April 4, 2010

John Nagle's Eternal Mixtape

“The Best Mixtape I Have”

George Harrison: “I Got My Mind Set On You”

My parents got MTV and a VCR around the same time. When my dad saw a video he liked, he taped it. “I Got My Mind Set on You” was the first video on the tape, and the first music video I ever saw. I didn’t know anything about song structure, or lyrics, or even that George Harrison was a Beatle, I just liked the way his vocals melded with the kick drum.

Fine Young Cannibals: “She Drives Me Crazy”

“She Drives Me Crazy” also begins with a pounding kick drum, but Dave Cox’s guitar was what hooked me. I can hear the riff in my head to this day. If you listen hard enough, you can hear “fallen logo,” whatever that means. I went through three copies of The Raw and the Uncooked before my third copy mysteriously disappeared. I guess someone was tired of hearing Roland Gift’s falsetto 3,000 times a day.

The Beatles: “She Loves You”

The Beatles are so ubiquitous in our house that it’s a miracle I can still listen to them.
When music nerds name their favorite Beatles song, they usually try to go as obscure as possible. Screw that. Abbey Road is my favorite album, 1965-1966 is my favorite period, but “She Loves You” is the best thing the Beatles ever did. Every time I hear McCartney hit the final “be glad,” I wonder what it’s like to feel that kind of joy.

Smashing Pumpkins: “Today”

Travis Brown was as cool as a kid could be in the third grade. Travis had a much older sister, so he had unlimited access to popular culture. When his sister discovered The Smashing Pumpkins, he became obsessed with them. He even wrote a story about them in Storybook Weaver. I can’t remember the plot, but it probably involved Billy Corgan riding around in a van solving mysteries. I think he wore a kerchief. I wanted to be cool like Travis, so I took my allowance to Waxie Maxie’s and spent the astronomical sum of $12.99 for a Siamese Dream cassette. It was the first album I bought with my own money.

Green Day: “When I Come Around”

I was the only suburban kid in the United States that didn’t own a copy of Dookie. My mom’s best friend told her that it was the worst thing she had ever heard, so I was told that it would never enter the house. Oddly enough, she had no problems with NWA’s 1988 opus, Straight Outta Compton. Figure that one out.

No Doubt: “Sunday Morning,” Hootie and the Blowfish: “Time,” Bush: “Greedy Fly”

These records started thousands of collections, including mine. We all began by listening to the radio and copying our friends. Then you either continue on the main road, or travel down the rocky road of music geekdom.

Guns n’ Roses: “It’s So Easy”

My family belongs to an exclusive country club. At the end of the summer, they have a back to school cookout. I was always forced to attend. During one of these cookouts, I was playing catch with a group of kids. The ringleader decided that he wanted to play football in the volleyball pit, which is covered in sand. I asked if we could play somewhere else, since my wheelchair can’t go in sand. He flatly refused, and the kids left me there. As I was going back to our table, the DJ played Dave Matthews’ “Ants Marching.” I remember thinking, “I am going to find the exact opposite of this.”

When I went to the record store the next day, I found a little record called Appetite for Destruction. The cover was a crucifix with five skulls on it. The dudes on the back were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. The one in the corner was wearing leather pants and had a look on his face that said “If you fuck with me, I will beat the shit out of you.”

I took it home, and Axl Rose became my first musical confidant. He was saying everything I wanted to say, but couldn’t. My favorite track on Appetite for Destruction is “It’s So Easy,” because of this line: “I see you standing there/you think you’re so cool/why don’t you just FUCK OFF!”

Those kids couldn’t fuck with me anymore. I had Axl, Slash, Duff and Izzy on my side.

Poison: “Talk Dirty to Me”

Poison is the most significant band of my teenage years. Some of you are probably rolling your eyes, but put yourself in my Chuck Taylors for a second. Imagine you are in a body cast for two months. After you get the cast taken off, you have to spend three weeks in the hospital for rehab. After you get out of the hospital, you have to go to a special school so you can get physical therapy every day. The teacher hates you for no apparent reason. You have no confidence in yourself whatsoever. Then you hear a song about the most glorious, sinful, carnal, inappropriate, un-Catholic sex in the world, sung by the coolest guy you have ever seen. Instead of telling you to go away, he invites you to join the party. You’d take him up on it, right?

Limp Bizkit: “Hot Dog”

If you are a white male born between the years 1984 to 1987, you have a Limp Bizkit record in your collection. You may listen to Grizzly Bear now, but you once gave it all for the nookie.

I spent many lunch periods discussing the pure awesomeness of Limp Bizkit with my esteemed associates, Jeremy and Steve. Fred Durst was like, so cool man. We eagerly awaited the release of Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, which was going to be the Sgt. Pepper of our generation. Brother Fred was going to reveal some deep truths. Finally, after months of anticipation, the big day arrived. My mom took me down to Waves music and I proudly gave my allowance to the clerk. He rolled his eyes as he rang me up, but what did he know?

I raced home, put the sacred disc in my Sony boombox and shut the door. One day, I was going to tell my grandchildren about this moment. My ears were greeted with this:

What? That was weird. Why is Fred breaking the fourth wall? What does he have against Trent Reznor? Does he really need to say “fuck” 45 times?
I listened to the album five times in a row and came to a conclusion.

“This album sucks.”

My inner critic had arrived.

The Replacements: “Unsatisfied”

I discovered Let it Be without any recommendation from Spin or Rolling Stone. I found it in a Best Buy one day, and was impressed that they had the balls to steal a title from The Beatles. I was the perfect age. Paul Westerberg became my second musical confidant. If Axl Rose said the things I couldn’t say, Westerberg was articulating the way I felt. I was sixteen, stuck in the suburbs wondering when life would begin. Paul didn’t have the answers to my questions, but he let me vent.

Pretty Boy Floyd: “Wild Angels”

All music geeks have asked themselves this question: If you could make any album in the world, what would it be? Most people would say Blonde on Blonde, Sgt. Pepper or OK Computer. Not me. If I could make any album in the world, it would be Leather Boyz With Electric Toyz.

Poison was my gateway drug to hair metal. By my senior year in high school, I listened to them all; Skid Row, Motley Crue, LA Guns, Ratt, Quiet Riot, W.A.S.P., Danger Danger, Faster Pussycat, Stryper, Whitesnake, Dokken, I could go on for days. If a band had big hair and obscenely tight pants, I bought their record no questions asked. By 2003, the critical opinion of hair metal had slightly shifted. It still sucked, but you could like it ironically. In the spirit of irony, Spin ran a cover story about the Sunset Strip. At the end of the story, the author singled out Pretty Boy Floyd as the band that killed hair metal.

Wow. That was a pretty strong statement. I had to hear that record. I mean, they killed an entire genre. The album was long out of print, so it took me about six months to track down a copy of Leather Boyz With Electric Toyz. It was worth the wait.

Leather Boyz With Electric Toyz is not the record that killed hair metal. If it had been handled properly, it would have saved it. PBF are not great musicians or talented lyricists, but they captured the sheer joy of rock n’ roll. They never aspire to be anything more than the most over the top glam band in the world. When Steve “Sex” Summers talks about running away to Hollywood and rocking all night long (like he never could), he means it. I played this record for a friend recently, and he put it best. “This is the sound of hair metal clawing its way back.” Indeed.

Butch Walker: “Mixtape/”Best Thing You Never Had”

“Mixtape” and “Best Thing You Never Had” are forever linked in my mind. One represents the awkward joy of telling someone how you feel, while the other is the pain of unrequited love.

I had discovered Butch Walker in my freshman year of college. I bought his first solo album, Left of Self Centered, on a whim. I liked him a lot, but Letters changed my life.

Throughout high school, I was in love with a girl. We sat next to each other in history class, and eventually became friends. She would argue with her boyfriend and then come crying to me. I would tell her how beautiful she was and how he didn’t deserve her, yadda yadda yadda. This went on for almost three years.

The week Letters came out, we had a huge fight. I don’t remember what it was about, but we stopped talking. “Best Thing You Never Had” summed up our relationship in four minutes and 30 seconds. I spent a lot of time riding around Towson playing that record over and over again. Butch tried to tell me it would be OK, but I didn’t believe him.

In the fall of 2005, I met a girl named Monica. She complimented my Nine Inch Nails patch. We went out to dinner, watched John Cusack movies, and went to wrestling. It was a mutual thing rather than a one-sided therapy session. After a couple months, I had to tell her how I felt and I chose Butch Walker’s words; “You gave me the best mixtape I have. Even the sad songs ain’t so sad. I just wish there was so much more than that, about me and you.” She cried.

Although it didn’t work out romantically between us, Monica is one of my best friends.

Butch was right.

Bob Dylan: “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”

I bought my first copy of Blonde on Blonde because it was on sale. I thought I had finally sold out. After years of decrying the rock critics who pretentiously worshipped Dylan, Sonic Youth and Pavement, I had crossed the line. I was treating it like the musical equivalent of Schindler’s List; nobody wants to see that film, but you have to. I think you can guess what happened. It’s Blonde on Blonde.

I like Pavement and Sonic Youth now too. My fourteen year old-self wants to kick my ass.

The Rolling Stones: “Sister Morphine”

Like every other person with Baby Boomer parents, I was exposed to The Rolling Stones at an early age. The first album I ever heard was Steel Wheels. Steel Wheels is a decent album, but it’s a latter day Stones album. The Stones were not really a band in 1988, but a corporation. My mom told me that she wasn’t allowed to listen to the Rolling Stones, because they were bad boys. I looked at the pleasantly wrinkled face of Mick Jagger and wondered what was so threatening.

I didn’t find out until many years later. I bought Sticky Fingers, Beggars Banquet and Let it Bleed. When I heard Sticky Fingers in its entirety for the first time, I understood. The Rolling Stones were not always elder statesmen who performed “Satisfaction” to stadiums of yuppies. Sticky Fingers shows a weary band mired in drug addiction. Jagger’s voice is so weary that you feel like you have done heroin with him.

David Bowie: “Lady Stardust”

I’ve always been fascinated with David Bowie, because I’m fascinated with the idea of personal transformation. How did a kid with an ordinary name become a bisexual space alien sent to save Earth? Bowie has something that not many people have anymore; complete and total mystique. When people talk about David Bowie, they usually talk about his recurring motifs, but he’s also one of the most underrated singers of the rock era. “Life on Mars?” is the best known, but “Lady Stardust” is my favorite vocal showcase of his. He lets his vocals soar without overdoing the pyrotechnics. “Lady Stardust” is a masterpiece of grandeur and restraint.

Elvis Presley: “Unchained Melody”

The King has entered the Eternal Mixtape. I spent way too long debating which Elvis song to include here. I almost went with “Suspicious Minds,” which is his masterpiece and my favorite Elvis song. Then I switched to “Jailhouse Rock,” which was the first Elvis song I ever heard. Then I decided to go really obscure and pick something like “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame,” or “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road.” I even considered my two least favorite Elvis songs, “No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car” and “Who Needs Money?” so I could argue for his greatness.

I went with the song that revived my love for Elvis, and turned him into my favorite artist of all time.

I went through a brief but intense Elvis phase as a kid. When I grew out of it, I started to subscribe to the theory that Elvis was flat out racist and plain (motherfuck him and John Wayne). I had no grounds for believing this theory, other than what I read in music magazines. Then Rolling Stone pointed me to this video of Elvis singing “Unchained Melody” during his final concert.

He’s fat, bloated, and dripping with sweat, but he summons the notes from the depths of his soul. When he hits the first few high notes, the suit, the fat and the bloat melt away. He is the King again. I think I have something in my eye.

Bruce Springsteen: “No Surrender” (live, acoustic)

On his blockbuster album Born in the USA, “No Surrender” is a fun song. On this version, recorded during the Born in the USA tour, The Boss strips it down to the bare essentials. It’s just his guitar and his words. He sums it up so succinctly: “Here’s one for friendship.” Bruce’s best songs are about friendship and loyalty, and this one is my favorite.

Cheap Trick: “Clock Strikes Ten”

“I’m not going to cry this time,” I thought, as I prepared to see Cheap Trick for the
third time. “They are just a band. I see bands almost every week. It’s only Cheap Trick.”

My resolution lasted about 30 seconds.

I can’t really explain why Cheap Trick makes me so happy, but they do. They are my vision of a perfect rock band. They have the matinee idols, but they also have two nerds. Rick Nielsen’s guitar riffs are really heavy, but are offset by killer harmonies. The choruses are big, but the lyrics are complicated. Christ, I sound like a Pitchfork writer. I think it can be summed up in one sentence: “ON THE DRUMS, MR. BUN E. CARLOS!” If that doesn’t get you, nothing will.

Radiohead: “Black Star”

My first exposure to Radiohead was in the ninth grade. My best friend, Steve, had a crush on a girl who liked them. He went out and bought Kid A, which was their newest release at the time. He listened to it for about three weeks and then went back to Disturbed. I inherited Steve’s copy of Kid A, and I didn’t get it either. So because I was fourteen, I decided that I didn’t like Radiohead, even though I’d never heard anything else.

By my sophomore year of college, I was more enlightened. I was listening to everything, from The Smiths to John Coltrane. Since I was giving everything else a chance, it was time to reevaluate Radiohead. But where to begin?
I went to the record store that weekend and bought The Bends, because I knew “Fake Plastic Trees.” When I finished the album, I understood Radiohead. Why did I respond to The Bends, but not Kid A, which is their masterpiece?

It’s quite simple; The Bends is an arena rock record. The songs had riffs, choruses, bridges and hooks. The conventional structures were twisted with avant guard flourishes; a tape loop here, distortion there. It’s easy to get sucked in. From there you get OK Computer and then go into Kid A.

Once I had a firm foundation in Radiohead’s music, I understood Kid A. My experience with Radiohead taught me that a gateway is everything. If you are looking to get into an established band and get the wrong record, it can influence your opinion for years to come. If only I’d heard The Bends first.

The Gaslight Anthem: “High Lonesome”

As an acclaimed music journalist, I have to listen to a lot of music. Once in a while, I encounter something that reminds me why I started writing about music in the first place. “High Lonesome” is one of them.

Ramones: “Cretin Hop”

Finally, “Cretin Hop” has been on every mixtape I’ve made since I was seventeen. Why break tradition?

This tape only scratches the surface of my musical life. Here are some songs that missed the cut.

Skid Row: Monkey Business
Warrant: Heaven
Metallica: One
Pantera: Revolution Is My Name
Marvelous 3: Beautiful
Prince & The Revolution: When You Were Mine
Elvis Costello: Hand in Hand
Joe Jackson: Happy Loving Couples
The Smiths: I Know It’s Over
Thin Lizzy: Romeo and the Lonely Girl
The Faces: Flying
Notorious BIG: Big Poppa
The Hold Steady: Constructive Summer
The Clash: Brand New Cadillac
Iron Maiden: Aces High
The Ronettes: Be My Baby