MARCH MIX by J. Robert Lennon

This is the second installment of our writing-related mixes series.

[audio:|titles=MARCH MIX — Selections by J. Robert Lennon]

I spent half one recent morning playing word golf, aka word ladder, a game by which you attempt to get from one word to another by changing a single letter at a time, each step being a complete English word: e.g., DOG, DOT, COT, CAT. I was trying to get from MARCH to APRIL, and I think I would have to spend most of that month working on it in order to find an answer. By noon I figured it was time to give up and play a little music golf instead: let’s see how long it takes to get from, say, Erik Satie to the Sex Pistols. And, for extra credit, back again!

1. We’ll start with Satie’s “Je Te Veux,” that is to say, “I want you.” A helplessly romantic song, set to a text by Henry Pacory, which Satie composed for his accompanist. It’s often performed instrumentally, though, as it is in the version featured in the NES videogame Binary Land.

2. The goal of Binary Land is to unite two penguins who are in love with each other. This should come as no surprise to fans of Lyle Lovett’s “Penguins,” in which the laconic singer croons, “I go for penguins…penguins are so sensitive to my needs.” Lovett, of course, played the baker in the Robert Altman film Short Cuts, in a section based on Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.”

3. Carver’s stories often seemed like country songs, set to a soundtrack of awkward silence. Writer Brian Joseph Davis pointed this out in his amusing, Brunching-Shuttlecocks-esque game, “Raymond Carver Story…Or Crystal Gayle Song?” I have to confess I didn’t get all of them right — I misremembered “Whoever Was Using This Bed” as a seventies country hit. In any event, “Too Good To Throw Away” is an obvious Gayle tune, and a sweet one too, what with its fingerpicked guitar and mellow Rhodes piano.

4. You wouldn’t necessarily even recognize the opening notes of Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” as coming from a Rhodes, if your only previous exposure to the instrument was on a Crystal Gayle record. There’s an extraordinary interactive web document, made by Michael Allison about how this song was recorded, and it’s here that we learn the band also used a Roland Space Echo tape delay…

5. …which was most famously, perhaps, employed by the reggae electronics and recording innovator King Tubby, whom many consider to be among the first mixing engineers to elevate that fairly obscure trade to an independent form of creative expression. He invented dub music using his own custom sound system, known as “Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Fi.” You can hear his influence clearly on the Aggrovators’ “A Rougher Version”…as well as plenty of theremin.

6. Léon Theremin was a Russian inventor and electronics genius who created the theremin inadvertently while doing research into proximity sensors for the government. He would demonstrate it for Lenin, who is said to have greatly enjoyed playing it, but it’s doubtful he was ever as good as Theremin’s grandniece, Lydia Kavina. Kavina is a virtuoso in many styles, but here I will direct your attention to her work with the Russian surf-rock combo Messer Chups, on the track “Agent Tremolo.”

7. Messer Chups was influenced by the great German synthesizer band Kraftwerk — indeed, they covered on of Kraftwerk’s songs, “Das Model,” a song that features the lyric, “She exposes herself for consumer products / and is being seen by millions of eyes.”

8. Or perhaps by “The Beast With A Million Eyes,” by Jad Fair and Jason Willett, from their album Enjoyable Songs. It’s hard to make a case for the song being enjoyable, but it is at least shorter than the terrible movie it was named after, a 1955 alien-invasion flick directed by David Kramarsky.

9. Kramarsky fared better as a producer; he had a hand in Jack Nicholson’s debut picture, The Cry Baby Killer, in which the young Jack plays a juvenile delinquent who thinks he’s killed a thug and ends up at the center of a media circus. Which reminds me of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ 1957 doo-wop classic “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent.” I can’t help liking this song better than their better-known “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” especially since Lymon died at the age of 25 of a heroin overdose.

10. At least he lasted longer than Sid Vicious, who OD’ed on junk at 21 after killing his girlfriend. “God Save The Queen” had been released a couple of years earlier, and the Sex Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, had arranged a boat ride down the Thames, which was to have ended in front of the Houses of Parliament, where the band was supposed to have played. But the boat was raided by police and McLaren was arrested.

11. This wouldn’t stop McLaren from eventually recording the bizarre spoken word “Walking With Satie,” which features snippets of Satie’s music, and the lyric “The constant arguments between lovers / He wants to listen to the news / She wants to listen to the music.” I’m with her.

–J. Robert Lennon is the author of seven books of fiction, including Mailman, Pieces for the Left Hand, and Castle. He teaches writing at Cornell University.

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