At current count, there are 19,406 songs on my iPod. Annotating the significance of each one, explaining why it’s been downloaded, giving even the briefest critical and personal analysis, is a task that I’m not quite up to. And, frankly, explaining my associations with individual tracks by, let’s scroll randomly here, Scruffy The Cat, a band from Boston I went to see in 1987, or Rosie of, but not with, The Originals, whom I remember from a Brooklyn Paramount show when I was 10, would result in a journal of limited general appeal. So what I did was make a playlist of about 300 songs that I am calling ‘Audiobiography.’ I will set to Shuffle, hit play (or >, to be precise), and blog once in a while to explain what the song is doing there. Don’t worry. I will never make it through all 300something songs. You might very well not have to read about the 45 of ‘Meet The Mets,’ or Nick Lowe’s ‘I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass.’ We’ll just have to see.
I wrote a memory-blog thing for the MOG website once, and got an e-mail from a female reader: “Wow,” she said, “You’ve had an amazing life so far.” (I think she added the “so far” to make me feel a little less ancient, but it only made me more age-conscious.) And when I was unemployed (the year 2006), some friends and an agent encouraged me to write a book about the music business. “An obituary,” one friend called it.
This is not that. It is also not ‘Proustian.’ I was an English major, but I have never read Proust. I have the general notion that he went on at some length expanding on memories that were triggered by eating cookies. I could try that approach, I guess; I do have some strong recollections of Mallomars, Chips Ahoy, and Devil Dogs (which are technically not cookies). But music is a more reliable navigator to my experience, so I’m going to throw these recordings into a technological hat and see what anecdotes and insights emerge.
#1: “You Really Got A Hold On Me” – The Miracles (Tamla)
How is it that I didn’t hear this song for the first time on the radio, seeing as most of my waking moments were spent listening to NYC Top 40 deejays play the hits? Was it only being spun on WWRL, way up on the dial? My first exposure to “You Really Got A Hold On Me” was at a Junior High School 22 talent show; some kids did a lip-sync routine to it. I thought I knew every song on the charts, but I didn’t know this. I’d never heard anything so adult, so sexy, in my life.
There I was, a sensitive kid with a love of words, and with a stammer that made expressing myself verbally an excruciating exercise, and then I was introduced to Smokey Robinson, who sang fluently about love’s conflicts and contradictions. “Though you treat me badly, I love you madly.” It was exquisite and tortuous.
To be smart, and to stutter, to be overflowing with early-adolescent emotion that you can’t convey, is a particularly Smokeyish condition. He didn’t get around to tackling it directly until much later, with “When The Words From Your Heart Get Caught In Your Throat” (where he uses the actual words “stutter” and “stammer”), but the way the extended analogies and paradoxes tumbled through his songs thrilled me in their eloquence. They were witty in a way that most ‘60s pop songs weren’t; they were elaborately worked out, like song-puzzles.
I worshipped Dion for his swagger, and The Ronettes for how they shook and shimmied and for the way Ronnie cooed, but I fell hard for Smokey: he showed me that pop could be elegant and heartfelt. I saw The Miracles do “Shop Around” at a Murray The K show at the Brooklyn Fox; I was too young to appreciate the message, but the way Smokey built his argument knocked me out, the words he used in the bridge (“bargain,” “sold,” “dime a dozen”). This was just on a higher level than anything else on the radio.