What Ten Albums Form the Soundtrack of Your Life?

(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.)

My 18th birthday in my bedroom in Bellevue (photo credit – Marc Burns)

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.

Marc Burns on my 18th birthday in my bedroom in Bellevue (photo credit – me!)

What Were You Like as a Teenager?

(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. This is prompt #2.)

As a teacher, I often tell my students that if they could know everything about a topic they’d be seeing it with a 360 degree perspective. They could see inside and all around it, from every angle and with everything known.

On top of that, I say, we all know 100% of what we know. When you stop and think about it, that’s obvious, right? We know 100% of what we know. But we don’t stop to think about it and that’s a problem. Much of today’s divisiveness comes down to us thinking the 100% of what we know is a 360 degree perspective.

I make this point to try to help my students understand it’s important to be open to the perspectives of others.

Senior Year – I wish you could see the vest. It’s pink.

This all came to mind when I started thinking about the prompt, “What were you like as teenager?” I read it aloud to Melinda, my wife, who responded quickly with, “According to whom?”

Indeed, how many of the 360 degrees can I present in this essay about what I was like as a teenager? In other words, read the following with a grain of salt, knowing it was written by a near 60-year-old looking back.

Overall, I see my teen self as a loner. This isn’t to say I didn’t have friends. I did. And they were really good friends, too. I just look back and see myself standing away from my closest friends. Having to hustle away from school to get to my job as a bookstore clerk at Hunter’s Books was a regular part of my high school experience. In fact, my senior year I was working a 40 hour week and had configured my school schedule so I only had classes in the mornings.

But which came first, the wanting to be alone or accepting these shifts at the bookstore?

Outside Sammamish High School, 1980/81
Related, my most influential friend when I was a teen turned out to be someone in his mid-30’s, a man named Hank who came to work at Hunter’s during the summer of 1980, right before the beginning of my senior year. Hank and his wife Donna were in the process of walking from Alaska to Arizona as a way to bring attention to the Baha’i Faith, of which they were members. They ran out of money upon reaching the Seattle area and since Hank’s most recent job had been in a bookstore in Anchorage, he walked into Hunter’s and talked himself into a job.

There was something right away that drew Hank and me to each other. In Hank, I found a supporter for both my sensitive and rebellious sides. He read my sappy short stories and gave me feedback that resonated rather than insulted. He listened to my choice in records and pointed out deeper meanings in lyrics. My interest in thrift store clothes aligned with his and we often took his Thunderbird to Seattle’s seedier stores to tease out the best 75 cent shirts and jackets with half-used tubes of Preparation H in their pockets (true story). Looking back, I think Hank saw something in me that he could nurture, perhaps as a way to heal the nurturing he missed out on when he was a teen.

In December, Hank returned to Alaska to spend a month bussing tables for pipeline workers in the city of Barrow. Barrow, being at the northern-most point of Alaska, basically gets no sun for 30 days around the solstice, meaning it’s not a place many people choose to live in December. For working that month in a cafeteria, Hank made $10,000. And while the money made an impression on me, the independence and somewhat Bohemian lifestyle Hank demonstrated in going had a more significant impact. It stated that I didn’t have to follow my brothers, as I had to Hunter’s Books, to the University of Washington.

Hank and me in Alaska, 1982.

As a quick aside, I moved to Alaska, specifically the city of Seward, just over a year later to join Hank and Donna as a deejay at a tiny AM radio station where Hank had talked himself into another job, this time that of station manager. While I was a teen the entire time I was in Alaska, even celebrating my 19th birthday there during an airshift by blowing out candles on a birthday cake sent by mother inside a Tupperware container, I’ll leave that experience for another time.

Returning to my high school years and looking back on being a loner, I’m reminded how much I felt like myself when delivering The Seattle Times when I was 14, how my favorite hours at the bookstore were when I was working alone, and how I chose not to apply to college despite good grades and a high SAT score while all my school friends were signing up. Considering this now, I have this impression of not wanting to be unduly influenced by others. Keeping my distance, or whatever it is I did, may have been a way to retain my authenticity.

On the topic of authenticity, the whole concept of alcohol and drugs is probably worth mentioning. My first experience with alcohol was drinking vodka, I think, poured into half-consumed cans of Cragmont soda on a family outing to the coast. My brother Steve had smuggled in the booze in his suitcase. What I remember most about that night is laying in bed watching the overhead light spin. When I closed my eyes, I did the spinning. I was 15.

Over the next year, poker games that had taken place on Friday nights after my bookstore shift at my parents’ house moved to Pat Stull’s house a couple blocks away. His parents basically ignored us and he had a basement that was perfect for mixing poker, Canadian Mist whiskey, and occasionally some marijuana. While I indulged in the whiskey, I steadfastly avoided pot out of respect for my grandmother. When she quit smoking, cold turkey no less, after decades of cigarettes, I promised her I’d never take it up. Not deterred by my continued refusals, my best friend from 7th grade, Mike Simon, insisted he was going to get me high before we graduated. As it happened, one night at Pat’s, after drinking way too much Canadian Mist, I took 12 hits on Mike’s bong. I woke up at around 4am at the bottom of the basement stairs in a pool of my own vomit and with a bruise on my chin. Thank goodness I landed face down.

Smallman Family 1980

That morning, I had to open the bookstore at 9:30am. I managed to do that although I was white as a ghost, probably still a bit inebriated, and more than a little sick. Later that day, I took a longer-than-usual break to join the rest of my family at a photographer’s studio. We were having our family photo taken for my parents’ church directory, a photo I digitized and am including here. I was 16 when this happened, probably March of 1980.

That night, I called up my buddy Kevin Seal who was also at that party and who had a similar experience to mine. We went for a walk and I told him I was done with the drinking and high school partying. From that night, other than being paid several hundred dollars to down a shot glass of beer inside a trailer in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1983 (that’s another story), I didn’t touch alcohol again until I was a 22-year-old undergraduate at The Evergreen State College in 1985. That was well over five years.

Being a senior in high school in 1980-81 who didn’t drink both reduced and expanded my social opportunities. It reduced them because I think I sometimes didn’t get invited to get-togethers. More often, though, I didn’t want to go. It expanded them because people began to realize my value as a designated driver. Having had some stupid/scary experiences in cars in which the driver had been drinking, I was pleased to help my friends stay safe although I will say I didn’t see it as my responsibility.

Hmmm, what else… Ah, one more story comes to mind.

A stereotypical experience for an American high schooler involves football and my experience certainly echoes this. What stands out was how rabid we were encouraged to be as high schoolers when our football team, Sammamish, was facing our nearest neighbor, Interlake’s team. Classes would be cut short for the pep assembly the day of the game. The assembly involved the coach introducing the players who jogged out onto the gym floor in their letterman jackets through the pom-pom waving cheerleaders and our expected thunderous applause. I remember thinking how messed up these priorities were, what a mixed message the school was teaching us. Football and rooting for our side was more important than our classes (which, believe me, I didn’t think much of, either). These football players, these boys, were presented as more important than the rest of us.

Christmas 1980, the jumpsuit I wore to my high school graduation.
What also stood out was the divisiveness being encouraged by these assemblies and games. I understand now and even understood on some level then that it was supposed to be in good fun and designed to have us identify as part of our school. But in many ways we were taught to believe that we were better than the students at Interlake, that those students were our enemy. Is it any wonder that Interlake students defaced our mural while students from Sammamish stole Interlake’s sign? How does this play out with Conservatives hating Liberals and vice versa, with countries hating countries?

Where does peace on Earth actually begin?

My senior year, I didn’t attend any football games, I tried to graduate at the end of the first semester, I didn’t attend senior prom, and I reluctantly attended our graduation ceremony (in a camouflage jumpsuit, red shoes, and red bow tie)…

How Did You Get Your First Job?

(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. So nice! I have the option of editing or even selecting the prompts, as do Chloe, Ella & Alex. I chose this first one, “How Did You Get Your First Job?”)

Commonly, when telling people about my first job, what comes to mind is from 1979 when I started as a clerk at Hunter’s Books, a small bookstore in the Crossroads Shopping Center in Bellevue, WA. Hunter’s was a small chain with headquarters in California. There were two branches in Bellevue, a larger one in Bellevue Square and our quaint shop at Crossroads, not far from our house on the edge of Lake Hills.

How I got the job is pretty straightforward but does require some explanation. The manager of the Crossroads store was the mother of one of Scott’s high school friends, Scott being my eldest brother. Since Scott turned 16 in August of 1975 and you had to be 16 to have a job, he probably got the job soon after that although it may have been in 1976 or even 1977.

Scott at Hunter’s Books, late 1970’s
Jobs for high schoolers back then were mostly restricted to restaurant work, bussing tables or washing dishes. And I have a recollection of Scott doing that. But at some point, he started working at Hunter’s. I assume the manager liked his work ethic so when an opening came up, Steve, my other brother, got a job at Hunter’s, likely around the time he turned 16 in 1978.

History repeated itself when a clerk left Hunter’s soon before my 16th birthday, which was in May of 1979, and I was hired. Steve and I sometimes worked together but mostly we worked opposite shifts. Weekday shifts would be after school, beginning around 3pm and ending at 9pm when the store closed. Weekend shifts would be all day on Saturdays, 9-5pm, and Sundays from 12-5pm, the hours the store was open. On the weekday shifts, we would work with the day crew, middle age women whose work seemed as much a social gathering as selling books, until they left at 5pm.

Smallman Family, 1980
From 5-9pm we worked by ourselves, which was a great thing. We’d change the radio station from the classical music preferred by the manager to the “new wave” station, KZAM, that had rocketed into our consciousness in 1979. Working by ourselves in the early evening also allowed us to get our homework done at the store. Other than a “movie rush” (there was a theater next door), it would be pretty quiet. To close up, we’d clear the cash register of the day’s receipts, enter them into a simple ledger, and make the night deposit at the bank around the corner.

Steve and I alternated working on Saturdays and Sundays. Saturdays, we had a co-worker, Magda, who was probably in her mid to late 20’s but seemed much older than that to me. All things considered, she was pleasant and reliable. I remember telling her about the police scanner I’d received for Christmas in 1979 and then the fancier one I saved up to buy a year later. She was interested so I brought it in and when it was quiet in the store we listened to local police and fire department calls behind the counter. On Sundays, Steve and I worked by ourselves, opening and closing the store on our own.

At the time, the amount of responsibility we were afforded didn’t really occur to me. But we had a key to the store, handled the cash, did the bookkeeping, and made bank deposits. By the time I was a senior in high school and Steve had left Hunter’s to attend the University of Washington, I was working a 40 hour week and had acquired the unofficial title of Night & Weekend Manager. I was able to craft my school schedule around my shifts at the bookstore. I don’t recall my exact hourly rate but it started at something like $2.10/hour. Not having other expenses, I saved up what I earned and sometime in 1980 used it to buy a component stereo system to the tune of around $1000. All in all, it was a great high school job.

Okay, so I began this essay by saying that I commonly refer to working at Hunter’s as my first job. Indeed, it was the first job I had in which I received an actual paycheck and had taxes withheld. But one of the most formative experiences I had as a young teen was the nine months I worked as paperboy when I was in 9th grade.

Andy, 9th grade
One of my best friends at the time, Pat Stull, was the “shack manager” in our neighborhood for The Seattle Times. A “shack manager” was a kid who received the daily papers at the shack, a tiny structure quickly constructed in neighborhoods throughout the region for The Seattle Times to drop off home delivery papers, and divided them into piles for the neighborhood paperboys to pick up based on the size of their routes. Pat told me that a route was opening up so I pursued it.

I took the offered job almost on a whim, not really realizing how much being a paperboy interfered with one’s daily routine. You worked every day, right after school on the weekdays so no hanging out with friends, and got up before the dawn on weekends (my alarm woke me up at 4:52am). You also had to collect the subscription fees directly from the customers on your route and then pay The Seattle Times for the papers you’d received that month. Whatever was left over, including if anyone was kind enough to tip you, you’d get to keep. When all was said and done, I made about $1/day so probably less than $300 for those nine months.

The experience was formative because once I picked up the papers and started walking to my route, it became almost meditative for me. The neighborhood had a serene feel on the weekdays, a time of day just before day workers were getting home. And while the darkness of the weekend mornings initially scared me, I came to enjoy the stillness of this time of day. The quiet, broken only by the sounds of my walking or, on Sundays, the sound of the paper cart (Sunday papers were too heavy to carry so paperboys pulled them in a cart), made it easy for me to imagine I was the only person alive. I made a point of putting every paper on the doorstep and on rainy days putting them inside the storm door if there was one. To this day, when I see a newspaper far from someone’s porch I get a little smile at the thoughtfulness of my 14-year-old self.

One other “job” I’d like to mention came when I was in the 3rd grade, I think. I don’t recall all of the details but the feelings are pretty clear. What I remember is sitting at our kitchen table with my family and talking about door-to-door salespeople. My paternal grandfather worked for a company called Mason Shoes and one way their shoes were sold was by salespeople going door-to-door. For some reason, this really appealed to me so I decided right then and there to become a door-to-door Mason Shoes salesperson!

Andy the Shoe Salesman, early 1970’s
My family didn’t dissuade me, at least not by my recollection, so the next thing I remember is putting on a suit and tie, affixing a pocket protector in my suit jacket pocket and putting in some pens, grabbing a briefcase and a Mason Shoes catalogue, and getting ready to head out the door. While I don’t have pictures of me as a paperboy or at Hunter’s Books, my appearance must have been either humorous or adorable enough for my parents to have snapped the accompanying photo.

My final recollection of this experience is more of the feeling variety. I’m pretty sure I started out the door but got cold feet and never managed to knock on any doors or ring any doorbells despite what I now think was mock encouragement from my brothers. Who knows, maybe a nifty career as a shoe salesperson got thwarted that day.

So now here at the end of this essay, what do you think was my first job – bookstore clerk, newspaper boy, or shoe salesman?