Wednesday, April 01, 2009


I don't know how much longer this most-meaningful-albums list thing will continue, and I'll try to keep subsequent entries a bit briefer, but I must say, I'm enjoying this journey through some forgotten recesses of my past, even when that journey conjures some unpleasant memories, as will happen soon enough.

For now, let's continue where we left off, shall we?

4. Leonard Bernstein, Mass

You didn't have to be a classical music fanatic to at least know Bernstein's name back in the seventies; he was on TV all the time. I had a recording of his Chichester Psalms, which I liked well enough, and decided to save my allowance for two whole weeks in order to splurge on the lavishly packaged box set of Mass prominently displayed at The Record Store in Merle Hay Mall.

What I discovered was a mass, all right--a mass of contradictions, a mass of wildly disparate styles, a mass of pure kitsch mixed with startling beauty. Billed as a "theater piece"--whatever that means--Mass seems to have been intended as a sincere spiritual offering, using the form and text of a Catholic mass (always a good starting point for an effete Jew like Bernstein!) as a springboard for an examination of the loss of faith in the Age of Anxiety. Or some damn thing. Bernstein wrote most of the lyrics himself, with help from Broadway hack Stephen Schwartz and Paul Simon (again with the Jews!), which illustrates part of the problem with the thing--it wants to be Art, even as it functions best as pure showbiz. Bernstein longed to be recognized as a Serious Composer, but his legacy surely rests with the scores he wrote for Broadway. And since those scores include West Side Story and Candide, his legacy is secure.

Anyway, the thing about this album was--I loved it. I loved it even as I recognized some of it was borderline awful. It taught me that perfection is overrated, that the things we love may be deeply flawed, and that there's no such thing as a guilty pleasure.

5. Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera

A rainy day when I should have been in school, but my mom and I were killing time in Southridge Mall--the mall least frequently visited--waiting for time to head down to the Greyhound station to pick up my brother, returning from a trip to New York City. I'd given him a list of records I'd hope he'd be able to find, and at the top of that list was Kurt Weill's Mahagonney. I'd seen the last half hour of it on Live From The Met (by accident--it ran overtime and I sat through it mesmerized as I waited for my local PBS station to show their regularly scheduled syndicated version of SCTV!), and though I knew nothing of Weill, I knew I wanted more of this.

My brother didn't find that, but idly digging through the soundtrack section of The Record Store in Southridge I did a double take when I discovered a copy of the Off-Broadway cast recording of Threepenny Opera. I didn't know much about it beyond the name, and I certainly didn't know Marc Blitzstein's lyrics were a bastardization of Bertolt Brecht's original text, but its bleak worldview came through nonetheless. Besides, the real selling point here was Weill's music, which...well, if you're a regular visitor here, I don't need to tell you about my Weill obsession.

Over the years I've acquired half a dozen different recordings of this particular work, and all of them reveal different facets of Brecht's text, and some of them play fast and loose with Weill's original orchestrations. But they all have given me some insight into a work I love profoundly, and they've all shown me there's no one way of doing things. And though the music can be performed well or badly, the one thing I've learned from Weill is this: It's not the singer, it's the song.

6. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska

The chronology may be off, because frankly, I can't remember the details. Skipping ahead a few years, post-high school but me still living at home, doing absolutely nothing productive. There's a half-hearted suicide attempt, some time in a psych ward, and a therapist asking me why I'm not doing anything, since I'm obviously intelligent and capable. You have a way with words, she says, so why don't you try writing?

So I do, and it becomes a compulsion, a notebook always handy, words scribbled down furiously, every thought, every overheard conversation, every fleeting observation. My will to write only fuels my newly-rediscovered love of reading fiction, the prose of those so much better than me spurring me on, wanting to do better, wanting to live up to my idols.

Sometime into this mix, and for reasons I can't recall, was dropped Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, a famously bleak album inspired in part by The Boss's encounter with Flannery O'Connor's fiction. But Sprinsteen's tales of killers, thieves and people dwelling on the margins of society lacks O'Connor's Southern Gothic mannerisms--these people were real, Sprinsteen's empathy for them was total, and the album spoke to me like nothing else had. When characters and dialogue swam in my brain but had yet to take form, I put Nebraska on the turntable, secure that it would always show me the way.

My love for the album was so all-consuming I briefly became a hardcore Springsteen fan, but it didn't last. I retain a certain affection for Darkness On The Edge Of Town and The River (which has Cadillac Ranch, a total throwaway that may nonetheless be the greatest thing he's ever done), but I no longer believe they're really that good, and Springsteen's common man who happens to be a multimillionaire persona is frankly embarrassing, and I barely think of him at all anymore.

But I still think Nebraska is a great album. I seldom haul it out, though, because listening to it means encountering a nineteen-year-old who loved it so much, who was so profoundly troubled, and who no longer exists.