Saturday, August 24, 2013

Taste Is a Matter of Taste

It's been a good mix on the iTunes tonight: Replacements, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, Old 97s, Aimee Mann, the National, and so on. It always feels like a good sign when you let the shuffle take over and it pulls up tracks you weren't thinking of but are glad for the surprise. Decades ago I can remember having the same experience listening to something called "radio." Here in central Maine we've never had great radio. These days we have the exact opposite of great radio: it's either dumbfuck country or establishment pop, neither of which is any more distinctive than a department store mannequin, and both of which are hosted by DJs whose high-strung enthusiasm is so obviously fake I find myself wondering how they keep from killing themselves. They must be very well-paid. Thirty, thirty-five years ago, though, I was young enough not to have heard everything several hundred times, and so it was kind of special to tune the radio to WBLM (the Rock & Roll Blimp! My first girlfriend gave me one of the original tees for Valentine's Day, 1982!) and hear AC/DC's "For Those About to Rock," or to stumble upon WTOS (the Mountain of Rock . . .), which might have been the area's first alternative station (that wasn't affiliated with a college) -- it was the place I first heard REM and Elvis Costello. Of course, now WTOS is just another schlock-jock commercial rock station, with the personality and integrity of a snake-oil salesman. Steve Jobs, thank you so much for making the iPod possible. For those of us residing in America's radio-culture wastelands, it has been a tremendous blessing.

The great mass of people ask for so little and get so much of it. I said that. Actually, I've been saying it for years. Of the many quips that have crossed my lips, I think I'm most proud of that one (although I'm also rather fond of the response I gave to a woman who demanded to know how I could despise Eric Clapton: "Well, I was recently diagnosed with good taste." Not the point, though. I was mostly just distressed that she was showing no respect to the late JJ Cale.). I know it sounds like a shitty thing to say, but I believe the evidence supports my hypothesis: most people have lousy taste, and the mid-level executives whose responsibility it is to turn a profit for their shareholders make sure the bar goes no higher than those standards demand. In Cameron Crowe's Singles, maybe Matt Dillon's character Cliff Poncier said it best: "Most of these bands are like well-designed bottles of bleach." Indeed, Cliff. Indeed. "Touch me, I'm Dick" deserved some love. And I'm giving it to you right now, man. Right now, Cliff.

Taste, of course, is the most subjective of the several senses. Why in the world would anyone collect Hummel figurines? Or the artistic renderings of Thomas Kinkade? Why would anyone, without irony, decorate his lawn with plastic pink flamingoes? Or read, with absolute earnestness, Khalil Gibran? What does she see in that guy? Why does he stay with a woman who makes him crazy? How can you put hunk after hunk of pickled herring in your mouth like that? The answer to all of these questions, the only answer, is taste. As the French say, to each his own (they say it in French, but it sounds tres ludicrous). But like so many things French -- the Maginot Line, the Third Republic, the Renault le Car -- I find this less than satisfying. I think we owe it to each other and ourselves to do more than just live and let live.

And so, since we started out talking about music, I'm going to offer you all a little dose of good taste, in the form of a playlist I whipped up, just for fun. I'd love to be able to just post the actual music here, but our budget doesn't allow for that sort of high-tech know-how, so I'll give you the analog version, and you can run with it. If you're truly enamored, drop me a line and maybe I'll burn you a CD.

1. "Little Wing," Jimi Hendrix. Stevie Ray Vaughn did this song as an instrumental. The original is better.
2. "Secret Girl," Brad. Most of these guys were in Cliff Poncier's band in Singles. No well-designed bottle of bleach here. No well-designed bottle of bleach at all.
3. "Rattlesnakes," Tori Amos. This is actually a Lloyd Cole tune, but I like Tori's sultry take better. Plus, there's a line that says "Jodi wears a hat," and I have a friend named Jodi, and I've always wanted to see her in a hat.
4. "Exploding Boy," Alkaline Trio. This is a Cure song. If you don't know Alkaline Trio, you should, particularly their early stuff. The first time I heard it, this song was -- no hyperbole -- an awesome surprise.
5. "Thursday," Morphine. I don't know. Illicit sex. Give it a listen.
6. "So Nice So Smart," Kimya Dawson. This is a Juno soundtrack tune, I know nothing about the artist. But it's also about illicit sex. And there's some mention of lice.
7. "Half Dead," the Mountain Goats. These guys actually sort of annoy me, but a few of their songs crack me up. This is one of them.
8. "Shampoo," Elvis Perkins. Elvis Perkins is the son of Anthony Perkins (of Psycho fame). Nice recovery, Elvis. Well done. Seriously, this is an outstanding song.
9. "Exit Music (For a Film)," Radiohead. This is a pointedly bitter song, and I dig the underlying tension and pathos.
10. "Wide Eyes," Local Natives. I don't remember why I put this on here, but I like it. Actually, yes I do: it's the opening riff. I don't even care what follows. Great opening.
11. "The Hardest Part," Ryan Adams & the Cardinals. You wanna know what the hardest part is? Ryan Adams will tell you what the hardest part is. Just . . . shhhh. Shhhhhhh.
12. "I Will Dare," the Replacements. Once upon a time I knew a girl who was getting banged by one of her high school teachers. He put this son on a mix for her. He was classy.
13. "Left of the Dial," also the Replacements. Just a great fucking song. And this is the song I would put on the mix for the aforementioned girl, as well as a small handful of others. "If I don't see you there, I'll know why."
14. "I Never Cared for You," Willie Nelson. One of the best oblique love songs ever.
15. "Nowhere Is My Home," The Tim Version. Another Replacements song, a B-side, covered here by a band I'd never heard of, on a tribute album I stumbled across one day at Bull Moose Music. This is a quality cover, and it's my second favorite song in this mix.
16. "Cath..." Death Cab for Cutie. The album from which this song comes, Narrow Stairs, is my least favorite DCFC album, but this song is amazing. Benjamin Gibbard is a master songwriter, and when he's at his best, as he is here, there's absolutely nobody better. Best song on the mix.
17. "Light of Day," Tommy Stinson. Tommy was the bass player for the Replacements, and I loved him with the Mats but haven't much cared for his solo stuff. This song appeared on one of the soundtracks to the Showtime series Californication, and it speaks very much to the ethos of that show and its main character, which is why it caught my ear. Well done, Tommy. I'll never forget the night you spit a mouthful of . . . whatever on me and a dozen other people pressed against the stage at Colby College in 1989. Those were the days, huh, Tommy?
18. "Pieholden Suite," Wilco. This song breaks my heart. Every single time. I hope it breaks your heart too.

So that's it, that's the list. I hope you have taste enough to love it as much as I do. But if not, don't despair. We are, each one of us, imperfect creatures. Sometimes when I'm listening to my iTunes on shuffle, something entirely unexpected like, say, Maroon 5 will pop up, and my immediate response will be, "What the fuck?!" And then I remember: oh yeah, I want my daughter to love me. In the end, what does good taste matter if you have no one with whom to share it?