Originally posted on January 21, 2010:
Behold the jukebox!
Well, there’s no jukebox, not physically. I could, I suppose, find a picture of a gorgeous Wurlitzer and gussy it up somehow, make it sparkle and glint and shine like the great repository of dreams a jukebox can be. But no, not even the gaudiest picture or the shiniest fake would work here.
What we’re opening up today is the jukebox of the mind, the jukebox that I’d have in my living room if my living room were part malt shop, part beer joint, part crash pad and part heaven. It is, if you will, the Ultimate Jukebox. I first mentioned it in early November and since then have been doing the difficult work of eliminating songs from the list. I started by combing year-by-year through my 41,000 or so mp3s, making a raw list of songs to consider. Sometimes, I’d pull a song off the list within minutes or maybe days, but most of the songs I put onto the list stayed there until I had gone through the collection twice.
At that point, there were two hundred and eighty-five songs on the list. My goal was to trim them down to two hundred and begin presenting posts from there. I trimmed and I trimmed. I looked at the list for hours without changing anything. I got down to two hundred and fifty and then two hundred and forty. And I looked on the long list of titles and despaired of what I would have to trim next. And finally, short of my goal, I could trim no more. I got down to two hundred and twenty-eight songs. I did some math. That total would provide me with thirty-eight posts of six records each.
Presented weekly, that would keep me with a guaranteed post at least once a week for most of the coming year. Sign me up.
Dave Marsh wrote in his 1989 book, The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, that as his project came to a close, he was already weary of people asking him what his top-ranked single was. (It was Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”) But, he said, he would have been thrilled to have someone ask what single No. 1,002 had been. Or so I recall. In the 1999 edition, he says that the most common question he’d gotten since the publication of the original edition had been about single No. 1,002, and those questions irked him. Without going back line by line through the 1989 edition of the book, I can’t cite the page number, but I’m certain that somewhere in that volume, I got the idea that Marsh wanted people to ask about the first record that didn’t make it. And then, when people do just that, it irks him? I guess it’s a reminder to be careful what we wish for. (He adds, because he says he can’t figure out how it got left out of the 1,001 singles in the book, that single No. 1,002 has to be Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.”)
I thought of Marsh wanting to be asked about the records that didn’t quite make it as I was trimming the list for my jukebox. What are some of the records that fell by the wayside?
Here’s a short list. These are not the last cuts by any means. But these were among the finalists that got trimmed before the swimsuit competition. Great records, but not quite as good as the ones that stayed, for whatever reason (and those reasons can include utter whim).
“Golden Years” by David Bowie.
“Charity Ball” by Fanny.
“Night Train” by James Brown.
“Guinnevere” by Crosby, Stills & Nash.
“Season of the Witch” by Donovan.
“Cherchez La Femme/Se Si Bon” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band.
“At Seventeen” by Janis Ian.
“Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty
“Convoy” by C.W. McCall.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds.
The list of those left behind also includes three by Bob Dylan, two by the Beatles, two by The Band and three by the Allman Brothers Band. And on and on and on down the line. Once I had my two hundred twenty-eight, I figured out a way to put them into random groups, and after one adjustment, I had my thirty-eight selections of six. And here’s the opening selection:
A Six-Pack From The Ultimate Jukebox, No. 1
“Look Through My Window” by the Mamas & the Papas from Deliver 
“You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” by Bob Dylan from Blood on the Tracks 
“Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot from Summertime Dream 
“Driftwood” by the Moody Blues from Octave 
‘They Don’t Know” by Tracey Ullman from You Broke My Heart In Seventeen Places 
“I Try” by Macy Gray from On How Life Is 
Whatever one may think of the late John Phillips as a person – and he doesn’t rank highly on that scale in my book – the man could write a gorgeous song. Think of the Mamas and Papas’ catalog: “Go Where You Wanna Go,” “Monday, Monday,” “California Dreamin’,” “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Comng To The Canyon)” and many more. All well-crafted and lovely. And yet, “Look Through My Window” lies atop the heap for me. Why? I guess it seemed to be more reflective than the group’s other hits, with the narrator observing the world from which he is separated – for the time being, anyway. This is, I believe, the album version of the song; the single edit went to No. 24 in the autumn of 1966. Key lines: “We both knew people sometimes change, and lovers sometimes rearrange; and nothing’s quite as sure as change.”
I’ve written at least once before about Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” but I’m not at all sure what I said, and I’m not going to sort through the unarchived files. Suffice it to say that this has to be the sprightliest song about foreseen romantic disaster ever recorded. I mean, he knows she’s going to go, he knows he’s going to be lonely, and he seems to almost be looking forward to it. I guess that’s what happens when times are so good: The inevitable sorrow down the road seems a small price to pay for today’s joy. Key lines: “Flowers on the hillside bloomin’ crazy; crickets talkin’ back and forth rhyme. Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy. I could stay with you forever and never realize the time.”
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” has also been mentioned here at least once. I hold to my original position of a couple of years ago that Gordon Lightfoot’s song is one of the relatively few modern examples of folk song as both news and commemoration. When one wanders through the odd, dissonant and sometimes plain creepy songs in Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, one finds many examples of folk songs reporting the news of disasters small and large, and one finds many cases, too, of songs devised to keep long-gone events or individuals fresh in memory. Lightfoot’s song did both, telling the tale and commemorating the event so successfully that it’s become a familiar part of the cultural landscape, with the single reaching No. 2 in the autumn of 1976. Key lines: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
When the Moody Blues released Octave in 1978, it had been six years since the release of their last album, 1972’s Seventh Sojourn. I, for one, was ready for some more Moodies. I had a few of the earlier albums and I’d loved Sojourn, so, as soon as it was offered, I ordered Octave from my record club. I guess it disappointed me, as I don’t know the album as well as I do many others, including most of the Moody Blues’ catalog. But “Driftwood” has captivated me from the first time I heard it, with that lonely French horn calling me in for a meditation that seems longer than the listed five minutes and yet doesn’t seem long enough. Key lines: “Time waits for no one at all, no, not even you.”
With its Wall of Sound intro – chimes and all – and its witty video, Tracey Ullman’s “They Don’t Know” was one of the light-hearted highlights of pop radio and MTV in late 1983 and early 1984. I was in was in graduate school, and after some years away from pop and rock and certainly Top 40, I found myself surrounded by current music once again, enjoying much of it. A few other tunes from that period will show up in the project later, and several barely missed the cut. But there was never a doubt about “They Don’t Know” making it into the jukebox: Its good humor and its girl-group-reminiscent sound make it one of my favorite records of that time, now more than a quarter-century past. Key lines: “Why should it matter to us if they don't approve? We should just take our chances while we’ve got nothin’ to lose.”
I wrote the other day about the dismal winter of 1999-2000. One of the things that helped me through that winter, as is true of all of my life, is music. Some of the tunes I listened to during that time, however, have had that season’s despair attached to them. As I wrote a while back, I am to this day unable to listen to Natalie Merchant’s Ophelia without lapsing into sorrow. Macy Gray’s On How Life Is and its single, “I Try” could easily fall into that category, as they’re among the most memorable music from those months. And the topic of “I Try” – a seemingly hopeless connection – seems tailor-made to settle the record into the unhappy file. But for some reason, the song seems to rise above that when I hear it. Maybe it’s Gray’s odd voice. Maybe it’s the very cool backing track. Maybe it’s just time having passed. Or maybe the song tugs at me still, but I recognize its place in this mythical jukebox that is essentially the soundtrack of my life. Whatever the reason, it’s one of three songs I’ve selected from 1999, the most recent year I examined. And it belongs here. Key lines: “I believe that fate has brought us here, and we should be together. But we’re not.”