(As a holiday gift in December 2022, Chloe, Ella & Alex provided me a gift subscription to something called Storyworth. Each week in 2023, I’m being provided a writing prompt designed to get me to reflect on some moment in my life. At the end of the year, my reflections will be printed in a bound book as a family keepsake. I have the option of editing or even selecting the prompts, as do Chloe, Ella & Alex. I selected this as prompt #3.)
A few years ago, Marc Burns, a buddy of mine from high school, challenged me on Facebook to post ten record albums that I love, a soundtrack of my life, so to speak. I was to post one album a day for ten days. Explanations weren’t necessary, just include a picture of each album cover. Being a storytelling-kind-of-guy, I couldn’t resist giving a little detail about each of my ten choices.
I recently came across the archive of my choices and thought it would be a great addition to this memoir-writing activity. So here it is with some slight edits, although I wrote this “for Marc” and have left in the cutesy references to him. Of importance, the year in parentheses is the year I first heard the record, not necessarily the year the record came out. As a soundtrack of my life, I presented the albums chronologically from when they first entered my awareness.
#1 — “Armed Forces” — Elvis Costello & the Attractions (1979)
Okay, Marc, I have to start with “Armed Forces” since it was the first album I bought with the idea that I would actually own records myself instead of listening to my brother Steve’s records (or the radio). That album led me in many important directions. From a memory and person standpoint, “Armed Forces” was not only a staple of the poker night soundtrack, I have a distinct recollection of singing along to “Oliver’s Army” with Lisa Halpern in the parking lot of the Lake Hills Community Center in Bellevue. Lisa had the kind generosity to compliment my singing.
#2 — “Cloudy, With Occasional Tears” — Skeeter Davis (1982)
So, Marc, I’m presenting these albums chronologically from when I discovered them, if that matters. And today’s album is one I discovered as a 19 year-old deejay in Seward, Alaska in 1982. Every third song we played on the radio was supposed to be a country song and I found myself drawn to the older stuff. This Skeeter Davis album quickly became my favorite, so much so that one night I played it in its entirety while waiting for the monthly meeting of the Seward City Council to start, which we broadcast live. The challenging part was flipping the record over to play Side 2 while talking about it…
#3 — “Foreign Affairs” — Tom Waits (1984)
So, Marc, I was in Tower Records on The Ave in Seattle in 1984 and spotted this album, “Foreign Affairs,” being sold for what they called a “Nice Price,” something like $3.49 for an LP, practically giving it away. It was winter time and snowing slightly. I had a date, a woman named Paula, coming to my apartment for dinner so I was out shopping for dinner food (you’ll understand why that included a stop at Tower to buy a Tom Waits record). I don’t remember what I made for the main course, but I do know I made a mint chocolate pie with an Oreo cookie crust for dessert, the recipe coming from a box of Jello pudding. So picture this. I’m back at my apartment crushing Oreo cookies to make the crust, the turntable needle on the record. On comes the Tom Waits — Bette Midler duet, “I Never Talk to Strangers.” It was a perfect moment, honestly. Snowing lightly, a date coming, Oreo cookies, Tom Waits on the hi-fi. Not even the fact that Paula stood me up could ruin the perfection of this record. I think of it every time I play it.
#4 — “The Cole Porter Songbook” — Ella Fitzgerald (1987)
Well, Marc, here is record #4, Ella Fitzgerald performing the Cole Porter songbook. The album came out in 1956 but I place it in 1987 in my chronology because that’s when I started listening to it. My copy belonged to my mom who bought it new back in the 50’s. Come 1987, she wasn’t listening to vinyl anymore so I took some of her more choice albums down to Olympia where I was living while attending The Evergreen State College. It’s a double album so it has four sides, lots of great music with Ella’s beautiful singing. I have distinct memories of sitting at my work table doing research about brain injuries and writing reports about cross cultural special education practices while listening to this record. Did you know that there is no word in the Navajo language for disability? I found that very enlightening. Still do, actually. Final note: I eventually passed the record on to Nick, my nephew, Steve & Deb’s son, who loves having vinyl. That this copy belonged to his grandmother makes it all the more special.
#5 — “Workers Playtime” — Billy Bragg (1989)
Marc, I had always appreciated Billy Bragg’s early albums, the really pared down Billy-alone-with-his-electric-guitar-post-punk-protest songs. But there is something about 1988’s “Workers Playtime” that makes it my favorite Billy Bragg album by far. It could be that I played it regularly in 1989 when I moved into the favorite of my many solo residences, a $240/mo attic in downtown Renton. But I think the bigger reason I’m crazy for this record is for the love songs on it. I had been trying my hand at songwriting (more like lyric writing, to be honest) and found out how difficult it is to write a non-sappy love song. Billy seemed to have figured it out, all while respecting women and communicating in simple terms that relationships are complex. An important romantic relationship for me ended during this time and this album is part of that soundtrack, maybe IS that soundtrack. Decades removed from the attic, that relationship, and “Workers Playtime,” I look back on it all with great fondness and appreciation.
#6 — “Diva” — Annie Lennox (1993)
I’m jumping ahead to 1993 now, Marc, the year Chloe, my oldest daughter, was born. Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe that people as youthful looking and vigorous as Melinda and me can have adults for children. Anyway… Melinda went into labor on February 27th and didn’t tell me anything about it until about 7:30pm, at which point, due to a bad cold and the comfort of Hockey Night in Canada on TV, I was dozing on the couch. She said something to the effect of, “When do you think we should start timing these contractions I’ve been having?” Let me just say, that is a question that counteracts the effects of NyQuil, Don Cherry, and comfortable couches. Four hours later we were in the birthing center at Virginia Mason, and less than four hours after that, Chloe was born. I had brought along a couple of CDs to be the first music our baby would hear as a breathing human, kd lang’s “Ingenue” and Annie Lennox’s “Diva.” As I recall, Chloe came into this world to Annie Lennox, hence its presence here.
#7 — “Songs From Einstein’s Violin” — Frank Tedesso (1998)
Hey Marc — I don’t remember how I found this album although I do know I kind of stumbled upon it. It might have been on CD Baby or some other seller of independent music. What I do know is that the songs on the album have touched me like few others I’ve heard in the last 30 years, which is why I’m including it here. It always makes my top 10 list. I’m placing my awareness of the album as being 1998, the year we moved into our Seattle house, although I know it came out in 1996. I was able to track down the performer, Frank Tedesso, and we even had a short email exchange 25 years or so ago. I bought some of his other songs from him, along with a book of his poetry. It’s all good, but this record, for me, is great. It may be of interest that it was produced by William Ackerman, the founder of Windham Hill Records whose most famous performer is probably the pianist George Winston. Oh, one more thing about this record, Melinda can’t stand Tedesso’s singing voice so when I play it, I have to do so when she’s not around.
#8 — “Rabbit Songs” — Hem (2005)
So, Marc, back in 2005 or 2006 I made a mixed tape for Melinda (okay, it was a mixed CD but that just doesn’t sound right) called “Songs I Wish I’d Written for Melinda.” To be clear, the idea wasn’t to make a mix for Melinda of songs I wish I’d written, although technically that would have been true. The idea was to make a mix of songs I wish I had the brilliance to have written FOR Melinda. Like with her in mind, you know, and coming from her husband/best friend… On that CD, err mixed tape, I placed a song from this album by Hem, “Stupid Mouth Shut.” The brilliance of the song comes from the singer knowing she should tell her partner that she loves him (her? them?) but when the opportunity comes she just keeps, you know, her stupid mouth shut. Why I wish I had written this song for Melinda is because she thinks I should tell her I love her more often than I do. Go figure. Do note that the album didn’t make this list of 10 because of this song alone, though. It’s packed full of lovely songs, including “Half Acre” which was used in a Liberty Mutual TV commercial.
#9 — “The Reluctant Graveyard” — Jeremy Messersmith (2011)
Back in 2011 while living in France, Marc, I discovered the music of Jeremy Messersmith via Paste Magazine, to which I had an online subscription. That spring, his album “The Reluctant Graveyard” was played more than any other in my iTunes library, so much so that it still ranks as the most-played album in my listening history as recorded by last.fm, and by quite a bit. We returned to Seattle that summer and in 2012 Jeremy launched what he called his Supper Club Tour. He’d find someone to host a potluck dinner in their home and after eating together with the attendees, he’d play an intimate show. I bought two tickets for his Seattle engagement which took place in a pretty small house in Wallingford, perhaps 25 of us packed into the living room. I tried to get Melinda, Chloe, or Ella, my other daughter, to go with me, but they weren’t interested so I went by myself, squandering one ticket. It was so much fun and I had a great time talking to Jeremy about his music. Since then, Ella has become a fan and regrets not going. The lesson here, children? Listen to your parents.
#10 — “Tree of Forgiveness” — John Prine (2018)
We’ve come to the end of my 10 albums, Marc, and I’m wrapping it up by presenting John Prine’s “Tree of Forgiveness.” In making John Prine my last entry, I’m doing so with a nod to his career which is as impressive as any as far as I’m concerned. I bought my first John Prine record in 1984, even though his first album came out in 1971. I don’t recall really knowing who he was until 1984 and I try not to beat myself up about that. But those 13 years seem kind of wasted and I’ve spent the subsequent nearly four decades trying to make up for it. I’ve followed everything he’s done since then and regularly get in my musical time machine to go back to listen to what I’ve missed. If anyone has ever been able to sum up what it means to be an ordinary human, it’s John Prine. Like everything John Prine does, this record is really good. Some time, Marc, if you want, let’s go out for a beer and I’ll tell you about taking my mom to see John Prine in concert. It may be the best concert experience of my life.