Thursday, May 04, 2006


I forget where I read it, but Pearl Jam is coming out with a new album? This is gonna show my age and my astonishing lack of hipness, but . . . Pearl Jam is still together? They're still a viable entity, a group that tours, let alone produces albums? Sheesh, I'm out of it.

I actually made a goofy bet with two friends in the summer of '92: who would die first, Billy Corgan, Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, or Perry Farrell? I took Vedder, and my friends chose Farrell and Corgan, respectively. That's right, no one took Cobain. And that, alone, may say more about me & my friends in 1992 than anything else.

Anyway, the news about Pearl Jam got me thinking about a large project I started, but never finished, last summer: My 100 Favorite CDs. As technology morphs, and we head further into a CD-less future, I decided to take stock of my tower of discs, taller than I, 18 1/2 years in the making. Like a child on the verge of moving out, ready to yield its place to the MP3 library to which my not-yet-purchased Ipod will grant me access, my pride and joy will someday be leaving me.

So I figured I'd make a final reckoning of the best-of-the-best. For me, that is. This isn't the list of what I think are The Best Albums. Or those most likely to prove membership in the Rock Geek Cabal, among the elect possessing The Canon on the CD shelf . . . with a few quirky entries to show ecclecticism. Nah. Enough of them. These are My Favorites. My Top 100. The ones I love -- the secret ones I only play when I'm alone, the ones I bust out with old friends, the ones I got laid to, the ones I always "just come back to," the ones that stay on top of the stereo for months and months. Those albums.

And, yes, I actually did sit down one evening to determine which 100 CDs out the hundreds I own are my favorites. I have the list, written out on a piece of yellow legal paper, quite close to my home computer, where it's sat since that night a year ago. My wife has been warned not to mistake it for trash or to put in a drawer somewhere. Yes, you can think I'm pathetic. It's ok. Now admit you've done something similar in your own life, come to grips with it, and read on. Ahhh, now doesn't that feel better?

Obviously, The Canon's gonna make a cameo appearence or two here. How can I avoid it? But in many ways it won't show up. I own Sgt. Pepper. But you won't see it here. Why? Because I hardly ever play it. Haven't played it much since I bought it in the late 80's, replacing the early 80's LP version I rarely listened to. In fact, I haven't listened to it much since I owned it on a mid 70's cassette as a young kid. But not one, but two, Ween albums make the cut. Haven't listened to them lately either. But man, did I play them ten years ago.

18 1/2 years worth. Since late 1987. Six months into ownership of a stereo earned through the unskilled, summer-long application of paint to wood, I decided the upgrade to digital was due. Just something about that jewelbox. Like a pack of smokes, it fits the hand nicely. Just something cool & clean about it. With a little book inside (actually, the early ones didn't have little books and the sound usually sucked. And the cover always broke off). Most importantly, I wouldn't have to get up from whatever nefarious deed I was engaged in to turn the record over anymore.

And in my 19 year-old mind I faced an existential, almost metaphysical dilemma. I had to decide whether to re-purchase all my great titles on vinyl, titles I knew would slip into the sad oblivion of music lying fallow: on the shelf, but played no more. Jimi, Traffic, Floyd, Bruce, Zeppelin, The Who. Never again to lord over the lesser entries in my musical hierarchy. Alas, I didn't replace them. But I replaced my Beatles' albums. And then some. American pressings replaced by UK versions, giving me, for the first time, nuggets like Dr. Robert, & Your Bird Can Sing. The early LPs, the ones with covers of R&B standards, country songs. Early rock n' rollers.

* * *

So, in yet another of the Running Theme, Serial Postings I like so much, once a week or so, I'm gonna just pick a CD off the list, in no particular order, and write a little something about it. Maybe about the music, maybe why I love it, maybe an association, or a story, or whatever. Like I said, it's my list, my favorites. So I guess I'll try to talk about the basis of the favoritism. We'll see.

Ground rules, then on to the first entry. For an album to be eligible I must OWN THE CD. Period. That's it. No Born to Run, no Are You Experienced, no John Barleycorn Must Die, no Who's Next, no Deja Vu, not an awful lot of great albums released before I upgraded in 1987. Have them on LP; don't have them on disc. No go. Also not gonna see the "great, must-have albums" every swinging dick puts on his Best Album list . . . but for some reason isn't great enough for him to actually own. So none of those albums either. Unless I like them, and then they're here. You'll see. On to today's entry:

#93: Pearl Jam - Vs. (remember, that's where this post started. Yessss, there is an occasional method behind the madness):

I bought their first album, Ten, along with Nevermind and Gish, The Smashing Pumpkins' debut effort, on my 24th birthday, in December '91. My mom had just died, I was broke, and my aunt from Boston, my mom's sister, asked me if I wanted anything for my birthday. A gift certificate to Tower Records seemed just the ticket. I don't remember the exact amount, but somehow it was just enough for three CDs, and those are the three that got the call.

Ten was, by far, my least favorite of the three. Pearl Jam was just a little too much . . . like the stuff I'd grown tired of, before finding Nirvana, and Smashing Pumpkins, and My Bloody Valentine, and Teenage Fanclub, and Sonic Youth, and the Pixies, and the Beastie Boys and Fishbone to try to tap into a new thing. So two years later, in '93, when Siamese Dream, In Utero, and Vs. came out, this wasn't the one that had me panting. I bought it, but wasn't excited about it. And for a couple more years nothing changed.

I mean, I loved Pearl Jam's tag team with Neil Young at the '93 MTV music awards when they did "Rockin' in the Free World" and "Animal." Good shit. Raw and loose (and drunk) and kickin ass. And I thought "Rear View Mirror" was a great tune. Still do. But, overall, this hasn't been a member of the heavy rotation for 12 of the 12 1/2 years I've owned it. But, for one 5 week stretch, and a few months thereafter, it was That Disc. Sanctified territory. One of those "they can never take it away from you" things.

The Summer of '95 was a good one. A lot of this and a little of that (and a lot of that too), and swingin times for all. But, the pinnacle, the piece de resistence, was the trip to Europe. A little too old at that point -- a recurring theme, says the 38 year old -- to be backpacking, I nonetheless embarked, with nary a plan and nada a clue, on the single greatest experience of my life. My existential adventure. Alone, with no destination save the airport in Madrid for the flight home, 5 weeks later. A whirling, slithering, improvised and open-armed dance through Europe. Madrid, Barcelona, Vittoria, San Sebastian, Salamanca, Paris, St. Emilion, Amsterdam, Prague. A festival, a celebration of freedom and . . . man, it was special.

The best part became that feeling, when I woke, of absolute control -- exercised precisely by taking none. No choice was of consequence, yet each played the role of puppet master over the day, and the days that followed. When traveling alone in a foreign land, a left or right turn determines not only the scope of the morning or afternoon, but the direction for the rest of the trip.

Madrid, for instance. My second day there I met up with a longtime, but soon to be former, friend of my good friend's future ex-wife (though still only a girlfriend at that point). Got that? Read it again; you'll follow. Or maybe you won't. Doesn't really matter.

I'd met her a few times before, she was an attractive girl, smart enough, and a little weird, in a not-so-good way. Anyhow, she told my friend's future ex-wife that she'd be in Madrid at the same time I was there and suggested we should meet up. Fine by me. We met, we hung out, nothing "happened," to the chagrin of neither, and eventually, inevitably, she got on my nerves, I'm sure I got on hers, and I arrived at the first of those crossroads, those intersections between today, tomorrow, and thereafter. I decided to go Northeast, towards the Basque Country, after she determined she'd visit family in the Northwest, in Galicia. Nothing wrong with her, and I'm sure Galicia would have been great. She was no worse, nor better, than dozens of the folks, many of whom I grew quite fond of, that I met later on. But I hadn't gone to Spain to hang out with my friend's girlfriend's friend.

So I went to Vittoria and San Sebastian, in Basque Country. After staying up all night partying with Nick, Traci & Juci, respectively from Sydney, London, & Sao Paolo, during the final night of San Sebastian's Gran Semana, or Big Week, a drunken, typically Spanish festival of music, alcohol and . . . more alcohol, I met Tawnee & Elaine, both from Pittsburg, while waiting on line at the San Sebastian train station to buy a ticket to Paris. We chatted and decided I'd stay an extra day, crash in their room at the pencion, and we'd cruise to France together and maybe sample the goods at a vineyard in Bordeaux.

We did; it was great. Sipping a $4 dollar bottle of wine that'd cost $30 in NY, eating cheese & ham & tomatos on a baguette, peaches and plums on the side, while sitting under the grapes in a St. Emilion vineyard ain't too shabby. Seeing thunderheads rolling across the fields towards us, running through rural streets to a little countryside railstation, trying to beat the rain (unsuccessfully, badly) and make the train (handily), makes for a nice memory.

Now mind you, neither of these gals were hot stuff, patented stripper names notwithstanding, but that's just how it starts to go when you're on the road. You talk to people. You find common stuff to do (and that's also where the universals like booze, weed, music and sex come in). Then you get tired of these new people, or they get tired of you, or you meet other people, or you get bored, or you run out of money, or whatever life presents. And you move on. And I've never experienced anything else that comes closer to what I imagine as Pure Freedom.

Got as far as Paris with Tawnee & Elaine, where we bumped into Ludwig from Munich, who was carrying a surfboard through the Gare du Austerlitz at about 3:00 in the morning. You can't make this stuff up. On the day I left for Prague, he mentioned a hostel he was going to move to in the 5th Arrondissement, just across from the Jardin du Luxembourg. So when I came back to Paris 3 days later, after an interesting, but ultimately cold, weekend in Prague, I headed straight to the hostel where Ludwig was staying. And met Cristina, one of a gang of Italian chicks staying there. And while all the other girls developed painful crushes on handsome Teutonic Lord Ludwig, Cristina, for whatever reason, seemed to enjoy my company. Then, after sharing a few days & ultimately choosing not to accompany her back to her hometown of Florence, I headed off for Amsterdam, for . . . different shenanegans. But not before I met Pilar, who I later met up with in Salamanca. And after Amsterdam I went to Barcelona for the best week of my life at the Hostal Kabul in the Placa Real. Phew. That gets us through week three.

So what the hell does any of this have to do with Pearl Jam? Well, your patience is about to be rewarded . . .

Before arriving in Barcelona, I enjoyed a long train ride from Amsterdam to the Catalonian capital. I sat, started to write a little, and put Vs. on the Discman. Three weeks into my trip, I hadn't played it yet, and hadn't thought much of it. I'm not even clear how or why it became one of the 20 discs I brought. I think one of my friend's friends played it at the beach earlier that summer. Don't really remember though.

So, as I wrote a little journal entry I still get a kick out of to this day (the highlight being a culmination of an avalanching paragraph describing what I've miserably tried to recapture here, where I stated simply, "I am loving life right now"), the song "Leash" came on. It appears late on the album, and I'd never given it much thought. Except that time it was different.

I'm not sure if it was the driving guitar, or the urgency in Vedder's vocals, but the song got me. I felt it. Lines like "drop the leash," "get outta' my fuckin' face," and especially, "delight in your youth," spoke to me. Loud, and clear, and perfectly. Sitting in that train, delighting in my youth, watching the Western European countryside woosh by as I recorded for posterity the buzz, the rush, the euphoria I was experiencing. And that song, telling me to Drop The Leash, on that album I cared little for and less about, was the soundtrack. The soundtrack to a core moment of the greatest experience of my life. That's gotta earn Vs. a spot on the list.


Blogger Mr Furious said...

I have a similar music moment. I should note, I am 38 next week, and this moment occured for me in 1995 as well.

At the end of the summer I was supposed to move in with my girlfriend. Not to her place, but a new place for both of us. My life was about to take off. This was the girl I thought for sure I'd marry... Our first night in the new place she broke up with me. Completely out of the blue. I was devastated. I was a couple years older than her, she was still in grad school and wasn't ready for that next step...

I was reeling the whole fall (or so it seemed) and a couple months later some buddies of mine were taking a flight out to California for a road trip down the coast. These were guys I worked with, but not necessarily close friends, one I had never even met until the airport, but Scott, the ringleader of the trip, sensed I could use it. So I went.

After our first night in San Francisco, i woke up the next morning on the couch of one of my younger sister's high school friends. She was our first "crash site," and we were supposed to stay in SF for two days and two nights.

I picked through the CDs in this strange living room, and the only one that remotely appealed to me was U2's Joshua Tree. A CD that had gotten so much airplay that I never even bothered to buy it.

I put it on.

It was just sort of background music for me as I took stock of my life. I thought about the fact that I had flirted last night at the bar, nearly broke my wrist doing cartwheels in the street on the way home.

Then right at that moment, "Red Hill Mining Town" came on. A song I may or may not have ever even heard before, and something in it struck me to my core. The way the music built? I can't even put my finger on it to this day, but I felt free. I had left all of my problems back on the ground in New York. My life was about to be different.

We stayed in SF for two extra days, we all had a blast, I hooked up, and within a month, I had quit my job, started my own business, met somebody new in NY, and all was right again in the world.

That song will always remain a watershed moment for me, and for that reason that CD will be on my list.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Mike said...


3:20 PM  
Blogger Mr Furious said...

I should point out we were doing cartwheels because we were hammered, not because I flirted with someone...

I wasn't THAT bad...

3:32 PM  
Anonymous Donna said...

I don't think I've heard a single Pearl Jam song that I was aware was Pearl Jam. So sue me. ;-)

Come on, Mike--give with the other 99 on your Top 100 list.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

All in due time, Donna. All in due time.

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Donna said...

All right, Mike. Cooling my heels here.

mr furious, the day I discovered Bono I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Be still my heart! ;-9 ;-9 Hawkmoon 269 is one of the best songs on the planet, and oddly enough you can find it only on Rattle and Hum as a live performance. Go figure.

10:25 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Bono, huh? I guess it's the "humanitarian" side that gets ya.

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Donna said...

Mike, I hadn't realized Bono was a major humanitarian at that particular point in time. All I knew was that he was so sexy I'd drink his bath water. Yeah baby YEAH!!!

11:47 AM  

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