I know what you’re thinking:
Only an old crank would make a mix CD to commemorate his 50th birthday. I mean, how 1995 can he be? Doesn’t he know CDs are a dead format? Shouldn’t the songs be downloaded and put in a special playlist on an iPod docked in his car so he he can say in a halting, loud monotone voice dumbed down for the computer (Oh, don’t think I haven’t heard you people do this and don’t think it doesn’t sound dorky): "PLAY ALBUM: FIFTY YEAR MIX."
I know what you’re thinking and I know that I don’t care.
To paraphrase Cincinnati musicologist Leonard I. Tower, "Face it, no one listens to a mix nearly as much as the person who made it." Going all the way back to the cassette tape days, mix-makers generally have sat around stringing together songs for other people basically as an act of self-absorption while kidding themselves that it’s all about self-expression.
So if CDs are my format of choice then whoopty-do to everyone else and don’t get me started on the flaws inherent in MP3s.
This one started — as they often do — with a brain fart: I turn(ed) 50 this year, so naturally it was time to pick one song from every year I’ve been alive and make a mix of each song in succession, starting in 1961 up to now. I mean, who wouldn’t do that, right?
As always with these enterprises, rules were quickly established:
1) No artist could be repeated.
2) Only songs from my own collection could be used; no buying or borrowing something to fill in a blank. This forced me to scour my collection intensely for certain years, which was a fascinating way to rediscover a lot of music I had forgotten about.
3) There could be no corny theme. No "music of my generation" junk or any attempts to make some grand statement that would play like a personal version of "Now That’s What I Call Music." Plus, it’s not like I was actually listening to "Like A Rolling Stone" in 1965 or Marvin Gaye when I was 10.
Obviously if you dig into a half century’s worth of music, revelations pop up that extend beyond the personal.
● It’s been said a million times, but check out how popular music jumps from Chuck Berry’s light-hearted "Promised Land" to Dylan’s hyper-focused, venomous brick-bat "Like A Rolling Stone" in just one year. Songwriting changed forever at that moment.
● In the mid-’60s rock and popular music were at a revolutionary high point that can never be repeated, which is pretty obvious when you listen to these songs back to back to back. Yes, the Big Chill Baby Boomers are perpetually annoying when they cite this era and sniff at everything that came after, but they’re kind of right.
● That said, once bands like the Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Band, etc. stopped peaking, the bar had been permanently raised, which is often forgotten when talking about music over the ensuing four decades. Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, REM, U2, the Clash, Graham Parker, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Neil Young, the Pretenders, Drive-By Truckers... the list goes on of artists whose work is every bit the equal of those musical revolutionaries. The difference is that their creative high marks are scattered over the years versus the sheer volume of truly great music that was being made between ’65 and ’69.
More than anything, the process of finding one song from each year you’ve been alive leads to some personal realizations, such as:
● I seem like a real music sexist for about three of the decades. Is it me or the music? My collection has a gaping hole in terms of female artists until the 1990s when Williams, Roseanne Cash, Angelique Kidjo, Neko Case, Indigo Girls, Sharon Jones, and a batch of others show up. The reason is twofold: first, name one female-oriented band other than Heart that would appeal to a midwestern rocker kid in the ’70s; second, tastes change over the years and become more sophisticated. If I heard Roseanne Cash when I was 15 or even 25 she likely wouldn’t have moved me. Grow up a bit though, and all of a sudden something like "List of Burdens" makes a lot of sense.
● There’s no rap or hip-hop on here because it would be disingenuous for me to pretend I dig rap and hip-hop. I respect where it’s coming from, understand the creativity and depth of skill that it requires, but those genres just don’t move me. This play list is very much of my demographic — white, middle-aged guy who came of age in the 1970s, which I can’t help because that’s what I am.
● I’ve long slagged off the ’80s as being a crappy musical decade. And it was, for the most part, with synth-heavy arrangements prevalent in popular music, overblown productions, and a lot of really good artists snorting a lot of cocaine and making weak music. This period required some creativity to put together.
● Some favorite artists didn’t make the cut because only 50 could: Neil Young, Case, Cake, Tom Waits, Peter Wolf, and Psychodots.
Finally, the last song on the disc is "Used to be A Cop" by Drive-By Truckers. It’s a song for the times and in its way every bit as good as anything by the Beatles or the Who or Springsteen or anyone else in the pantheon. The rhythm section is gothic soul, the lyrics are filled with dread and a spooky noir vibe as three guitars interlock and propel the song down a variety of dark side streets before locking into a hypnotic jam at the end.
"Used To Be A Cop" tells the story of a police officer on the skids, bouncing up against a society that no longer has any use for him or his problems. It’s spooky and honest and you don’t have to stretch too far to go from here all the way back to rock’s roots because more than anything it’s interesting every time you hear it, just like "Ruby Tuesday" or "These Arms of Mine."
Which is the most important lesson in this little project: There’s always something pretty amazing waiting out there if you just keep listening. Even on CDs.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: