THE GREAT CURVE 003
curated by Todd Berryman
When I wrote the first couple of editions of The Great Curve, I had worried about the possibility that reading these essays about favorite albums, people might be put off by the fact that there was a biographical element in them. It wasn’t just facts, it was me giving you information about circumstances leading to a discovery, and the like, and an obvious emotional component…but, then, I thought, you know, that was the whole premise of 45s for 45 in the first place, nimrod. What, you’re gonna get bashful, or come off self-absorbed, NOW? If they’ve been aboard with that so far, they’re probably with you for the duration.
I think part of it was realizing that I have an advantage on this kind of project that a typical rock critic might not, in that they have to slam out tons of reviews, keep the assembly line moving. With me, it’s about albums that have been lived in. The sense memory. Or event memory. Sometimes the backstory on an album runs long. And there may be the telling detail why that album, that moment. The fragrance of sound is what colors this, in some ways, more honest biography than if I had intentionally set out to write one.
It’s been said that Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism found the writer inserting himself into the story, or maybe more accurately in my sonic worldview, placed a little higher into the mix. For me, it’s more a function of how people write a story: the novelist tells you about the trees and how they almost glow because of the way the sun hangs in the sky, the taste of the popsicle while another character stands on the sandwalk and points out a plane, whatever. (Guilty.) The thing is, there’s sound in those tales, crickets carried on the breeze and through heat and Mom calling from the house and that…but there’s not usually a soundtrack. These tales are carried through all of the senses, but music always seems remarkably absent. And if you’re someone whose default interpretation is the world through music, you won’t see a lot of books that fill that bill well.
There have been rare exceptions, signposts that have pointed the way. Al Young’s Drowning in the Sea of Love was a huge one for me, a collection subtitled Musical Memoirs, and that’s exactly what it is: the sound of music is the guiding force. He may not mention Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” throughout that essay more than for a few paragraphs, but the world that music conjures for him may be more fascinating. Or, “All the Things You Are” may take the opposite tack, and be the centerpost of the entire story. His take on a Django Reinhardt composition is a jumping-off point for a story of an interview with The Far Side creator Gary Larson. It’s a still-resonating collection that resides on my top shelf, as much for the diversity of writing approaches as for the music choices and memories.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s Sonata for Jukebox is another outstanding one, mining the same style of Young’s book but in longer forms. Subtitled An Autobiography of My Ears, it’s a newer love, but no less of one. His stories may be a bit more surprising, with one significant one that made my jaw drop when I realized he was telling me the story behind a very well-known lyric, because he lived part of it, but wasn’t really in the song…one of the background characters who saw all the main players and could give insightful comment.
Two great biographies, but with music at the center of them. It’s a long stylistic shadow being cast, and I’ve seen others touch on it, but never quite the same way. But reading both of them, I’d felt I’d found a voice. Now, I’m aware that this is being in that completely “meta” fashion in which I’m telling you about the process. I’m just hoping that you’ll be forgiving in these moments (as I’m sure we are not NEARLY done with them), since these are basically diary entries with a soundtrack album to go with each. And sometimes I’m kind of watching that process as it moves along, a little stunned myself at times, about what I’ve revealed, but more so how much I’ve remembered when the layers peel off, onion-like, things that may have fallen aside over the years, only to come roaring back.
Anybody who knows me directly probably knew this was coming up eventually, so I’m pulling the pin on this glorious pastoral bomb now. 🙂
With this band, it was another one of those cases of constantly reading reviews, hearing how impressive XTC and their music was, but not taking the risk until getting to college, because my local radio market was not embracing this kind of music, anyway. It was almost a secret handshake where I lived, a code that applied to pre-Joshua Tree U2, or pre-Document R.E.M., XTC, Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, the Replacements, Julian Cope, name your artist. There were people where I lived – I discovered later on – that followed this music, but I didn’t know it in mid-80s southern Indiana in my particular small town (that information, that there were fellow travelers, didn’t reveal itself for about another decade). As a high schooler, they weren’t much in evidence. We just had to stumble into each other once in a while. (We also didn’t have reliable cable television in that small town; not many people did, so MTV wasn’t a source of information on that front, an advantage my brethren in Louisville likely had, considering no radio station locally was playing much of it.)
I read the glowing feature-of-the-month album review of Skylarking in early 1987 in Stereo Review, as I recall, a followup to a review two years prior for their album The Big Express in the same magazine, which wasn’t as well-regarded (it’s been a while, but I believe the critic that took on that one used the phrase “too clever by half,” which seemed to still be an improvement as to what was clogging the airwaves then). The fact that there was a full-page devoted to Skylarking versus a paragraph or maybe two for the predecessor seemed to be a revelation in itself.
My enthusiasms had to wait to surface a little while longer, that freshman year in college, DJing jazz on Thursday nights, snapping up discounted and rapidly vanishing new vinyl albums whenever possible, wandering home with the occasional promo, buying my first CDs. Just before spring in 1989, the promo vinyl copies for Oranges and Lemons came to our college radio station, my first exposure to XTC. Curiosity got me, and I stayed late one Thursday night after my air shift to listen to some of it…and was sufficiently impressed enough to bust out a blank tape and record some of it as a “make do” until I could get time to walk to our local record store and grab my own copy.
Talking about the album later with another disc jockey at the college station, I mentioned wanting to pick up Skylarking, and I was instead encouraged to buy English Settlement from 1982, the band’s other two-record set. Start of sophomore year, I took his advice, which ended up being a bad call. Well, not bad, but premature, anyway.
It’s a problem that I’ve noticed quite often, for diehard fans of many things, which is that the opinion in the know may be true, but may not be the most helpful. Take Mystery Science Theater 3000, for example. One of the most cited favorite films for MST3K buffs is the fourth season’s Manos: The Hands of Fate. And if you are a buff, that’s fine…but if you’re someone I’m trying to get INTO the show, and you haven’t really seen it before, it can be a real slog. Basically, I need to set the stage and give you a higher joke-per-minute ratio; if you don’t have a “standard” to go by, you don’t realize how truly appalling Manos is, and how hard the hosts are working to make it actually GO. Not denying its greatness, I simply mean that, say, if Sgt. Peppers was the first Beatles album you’ve ever heard, me telling you to check out Please Please Me next may not have the same appeal.
And so it happened with me. Going from a certain expert pop songcraft to something coming off this side of punk was a little too much whiplash, and it took me years to listen to more than just a few songs on English Settlement. NOW, it’s a favorite, because I can appreciate it in terms of the band’s overall catalog, and recognize how significant an achievement it actually was. But hearing it when I did almost cured me of listening to much more of XTC’s stuff at all.
A few months later, remembering that almost ecstatic review of Skylarking from a trusted critic in Stereo Review, and taking other print reviews into consideration, I caved in and bought the CD. I brought it back to the dorm room, pulled off the shrink wrap, read through the booklet credits – wow, Todd Rundgren produced this? – and dropped it into my CD Walkman, hooked up to the stereo.
The first track was interesting enough, but I hadn’t completely bought into it yet, at which point a couple of friends came into the room and started chatting. That ended up being a good thing, because I wasn’t actually focused on the music the same way…and in the middle of the conversation, my brain started to take notice, and I thought, wow, this first song is getting really, REALLY good. Which was when I walked back to the stereo, glanced at the CD player, and realized that I had hurtled well into the second song at that point. I had missed the hard segue that bridged “Summer’s Cauldron” and “Grass” during the chat, and realized that I might be in for quite a ride on this album.
Rather than let the album continue, I backed up to the beginning again after my friends had taken off to finish up some homework, this time carefully listening, and carefully watching the CD counter. “Grass” came up again as the track number clicked over, and I pretty much sat there, mesmerized. Another repeat of those two tracks…and thought, I will need to come back to this again before this night is out, and moved forward through the album, noticing the ecstatic-to-meh balance was definitely in favor of the former.
Following my by-then learned process of stopping at the halfway mark of a CD so as not to burnout on it (the equivalent of flipping from Side 1 to Side 2), I took a snack break, visited the neighbors for a moment, and came back on the second half, which had as many pleasures if not more. When it concluded, went back to the beginning for that artful one-two punch, and then to bed after that.
Sure enough, the typical that happens to me when I go ass-over-teakettle for a song happened that night, as I woke up in the way-too-early AM with a desire to hear it again. Out came the headphones, directly into the Walkman for at least one more go-round of the “Summer’s Cauldron” -> “Grass” pairing, my roommate Kurt epically snoring at such volume that the headphones weren’t quite sealing it out. The result was “it would shock you too/the things we used to do on grass” followed by BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZRTahhhhhhZZZERTERTERT and variations.
Selections from that album, the follow up and English Settlement all got thrown onto a mixtape to take in the car around the holiday season, picking up my long-distance girlfriend for a date, going to various events…and so I tend to hear the whole of Skylarking as a Christmas album, almost. (I had purchased it after Thanksgiving break.) When I think of hearing it, the first mental image is of the strands of Christmas lights festooning the windows of our dorm room, the multicolored ones that Kurt hung up the same day I’d bought it.
The long-distance girlfriend, the first of the ubiquitous Jennifers, did not last. The album did. It was the soothing balm that helped pull me back into myself after I got kicked to the curb. It was the beauty in the world that kept me from being stupid and desperate, that godawful Valentine’s Day.
And it was the album that came out with me into the world, late on that surprisingly warm April night, the first really warm night of the year, about two months later, when it felt like the whole world was in love with something. I sat outside under the trying-to-bud trees on a bench in front of my dorm, the << button getting constantly pushed to take me back to the beginning of “Grass” again and again and again, for an hour and a half, until well past one in the morning. The infatuation of the couples strolling past was evident, but the love in my life, a love that has never shaken off, is that song, even now. Decades’ worth of romances have ebbed and flowed, but that song, and that album, have never left me longing.
That wondrous opening pairing of the first two songs on Skylarking. The hard segue I mentioned happens at 3:19 here, and you really NEED to hear that lead-in to get the full effect.
Years later, I finally got a vinyl version of the album, which included this song that was left off future printings, thanks to the B-side “Dear God” getting airplay, then added to the album sequence.
And then to this one, a lift of the early Beatles sound, without being precisely the same. The stratospheric effect on the rhythm guitars in the opening eight seconds is some prime ear sugar.
Finally, one of my favorite songs on the album, a spy film theme without a film, pretty much. 🙂 I love the second verse horns and the dirty guitar line that pops up in the back half – really some great arranging on this.