Rituals and obsessions: a brief personal history

It started with “Taxman” by The Beatles.

Its distorted vocal opening had gotten stuck in my head despite my stated antipathy toward the band—really more pose than position, in retrospect.

Whenever I run a bath, I like to be in the tub while the faucet(s) run. Until quite recently,[1] when the tub was nearly full, I would turn off the cold water and turn on the hot water to its scalding limit, counting down “one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four” in the same slow tempo as the opening of “Taxman.” Only then would I turn off the hot water and settle in for a steamy cleansing soak.

I realize the actual track opens with “one-two-three-four, one-two” before George Harrison sings “Let me tell you how it will be/There’s one for you, nineteen for me.”

But, hey, my ritual, my rules.

At some point, I stopped employing that ritual to start a bath—only to replace it with one for exiting a bath, even as most of the water had drained around me. During my senior year at Yale, two other seniors and I lived off-campus. Our second-floor walkup had a bathtub, which I used most nights. One night, for…reasons, before the water fully drained, I squatted down and scooped up some water, quickly shaking it out of my hands as though I had just washed my hands in a sink. I repeated that sequence twice, except on the third iteration, I stood up, shaking out my hands as I did so. Only then did I step onto the bath mat.

I have performed this ritual—or some slight variant of it—every single time I have exited a bathtub since the fall of 1987. It is not as though I expect something bad will happen if I do not do so—I am not warding off anxiety; when that particular coin is flipped, it lands on depression for me nearly every time. It is simply that having started doing it, I continued to do it, making it an essential part of my bathtub “routine.”

Funnily enough, I have yet to mention this routine to my psychotherapist.

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In a recent post, I detailed ways the Netflix series Stranger Things had resonated with me at a deeply personal level. As of the evening of December 26, my wife Nell and I had watched the entire series—25 episodes over three seasons—twice, the second time with our two pre-teen daughters. Nell’s pithy takeaway: “I would watch it again.” Our younger daughter may already have, quietly watching in her bedroom on her new iPad. She now very much wants her friends to watch the show so she can discuss it with them…or at least have them understand why she suddenly—and with great affection—calls folks, mainly me, “mouth breather” or “dingus.”

Meanwhile, over the course of winter break, a small army of Funko Pop! figures appeared in our home, which our younger daughter arranged in rough chronological order; the short video I took of the sequence is my first ever “pinned” tweet.

Stranger Things tower.JPG

Clearly, I am not the only member of this household now utterly obsessed with the admittedly-excellent series. And one peek inside our younger daughter’s room, decorated in true Hufflepuff fashion, will reveal I am not the only member of this household who easily becomes obsessed.

But I am one of only two members of this household legally old enough to purchase and/or consume alcohol, and I am the only one who refused to drink alcohol until well into my college years—even as my high school classmates would try to get me to join them in beer drinking as we stayed in hotels for Youth in Government or Model UN—because I was very wary of my obsessive nature. I was well aware how often I could not simply enjoy something—I had to fully absorb it into my life.

Indeed, once I did finally sample that first Molson Golden in the converted basement seminar room I shared with two other Elis sophomore year, I liked it far more than I would have anticipated from sampling my father’s watered-down beer at various sporting events. Age prevented me from drinking too much, though, until I turned 21 early in my senior year. On my birthday, those same off-campus roommates took me to a local eatery called Gentree. An utter novice at drinking anything other than beer, I had no clue what to order; the gin and tonic I settled upon did nothing for me. Shortly thereafter, after a brief flirtation with Martini and Rossi (I still do not know how that bottle appeared in our apartment), I tried my first Scotch whisky.

It was love at first sip.

Over the next few years, I never drank enough for anyone to become, you know, concerned, but I did feel like I needed to have a glass of J&B or Cutty Sark with soda water—usually lemon Polar Seltzer—every day. When a close friend came to visit me in the Boston suburb of Somerville in January 1992, he presented me with a bottle of Glenfiddich—one of the better single-malt Scotches—and it was like having a revelation within a revelation, as this photograph from that night depicts.

Glenfiddich Jan 1992.jpg

This photograph reminds me I spent the 1990s and a significant chunk of the following decade living in turtlenecks—of all colors—because I decided one day while getting my hair cut, I liked the way the white cloth band looked around my neck. You know, the one hair stylists use to keep freshly-cut hair from dropping inside your shirt.

Eventually, I settled on Johnnie Walker Black (light rocks, club soda on the side[2]) as my primary poison—though I also developed a taste for a port wine called Fonseca Bin 27. Between 1991 and 1993, I spent way too much time at the bar of an terrific restaurant called Christopher’s. In 2005, I used old credit card receipts, which I had stuffed into a desk drawer for years, to calculate I spent $1,939.23 there (roughly $3,500 in 2019) in just those three years—and that sum excludes cash payments. Apparently, a hallmark of being both obsessive and a math geek is the construction of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to calculate inconsequential values.

It would be another 10 years before I worked Scotch into my emerging Friday night bath ritual—the one with the curated music and the darkness and the single large pine-scented candle from L.L. Bean and the lavender milk bath stuff and the way I would turn off every light before walking into the candle-lit bathroom with my full tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black, or 10-year-old Laphroaig on special occasions. Ahh, that delectably peaty aroma…

More recently, Nell and I moved away from beer and whisky, respectively, toward red wine, going so far as to join Wine of the Month Club. Well, I also developed a taste for rye whisky, be it neat, mixed with ginger ale or in an Old Fashioned.

The point of this borderline-dipsomaniac history is that my high school instincts about my obsessive nature were remarkably close to the mark. Prior to being diagnosed with depression, I self-medicated with alcohol far more than I ever wanted to admit to myself. Perhaps not coincidentally, I recently cut my alcohol consumption down to almost nothing, though my stated reason is the toll it was taking on my sinuses, which have had more than enough trouble already.[3]

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Family lore holds I learned to read at the age of 2½, which my elementary school educator wife tells me is physiologically impossible. Whenever it was, by the time I was eight or so, I had already amassed a solid library of books.

And then I learned about the Dewey Decimal System.

With that, it no longer sufficed to organize my books alphabetically by subject or author or title, or even to use the Library of Congress classification system. No, I had to Dewey-Decimalize them, which meant going to Ludington Library, where I spent a great deal of my childhood and teenage years, to photocopy page after page of classification numbers. I still have a few books from those days, penciled numbers in my childish handwriting on the first page just inside the cover. I even briefly ran an actual lending library out of my ground-floor playroom—the one rebuilt after the fire of March 1973.

Meanwhile, my mother, our Keeshond Luvey and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 living in the “penthouse” of the Strand Motel in Atlantic City, NJ; my father would make the 60-mile drive southeast from Havertown, PA most weekends. In those years, the roughly 2½ miles of Pacific Avenue between Albany and New Hampshire Avenues were dotted with cheap motels and past-their-time hotels. The Strand was one of the better motels, with a decent Italian restaurant just off the lobby, dimly lit with its semi-circular booths upholstered in blood-red leather; I drank many a Shirley Temple over plates of spaghetti there. In that lobby, as in every lobby of every motel and hotel along the strip, was a large wooden rack containing copies of a few dozen pamphlets advertising local attractions.

At first, I simply took a few pamphlets from the Strand lobby to peruse later. Then I wanted all of them. Then I began to prowl the lobbies—yes, at seven, eight years old I rode the jitney by myself during the day, at just 35¢ a ride—of every motel and hotel along Pacific Avenue, and a few along Atlantic Avenue one block northwest, collecting every pamphlet I could find. They were all tossed into a cardboard box; when the winter felt like it was lasting too long, I would dump the box out on my parents’ bed and reminisce.

In the year after that second summer, I became attuned to pop music, leaving Philadelphia’s premiere Top 40 radio station, WIFI 92.5 FM, on in my bedroom for hours at a time, while I did homework, read or worked diligently on…projects.

Back in 1973, my parents had bought me a World Book Encyclopedia set, complete with the largest dictionaries I had ever seen. The W-Z volume had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. Late in 1976, I received a copy of the 1977 World Almanac and Book of Facts, which also had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. And I soon noticed some events were on one timeline but not the other.

Thus, in February 1977, with WIFI 92 as my personal soundtrack, I began to write out a collated timeline, drawing from both sources. Thirty-six lined notebook pages hand-written in pencil later, I had only gotten as far as June 30, 1841—so I decided to slap a red construction paper cover on it and call it Volume I.

Important Events and Dates.JPG

I assigned it Dewey Decimal value 909.

You could say I came to my senses—or I bought a copy of the astounding Encyclopedia of World History—because I never did “publish” a Volume II. In April 1978,[4] however, I wrote a similarly non-knowledge-advancing booklet—no cool cover this time—called 474 PREFIXES, ROOTS AND SUFFIXES. This volume, assigned Dewey Decimal number 423, was only 10 pages long, despite being more comprehensive.

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Even before I immersed myself in hours of 1970s Top 40 radio, I had heard bits and pieces of New Year’s Eve countdowns of the year’s top songs. The first one I remember hearing was at the end of 1974, because I heard Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1974—though I could be mixing it up with John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” released as a single the previous year.

In January 1980, Solid Gold debuted with a two-hour special counting down the top 50 songs of 1979. I was particularly curious to know the ranking of my favorite song at the time, Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk;” if memory serves, it led off the show at #50. A few days earlier, my cousins and I had listened in the house we then shared to WIFI-92’s top 100 songs of 1979 countdown.

I was vaguely aware there were weekly magazines that tracked top songs and albums, but I did not buy a copy of Cashbox until late April 1980.[5] My Scotch whisky revelation nearly eight years later was a mere passing fancy compared to this slender combination of music and data. I pored over its charts for hours, even calling my best friend to all but read the singles and album charts to him; utterly disinterested, he was nonetheless very patient with my exuberance. That fall, I noticed that every Saturday, the Philadelphia Bulletin published that week’s Billboard top 10 singles, albums—and two other categories, possibly country and soul. Reading these charts—literally covering them with a napkin which I slid up to uncover each song/album from #10 to #1—became a staple ritual of my regular Saturday morning brunch with my father, from whom my mother had separated in March 1977. Not satisfied with reading them, I clipped each set of charts so I could create my own rankings along the lines of “top songs, September 1980 to March 1981.”

On December 31, 1980 and January 1, 1981, I heard two radio stations present their “Top 100 of 1980” countdowns. I listened to the first one with my cousins in my maternal grandmother’s apartment in Lancaster, PA; my mother and her sister were also there. The second one my mother and I heard in the car driving home, although we lost the signal halfway through the countdown; I still was able to hear one of my favorite songs then: “More Love” by Kim Carnes. The following weekend, I found a paper copy of yet another 1980 countdown while visiting the Neshaminy Mall with my mother and severely mentally-impaired sister, who lives near there. It was probably there I also found Billboard’s yearend edition, which I purchased—or my mother purchased for me.

After a delirious week perusing its contents, I obtained a copy of the first official weekly Billboard of 1981, for the week ending January 10—albeit released Tuesday, January 6. One week later, I bought the January 17 edition, then the January 24 edition, then the January 31 edition. In fact, I bought every single issue of Billboard for the next seven-plus years, ritualistically digesting its charts using the same uncovering method as the charts published in the Bulletin. I brought each issue to school with me, where my friends and I would pore over its contents during lunch period. Later, I happily scrutinized airplay charts from a selection of Top 40 radio stations across the country—I underlined particular favorites—while waiting to make deliveries for Boardwalk Pizza and Subs in the spring and summer of 1984.

On the few occasions I did not have the $4 purchase price, I sold an album or two to Plastic Fantastic, then located on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, PA, to make up the difference; this was after cajoling my mother to drive me to the excellent newspaper and magazine store which then stood a short walk down Lancaster Avenue from Plastic Fantastic. While new issues of Billboard were released every Tuesday, in 1981 and 1982, I would have heard the new week’s Top 40 singles counted down the previous Sunday night on the American Top 40 radio program, then hosted by Casey Kasem.

Sometime in 1981, I began to compile weekly lists of the Top 10 groups, male artists and female artists…so it is not all surprising that over winter break from my sophomore year of high school, I calculated my own “Top 100 of 1981” lists. In the days prior to Excel, this meant I gathered all 51 weekly issues (the final chart of the year freezes for a week) into what I would later call a “mountain of Billboards” on the floor of my bedroom—sometimes the mountain would migrate into the living room—and tally every single and album that had appeared in the top 10 on blank sheets of paper, using acronyms to save my hands from cramping. I used a combination of highest chart position, weeks at that position, total weeks on the chart, and weeks topping such charts as Adult Contemporary, Rock, Country and Soul to generate my rankings. There would always be fewer than 100 singles or albums entering the top 10 in any given year so I would then move into the top 20 for singles and top 30 for albums. I had ways—long since forgotten—of adding up an artist’s singles and albums “points,” allowing me to produce an overall top 100 artist countdown.

Digging into my record collection, and pestering friends for whatever tracks they had, on January 1, 1982, I sat in my bedroom with my cousin and DJ’d my first Top 100 countdown, using a snippet of “Lucifer” by Alan Parsons Project for “commercial breaks.”

That first year, I stuck to the primary charts, but ambition seized me over the next few years, and I began to contemplate creating sub-generic lists; I would usually run out of steam after a week or so, however.  Fueling this obsessive data compiling were large navy mugs filled with a mixture of black coffee and eggnog. Even after enrolling at Yale in September 1984,[6] I would look forward to arriving back in our Penn Valley, PA apartment so I could dive into Billboard mountain and immerse myself in that year’s charts. I would come up for air to visit with family and friends, of course, but then it was right back into the pile, MTV playing on my bedroom television set.

Over the years, I never threw any issues away, which meant schlepping them with me on the Amtrak train from New Haven, CT to Philadelphia; my poor mother had to move giant piles of them twice, in 1986 (~275 issues) and 1987 (~325). They were a bit lighter then because I had gotten into the habit of taping some of the beautiful full-page ads depicting covers of albums being promoted that week. It started with Icehouse by Icehouse, then Asia by Asia; when my mother moved from our Penn Valley apartment, I had taped up a line of pages running nearly halfway around the walls of my bedroom.

Then, one week in September 1988, I did not buy the new edition of Billboard. Most likely, my musical tastes were shifting after I discovered alternative-rock station WHFS. Another explanation is that election data had been slowly replacing music chart data over the past four years. Moreover, I had landed on a new obsession: baseball, specifically the Philadelphia Phillies. Whatever the reason, I have not bought a Billboard since then, though I still have two Joel-Whitburn-compiled books from the late 1980s.

Besides the Phillies and American politics, I have had a wide range of obsessions since then, most recently film noir, Doctor Who, David Lynch/Twin Peaks and, of course, Stranger Things. My obsession with Charlie Chan is old news. But none of these had quite the immersive allure those piles of Billboards had in the 1980s.

Alas, my mother finally threw out all of them in the 1990s. While I wish she had at least saved the eight yearend issues, perhaps it is all for the best. Did I mention a college girlfriend once broke up with me—on Valentine’s Day no less—because I alphabetized my collection of button-down Oxford shirts by color, solids to the left of stripes?

Until next time…

[1] Nell reminds me that at some point in the year before our October 2007 wedding, she came into the bathroom while I was counting down. She apparently interrupted me because I told her, “Now I have to start again!”

[2] For reasons long since forgotten, I switched to Jack Daniels—bourbon—for a few years around 2000. I must have talked a lot about that being my default adult beverage order, because on a first date in December 2000, my soon-to-be girlfriend (my last serious relationship before Nell, for those keeping score at home) waited expectantly for me to ask for “that thing you always order.”

[3] I have long joked that if my upper respiratory system were a building, it would have been condemned decades earlier. In October 2011, I finally had surgery to repair a deviated septum and remove nasal polyps. I may still snore, but it longer sounds like I am about to stop breathing.

[4] April 19, to be exact

[5] I remember “Rock Lobster” by The B-52’s being listed, which narrows the editions to April 19 and April 26.

[6] I was so obsessed with Billboard, I actually suggested I analyze its charts for a data analysis course I took my sophomore year. Not surprisingly, that was a non-starter with the professor.

Wax museums and The Beatles: a postscript

A few weeks ago, I interrogated my memory of why I so intensely disliked The Beatles as a child and tween. Basically, I blamed the Fab Four for frightening me when I was seven or eight years old, when what actually frightened me was a wax museum Chamber of Horrors. Combine that with my extreme disinclination to be told what to like and what not to like, and you have the (silly) reasons I disdained The Beatles.

Yesterday, I read a tweet asserting The Beatles are “VASTLY overrated.” A tweet to which one especially curmudgeonly journalist I follow (and admire) replied “Dead. To. Me.” While I would not go nearly that far, I agree they are not overrated, other than in the sense that anything truly exceptional often becomes a caricature.

And I realized I never explained how I slowly reversed course on The Beatles.

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To be fair, as a child, I generally heard their early pop confections (e.g., “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand”) or other songs which, I must be honest, do very little for me (“Yesterday,” in particular).

But in July 1978, a few months before I turned 12, the wretched movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. It is hard to earn a poor rating on IMDB, but this film earns a 4.1. It also has a 12% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with a somewhat more charitable Audience Score of 44%.

It is just not a good movie, despite a cast that includes Steve Martin, Donald Pleasance and George Burns…and some fine musical performances by The Bee Gees (as the titular band) and Peter Frampton (as Billy Shears); Frampton simply cannot act.

What the movie does have, though, is some interesting covers of The Beatles’ songs, including a soaring “Got to Get You Into My Life” by Earth, Wind and Fire, a powerful “Get Back” by Billy Preston, and a mesmerizing “Come Together” by Aerosmith. I would even argue the Earth, Wind and Fire version improves on the original in its sheer exuberance.

Those covers were played on the radio, not only on my favorite Philadelphia radio station, the Top 40 (plus) WIFI-92, but also on the classic rock stations I was slowly discovering: 93.3 WMMR, 94 WYSP and, a few years later, the more adult-oriented WIOQ 102.5 FM. This is how I came to hear the original version of “Come Together,” which I strongly associate with summer at Camp Arthur-Rita (long since closed) in Zieglerville, PA, about an hour’s drive of our home in Bala Cynwyd, PA.

Well, I spent the summer there minus the week-plus I was sent home with an epic case of poison ivy.

The extraordinary opening riff to “Come Together,” that slow hypnotic interplay of voice, cymbals, electric bass, drums and organ, was a revelation. This was not another one of those “silly love songs,” as Paul McCartney would call them in 1976. There was a lot more to The Beatles than I had ever realized.

The irony in the previous paragraph is that the first album I ever bought was Wings Over America; Wings—McCartney’ post-Beatles band—was my first favorite pop group, when I was about 10 years old. They would soon be toppled by Fleetwood Mac…then Peter Gabriel…then Genesis, who have reigned supreme since about 1981.

I still have Wings Over America on vinyl, by the way.

Wings Over America

But I digress.

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I do not know what possessed my 14-year-old self to turn on a rerun of Quincy M.E. that Monday night at 11:30 pm on our local CBS affiliate[1], when I should have been going to sleep.  I almost certainly had never watched the show before, nor have I since then. For only a few minutes into the show, it was interrupted for a breaking news bulletin.

It was December 8, 1980…and the news was that 40-year-old former Beatle John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his New York City apartment building, The Dakota, where he had lived with his wife Yoko Ono.

In the course of writing this post, I stumbled across a fact I had either forgotten or never known—that most people first heard the news of Lennon’s death from Howard Cosell on a broadcast of Monday Night Football. Nor had I known that the garrulous Cosell and the cerebral Lennon were friends.

For my generation—born just after the end of the Baby Boom ended in 1964—this was our “where were you when JFK was shot?” moment. One reason I know this is that the normally loud and raucous bus ride to Harriton High School, where I was a freshman, was eerily quiet the next morning; nobody said a word. There was a girl a year or two older than me who always sat toward the front of the bus, where she would quietly play a cassette mix tape of 1960s folk rock; if memory serves, she just sat there, softly crying. She may have played some Beatles songs, but I cannot be certain.

Like many other people, I bought a copy of Double Fantasy (which regrettably I have since sold), the double album Lennon and Ono had recently released. The singles, “Starting Over,” “Woman” and “Watching the Wheels” would dominate the airwaves for the next year or so. And Beatles songs were ubiquitous as well—or, at least, I was far more aware of them.

Not that they were moving me, however, even as the Dutch musical act Stars On was recording and releasing their “Stars on 45” Beatles medley. On March 22, 1981, I typed out a five-page list of FAVORITE SONGS, 160 in total. In the SUPREME ECHELON were “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police and “Carrie” by Cliff Richard, still one of my 100 favorite songs. Included in the 134 HIGH ECHELON songs[2] was a single Beatles song, “Come Together.” Five months later, as I detailed here, I began making my own cassette mix tapes. I created the second one (Stuff Vol. I, most likely December 1981) by flipping around my favorite radio stations and hoping for the best. Perhaps not surprisingly, the 9th of 10 tracks on side two was “Come Together.”

The following Memorial Day weekend, I listened (some while driving in the front seat of my father’s taxicab; thank you, Dad) to my first “Rock and Roll 500” on WYSP, which tended to be more “hard rock.” I dutifully (if somewhat sloppily) recorded the data in a hard-backed dark blue notebook; my tally showed The Beatles came in fourth, with 28 tracks[3] (topped by “Hey Jude” at #32), behind The Who (30), Led Zeppelin (33— “Stairway to Heaven” was #1) and the Rolling Stones (38). The only other Beatles song in the top 100 was “A Day in the Life” at #89. Two summers later, that latter track would rank #2 overall on the WMMR version of the Rock and Roll 500, with “Hey Jude” at #7.

It was “A Day in the Life” that kicked my slowly-developing interest in The Beatles to another level. “Come Together” was cool, but this was something else entirely—epic, eerie and capped off by the best orchestral crescendo ever. Early in the summer of 1982, I bought (or acquired from someone?) used vinyl copies of The Beatles’ “Red” and “Blue” albums, a combined four-disc compilation of their best songs.

Yes, I still have them.

Beatles Red.JPG

Beatles Blue.JPG

I likely bought a used vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the same time, and at some point over the next few years, I purchased Abbey Road, Revolver and The Beatles (aka the White Album).

For all that, I still resisted calling myself a Beatles fan, even as I liked more and more of their songs…and learned that Revolver was the #1 album in the United States the week I was born.

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Remember the girl on my high school bus with her 60s folk rock mix tape? That idea stayed with me, even after she graduated (I now suspect she was a senior), and in July 1982, I started to make my 6th mix tape cassette. Side One was my spin on her mix:

A Day in the Life Beatles, The
Gimme Shelter Rolling Stones, The
Colour My World Chicago
25 or 6 to 4 Chicago
Summer Breeze Seals and Crofts
Tuesday Afternoon Moody Blues, The
Nights in White Satin Moody Blues, The
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds Beatles, The
Suffragette City Bowie, David
Ziggy Stardust Bowie, David

Note that I opened the mix with “A Day in the Life” and added “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” for good measure.

That October, I created Stuff Vol. VII (my 8th mix overall) by again recording songs from the radio. The 3rd track on Side Two was “Get Back.” meaning four of the first 135 tracks I put onto a mix were by The Beatles.

But that was it for nearly eight years.

In the interim, I enrolled at Yale, where two classmates continued my change in perspective on The Beatles. One was a freshman year roommate, a brilliant musician and composer whose opinion I still greatly respect (despite resisting his occasional entreaties to run for office); he regards The Beatles with an almost sacral reverence. The other was a freshman in a different residential college with whom I became close friends, despite his being 12 years older than the rest of us. He kept trying to get me to apprehend the context in which The Beatles emerged, to imagine what he lived through: the world of popular music before and after they began to record. I was insufficiently versed in musical history to grasp his lesson then, but I now understand what he meant.  Mick Jagger’s ebullient speech inducting The Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hints at the wasteland that was popular music around 1962-63. I may yet write a post exploring that moment around 1960 when it was uncertain whether rock or jazz would become the dominant mode of popular music (clearly, the former did), and the disparate roles played by The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan (among others) in resolving that question.

Finally, in July 1990, I closed out Side Two of Stuff and Such Vol. XIX with three tracks from the “White” album: “Dear Prudence,” “Martha My Dear” and “Julia.” These were the 1,025th through 1,027th tracks I put onto a mix, recorded off a CD version of the album. I would eventually get Abbey Road and Revolver on CD as well, followed by Rubber Soul in 2006.

And it would be another 8½ years until the 8th Beatles track (“I Feel Fine”)—#1,484 overall—appeared on Stuff and Such Vol. LXIV. “She’s a Woman” followed in March 2000 (#1,585), with “Got To Get You Into My Life” (#1,682) making it an even 10 that November.

The following June, however, is when then dam began to break. I recorded four Beatles songs on a two-cassette mix I created for a road trip (Philadelphia to Ann Arbor, MI). Three more would follow in 2002, two in 2003, two in 2004, three in 2006-07 (including what is likely my favorite Beatles song, “If I Needed Someone” from Rubber Soul) and one in 2009; I was now up to 25 Beatles songs out of 2,649.

Finally, in July 2010, that number increased by 10 when I put the entire Abbey Road Side Two medley on disc eight of an 11-CD mix I created for a trip to Philadelphia.

Because Beatles, The
You Never Give Me Your Money Beatles, The
Sun King Beatles, The
Mean Mr. Mustard Beatles, The
Polythene Pam Beatles, The
She Came In Through the Bathroom Window Beatles, The
Golden Slumbers Beatles, The
Carry That Weight Beatles, The
The End Beatles, The
Her Majesty Beatles, The

I added one final Beatles track (“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” #2,799) in June 2012, meaning that through August 2015 (the last time I updated the database, unfortunately), 36 Beatles tracks were included among 3,305 total tracks (1.1%). A similar 1.3% (124) of the 9,560 tracks in my iTunes are Beatles tracks; for context, see here.

When I first began assessing my favorite tracks, albums and artists in the early 1990s, The Beatles languished between my 51st and 35th favorite artist; they were only that high because I owned six of their albums. By 2005, however, the last time I formally analyzed my musical tastes, they had risen to #12; this is roughly where they would rank were I to perform this analysis now.

It had been, dare I say it, a long and winding road, but 30 years after visiting Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Atlantic City, NJ, I had more than made my peace with The Beatles.

Who are very much NOT overrated.

Until next time…

[1] According to page 37 of the December 8, 1980 edition of the Philadelphia Daily News.

[2] Technically, HIGH ECHELON (124) and ALSO HIGH ECHELON (10), because I did not remember the latter until after typing up the former.

[3] After a recount, there may only be 26.

Interrogating memory: The Beatles, wax museums and a diner mystery solved

To the extent my writing over the last three years has a theme (or perhaps even a brand), it is what I call interrogating memory.

At one level, this is just a fancy term for “fact-checking,” as in looking through my elementary school report cards (I am missing the one for third grade[1]) to confirm my fourth-grade teacher was named Ms. Goldman, only to discover she was my fifth-grade teacher and her name was “R. Goldberg.”

Quick story.

On the first day of fifth grade at Lynnewood Elementary School, my new teacher called me up to her desk. Ms. Goldberg, an attractive woman with an unwavering platinum blonde permanent, was curious about my father, whose name she had seen was David Louis Berger. We quickly established (most likely through his age and being raised in West Philadelphia) they had been in the same confirmation class at Congregation Beth El in 1951. It was also clear from the way she spoke about him (my aunt once wrote me, “He really was lovable you know”) she had a serious crush on him. I do not recall how I reacted, or what my father said when I told him.

Still, knowing it was fifth, not fourth, grade and that her surname was Goldberg, not Goldman, does not materially alter the story: my teacher had known and liked my father when they were teenagers.

The thing is, however, I pulled out those report cards in the process of reassessing an entirely different memory, one that better exemplifies the complexity of interrogating memory.

As a child and young teen, I hated The Beatles (or, at least, refused to succumb to the pressure to love them). And until a few weeks ago, I believed this disdain stemmed from my active resistance to being told what to like and what not to like. My attitude from a very young age was that I will decide for myself what I like and do not like, thank you very much.

My proof, other than my own memory?

I was certain that mixed in with otherwise glowing comments from my elementary school teachers on my report cards was a common phrase along the lines of “does not like to follow directions.”

But when I pulled out my five surviving report cards from Lynnewood, this sentiment was far less ubiquitous than I had remembered. Mrs. Virginia Hoeveler did begin her extensive (and humbly flattering) comments, dated June 13, 1973, by noting I initially had “difficulty conforming to a classroom situation,” though I quickly adjusted. She also added a postscript: “Matt is quite the ‘individual – he likes to do his ‘own thing.’ “

Five months later (November 7, 1973), Ms. C. Edwards—who broke the heart of every boy in my second-grade class when she became Mrs. C. Stevenson at the end of the school year (many of us attended the wedding, sitting in a mezzanine area of the church, overlooking the ceremony, stage left)—wrote, “Matt sometimes gets carried away with his intelligence. He seems to feel that he doesn’t need to follow directions.”

Ouch.

Still, as of June 1, 1974, I had “become much more social with [my] peers.” Good to know I was ceasing to be a curmudgeon at seven years old.

But…that is it. I have no third grade report card, neither Miss Nichols nor R. Goldberg wrote more than a token sentence or two, and Mr. Bianco (a good-looking man who wore platform shoes and was smitten with my mother) merely noted I would have had an “O” (Outstanding) instead of an “S” (Satisfactory) in Social Studies but for too many missed assignments.

Oh.

The point is, my memory was not, strictly speaking, incorrect; there were comments along the lines of “does not like to follow directions.” It was just that they were confined to first and second grades, when I was apparently still adjusting socially and academically to a formal classroom environment.

Here is the kicker, though. Even before I pulled out those report cards, I had already concluded my aversion to structured guidance was not why I had hated The Beatles (which I no longer do; quite the contrary, in fact[2]). Or, at least, it was not the only reason.

Just bear with me while I wax rhapsodic about Atlantic City, New Jersey.

I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 living with my mother and our dog—a Keeshond named Luvey—in Penthouse A (really, just one of two slightly larger rooms with two queen beds and a walk-in closet sharing a small semi-circular concrete balcony overlooking the pool) of the Strand Motel in Atlantic City. On weekends, my father would drive the roughly 80 miles from our home in Havertown, Pennsylvania (just west of Philadelphia) to join us.

Luvey in Atlantic City August 1974 2.jpg

The Strand Motel, which sat between the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenues, and between Providence and Boston Avenues, was knocked down around 1979 as part of the construction of the Golden Nugget Casino (which, after many name changes, closed in 2014). I am reasonably certain this photograph was taken in the lounge directly below the penthouses one of those two summers; my father is the silver-haired man in the blue jacket sitting at the bar, while the left side of my mother’s face is just visible on the right (her natural red hair was back).

Scan0011.jpg

Those two summers, I spent my days wandering up and down Pacific Avenue (either on foot, or riding a jitney for 35 cents) and the Boardwalk. By myself, at the ages of seven and eight, that is; I cannot imagine that happening today. I especially loved going into the lobby of every motel and hotel along the roughly three miles of roads/Boardwalk in my purview to collect one of each pamphlet available in the large wooden racks there. During the winter, I would dump them onto my parents’ bed and rummage through them, wishing I was back in Atlantic City.

One of those pamphlets was actually a red-covered brochure for Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum, then located at 1238 Boardwalk (yes, the Boardwalk is considered a road for mailing purposes), roughly halfway between North Carolina and South Carolina Avenues.

I do not know why I suddenly recalled this wax museum a few weeks ago (which was opened by Madame Tussaud’s somewhat less-talented great-grandson). Perhaps it was researching my book, and thinking about how we stopped summering down the shore (as those of us raised near Philadelphia say) in 1976, just before the casinos started being built, effectively ending “my” Atlantic City. Along those lines, I have reflected a great deal this summer on how much my wife Nell and our daughters love spending much of the summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and how much, frankly, I do not. And I have concluded no longer spending summers in Atlantic City, even as it was inexorably changing (for the worst, in my opinion)[3], was a deeply painful occurrence I have yet fully to process. But, the result is a silly jealousy of Nell’s childhood (and current) summer home.

Or, Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum came to mind for no other reason than the 1953 Vincent Price vehicle House of Wax was recently on TCM OnDemand (I did not get a chance to watch it).

Regardless, what I specifically recalled about that slightly tacky museum was that one of the first tableaus you saw when you entered from the Boardwalk was of The Beatles circa 1964. Walking by the four wax figures, I would hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” playing; perhaps songs like “She Loves You” played as well. In fact, now that I interrogate that memory, the point of the tableau may have been to reproduce their historic February 9, 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I could not tell you what other tableaus I saw in Louis Tussaud’s because, frankly, the only other thing I clearly remember is the Chamber of Horrors.

Again, I was seven or eight years old when I viewed those displays, some of which were particularly gory and graphic. This nostalgic video includes two of them: a low-quality rendition of the Lon Chaney version of the Phantom of the Opera and a gruesome Algerian Hook (speaks for itself, despite being misspelled in the video).

As an aside, the photograph in the video of the Boardwalk in front of Steel Pier in the summer of 1974 was like stepping out of a TARDIS: that is the Atlantic City I remember. To be fair, I preferred Million Dollar Pier, whose Tilt-a-Whirl I would foolishly ride every weekday, around 12:30 in the afternoon, after eating a slice of pizza from a little stand just where Arkansas Avenue meets the Boardwalk. Seeing that photograph was both exhilarating and painful; I may have known Atlantic City at the very end of its family-resort glory, but I loved being there.

Returning to the Chamber of Horrors, I was both terrified and fascinated by the scenes it depicted. If memory serves, they also included Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby on November 24, 1963. As deeply unsettling as they were, I could not stop poring over the photographs of those displays in my souvenir booklet back home in Havertown.

But rather than admit they scared the bleepity-frick out of me, I displaced that emotion onto the completely banal and non-threatening (if mildly creepy, in the way all wax figures are mildly creepy) wax renditions of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Simply because they were what I saw before I entered the Chamber of Horror, which truly did scare me. This may not be quite what Sigmund Freud meant by a “screen memory,” but the concept is broadly the same.

In some ways, “interrogating memory” is like the love child of psychoanalytic technique (patiently probing memories to get at any underlying meaning) and the epistemological underpinnings of epidemiology (questioning and verifying everything, putting all data points into context—usually chronological), raised on a steady diet of persistence and a genuine love of history.

Or, to put it even more simply, it is using every technique in your critical toolbox to answer the question, “Hold on a minute, did that really happen that way, then, in that place?”

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Speaking of persistence, I may have solved a mystery I first identified here:

Memory 2: One Saturday night in 2002, 2003 or 2004, I took a meandering night drive. Somewhere in Montgomery County, north of Philadelphia, I found myself driving on a “road with a route number.” I then turned left onto a different “road with a route number” to explore further; I may have intended to find this latter road from the start. Sometime later, I find a 24-hour diner (on weekends, at least); I park and enter. I am almost certain I walked up a few concrete steps to do so. It was clean and kind of “retro-modern;” despite my sense of a great deal of black and white in the décor, I also feel like there was a fair amount of neon and chrome. I sat at a small-ish counter (curved?) in a separate room to the right as you entered (there were some booths behind me); in front of me may have been glass shelving stacked high to the ceiling. Behind me and to the left was a large glass window through which I can look down onto an asphalt-covered parking area with at most a few spaces. The diner itself is sort of tucked into a dark urban commercial corner, almost as though it jutted out from an adjoining building. I do not recall what I ordered or what I was reading, or whether I even liked the diner or not. I never returned there, and I can no longer recall the name of the diner or its precise location.

In the post, I concluded I had almost certainly turned north on Route 152 from Business Route 202 that night, eventually wending through the Montgomery County towns of Chalfont, Briarwyck, Silverdale, Perkasie, Sellersville and Telford (where Route 152 ends at Route 309). It was just that none of these towns had the sort of urban-feeling center in which my memory placed the diner.

Frustrated in my efforts to find a diner that fit the necessary criteria, I concluded thus:

I have a sinking suspicion this particular eatery has since closed; this was 15 or so years ago, after all. Or else I have simply mixed up an intersection from one drive with a diner I happened upon in another—though I highly doubt it. What remains mystifying is how this late-night restaurant could have made such an impression on me—yet I have no idea where it is/was or what its name is/was.

As I said, though, a key element of interrogating memory is persistence, so the other night I resolved to trace my possible route that night, starting at the intersection of Routes 152 and Business 202, using StreetView on Google Maps.

Patiently clicking the forward arrow, waiting less patiently for the photographs to resolve on my computer screen, I made my virtual way through Chalfont and Briarwyck and Silverdale and Perkasie into Sellersville. I took a few wrong turns along the way (Route 152, like many state routes, has a habit of randomly turning left or right onto a different street), but always righted myself.

After getting lost multiple times at a particularly tricky five-way intersection, I continued along South Main Street, heading away from the center of Sellersville. In that confusing way of state routes, by following “North” Route 152, I actually travelled south. After passing a few scattered two-story brick houses and local businesses, a large (for the area) parking lot appeared on my left.

In the middle of the lot was a light gray single-story building with a double-sloped roof. The front of the building was a two-story structure from which short flights of concrete steps, under red awnings, protruded. Above each awning was a lighted sign, white with red letters, reading “A & N DINER.” A yellow road sign embedded in the asphalt just beyond the sidewalk read “A & N DINER/ FAMILY RESTAURANT / OPEN 24 HOURS”; with “HAPPY LABOR DAY” spelled out in removable black plastic letters just below that.

Say what now? How did I miss this 24-hour diner in my extensive search?

Something about it seemed vaguely familiar, especially adjusting for the fact these September 2018 photographs were taken during the day, while my drive occurred at night, when the A & N Diner would have been brightly lit in the darkness. I clicked on the map’s icon to learn it is no longer open 24 hours. If that change occurred between Labor Day 2018 and early March 2019, that would explain why I could not find it searching for “24 hour restaurants.”

Scrolling through the accompanying photographs, I observed a small counter area to the left as you entered. One photograph showed five dark pink (almost gray) leather-covered stools bolted to the floor. To the left of the counter was a window, which another photograph confirmed overlooked the parking lot. And the wall one faced sitting at the counter might be the one I recalled—the glass shelving could easily have been replaced since I was (possibly) there in 2003 or 2004 (or existed only in my memory).

The only problem was that this was hardly the urban downtown my memory insisted housed the diner. However, I may have an explanation for that.

One of the classes I took in the first semester of my biostatistics Master’s program at Boston University School of Public Health was on probability theory. While I earned an A on the first of three exams (which comprised ~90% of the final grade), I bombed the second exam. Forget getting an A in the class; I was simply hoping to salvage a B with the final exam. Sometime after that disastrous second exam, say in November 2005, I had a powerful dream. In that dream, in which I learned I did in fact earn an A, it was night. The dark second floor room in which I stood extended far behind me as I stared out a large bay window; perhaps I was in bed first, it is all a bit fuzzy 14 years later. Below me was an urban corner with low buildings, lit by a single street lamp; a kind of brick culvert was off to my right.

This dream made such an impression on me, I still remember it relatively clearly nearly 14 years later. It is possible I mixed up looking out the window into the dark parking lot at the A & N Diner with looking out the window at the urban street corner in the dark in my dream. Why, I could not begin to tell you…unless the former somehow got worked into the latter? I would have to drive to the A & N Diner at night to be certain.

Another slight variation is that I recall the diner being on my right, but I would have approached it from the left that night. That could easily be explained, however, if I parked on the opposite side of the building (putting the diner on my right as I entered) and/or if I drove past it at first, decided to stop in for a snack, and turned around, thus placing the building to my right as I drove to it again.

There is one additional small point of confirmation. In my memory, the diner is shiny and new. Well, a little digging on the invaluable Newspapers.com uncovered a February 2000 article in the NEWS-HERALD of Perakasie, PA[4]. The gist of the article is that Nicholas and Vasso Scebes had assumed control of Angelo’s Family Restaurant on January 31, 2000, renaming it A & N Diner and Family Restaurant.

The key passage is this:

“Later this month, the manager said, they hope to be settled in enough to change the environment of the restaurant, starting with the interior wall colors, which are currently a bright two-tone lime green. Vasso said that’s the first thing regulars asked to have changed.”

Later in the article, Vasso avowed her intention to “clean up this place and make it respectable.”

If those renovations were completed sometime in 2000, they could well have seemed “shiny and new” three or four years later, when a young man out for a meandering night drive almost certainly stopped in with his book for a meal and lots of decaffeinated coffee, black.

For the record, dreams sometimes do come true. I studied intensely for the final exam, and earned something like a 92. Great, I thought, that will get me a solid B in the course. When I learned I had actually received an A, I e-mailed the professor to make sure he had not made a mistake. No, he said, he thought well enough of my participation in the class to essentially “throw out” the middle exam as an unfortunate outlier. Oh, I replied, thank you very much.

Until next time…

[1] Itself a curious slip of memory, as I originally wrote (from memory) “fourth grade.” I only pulled out these report cards to review a week or two ago.

[2] I am even listening to Abbey Road as I edit this post.

[3] This shift is beautifully rendered in Louis Malle’s 1980 film Atlantic City.

[4] Baum, Charles W., “New family takes over operation of former Angelo’s in Sellersville,” NEWS-HERALD (Perkasie, PA), February 16, 2000, pg. 3.

A Musical Mosaic

This is a LONG post, even accounting for the 28 footnotes. While I encourage a complete read, please feel free to skip the introductory sections and cut right to the chase: the iTunes chart and subsequent personal musical history.

When I enrolled at Yale in the fall of 1984, I was undecided between majoring in political science or mathematics. A less-than-stellar experience in Math 230—required for freshman mathematics major—quickly decided me: political science, it would be.

Luckily, two courses I took sophomore year taught by Professor Edward TufteData Analysis for Politics and Policy and Politics and the Economy—allowed me to merge these interests. They expanded my knowledge of advanced statistical methods, a branch of applied mathematics which would undergird a two-decades-long career as a health-related data analyst[1].

One textbook from the former course fundamentally altered how I viewed the aesthetics of data presentation: the landmark Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Tufte’s purposes for graphical display[2] have informed every chart, graph and map I have constructed since:

  • show the data
  • induce the viewer to think about the substance […]
  • avoid distorting what the data have to say
  • present many numbers in a small space
  • make large data sets coherent
  • encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data
  • reveal the data at several levels of detail […]
  • serve a reasonably clear purpose: description, exploration, tabulation, or decoration
  • be closely integrated with the statistical and verbal descriptions of a data set

This is data presentation as art…or data art.

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In two previous posts, I described…

  1. How I manipulate mix tape/CD/iTunes playlist data to generate lists of favorite tracks (a term I prefer to “songs”), albums and artists, organized by year and musical “genre,” and
  2. My desire to create a visual representation of my iTunes data (as of March 6, 2018), displaying the number of tracks released each year (if any, 1721-2017) by an artist/in a musical genre.

I actually started the latter project in May 2014 before abandoning it the following month. Recently, however, I devised a simpler way to generate all necessary cell entries using the statistical software package SPSS.[3]

Before I present the final chart (the first of two I intend to create), just bear with me while I briefly detail some necessary prior data organization steps.

Feel free to skim the next section.

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The raw data consisted of 9,552 tracks (40,610 total “plays” beginning in January 2013, when I purchased this computer) performed by 1,311 unique “artists.” However, many “artists” are simply variations on what I call a meta-artist. For example, I subsumed the 23 tracks by “Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band,” eight tracks by “Bob Seger” and one track by “Bob Seger System” under the meta-artist “Bob Seger (+).”

Applying this logic to all 1,311 artists yielded 1,217 meta-artists; please see attached PDF for details.

Artists within Meta-Artists

Similarly, I collapsed 242 musical genres—based upon with the first listed “Genre” on the track’s (or parent album’s) Wikipedia page, supplemented as necessary by its AllMusic page—into 89 meta-genres. For example, I subsumed all “Darkwave” (n=15), “Neue Deutsche Welle” (2), “New Romantic” (3) and “New Wave” (1,098, most by far) tracks under the meta-genre New Wave/Darkwave (+). Please see attached PDF for details.

Genres within Meta-Genres

To keep the chart from becoming unwieldy, I settled on a maximum of 200 rows (i.e., meta-artists/meta-genres). With up to 89 meta-genres, that allowed me 111 meta-artists.

I began with the 76 meta-artists with ≥20 tracks AND ≥100 total plays. An additional 157 meta-artists had ≥20 tracks or ≥100 total plays. Of them, I selected 13 meta-artists (Modest Mussourgsky, Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller (+), Sergei Prokofiev, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, Spike Jones and His City Slickers, Charlie Parker (+), Nat King Cole (+), Dave Brubeck Quartet, James Brown (+), Frank Sinatra (+), John Coltrane[4]) whose first track in my iTunes was released before 1960. I then selected two meta-artists (Geoff Martin (+), Steve Hackett) whose first track was released after 2000[5].

These “expanding the musical horizons” additions put me at 91 meta-artists.

A total of 99 meta-artists had a “Product” (number of tracks * total plays) of at least 2000 (i.e., 20 * 100). Of those, 20 were not among the 91 meta-artists I had already selected for inclusion. I rejected a) Mark Isham (19 tracks, 294 plays, all from his 1992 The Public Eye soundtrack) and b) Abba, ABC and Altered Images (artificially-inflated play counts from inadvertent iPod [treasured classic fly-wheel model] plays in order of artist name, starting with A3).

That left 16 additional meta-artists (increasing my total to 107): Tony Banks, Bee Gees, Berlin, Blondie, Kate Bush, The Cure, Chris Isaak, Gary Numan/Tubeway Army/Dramatis, Oingo Boingo, Robert Palmer, The Rolling Stones, Todd Rundgren (+)/Utopia, Simple Minds, Suzanne Vega (+), Violent Femmes and George Winston.

I rounded out my selections with three meta-artists with Products between 1972 and 1978: Marvin Gaye (+), The Motels and Thomas Dolby. This gave me a total of 110 meta-artists and up to 89 meta-genres, or 199 possible rows.

Perfect.

I constructed the chart this way:

  • Each selected meta-artist (n=110) had his/her/their own row. Cell entries are number of tracks released by that meta-artist in a given year, if any. Years go from left to right.
  • Remaining tracks are enumerated in a separate “Miscellaneous” row for each meta-genre.
  • Cell values between 10 and 19 have a thin black border; cells with value≥20 have a thick black border.
  • Meta-genres are color-coded (different colors for cell and text) as shown in the attached meta-genre summary.
  • Meta-artist name and track total (1st 2 columns on left) of the 110 are color-coded according to the predominant meta-genre of their tracks (g. “Genesis” and “288” shaded Progressive Rock [6] because 57.3% of tracks have that designation[7]). I used total plays to break ties.
  • Each cell is color-coded the predominant meta-genre of tracks released by that meta-artist in that year (g., 12 of 15 tracks released by Talking Heads in 1978 are Post-Punk/Revival[8]). Every meta-artist/meta-genre cell between first and last release is color-coded[9], even if no track was released in a year in that range.
  • All text is Palatino Linotype Bold. Any row (meta-artist/meta-genre) with <10 tracks was 13 point, increasing as follows: 10-20 tracks (14), 21-40 (15), 41-60 (16), 61-80 (17), 81-100 (18), 101-150 (23), 151-200 (28), 201-400 (32), >400 (36).
  • Any column (year) with 0 tracks has width=6. Years with 1-10 tracks has width=10, increasing as follows: 11-20 (11), 21-50 (12), 51-100 (13), 101-200 (15), 201-300 (17), 301-500 (19), 501-600 (21), >600 (23).

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At 137 columns and 195 rows[10], the final chart does not fit onto one page for printing; the best I could do was “Fit All Rows on One Page,” which still requires two pages to print. Ultimately, I will have this chart professionally printed as a large wall poster.

My printer is low on cyan and magenta ink, so I took this (cropped) photograph of my computer screen (magnification=12%).

Cropped data art screen shot

This piece of data art, if you will permit some self-congratulation, is gorgeous AND serves its purpose—to display the key artists, genres and chronology of the 9,552 tracks in my iTunes—very well.

Your eye is naturally drawn to the vibrant yellows and blacks of the 1ate 1970s and early 1980s, an era musically dominated for me by variations of Punk, Post-Punk, New Wave and Synthpop (46.3% of 3,490 tracks, 1977-84). Overall, 20.8% of all 9,552 tracks are subsumed under this loose family of genres, so that is precisely what should happen.

Moreover, as your eye runs from the upper left to the lower right corner of the chart, you travel through time from Classical through various forms of Blues and Jazz and into the Pop and Rock era, with a special emphasis on Progressive Rock; along the way, Rhythm and Blues, Soul, Funk, Disco and assorted post-Disco forms of Dance emerge. The Punk/New Wave era morphs into Alternative in the second half of the 1980s. Finally, the last 10-15 years are a hodge-podge of musical forms, with the most recent meta-artist of interest being the The Four-Legged Faithful, shown here performing in March 2014 at Toad in Cambridge, MA (I regret not capturing the mandolin-playing talents of Jonathan Kaplan).

IMG_1008.JPG

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Between 1721 and 1922, excepting eight Scott Joplin tracks between 1901 and 1909 (Dixieland/Early Jazz/Ragtime), Classical is the dominant meta-genre. The severe truncation of those two centuries reflects the relative dearth of tracks (n=110) I own from those years; fully 71.8% were composed by Ludwig von Beethoven, Mussourgsky or Tchaikovsky.

The first recordings by Bessie Smith mark the emergence of Blues/Classic Female Blues in 1923[11]. Over the next 10 years, this meta-genre competes with Dixieland/Early Jazz/Ragtime (Louis Armstrong (+)), Jazz (+) and Progressive Jazz (Ellington (+)) for dominance.

By 1935, however Jazz, writ large, had taken center stage, establishing full dominance through 1960; the genres of Vocal Jazz, Jazz, Swing, Big Band, Early Jazz, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz and Bepop account for 72.1% of tracks. Of the 662 tracks released during these two-and-a-half decades, fully 55.4% were by Billie Holiday (+), Miles Davis, Waller (+), Ellington (+), Parker (+), Miller, Coltrane, Cole (+) and Ella Fitzgerald (+).

This was also the era of Classical artists like Prokofiev (25) and the Comedy/Novelty parodies of Jones (+).

The catch-all meta-genre Music for Film and Stage first appears in 1953, with the Broadway production of Kismet. Other dominant meta-artists in this genre, besides the afore-mentioned Isham, are John Barry (e.g., jazz-inflected soundtracks to Hammett and The Cotton Club), Leslie Bricusse (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and the composers/performers of Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Indeed, a favorite self-deprecating observation is that I was raised primarily on a combination of Fiddler and Superstar.

My personal jazz peak is 1959: my favorite album (Davis’ Kind of Blue), containing my favorite track (“Blue In Green”), was released then, as was the Cool Jazz masterpiece Time Out by Dave Brubeck Quartet. Baker (+) also released seven iTunes tracks that year.

However, starting with the Rockabilly “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash in 1956 and a handful of Bobby Darin singles two years later[12], a new musical form—Rock and Roll—began to assume dominance.

Led by the emergence of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Who and The Rolling Stones between 1962 and 1965, Rock (+) (24.0% of 918 tracks, 1962-1970), would dominate the 1960s. Such variations as Folk Rock (e.g. Rubber Soul) and Psychedelic/Acid Rock (Revolver, Pet SoundsSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) would emerge in 1965 and 1966-67. Folk Rock would return with a vengeance for me in the 1980s with the ethereal Vega (+) and The Waterboys, whose epic 1988 Fisherman’s Blues is the closest my wife Nell and I have to “our album.”

Other meta-genres were emerging as well. Ray Charles kicked off Rhythm and blues (+) in 1954 with “I Got a Woman.” Sinatra (+) did the same for Pop (+) in 1957 with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Instrumental (+) debuted in 1962 with Herb Alpert (+)’s “The Lonely Bull[13]

In 1963, a young gospel singer from East Orange, NJ named Dionne Warwick launched Soul (+) with “Anyone Who Had a Heart” despite being predominantly Pop (+). The first predominantly Soul (+) artist, another young church-trained singer named Marvin Gaye, would debut in 1964 with “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” Two years later, a blind 16-year-old Detroit singer named Stevie Wonder released “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” For me, the Soul (+) pinnacles of these two extraordinary artists are What’s Going On and Songs In the Key of Life.

In 1967, a meta-artist who had been releasing Rhythm and blues (+) and Soul (+) tracks since 1956 took a radical turn. With “Cold Sweat, Pt. 1James Brown (+) would become synonymous with Funk (+); the meta-genre would blossom in the early-to-mid 1970s before spinning off a new meta-genre, Disco (+), which would peak between 1976 and 1980 (91.9% of 86 tracks).

In the early 1980s, Funk (+) would dramatically reassert itself in the person of a multi-instrumental musical genius from Minneapolis, MN named Prince (+). His Purple-ness inspired the base color I use for Rhythm and blues, Funk (+) and various Dance-related offshoots; the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince also dabbled in Synthpop and Psychedelic Pop/Neopsychedelia. Rest in peace, Mr. Nelson

Straight-ahead Folk (+) appears in 1965.[14] Two years later, a 33-year-old Canadian poet named Leonard Cohen would release The Songs of Leonard Cohen; five tracks, including the shimmering “Suzanne,” remain Folk (+) classics. Rest in peace, Mr. Cohen.

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Four teenagers from the storied Charterhouse public school in Surrey, UK would play a major role in the development of Progressive Rock, accounting for 653 (6.8%) of the tracks in my iTunes, third behind only New Wave (+)/Darkwave and Rock (+).

Classmates Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks had formed The Garden Wall, while fellow classmates Anthony Phillips and Mike Rutherford had formed Anon. At some point in 1966 or 1967 they combined bands and, employing a series of short-term drummers (until bringing Phil Collins on full-time in 1971; Collins would achieve superstar status in the 1980s as a Pop Rock (+) meta-artist), acquired the name Genesis. In 1967 and 1968, they released 15 demos, and in 1969 they released From Genesis to Revelation, which promptly went nowhere.

First hearing them in 1978, when “Follow You, Follow Me” became their first American Top 40 single (of 17), the track that cemented my enduring love for Genesis was 1980’s “Turn It On Again.” I saw them live for the first time in the summer of 1982 (and thrice more through 1992), at the since-demolished JFK Stadium[15]. They headlined an all-day stadium show that also featured local favorites Robert Hazard and the Heroes, A Flock of Seagulls, Blondie, and Costello (+). That fall, early in my junior year of high school, a senior would introduce me to the live album Seconds Out—a brilliant introduction to Gabriel-era Genesis—cementing them as my “favorite musical artist.”

More than three decades later, that designation still holds; their 288 tracks lead all meta-artists.

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Many Progressive Rock meta-artists quickly followed (all dates are earliest iTunes tracks): King Crimson in 1968, Todd Rundgren (+)/Utopia in 1970, Pink Floyd and Yes in 1971, Renaissance in 1972, The Alan Parsons Project and Gabriel in 1977, and Banks in 1983[16].  The related meta-genre Art Rock emerged with Roxy Music’s third album, to be followed by Kate Bush’s 1978 debut The Kick Inside[17]. Lead singer Bryan Ferry would begin a parallel, predominantly Dream/Sophisti-Pop (see 1987’s Bete Noire, as well as albums by The Dream Academy and Danny Wilson) solo career in 1973.

Rock music was also branching in other directions in the late 1960s. Led Zeppelin’s eponymous 1969 debut signaled the emergence of Hard Rock/Heavy-Alternative Metal. Fusion/Jazz Fusion, first pioneered by Davis in 1967-68 with the Water Babies recordings, would find fuller rock expression from Chicago (+) with 1969’s Chicago Transit Authority and 1970’s Chicago II; two years later, Steely Dan/Donald Fagen would launch Jazz Rock with Can’t Buy a Thrill. Rest in peace, Mr. Becker.

Other Rock (+) meta-artists to emerge between 1969 and 1971 are

Although they had existed as a Blues Rock band for years, the first Fleetwood Mac in my iTunes is 1973’s Mystery to Me (a long way away from the Experimental Rock of the uneven, but often breathtaking, Tusk)

That same year, a struggling singer-songwriter from South Jersey named Bruce Springsteen (+) would release Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., which includes the gorgeous “Spirit in the Night.” Another singer-songwriter from Long Island named Billy Joel would release Piano Man that same year, containing the iconic title track and “Captain Jack;” Joel’s predominant designation is Soft Rock, thanks in large part to his 1977 breakthrough The Stranger.

The consequential year 1973 also marks the debut of the first predominantly Pop Rock (+) (Hall and Oates), and Orchestral/Symphonic meta-artists (Electric Light Orchestra).

Electronic (+) debuted in 1974 with Kraftwerk’s deeply influential Autobahn. Seven years later, the predominantly Electronic (+) Depeche Mode with the infectious Synthpop track “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

In 1974, two favorite male meta-artists debuted, predominantly-Rock (+) Palmer (even if some of his best work is New Wave (+)/Darkwave and Dance/Rock (+)) and predominantly-Adult-Contemporary (+) Rupert Holmes, whose 1979 Partners in Crime is a Soft Rock gem. Seriously, EVERY aspiring singer-songwriter should memorize this album.

Before launching into Punk (+) and its many offshoots, a quick word about Bee Gees and Michael Jackson. Starting as Funk (+) in 1975[18], they passed through Disco (+) with the still-exceptional Saturday Night Fever soundtrack before landing on Soft Rock with 1979’s Spirits Having Flown. Jackson, meanwhile graduated from the infectious Rhythm and blues (+) of 1979’s Off the Wall to the exemplary Post-Disco of Thriller, the best-selling album of all time.

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Split Enz actually started as an Art Rock band in 1975 with tracks like “Titus” and ”Time For a Change.” By 1980[19], with the phenomenal True Colours, they were firmly New Wave (+)/Darkwave.

In between those years, a series of bands had begun to play at the infamous CBGB’s in the Bowery section of Manhattan. These bands, including Ramones[20] and The Patti Smith Group, would soon be labeled Punk (+). Most salient between 1976 and 80 (123 of 159 tracks[21]), it would yield the rise of such meta-artists as The Pretenders.

Punk (+) quickly spin off other musical meta-genres, most notably Post-Punk/Revival and New Wave (+)/Darkwave.

Another regular early CBGB’s meta-artist, Blondie, launches New Wave (+)/Darkwave in my iTunes with two 1976 tracks,[22] while The Stranglers do the same for Post-Punk/Revival with three 1977 tracks.[23]

Ranked by number of tracks, chart-selected predominantly-New Wave (+)/Darkwave meta-artists are Simple Minds, Berlin, Spandau Ballet, INXS, The Motels, The Stranglers, Costello (+), Dolby, The B-52’s, Numan (+), Oingo Boingo, Split Enz, The Fixx, Icehouse, The Police, The Cars, Joe Jackson and Talking Heads.

And Post-Punk/Revival?  Adam Ant (+), Joy Division, U2 and The Clash. And let us not forget the Art Punk of Wire or the Folk Punk of Violent Femmes.

Finally, there are the Synthpop meta-artists: Duran Duran, Blancmange and Yello. I 1989, Blancmange would spin off this delirious piece of Avant/Experimental/Leftfield/Post Modern.

Collectively, these 29 meta-artists combine for 1,137 (11.9%) of my 9,552 iTunes tracks—and that excludes meta-artists like The Cure and Stan Ridgway (+)/Drywall that evolved into Alternative Rock (+), as well as the 1979-82 era Ska/Two Tone, exemplified by English Beat, Madness and Specials/AKA, and Mod Revival  (The Jam).

Overall, 3,701 (38.7%) of my iTunes tracks were released in this time frame: between 1976 and 1984.

This is MY music.

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In mid-1970s Los Angeles (L.A.), Stan Ridgway was running Acme Soundtracks, an Ennio-Morricone-inspired film score company. By 1977, drawn to the burgeoning L.A. Punk (+) scene, he and four other men—Chas Gray, brothers Bruce and Marc Moreland, and Joe Nanini—had formed Wall of Voodoo. Debuting with a stunning 1980 Darkwave cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,”[24] their two studio albums, Dark Continent and Call of the West are New Wave (+)/Darkwave masterpieces.

Their formation and rapid dissolution are bitingly chronicled in “Talkin’ Wall of Voodoo Blues, Pt. 1.” In the song, Ridgway mocks “the single they still talk about”: the inimitable “Mexican Radio.”

Ridgway collaborated on two film scores in 1983 and 1984 before releasing his first solo album in 1986—the stunning The Big Heat. Given that Ridgway has been called a “noir balladeer,” he likely drew inspiration from the 1953 film noir.

In 2002, however, all I knew were the “Ring of Fire” and “Mexican Radio” (and its B-side, “Call of the West”—I have the original single). A coworker who moonlighted as a disc jockey told me about “Drive She Said,” from The Big Heat. Curious, I purchased The Best of Stan Ridgway: Songs That Made This Country Great.

I was immediately hooked, especially by this lyric from The Big Heat’s “Walkin’ Home Alone” (boldface added for emphasis):

“The telephone’s dead––I guess they turned it off today

Turn the key on the mailbox slot

Lookin’ for a letter, but bills is all I’ve got

And even the cat she left me with

Is goin’ out with someone else

So put another quarter in the jukebox, Pete

But don’t play that one with the sad trombone

‘Cause tonight, I’ll be walkin’ home alone”

Five years later, I saw Ridgway live for the first time, in Manhattan. Three tours later, in August 2015, someone took this photograph of us at the now-defunct Johnny D’s in Somerville, MA.

Stan Ridgway and I at Johnny D's August 2015.jpg

IMG_2076.JPG

Designated Alternative Pop Rock, Stan Ridgway (+)/Drywall is second in tracks (192, not counting 23 Wall of Voodoo tracks and 13 from wife Pietra Wiexstun’s band Hecate’s Angels); he still releases new material.

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The first tracks labeled “Alternative” were released in 1979: two Alternative Rock (+) tracks from The Cure[25] and the indescribably weird (and brilliant) Pere Ubu sophomore effort, the Alternative Dub Housing.

In 1981, an Athens, GA (home of The B-52’s) band called R.E.M. released an Alternative Rock (+) single called “Radio Free Europe.” They and The Smiths would help foment the shift to Alternative Rock (+) in the mid-1980s with albums like 1984’s Reckoning, 1985’s Meat is Murder, and 1986’s The Queen is Dead.

In 1992-94, Tori Amos brought harrowing personal experiences and singer-songwriter chops to Alternative Rock (+) (e.g.,Crucify”), while Geoff Martin (+) brought hard-rock sensibility and social conscience in the first decade of the 2000s, especially on such excellent tracks as “Laura” and the 9/11-inspired “32nd Floor,” both from the band Days Are Golden in 2003[26].

An early spin-off of Alternative Rock (+), Adult Alternative/AA Pop Rock, first appears in 1984, with lush albums by The Blue Nile and Mitchell Froom. Two years later, Crowded House, formed by Split Enz vocalist Neil Finn following the demise of Split Enz, would release their eponymous debut album, quickly achieving the American commercial success that had eluded Split Enz.

Alternative Pop Rock would peak (for me) in 1987 with albums by Cindy Lee Berryhill and Curiosity Killed the Cat.

One quirky, short-lived spinoff of Alternative Rock (+) was Madchester, a 1989-92 “psychedelic revival” that spawned Charlatans UK, The Stone Roses and, especially, Happy Mondays.

The alternative to “Alternative” is apparently “Indie,” as the rise of first Indie Pop (1986-1990: It’s Immaterial, The Ocean Blue, The Sundays) then Indie Rock (1999-2003: Sleater-Kinney, Del Rey) suggest.

Before leaving the 1980s entirely, here are five disparate artists:

  • George Winston: This superior pianist, a direct musical descendant of Waller (+) and The Vince Guaraldi Trio, brought New Age to the mainstream with Autumn and December.
  • Uncle Bonsai: This Folk (+) trio, two women and a man, emerged in the mid-1980s with ironic, wickedly-funny songs delivered with angelic harmonies. “Silent Night” from 1986’s Boys Want Sex in the Morning may be the most beautiful song I have ever heard.
  • The Smithereens, a Rock (+) band who nevertheless dominated alternative rock airwaves in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their 1988 Green Thoughts is songwriting at its finest. Rest in peace, Mr. DiNizio.
  • Madonna, the Dance Pop avatar from Detroit who evolved from girlish pop star to international icon. “Lucky Star” was a track I continually listened for on the radio of my black 1979 Ford Fairmount in the summer of 1984.
  • Chris Isaak, who led a Rock & roll revival in the late 1980s and early 1990s with moody, yet catchy albums like Heart Shaped World and San Francisco Days.[27]

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Brian Eno first started making Ambient records in the 1970s, but my best exemplar is Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II by Aphex Twin. I confess to knowing nothing about this 1994 album until I read this terrific book[28].

And, with a nod to the anarchic Comedy/Novelty of Cartoon Planet Band, that brings us to the late 1990s, when I stopped paying close attention to contemporary pop music and began exploring older blues and jazz.

Still, older artists were releasing fascinating music in the first decade of the 2000s, such as ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. I categorized him as Classical, but he could easily have been Progressive Rock because of his 2003 To Watch the Storms.

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I will close by identifying key meta-artists and years associated with remaining meta-genres with at least 10 “Miscellaneous” tracks across any three successive years:

Until next time…

[1] And more than 20 years later, I would circle back to mathematics, earning a Master’s Degree in biostatistics and a PhD in epidemiology.

[2] Tufte, Edward R. 1983. Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, pg. 13.

[3] SPSS Statistics 17.0 for Windows; SPSS Inc. Released 2008. Chicago: SPSS Inc.

[4] I excluded Oscar Peterson (20 tracks, 29 plays) because all but one of his tracks were released in 1995 or 1996, and I excluded Henry Mancini (8,111) and Nelson Riddle (13, 111—all but one track 1966) because they had fewer than 15 tracks.

[5] I excluded Murray Gold, because he only had two tracks (“Doctor Who XI” and “I Am the Doctor”), both released in 2010.

[6] Cell shaded “Aqua, Accent 5, Darker 25%,” text “White, Background 1, Darker 25%”

[7] Remaining tracks: 21.9% Pop Rock (+), 11.8% Rock (+), 5.9% Baroque Pop, 3.1% Art Rock.

[8] Cell shaded “Black, Text 1, Lighter 5%,” text “Yellow”

[9] For a meta-artist, the predominant meta-genre color scheme was used, though sometimes a color scheme would simply be extended to the right from a given cell.

[10] Six meta-genres were entirely subsumed by a single meta-artist: Children’s Music (Stan Ridgway (+)/Drywall), Folk Punk (Violent Femmes), Jazz Rock (Steely Dan), Modal Jazz (Miles Davis), Progressive Jazz (Duke Ellington (+)), Third Stream [Jazz] (Miles Davis),

[11] “Downhearted Blues,” “My Sweetie Went Away (She Didn’t Say Where, When Or Why),” “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do”

[12] “Early in the Morning,” “Queen of the Hop,” “Splish Splash”

[13] Plus three Henry Mancini tracks: “Days of Wine and ‘Roses,” “Hatari,” “Baby Elephant Walk.”

[14] Donovan’s “Colours” and “Catch the Wind”

[15] In July 1985, this was the site of the American portion of Live Aid.

[16] That does not even mention other favorite meta-artists like The Moody Blues and Jethro Tull.

[17] I would be remiss if I did not mention Supertramp and late-1970s Brian Eno.

[18] “Jive Talkin,’” “Nights on Broadway”

[19] OK, technically 1979’s “I See Red” is their first New Wave (+)/Darkwave track in my iTunes.

[20] Their eponymous 14-track debut album, clocking in at just 30 minutes, is often considered the start of Punk (+).

[21] Including the 19 tracks on a single Punk (+)-inflected 1999 Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry cover album.

[22] “In the Flesh,” “Rip Her to Shreds”

[23] “No More Heroes,” “Peaches,” “Something Better Change”

[24] Even if Nell disdains the closing distorted electric guitar solo as “screaming cats.”

[25] “10:15 Saturday Night,” “Grinding Halt”

[26] Martin is my first cousin.

[27] I had the pleasure of meeting Isaak, a San Francisco native, at NOIR CITY 12 in 2014. http://www.noircity.com/

[28] Weidenbaum is a college friend.