On the way to a recent short cruise, I stopped in an airport bookstore and found Tom Gatti’s book, The Long Players. Someone had tossed the book on on the shelf but backward, so the back cover caught my eye. It was half a vinyl album and I was hooked. Turns out the editor, Gatti, had asked various writers to lay out the album for them. Not their favorite necessarily, but their most cherished.
There was no way that book could go wrong. Writers talking about the music that informed them as a person, not just their writing, but their very being? Yes, please.
The concept started as a column in the New Statesman magazine. Because it was a magazine, each essay had to be short, about a page and a half. In Hemingway’s hands, brevity was a precise scalpel, but in most of these essays, brevity became a dull machete that tore rather than cut.
I am deeply interested in the how of artistic creation; what the moment of artistic creation can tell us if understood. That moment, generating the idea of a novel or story, seeing a finished painting in your head long before it hits the canvas, can lay bare who we are and how we came to be; how all the things that happened to us created us.
So while I had hopes that this book might lead to some self-insight through the moment of creation of others, I also understood that my interest in that kind of thing is way beyond what most people care to stomach.
Yet most of the essays were mildly diverting. They offered a quick look into all kinds of lives though but not a particularly deep look at those lives, and eventually, the sameness of the essays wore badly. It was as though they all blew in the key of E. Or all banged away in the same bland, medium-tempo swung 4/4.
Most listed a favorite album, name-checked two or three songs, and gave the reader an emotional moment to attach the songs to: I had just broken up with a girlfriend, I had just started college and was exploring myself, I had just…fill in the blank of standard life experience. All of which is perfectly fine, if superficial.
There were great essays, though. Ben Okri took three and a half pages to riff on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Since middle college, that has been one of my all-time favorite albums, discovered on the medium-tempo 6/8 lilt of the bass line and floating trumpet melody of “All Blues.” I got lost in Okri’s discovery of that album in the seventies during his middle teens living in Lagos. He then showed me how that album, though his whole life, consantly reprised it’s original role and provided an emotional callback.
Neil Gaiman, over three pages, explored all the reasons why David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs wasn’t a great album, but was great to him. Why? Because it was his. It came along at that moment in life when he wanted something fully his own. It gave him “Rebel Rebel,” but also led him to George Orwell’s 1984, the same way Sebastian Bach once said Rush’s 2112 led him to author Ayn Rand. Gaiman also wrote that Diamond Dogs, “…fed the part of me that made things up, that fell for dystopias and mutants, for rotting skyscrapers and rats the size of cats, shaped the inside of my thirteen-year-old head and made me who I am.”
But it was in the last essay, by Ali Smith, a British writer of whom I’d never heard, that I got the payoff. She got it. She understood the entire concept in a way none of the other writers did. At the very least, she held the same perspective as me and that felt like understanding.
A single favorite album? That moved the needle of her life one direction or another?
Fucking impossible, and she knows that. I could never make that choice. Gatti wanted them to write about their most cherished album and most writers took that to mean a single moment when their lives changed, when they found new colors with which to paint or discovered new architectural styles with which to build their mansions.
Smith had no single moment.
Nor do I. I’m a middle-aged white guy, slightly overweight, with no history of hunger or homelessness, of abuse, of want, whose life has been fairly straight forward. No single moment of change stands out more than any other. Thus no single album stands out more than any other. There are simply too many moments and too many albums.
I’d thought I’d do an essay based on the premise of the book, hopefully a bit more incisive, but in the course of reading the entire book, I realized that maybe my journey is different. Maybe my journey, rather than being that single defining moment, is to dig up each defining moment-and that moment’s music-and examine what the entirety of those moments are. Maybe, in digging up the sound of a number of single moments, I can understand the why of the entire piece of music.
So now, rather than re-listening to one or two things, I’m going to be forced…forced, I tell you…to re-listen to tons of music and spend hours and hours navel-gazing.
Oh, the musical agony!