Driven by my participation in the “2020 Album Draft” organized by fellow blogger hanspostcard, as the draft progresses, here are the records I could not live without. You can follow the draft at slicethelife.com.
#1 – “Born to Run” – Bruce Springsteen
This record’s release in the late summer of 1975 changed my life as much as it did Springsteen’s. While he started his ascent toward superstardom, I obsessively began to follow his every move.
My BTR love affair started with the tease of hearing the title track on New York City’s WNEW-FM whose radio waves crossed the Hudson into my New Jersey bedroom. The song’s message of faith and hope and the musical bombast of its wall of sound made me want to get into my car and drive to the Jersey Shore with my mystery girl to find life’s promise and leave all the worries of my world behind.
I was a hopeful optimist like the Boss. These lines from that song just clobbered my emotions back then and for the next 40 years made me cry every time I heard Bruce sing them live.
Oh, someday girl, I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go, and we’ll walk in the sun
But ‘til then, tramps like us
Baby we were born to run
Those tears reflected the joy of seeing my lifelong dreams fulfilled. I found the girl I loved and together we took that walk and somehow got there. But there was so much more to the record album that changed my life.
A few weeks before I could buy BTR, I saw Bruce and his E Street Band live for the first time at the Bottom Line in New York City. From the moment I first set my eyes on that bearded kid in a leather jacket, I felt a kinship. Although he was older than me, it felt like we were both from the same place. And while Springsteen changed over the years, it will always be that kid from the streets that I chose to identify with. He reached me through passionate thoughtful lyrics and magnificent music played by the best band I would ever hear in my life.
Has there ever been a record more beautifully cinematic than BTR? “Thunder Road,” “Meeting Across the River,” and “Jungleland” all could have easily been embellished into screenplays. The music was also magical. From the simple Bo Diddley beat of “She’s the One” to complex arrangements such as the mind-blowing sax solo by Clarence Clemons on “Jungleland.”
If there’s a weak track on the record I haven’t found one. It even sports one of the greatest and most recognizable album covers of all time. It’s also one of the best records of all time to listen to into the car. In my closet somewhere is the worn-out 8-track tape that I used to play back then.
Despite its eventual success, the frustration of the record almost led to the end of Springsteen’s career. He tried so hard to make the perfect song and record that achieving that goal became next to impossible. Ready to give up, he even went so far as to throw an early acetate pf BTR into a hotel swimming pool. But while making this record, Bruce began his relationship with Jon Landau, who not only helped produce the record, but became friend and manager, as well as the beacon to help guide him through all the madness that fame was about to bring. One day you are sleeping in a surfboard shop and the next you are on the cover of Time and Newsweek.
For me, once I heard BTR, I knew that I would never love a record more than this, and to this day, I haven’t. I think Bruce Springsteen himself ultimately realized its greatness and just how much it meant to tramps like me.
#2 – “Grievous Angel” – Gram Parsons
The first time I ever heard the name Gram Parsons was when I read in Circus magazine that he had died. While this created some obvious limitations from my becoming a fan, it certainly didn’t stop me. This was 1973, and I was in process of discovering Country Rock, so Parsons’ musical pedigree had me intrigued. I already owned The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but I had yet to discover Gram’s influence on that record. Likewise, his next band, The Flying Burrito Brothers was totally foreign to me.
At this time in my life, outside of FM radio, my music listening came in the form of 8-Track tapes. The worn-out family Hi-Fi station with a turntable went the way of the Salvation Army so vinyl records didn’t work for me. While 8-Tracks offered the convenience of play in both my cheap home system and my more-mighty sounding car set-up, they sucked in both their performance and availability. For those who have been there, I’m sure you remember how they had the nerve to introduce an unforgivable pause in a song they split between two of the four playing tracks. It also sometimes took inserting a matchbook to align a tape to the head in the deck to stop the sound of one track bleeding into another. And of course, not all titles made it to this inferior forgotten format.
What this all meant to me and my Gram Parsons discovery was that I was able to somehow find his debut solo record, GP on 8-Track, but not its posthumous follow-up, Grievous Angel. Hearing GP forever changed my music life. I was totally smitten with Parsons’ take on Country Rock. While respecting the tradition of Country, he added a musical spark to it that made it fresh and relevant. He also just looked so cool and as I discovered more photos of him, I even tried to dress like he did. And there was another secret ingredient to discover on that first record—the gorgeous backing vocals of the yet undiscovered Miss Emmylou Harris.
Until I used my first paycheck after graduating college in 1976 to buy a new stereo system with a turntable, I must have poured over the album cover of Grievous Angel in record stores a hundred times. But radio never played it and there was no Spotify back then. Looking back at it now, it seems so silly that I had to wait so long to finally hear this record that today I simply could not live without.
The LP kicks off with one of the coolest Country Rock songs ever, “The Return of the Grievous Angel.” Originally a poem sent to Gram by a fan named Tom Brown, this song sets a spirited tone for the rest of the record. It also serves to display the fact that Parsons is working with one of the best bands of all time. Led by the incredible James Burton, these were the same guys that backed up Elvis, the “King” referred to in the lead-off song. This record is worthwhile even if to just hear Burton’s guitar. You can hear the band rock their best on a blistering cover of the Louvin Brother’s “Cash on the Barrelhead” and on Gram’s “Ooh Las Vegas.”
Back then living in New Jersey, I would have never thought that one day I would encounter some of people involved with this record. But living in Nashville, things like stopping at a red light next to Emmylou Harris do sometimes happen. On Grievous Angel she’s again singing with Gram and this time even gets a prominent “with Emmylou Harris” on the top of the back cover. “Hearts on Fire,” written by another current Nashvillian, Walter Egan, is a duet made in heaven from Gram and Emmylou. Getting to hear Walter and Emmy sing this live together one day was a pinch-me moment that you can watch here.
Miss Harris’ backing vocals shine throughout the record, but the real show-stopper with Gram is on the classic Boudleaux Bryant song, “Love Hurts.” The next time you hear that awful version by the band Nazareth, listen to Gram and Emmy’s version to clear your musical palate.
But the real beauty of this record is found in three heartfelt Parsons’ originals. While GP wasn’t the most prolific when it came to songwriting, his efforts rarely fell short of classic. My go-to song has always been the sadly beautiful “Brass Buttons.” For me, the song works on several different planes. Is it a lost love or one who has tragically passed on? Or here is one from left field, how about the loss of a mom? Any way you look at it, Gram’s frail and sincere County voice takes control of a song that should be enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame along with the Nudie suit he wore with the Burritos. (Yes, the suit is here in Nashville, and I pay homage to it whenever I get the chance.)
The other two GP classic ballads are “In My Hour of Darkness,” a co-write with his singing partner in which he lets his faith shine through. In fact, it’s one I’d love to hear my church choir sing. And then there is the mock-live version of “Hickory Wind.” While this may very well be Gram’s greatest song in the eyes of many, I’d choose the Sweetheart of the Rodeo version over the one on this record.
For me, putting Grievous Angel on my turntable has become a ritual of respect for the one artist I would choose my time machine to take me back to see live. It’s a record that’s complete with both great Country Rock songs and beautiful ballads to cover all the bases of my emotions. I just wonder what would have happened if I ever had found it on 8-Track a few years earlier.
#3 – “Armed Forces” – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
In the winter of 1977, my life was never the same again after hearing My Aim is True, the first album by the man born Declan MacManus. One of the greatest debut albums on just about everyone’s list, it was another bold statement first proclaimed by Graham Parker with Joe Jackson next in line. There was a place for the singer-songwriter in the dawning age of Punk and New Wave.
My passion for Elvis Costello’s music was set in motion and I soon found myself to be one of those whose favorite artists were Costello and Bruce Springsteen. I discovered that there were many of us and we relished not only their artistic brilliance but the fact that both were great live performers who toured frequently and were uber-prolific when it came to composing songs. In this regard, each also loved to test out unreleased songs from their next LP in their live set.
While Aim was Costello meets Pub Rock and The Band, his 1978 sophomore release, and first with his crack band The Attractions, This Year’s Model, was a mashup with the musical brashness of The Sex Pistols and Rolling Stones. For a future box set reissue of his first three LPs that would be named Two and a Half Years, this remarkable trilogy was complete with Armed Forces with EC & the A’s moving to a poppier sound, influenced by bands they secretly loved like Abba.
Costello also made it fun back then to be a record collector. As pictured above, the UK and US releases had different covers. Not only did the American version replace the big elephant for an arty title sleeve, they dropped the song “Sunday’s Best” thinking it sounded too British, and instead tacked on EC’s UK single covering his producer Nick Lowe’s “(What So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” This was also a time when across the pond they issued great picture sleeve 45s with unreleased B-sides that we would score as imports for the then hefty price of three bucks.
Armed Forces begins with the immortal line “I just don’t know where to begin” that for years after was playfully the first words Costello sang in concert. “Accidents Will Happen” is a brilliant ear-catching opener with a rich Power Pop sound. I love getting silly and singing along with its repeated refrain of “I know.”
The march through this record continues with nary a dud amongst its explosive tracks. Costello’s lyrics were still pun-heavy back then and Nick Lowe’s production bashed out a simple, but full lush Pop sound. They called him “The Basher” since he worked quickly, but Lowe was without a doubt the Phil Spector of the new musical era that was upon us.
A working title for the LP was Emotional Fascism, and this political/military theme was in full force in “Oliver’s Army,” the biggest UK hit of his then short career. Although loved over here in the Colonies, it too was a bit British and wasn’t radio-friendly with its bold use of the “N” word. Steve Nieve’s keyboard frills are a respectful nod to Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” a song the band reportedly played regularly on the tour bus.
Although it wasn’t a mega-hit stateside like it should have, Columbia Records made a good call to include “PL&U” on the LP in the USA. While Lowe’s sentiment in the original version with his Pub Rock band Brinsley Schwarz may have been a bit tongue-in-cheek, it’s message nonetheless closes out the record on an optimistic note.
In his version, Costello took the Brinsley’s slow-tempo romp through Lowe’s lyrics and turned it into a powerhouse Rock anthem. It is perhaps the most remarkable reworking ever of a pop song, so much so that Lowe would even adopt this new arrangement in his own live version. While Costello reigns as one of my generation’s best songwriters, it’s rather ironic that my favorite song of his is “PL&U” and not one that he himself wrote.
Alongside its three singles, Armed Forces also hosts several other classic Costello tracks. For some really clever lyrics go to “Chemistry Class.” Your tender but brutal love ballad is “Party Girl.” And if you are looking for some magnificent musical maneuvering, listen to Pete Thomas’s syncopated drumming on “Green Shirt” or the jazzy flourishes of “Mood for Moderns.” Attractions Nieve, Thomas and bass player Bruce Thomas all are worthy of their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and were collectively creative in the Pop sounds they together crafted with Elvis on this record.
Costello rarely made a bad LP and picking my #1 from his catalog has never been easy. However, if I think back to the time when Armed Forces came into being, it was the record that convinced me that my elevation of him to the top of my musical hierarchy was indeed justified. Added to the fact that I’m forever one of the “Pure Pop for Now People,” this one easily makes its way to the top for me and finds its way to the desert island.
#4 – “Blood on the Tracks” – Bob Dylan
For my generation, discovering the music of Bob Dylan didn’t come as easy as it did for another legend like The Beatles. Bob didn’t have an Ed Sullivan Show moment (after walking off due to proposed censorship), nor did he pack the Top Ten with a flurry of hit singles that overtook AM radio. Although he did however become the 60s poster boy for the “protest singer,” iconic enough that I even recall him being lampooned in the pages of Mad magazine, for me, his music was not omnipresent like the Fab Four’s.
FM radio was still developing and without the internet, to hear Bob’s records back then, you pretty much had to buy them. The first of his to hear on the radio for many of us was “Mr. Tambourine Man” when The Byrds took it to the Pop charts. Bob would later sneak in himself with “Like a Rolling Stone,” that song about “getting stoned” and “Lay Lady Lay.” Some of us even discovered that he had written “Mighty Quinn” which Manfred Mann scored big with. But like many others of my age bracket, I got to know Dylan’s music by backtracking. For me, it occurred around the time of the New Morning LP after my ears crossed over to the free-form love affair I found on the FM dial.
Planet Waves would be my first Dylan LP to experience in “real time” and it came with the added joy of seeing him live on tour with The Band. It was at that point that my back-catalog discovery really went into full force. But, after he ended this quick shift over to Dave Geffen’s Asylum Records, he returned to the red Columbia Records label and forever got my full devotion with his 1975 masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.
There’s been many different musical Dylan styles over the years and this record immediately stuck a favorable note with me with its soft and steady, multi-instrument acoustic feel. Undoubtedly, it’s one of the most pleasant-sounding of his records to listen to. But, don’t let that fool you as the subject matter gets a little rough.
Blood on the Tracks is often heralded as one of the all-time best break-up records. Given that Bob and his wife Sara were splitting at the time, can we really believe him when he says that none of it is autobiographical? I believe him saying that he was instead inspired by Chekhov poems as much as I believe what he told one interviewer about the “Blue” in “Tangled Up in Blue” referring to him listening to the Joni Mitchell LP. Dylan likes to pull our leg and is often quite good at getting away with it for some reason.
The album kicks off with the theme of broken love in “Tangled Up in Blue” which is perhaps the best narrative story-song to ever come from anyone’s pen. This non-linear tale of someone’s journey through life contains some of the cleverest couplets to ever grace a song. While some of it may be about his Bobness, much is obviously not. Maybe to prove this point, he has even gone so far as to change some of the “I’s” in the lyrics to “He’s” when he sings it live.
The titles of songs like “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “If You See Her Say Hello” certainly nail them as break-up songs. Even the story line of the cinematic “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” contains a sub-plot of love lost. And there’s no denying the bitter vile and contempt in “Idiot Wind,” a tour de force that leaves no hold barred in letting his former lover know how he feels. It’s venom personified.
Musically (including Bob’s vocals) and lyrically, this record is near perfect through its ten tracks. I was shocked to read that it initially received mixed reviews upon its release. Time though has sure led many to believe that his is Bob Dylan’s greatest work, and I include myself in that club.
His follow-up LP, Desire, was also a masterpiece. On it, Dylan did not pull any punches setting things straight with his ex-wife for five blistering minutes in “Sara.” He also gave us another wonderful “coulda-been-a screenplay” saga with “Black Diamond Bay.” These two LPs back-to-back were downright amazing and together provided a solid foundation for the Rolling Thunder Revue tour which followed. I tried to get into the Madison Square Garden show but failed to find a ticket on the street that night. One of my life’s regrets, but hearing its songs live was not a requirement for my canonization of Blood on the Tracks as the crown gem of Bob Dylan’s catalog.