These are the songs that best document my high school years. I didn’t start paying attention to lyrics until my late 20s, so these are all songs that I liked for musical reasons.
Nick Lowe: The song “I Knew the Bride” from Stiffs Live.
The Stiffs Live record is perhaps the best live/”sampler” album ever. It’s certainly the best non-Motown live/”sampler” album ever made. The idea was that everyone on the Stiff label would go on a package tour like the Motown package tours of the 60s. I know nothing about the Motown package tours of the 60s. I only know that I read somewhere that Jake Riviera (and the other Jake whose last name I can’t remember (Robinson?)) based the Stiff tour on the Motown revue tours of the 60s. Anyway. It certainly seems like every one of the “new wave”/”punk”-era musicians were on the Stiff label. But that wasn’t the case. The Clash, for one, was on Epic (which was part of the Columbia label, which I would see on every Bob Dylan record (except for two, but that’s another story (which you can look up for yourself (because I’m not going to type the whole thing in)))). But with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, and Ian Dury and the Blockheads (with a Clash connection via Mickey Gallagher/Sandinista!) on Stiff, it seemed like the whole world was on Stiff. Maybe to show how “cool” I am, I should have picked something obscure from this album. “Police Car” by Larry Wallis would have worked. But each song on this album was a gateway drug to the individual artist, and all the songs were great. (Including Nick Lowe’s brilliant throw-away, “Let’s Eat”.)
Elvis Costello: “This Year’s Girl”
This Year’s Model is another I-could-have-picked-any-song-from-this-album album. For example, I could have picked “The Beat.” I’m not going to pick “Pump it Up” because that would be too obvious. But, as Elvis Costello himself said, the fourth song on the album is always the best. Somehow I bought the British version, rather than the U.S. version of this album, so I had “Night Rally,” rather than “Radio, Radio” on my copy. For years, I thought “Night Rally” was about some sort of car rally. I could also have picked “My Funny Valentine” from Stiffs Live. Or was the Burt Bacharach-Hal David, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”, live cover on Stiffs Live? (No, “My Funny Valentine” was on Taking Liberties and it wasn’t live.) I suppose it doesn’t matter. This was Elvis Costello’s second album, but his first to be released in the U.S. I’m pretty sure I was the first person in Mason City, Iowa to buy it the week it came out
The Clash: “Stay Free”
Mick wrote this about a male friend of his, but I took it to be about a female friend. The lyrics weren’t printed on the album, and you couldn’t really hear all the words, so how could I know? Anyway, I projected the lyrics onto a girl I had a crush on in high school (at the time). That makes my appreciation of this song premature nostalgia. Now it’s mature nostalgia. I always considered Mick the center of the Clash because he wrote the music, while Joe “only” wrote the words. I still think that (sort of). I know that there are bumper stickers that say “What Would Joe Strummer Do?”. But Joe Strummer would have fired Mick and Topper for “ideological” reasons, wouldn’t he have, mate. This was the Clash’s second album, but the first to be released in the U.S. I’m pretty sure I was the first person in Mason City, Iowa to buy it the week it came out.
The Beatles: “You Really Got a Hold on Me”
I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of picking a Lennon-McCartney song, so I’m picking a cover version. The funny thing about every song that the Beatles covered was that I only knew the Beatles’ versions for decades. I never heard the originals until years later (and I probably still haven’t heard the original of “Mr. Moonlight”). John’s singing on this is gorgeous. They also do a brief version of this song in the Let it Be movie. John and George smile a lot while playing this song. Then the song finishes, and they both go back to their why-am-I-stuck-in-cold-Twickenham-studio-at-10-A.M.-being-bossed-around-by-Paul looks. If I were to pick a Lennon-McCartney song, I’d probably pick something from A Hard Day’s Night. Maybe “If I Fell” or “I’ll Be Back.” Or maybe “Don’t Let Me Down” from Let It Be. The rooftop version where John forgets his own lyrics and improvises nonsense lyrics. Or maybe I should pick something from In His Own Write. Would that count? I forgot to mention: this is a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song.
Bob Dylan: “Idiot Wind” from Hard Rain
Maybe I should have picked “If Dogs Run Free” from New Morning because I genuinely like that song and then I would be the first person in the history of the world to say that “If Dogs Run Free” is my favorite Bob Dylan song. But the live Hard Rain album is Bob Dylan in the snarling, raging, angry portion of his prolonged, drawn-out failed (well-documented on record) marriage with Sara Dylan. A lot of people don’t like this album, which I don’t understand at all. Even Patti Smith said something about not liking this album, which means that even Patti Smith can be wrong occasionally. Out of Bob Dylan’s failed marriage came at least one brilliant album and 2–6 (depending on how you count them) very good to excellent records. On the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, Bob Dylan wore this Middle-Eastern-looking thing on his head, and he looked more like Jesus than Jesus did. He looks beautiful. I include the video of this from the Hard Rain television special to prove this.
“Disco Inferno” by whoever recorded it. I was too much of a Rock Snob to like any disco songs in the late Seventies. I was wrong about that in several cases.