Summoning the music of their younger selves

By Steve Morse
October 5, 2009

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Uh oh, the premise of this book is to get “serious’’ authors - not entertainment critics - to write about the one album that made the deepest impact on them. That could open the door to all manner of snobbery. But fortunately that’s not the case in these highly readable, confessional pieces that focus on blockbuster acts from the Beatles, the Who, and the Jackson 5 to cultish figures Kate Bush, the Smiths, Fugazi, and Rickie Lee Jones.

The novelists, essayists, and magazine editors assembled for “Heavy Rotation’’ may end up revealing more than they intended (including a lot of debate about sexual confusion during their youth), but the mission of fusing music and literature, which is editor Peter Terzian’s theme, is accomplished quite well. A record album “becomes a portal into another world,’’ he writes, and most of the authors make their worlds come alive.

The choices are wildly varied, which makes “Heavy Rotation’’ all the more appealing. Novelist Alice Elliott Dark (like most of the contributors, she lives in the New York area), even succeeds in making an obsession with “shy Beatle’’ George Harrison palatable again. “You want to be with George without your father knowing,’’ she writes slyly. And the Who’s concept album of Mod culture, “Quadrophenia,’’ is engagingly described by James Wood, the literary critic and New Yorker magazine writer. His appraisal of the drumming of Keith Moon as “a form of dedicated vandalism’’ is right on. So is Martha Southgate’s view of the Jackson 5’s “Greatest Hits.’’ She’s an African-African Cleveland native who notes “how much like us they seemed at the time’’ - before Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery, of course.

The cult acts inspire even more passion. Stacey D’Erasmo, a novelist and assistant professor of writing at Columbia University, chooses Bush’s “The Sensual World,’’ aptly noting how her music has “a chilly wind blowing through the beauty.’’ And Benjamin Kunkel’s view of the Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead’’ is a classic. “It’s music that you listen to alone while you lay in awe on your bedroom floor,’’ he writes.

You soon realize how many of the writers like to listen to their favorite albums alone. Kate Christensen, whose book “The Great Man’’ received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction last year, rhapsodizes about “The Flying Cowboy’’ by Rickie Lee Jones: “I never listened to it with another person. It has always been and remains a solitary album for me, not a social one.’’

Some writers’ choices drift into obscurity. Editor Terzian chooses Miaow’s “Priceless Innuendo,’’ which never even came out until the band’s singer put it on her MySpace page years later. Harper’s magazine editor John Jeremiah Sullivan goes over the top to describe “American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants 1897-1939.’’

Regardless, great essays abound (some more like diary entries), from Lisa Dierbeck’s view of “The Pretenders’’ (she calls Chrissie Hynde a “punk Mae West’’), to Colm Tóibín’s praise of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue’’ album. He’s pleased that his family found her “sometimes too direct and disturbing for comfort.’’ And these may be topped by Pankaj Mishra’s brilliant piece on ABBA’s “Super Trouper.’’ As a 12-year-old in India, he found a pirated copy and it gave him a window on his generation’s “uncoordinated lunge toward a glamorous modernity.’’

A couple of chapters devolve into sour grapes, notably Mark Greif’s take on “Fugazi’’ (he cynically says you’re “genuinely ruined’’ if you listen to the same music when you’re older) and Joshua Ferris’s self-righteous look at Pearl Jam’s “Ten,’’ which he stopped listening to when the band got popular and is now only “an idle reminder, a symbol, not unlike a tombstone.’’

The overall thrust of this book, though, is to summon the ecstasy of those early albums that first woke you up to the possibilities of music. And, really, it’s still OK to listen to them. To quote Wood’s essay on “Quadrophenia’’: “Is it hypocritical to be old while also singing ‘But thank God I ain’t old’? I don’t think so.’’

Steve Morse can be reached at spmorse@gmail .com.

HEAVY ROTATION: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives
Edited by Peter Terzian
Harper Perennial, 297 pp., $14.99

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