. At first, this had a tremendous upside. Say I was in the mood to listen to Led Zeppelin while riding my bike to work, or to put together some outrageous mix of cheesy singles that you could buy from iTunes without anyone ever knowing and listen to it in the gym or while washing my car. I could put together a playlist of music in two minutes! Late in the evening, I could enjoy an entire homemade, handpicked Bill Evans playlist while I got caught up on paperwork, emails or decided to write something for my blog or surfed the Web looking for articles on foreign reaction to the Supreme Court's most recent term. What could be better than that?

On the other hand, suppose the shuffle feature selects, "Spirit in the Sky," by Norman Greenbaum. I bought that song about a year ago after I heard it at Giant, and it reminded me of the roller skating parties that were all the rage when I was in sixth grade. Cute, at first. Then I remembered why that song, which isn't the least bit musically memorable, registered with me: that was the song that was playing on the roller skating rink P.A. when Peggy Miller, my girlfriend and the most coveted girl at Kittredge Elementary School, withdrew her hand from mine during couples skate and told me that we were no longer going steady.

Great girl that she was and probably still is, she did say she wanted to be friends, which we ultimately did become about 15 years later, when I played on the same fastpitch softball team as her husband when I was in graduate school. But Peggy was the last girl I could honestly call a girlfriend for the next 11 years. I had many girl/friends in high school and college, and many of them did not bother taking the time to date me before they decided I was better suited to be their good friend. They skipped right over the awkward part, as if a brief glance and a forced conversation was all it took to know that I was not cut out to accompany them in any romantic context.

My iPod tells me that I have 6,732 songs recorded and performed by 864 primary artists. My artist list starts with a-ha, a band or whatever I couldn't place until I clicked the tab and heard, "Take on Me," which I remember as the first sketch-animated music video I ever saw in a movie theater. I guess I bought it after my wife and I heard it on the radio, and she reminded me of the video that we saw together at the movies shortly after we started dating. Wow! I thought. She's right. We were at the movies with some friends of ours at Lenox Square in Atlanta, way, way, way back when, a good memory of a fun night out in a much less complicated time in our lives. Then it hit me. Was that really 23 years ago? Am I that damn old? What happened? How did I end up here? Can I have some do-overs and get whatever or whoever it was I screwed up or pissed off right this time? How come I don't have as much drive or energy as I did just five years ago? What happens if universities abolish tenure? What will I do? Where will I go? Will I have to get a job doing something I really don't like because someone needs me to do something they don't want to do and have enough money to pay me to do it for them?

Perhaps you heard the song differently.

My iPod ends with with "Cheap Sunglasses," by ZZ Top, a band I never really liked during their heyday in the late 70s but pretended to because they were pretty popular in my high school. I had enough of a rep as a "weird music" guy to understand that I had to make the occasional concession to what was popular at the moment or risk complete social isolation, as opposed to the much more manageable incomplete social isolation. "No, no," I'd say, "ZZ Top is completely different than Ted Nugent or KISS. The guitar playing is much better and the rhythms considerably more complex." Now, I don't remember if that was true or not, but it got the necessary nods of approval from the wrestlers and football players I'd cross paths with when they needed an introduction to a friend of mine who knew someone who knew someone who could tell them where to get a dime bag of local ditchweed -- but not from him, of course.

Spinning the wheel, my iPod stops on Oliver Nelson, the great jazz composer and arranger from the early 1960s. After him, it's Omar Hakim, Ornette Coleman, Out of the Blue, a great post-bop band from the mid-1980s that didn't last much past an album or two, Papa Grow Funk, a New Orleans-style modern funk band, Pat Metheny, Paul McCartney (that would make for an interesting musical pairing, now that I think about it), Phil Woods, Phish, Pilot (no clue; I'll investigate), Pink Floyd and The Police. Try this sometime when you stop on an artist. Look at the five musicians/bands above the artist and the five musicians/bands below the artist. Now ask yourself why you have what will undoubtedly appear to be these very different artists within ten alphabetical places of each other. What is the common link that binds these artists and what is it that appeals about them to you? Go ahead, try it. Beats reading three-month old versions of People magazine while you're waiting to have your car serviced or killing time in a waiting room somewhere. Nothing will impress a complete stranger more than explaining why Edgar Winter, Earth, Wind and Fire, Foghat and Gary Burton belong in the same music collection.

Is it only fitting that my iPod has just given me, "Isn't it Romantic," by Bill Evans (played with Chuck Israels on bass and Larry Bunker on drums, as I prepare to finish this quirky little post that makes little sense to most sane people? Bill leads all musicians on my iPod with 627 songs under his name, so I guess that odds favor him in any random selection (assuming the selection is random and not based on listening patterns, which I'm fairly convinced it is -- based on listening patterns, that is). And how about this gem, which will be my final song during this exercise: "Penny Lane," my favorite Beatles' song and my favorite Paul McCartney composition. It should be enough to get these two personal favorites back-to-back and leave it there. But I can't help wondering whatever happened to "Peanut" Lovinger, who broke up with me at a between-fifth-and-sixth grade summer backyard party while "Penny Lane" was playing through the speaker that had been perched up against a bedroom window facing the pool. Normally, this might send me down the same road as the Peggy Miller incident. Not this time. "Isn't it Romantic?" was the song that I requested the band play when my wife and I entered our wedding reception. They did, and it was good.

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