I admire the story Noel Murray at AV Club tells. Murray meanders alphabetically through his record collection, taking stock of his tastes and life as he revisits "pieces of the puzzle." He situates selected artists in a canon that exists between rock-criticism land (usual suspects like Pavement are well represented) and his own private universe (dude digs southern rock). Those selected artists get their own entries. He uses categories like "personal correspondence" where he narrates his interactions with the music. In another category, "fits between," Murray places artists between two other musical artists--The Go-Go's end up between B-52s and the Bangles, Gomez between Pearl Jam and Free. Murray approaches this task with the care of Paul Shaffer picking out a song to play as a Letterman guest walks onto the stage.
After a recent i-pod mishap, I had to reload 30 GB worth of tunes onto my machine. This reconstruction process gave me a chance to meander like Murray, pausing over my own pieces of the puzzle:
R.E.M., "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" (Monster, 1994). I can picture myself at 20, sitting in Nicole's car listening to this for the first time. I am picking her up from her co-op job in Troy, Michigan. I am enrolled in a creative writing class with Hugh Culik at the time and, as I sit in that white Dodge, I wish I could write something with the surreal abandon of the lyrics to "Kenneth." "Butterfly decal rearview mirror dogging the scene" sounds an awful lot like a Burroughs cut-up, which Culik talks about constantly. The song famously comes from non-sensical threats yelled by assailants as they beat Dan Rather outside of CBS. Rather, enjoying the surrealism, performs the song a few weeks later with the band on David Letterman, whose show I watched at least two or three nights a week in 1994 at Smith Media Center, in the offices of the school paper, with the rest of the staff. With miscelaneous members of that staff, I saw three R.E.M. shows during the Monster tour, in Ann Arborn, Auburn Hills, and East Lansing. It was making up for lost time, as I had wanted to go see the band since I was about 12 years old. Each show opens up with a different low-key track from Monster, after which--at all three shows--Peter Buck (allegedly playing Kurt Cobain's guitar) launches into the opening riff of "Kenneth."
Dr. Dre, "Let Me Ride" (The Chronic, 1992). Two years earlier I'm still in the seminary, living in Detroit's Six-Mile/Livernois area, in a huge house that used to be a convent for cloistered nuns. The area is rough. Police helicopters, car alarms, liquor stores with single cigarettes for sale and built-in ice cream parlors and Thai take-out counters. I sit in the room of Hung, one of my fellow seminarians and unwrap a care package his family has sent from New Orleans. The care package contains dried squid, cans of lychee fruit, and a couple cartons of Marlboro Lights. Because the dried squid goes best with beer, according to Hung, we walk to Tradewinds on Livernois. Returning to Hung's room, we enjoy some American beer and Vietnamese snacks as Dr. Dre enjoys heavy (err, constant) rotation on Detroit radio. "Let Me Ride" is essentially a cover of Parliament's "Mothership Connection," poppy and infectious and funky, with original verses about gangbangin' in L.A. The paradox is the perfect soundtrack for eighteen-year-olds (who happen to be studying for the priesthood) drinking cheap beer on a Friday night.