I don’t think there is a better indication for how eclectic, how varied, how diverse a human being can be than to trawl through an individual’s MP3 player. My own iPod Nano has tons of material ranging from my favourite artists to pop songs I loved as a kid to songs that grabbed me from a film soundtracks. Taken together they’re almost like a musical fingerprint, telling stories about myself, my tastes and my shared experiences growing up.
Take for example the last ten songs played at random on my iPod in shuffle mode. These came up while I rode my bike around town and seemed to show my life at its most random…
1. “Accident Waiting to Happen”, Billy Bragg – There is a saying, famously misattributed to Winston Churchill, which states, “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.” I’m not sure if I agree with that sentiment, but I think of it every time I listen to Billy Bragg, a musician from my student leftist days whom I still love. My politics have become (or quite possibly already probably were) quite centrist so I listen to Bragg’s radical politics with a sense of wistfulness for a bygone age and a feeling of residual guilt that Billy himself would be quite disappointed in me these days.
“Accident Waiting to Happen” comes from his 1991 album Don’t Try This At Home which is, to my mind, the closest Billy Bragg ever came to selling out. He still sings lyrics like “You’re a dedicated swallower of fascism” (one of my favourite things about Billy Bragg are his puns) but all the songs have a more poptastic quality to them (“Sexuality” was probably his only song to get massive airplay). “Accident Waiting to Happen” opens with a familiar strain of Bragg electric guitar but becomes a wall of sound that is totally different from his 1980s music. This is probably my favourite Bragg album as a result (though his 1986 album Talking to the Taxman About Poetry comes close). I received It as a Christmas present in ’91 from a friend I haven’t seen in about 10 years. I was given it as a cassette tape and actually wore out the tape from extensive playing within five years.
2. “Ghost of the Gang”, Indigo Girls – I fell in love with the Indigo Girls when I was 21 and I still love them. The funny thing about the Indigo Girls is, in spite of the fact that I would say they were among my very favourite musicians, I have never seen them in concert, ever. I have no idea why. Mostly, I never hear about their gigs until they’re gone—I once actually walked past a lineup waiting to get into an Indigo Girls show at Lee’s Palace and didn’t even realize what I was missing.
“Ghost of the Gang” is from their 2009 album Poseidon and the Bitter Bug which gave a full band version and an acoustic version of the same album. The acoustic one is way better, and this song, about Amy Ray finding out about the deaths of old friends, is heartbreakingly gorgeous.
3. “Gimme Sympathy”, Metric – I often joke with my friends that I have no knowledge of these newfangled popular beat combos unless I hear them on a soundtrack for a TV show or a movie. Last summer I discovered Metric thanks to “Black Sheep” on the soundtrack for Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. (Is it wrong that I still picture Brie Larson performing that song even though I prefer Emily Haines’ original version?) This is an acoustic version of what is, on the studio version on Metric’s Fantasies album, a high energy pop track I ritualistically listen to during the last five minutes of my workout at the gym. It’s a little bizarre to hear it so stripped down but I’ve come to love it. I love the chorus: “After all of this is gone / Who’d you rather be? /The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?”
4. “The Friends of Mr. Cairo”, Jon and Vangelis - In 1981, I spent a year at what was then Canada’s only private military academy. I was in a dorm with 12 or so other kids my age and every month two of the older boys from the senior dorm would get shipped down to stay with us, ostensibly to play responsible babysitter. Consequently, the music played on our dorm’s stereo in the morning before inspection pretty much reflected the interests of those older boys. During December, 1981, three songs were played almost incessantly in Simcoe House: Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”, J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” and Jon and Vangelis “The Friends of Mr. Cairo”. I think the fascination of this song for me as a 12 year old was down to the opening which pastiches 1930s gangster movies with a crook and his moll abandoning their pal as he dies in a pool of his own blood. All the film title references went right over my head. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I discovered Citizen Kane was not, in fact, a gangster movie.
5. “Turnaround”, Stan Rogers – I’ve been a huge fan of Canadian folk legend Stan Rogers for decades. And “Turnaround” is one of his best, most beautiful songs. But thanks to the (otherwise execrable) 2007 telefilm Terry, I associate this song with Terry Fox. At the end of this dreadful biopic (Shawn Ashmore is risible as the Canadian icon) they show actual footage of Terry Fox cut to Rogers singing “Turnaround”.
Terry Fox was, and is, one of my great heroes. He’ll have died 30 years ago this summer. What he did was one of those incredible quirky little Canadian ideas that turned into nothing less than a heroic feat. A guy who lost his leg to cancer decided to run across the country to raise money for cancer research, performing a marathon every single day. Every single day. Every. Single. Day.
He did it, initially, without any support whatsoever except his best friend driving a donated van. Starting out from Newfoundland in the dying days of winter 1980 and ending just outside of Thunder Bay later that summer when the cancer came back that would eventually kill him, ending his dream of running across the entire country. It is the most incredible story about an ordinary guy who decided to do something extraordinary. And did.
I once had to explain to my Goddaughter who Terry Fox was. I had to choke back tears just telling her.
6. “Music For A Found Harmonium”, Penguin Café Orchestra – Sometime during 1998, while I was living in Britain, I became obsessed with a PCO song, “Telephone and Rubber Band” which was the theme song for the UK mobile phone provider One2One. I bought a best-of album of PCO and have pretty much listened to it ever since.
7. “White Knuckles”, OK Go – OK Go is my latest obsession in popular beat combos. I fell in love with their just unbelievably clever videos but I adore their music generally. They produce masterful pop songs, written with great melodies and brilliant orchestration. (Lyrically not so much, but I don’t really care). Last October I was reunited with an old and dear friend from university (we hadn’t seen each other in 13 years) and we both went to see them in concert. We (and my wife who came along) were clearly the oldest people in a hall packed with university students and twentysomethings, but we didn’t care because the music was great and OK Go knows how to bring that same sense of showmanship that makes their videos so virally compelling to a concert. It was a great night. Great band. And “White Knuckles” is a great song, even apart from the cool video with the trained dogs.
It has been suggested, mostly by my wife, that I have a man-crush on OK Go’s lead singer, Damian Kulash. I refuse to comment.
8. “Wish You Were Here”, Pink Floyd – When my friend Rod got married, his mother had passed away and so he didn’t have a parent to dance with. Rod danced with his mother-in-law to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. Consequently, the song has forever been burned in my brain as “Rod’s song”.
9. “Young At Heart”, Frank Sinatra – This song probably would never have been downloaded to my iPod had it not been used as the opening to Herbert Ross’ 1976 movie The Front. It‘s a so-so movie (in spite of a rare starring role from Woody Allen in a movie he didn’t direct) but that opening, which uses “Young At Heart” to a montage of black-and-white footage of life in the 1950s may be most effective mixture of a song and period imagery I‘ve ever seen. Listening to it immediately conjures up life in the Eisenhower era.
10. “Downtown”, Petula Clark – I love this song for the lyrics, because I believe in them:
When you’re alone
And life is making you lonely,
You can always go downtown
When you’ve got worries,
All the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know, downtown
Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
No one is, honestly, going to confuse it for the poetic complexity of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” but I find it immediate and moving all the same. (And I find it clever, I really like find the insertion of “I know” in the last line of the first verse).
It’s a song that reminds me of Saturday nights in Toronto, when I lived on my own and, in my solitary life, what I would do is hop on a streetcar to Yonge Street and go look at records at Sam’s or HMV or the books at BMV or World’s Biggest Bookstore, and just walk up the street, being near, if not with, people. It reminds me of similar evenings spent in Leicester Square in London, where I often just went on my own and felt connected and alive.
There are so many people I know who moan about city life and can’t wait to move to some rural idyll. I am most certainly not one of them. I love cities. I love places with downtowns, places where I can listen and linger. How can I lose?
Fortunately for me, I don’t have to explain why song number 11, OutKast’s “Hey Ya” and song number 12, Lou Bega’s “Mambo Number 5” are on my iPod. I consider myself lucky.