Monday, July 14, 2008

Life-altering music for the needy and the stupid

One of the great things about being invited to be an adjunct professor at a local university, as I’ve been, is that it instantly invests you with an undeserved aura of authority.

Point Park University in Pittsburgh has twice done this with me. It’s asked me to teach creative non-fiction to their journalism grad students. In this role I’m expected to prepare them for the future of earning a living submitting stories for print. Clearly, the students don’t listen to the thrust of my talk or else they’d be, as I often advise, dashing out the door to sign up for pre-law.

But it’s the weekly opportunity for crackpot declarations and petty despotism that give me the most pleasure.

For instance, earlier this spring the local paper ran a story about a world-renown record collector and illustrated it with a picture of him holding a rare copy of the 1971 Rolling Stones album, Sticky Fingers. The cutline said the record was worth $10,000.

I brandished the paper before the class, read the cutline and said, “Can anyone here point out the libelous inaccuracy that got past the reporter, the editor and a squad of foul coffee-breathed copy editors?”

As usual, 8 students looked like they were about to fall asleep on their doodles, 8 stared out the window and the menacing twosome in the back row looked liked they were intensifying their plot to kill me.

When no one spoke, I dramatically leaned forward on the lectern, pounded it with my fist for emphasis and said, “Every single Rolling Stones album ever made is worth $10,000!”

I then launched into a lengthy pontification about The Stones, their importance and even squeezed in some of my favorite Stones trivia such as: The Stones are the only band to ever include listening instructions on an album. It’s true. On the seminal rock classic “Let it Bleed,” in big block letters at the bottom are the words, “THIS RECORD SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.”


I’m one of those obnoxious music snobs who’s convinced himself no one has better or more refined taste in music than I. My iTunes library has 7,427 items I could play nonstop for 20.4 days.

When I began converting my massive CD collection to iTunes about three years ago, I weeded out all the crap. Now, I rigorously check my play counts to make sure nothing’s falling through the cracks. In two years, I’ve played every one of the songs -- not counting the occasional Christmas ditty -- at least three times.

(The top three most played as of July 11 are: Ray Davies, “After the Fall,” 94 times; Bob Dylan, “Workingman’s Blues #2,” 92 times; Van Morrison, “Celtic New Year,” 91 times -- and I defy anyone to listen to any of these gems once and not feel compelled to repeat them until the batteries fizzle.)

But because I never listen to CDs anymore and, unlike old LPs, have no sentimental attachments to the tiny shinys, it was time to haul the bunch of them to the local flea market and set up shop.

My wife came along for base mercenary reasons. I was there to make sure this music gets in the hands of people who need it most. Business was brisk.

A kid of about 16 came up and asked if I had any Doors.

“The Doors,” I scolded, “are the most overrated band in the history of music. Here’s the most underrated one.” I handed him a stack of Kinks CDs.

A middle-aged man in a Hawaiian shirt approached and asked if I had any Jimmy Buffett.

“I did about 20 years ago when he was still worth listening to," I said "If you like Buffett, take this Todd Snider CD, ‘Songs from the Daily Planet.’ He’s better and you won’t risk looking like some part-time pirate once a year.”

Val and I had a great chat with two guys who looked like they were two hours overdue for their first Sunday beers (it was 10:30 a.m.). They bought some James McMurtry, some Drive-By Truckers and showed impeccable taste by snapping up Steve Earle’s “Transcendental Blues.” I was so overjoyed at meeting kindred spirits I handed them Robert Earl Keen’s “Gringo Honeymoon” and “Letters to Laredo” by the peerless Joe Ely.

I know I’ll someday run into these guys again in either a roadside honky-tonk or, perhaps, a Lubbock, Texas, drunk tank and we’ll have a great time till our wives show up with bail money.

I do so little in this life to help my fellow man that I felt a true surge of humanity when ever I could give someone something like Van Morrison’s “The Healing Game” or “Shangri-La” by Mark Knopfler.

I know that mousy young girl’s life is going to change because I was the one that told her to go home and listen to “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams, and that maybe that kid who walked away with “So Very Far” by the X-Rated Cowboys will ditch his crabby girlfriend, his deadend job and strike out to hit it rich in Vegas.

All told we made $329. Sure I had hopes it would be more, but reality checked in when a guy offered me a buck for “Let it Bleed” by the Rolling Stones.

I said, “Mister, that CD and every other Rolling Stones CD is worth $10,000.”

He looked at me like I was a lunatic and said, “I’ll give you $2.”


I’m pretty sure I could have persuaded him to pay my price, but it was looking like it might rain.

And, honestly, it didn't matter much to me. Ghandi died broke, too.

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