I have been asked to list my Top Ten albums of all time. When I was a freshman at SUNY-Brockport, John Lennon died, but, more importantly, American college kids the land over were getting high and perfecting the skill of spinning album covers on their index fingers, like the pale Harlem Globetrotters of slack. Once you acquired the balance point – really owned it, neurologically – you could just spin spin spin second nature, walking down the raw cinderblock hallways of the SUNY suite-style freshman halls like Ceausescu’s Iron Curtain housing projects, slowly forgetting history and home, going to the bathroom, casting half a wary eye on your studies.
The only covers that you didn’t spin were the ones on which you were currently cleaning your weed – which, for some reason, had seeds back then: seeds that popped when baked. It was inert dirt compared to this stuff now, and there was a legal limit on the alcohol content of beer, so every import was a dubious dumb-down of the real thing and Canadian border runs were routine. The kids today are much more savvy and high.
But the album covers whirled into psychedelic mandalas and looped action sequences like an Eadweard Muybridge zoopraxiscope, even the most pedestrian big-font, band-shot affairs (like a lot of the nascent punk records, if you could find one up there) transforming centrifugally into something rife with a post-verbal Jungian symbolism. Spin, spin, spin, cover balanced atop the right hand, fanned gently by the left, and get sucked into the vortex of rock occultism. Some records were known, were legendary, for what happened visually when they were spun animate, a living design, intent assumed. Grateful Dead: intent assumed; Led Zeppelin: intent assumed; Pink Floyd: intent assured.
The album-spinning craze came on suddenly, like the Coppola-incited resurgent interest in the music of the Doors: a complete non-factor of my classic-rock youth who sold more records in 1980 – nearly a decade after Jim Morrison died – than in all previous years combined. Unlike the music of the Doors, album-spinning didn’t stick around long. Albums didn’t stick around long. The materiality of music delivery systems didn’t stick around long. The economy of recording didn’t stick around long. I won’t be here long.
I hadn’t wanted to go to college: a flat and insubordinate “No” to my despairing parents. I wanted, for some reason, to get a service job at a cool place like Disneyland, near my relatives in San Diego, and maybe figure out how to be someone cool who did smart creative things with wild talents heretofore unrealized. I didn’t know I was weird yet. This was because my mother didn’t want me to be weird, and the artistic freaks I most admired didn’t recognize me as one of their own, so I assumed that I was tragically normal, with only the dreams of a cool freak and not the wherewithal. And I hated it. And I was wrong.
A purely perfunctory exploratory stage the previous fall, coupled with a high school cumulative average of lower than 80, but just; SAT results – even in the verbal – that shocked my parents with their modesty; and no demonstrated vocational aptitudes of any kind had limited my options to one: the SUNY four-year with the lowest bar and an eager matriculative hunger. When adult-life panic set in during the golden dawns of late August, I called to see if it were not too late.
It was there, 15 minutes west of Rochester, an hour east of Buffalo and along the banks of the Erie Canal, that I learned what Long Island was, and Long Island began to teach me that I was weird: a curriculum that would take about 20 years to complete. I talked weird – too spasmodically analytical and overenthused about every idea that crossed my mind, as if I were the first to think of anything at all. (It really feels like that to me.) I loved nonsense more than sense, and if what I thought was a pure nonsense joke revealed itself to be a bawdy euphemism or a clever pun, I was disappointed and liked it less. Pure nonsense was scarce, if not wholly theoretical. Even my Muses Monty Python and Woody Allen were sullied, cut with mundane sense and an unfortunate obsession with sex. Long Island found me weird. Also, it had heard of New Paltz.
Only one of my three suitemates was an album-spinner: a Long Island Deadhead named Wings who was also unconscious on the skateboard, chomping around the suite and the halls on his wheels all day, glissing down the main promenade of Brockport’s linear campus where Long Island freaks and Long Island jocks kept the peace. One night, in my first month there, a lone pedestrian on the promenade, maybe 30 feet in front of me, was jumped by a bunch of big guys from out of bushes. They held him down, took off his pants and ran off with them into the night, yipping like coyotes. I wonder if he got his wallet back. It could have been me. Also around then, I learned of a really tragic collegiate upperclassmen jock-school ritual called “hogging” that still upsets me.
Wings’ Grateful Dead bootleg collection filled an actual Seward trunk. It was the biggest that I had seen. In the isolation imposed on me at Brockport, I came awake on the guitar and began recording crudely multitracked instrumental songs in my bedroom. I figured that I was ready to jam, but I was too weak of arm to carry my amp very far, so the band never got off the ground. I left Brockport after that year and transferred to a slightly better school close by.
I never could find the balance point for album-spinning, but I didn’t try very hard either. John Bonham died less than three weeks into my freshman campaign, and I didn’t care. When Lennon died, barely more than two months later, I went into depressive shock, muttering to myself in the shower morning after morning for months, “He was 40. At least he had a good long life.” Anyway, the Top Ten albums of all time for me alone are probably:
1. The Beatles, Rubber Soul: pop just starting to make room for art, the most exciting spot in their catalogue. Mine was the American version, of course, lacking the classic “And Your Bird Can Sing” but including “It’s Only Love” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
2. Tie: Every other Beatles record.
3. Tie: Paul McCartney, Ram; John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band; George Harrison, All Things Must Pass.
4. Tom Waits, Rain Dogs. No single record changed everything for me the way this one did.
5. Elvis Costello, Imperial Bedroom, on which one of the most reckless rock ensembles in history buttons down to serve for the most brilliant melodies and arrangements of E the C’s career.
6. The Dregs, Unsung Heroes: virtuoso instrumental prog, but Steve Morse’s lilting and sad melodicism and electric Baroque counterpoint really sang to me, man.
7. Tie: The Zombies, Odessey and Oracle and the Shins, Chutes Too Narrow. I am so glad that bands like this came along.
8. The Dukes of Stratosphear, Chips from the Chocolate Fireball: not allowed to talk about it.
9. All classical music, but especially Bach, Brahms and Ravel.
10. All jazz, but especially Ellington, Bill Evans and John Scofield.