The music we play at work generally, to put it kindly, sucks.  Especially during the middle part of the day, when I am either not-quite-close-enough to the end of my shift to look forward to leaving or when I’m right at the beginning of my shift and thinking the night will never end, I wonder if the music played piped in from corporate was chosen by someone who was a contemporary of Duke Ellington.

Still, every now and again, they will play something decent.  One day not long ago, they were playing “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” by Gladys Knight and the Pips.  I turned to one of my young employees and said, “Gotta love Motown.”

She looked at me with confusion in her eyes.  “What’s Motown?”

And so, particularly for the younger generation who might read this, here’s my second playlist of the week, a compilation of some of my favorite hits from the Motown label.

Standing in the Shadows of Love by the Four Tops.  Levi Stubbs is one of the most powerful vocalists.  Ever.  Period.  And he sings this song with such force that you wonder if his fingers have left impressions in the microphone when he’s done.

Uptight (Everything’s Alright) by Stevie Wonder.  Recorded when Wonder was still a teenager, this song displays all the energy and passion that became his trademarks throughout his career.

I Want You Back by Jackson 5.  No one that young, not even Michael Jackson, should be able to sing like that.  It’s so good, you almost can’t hear his brothers singing their parts.

The Tears of a Clown by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.  Nobody on the Motown label did such great story songs as Smokey and the Miracles.  This is a prime example and the way they stretch the metaphor through the whole song, including a reference to the Italian opera, Pagliacci.  I don’t know many other pop songs which cite operas in their lyrics.  Okay, actually I don’t know any other songs that do.

I Can’t Get Next to You by The Temptations.  Five guys in the band.  All five of them sing parts of the song.  And it rocks.

Reflections by The Supremes.  I can’t leave the ladies out.  Led by Diana Ross, the Supremes were the Destiny’s Child of the 60’s.  Ross eventually outgrew the group, but not before they spent about a decade with hit after hit.  This song, formerly the opening song to the short-lived show China Beach, is not their most famous number, but I like it anyway.

I Heard it Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye.  I could’ve gone with the Gladys Knight and the Pips version, but I don’t like their uptempo arrangement.  I prefer the low-key Gaye performance.  You can hear, in both the lyrics and the music, that he is really pissed about what he heard.

Somebody’s Watching Me by Rockwell.  Rockwell’s dad, Berry Gordy, founded Motown, but signed to the label without his father’s knowledge.  It wasn’t until after the album and single, complete with background vocals from Michael Jackson, were released that the singer’s secret identity was revealed to his father.  Not the first song that comes to mind when you think about Motown, at least not for me, but still pretty cool despite the singer wearing shorts in the shower in the video.  Not that I’d rather he be naked, but come on . . . .

Reach Out I’ll Be There by the Four Tops.  Did I mention that Levi Stubbs can sing?

Hello by Lionel Richie.  Richie did some great work with The Commodores, also on the Motown label, with songs such as “Easy” and “Sail On”, but he became huge in the 80’s when he went solo.  This song is simple and perfect.

Who’s Loving You by Jackson 5.  This song recalls the doo-wap era from its original recording by The Miracles in 1960.  With all apologies to Smokey, Michael did it better.

Overjoyed by Stevie Wonder.  The radio version of this song leaves a lot out.  In the original, there’s a lot of stuff going on–birds are singing, water is plopping, and Stevie is laying down some sweet lyrics.

And, even though it’s technically not a Motown song . . . .

Let’s Just Kiss (And Say Goodbye) by The Manhattans.  Yes, they were on the Columbia label, but these New York guys still had the same R&B soul as their counterparts in Detroit and this song, among others, really stands out.

Anyway, if any of my readers have any comments or suggestions regarding my list, please feel free to drop them to me below.  Maybe I missed a song your particularly liked or you think my picks are the product of a mind warped from too much Elton John.  Either way, feel free to let me know what you think.

The current issue of Rolling Stone magazine is titled “The Playlist Issue”.  As the name suggests, it is full of playlists submitted by several of the movers and shakers in the music industry.  Artists from Ozzy to Tom Petty to Drake talked about their favorite songs from an era, a genre, or even a particular artist or group.

I’m always fascinated by these types of lists.  It’s not the songs (or books or whatever) that intrigue me, but the reasons behind those choices.  On what level does the work connect with the person–the “why” instead of the “what”.  Nightline has been running a recurring segment along these same lines and I always watch to see what the artists have to say about the music they love.

So, considering that I really don’t have much new to report on the writing front, I’m going to do my own series of playlists this week.  I’m normally reluctant to talk about my musical tastes as I reached a point several years ago where I gave up trying to appreciate all the new music coming out so I could go back and see what I missed while I was waiting in the queue in my mother’s ovaries.  I can’t tell you much about what’s new and hip, but that’s okay as I am neither of those things.  For example, I give you . . . .

Playlist #1:  Elton John

I’ve mentioned before on here that I’m a huge fan of Elton John.  He has a unique vocal style and, with Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, he creates stories out of song, even if I can’t always tell you what the story is.

Your Song–Elton’s first big hit, the simple melody and simple lyrics tell a simple story that reflected the beginnings of his and Taupin’s long career and belie all the complexities (e.g. drugs, scandal, Madonna, etc.) that would follow.

Tonight–I’m more fond of the Live in Australia version of this song, which opens with a three-minute instrumental before moving into a deeply emotional song about a couple arguing and the toll it takes on their relationship.  Great feeling, great imagery, great song.

The Greatest Discovery–One of the best story songs ever, about a little boy who wonders what all the fuss in his house is about, then discovers that his parents have given him a little brother.  As an added bonus, my wife loves this one, too.

Candle in the Wind–The original is fine.  The Lady Diana tribute is fine, if a little clunky lyrically.  But my favorite version is again the one from Live in Australia.  At the time the concerts were recorded, Elton was finishing his tour down under and mortally afraid that lesions found on his vocal cords were cancerous.  He went out night after night, barely able to speak during the day, and delivered as gutsy a vocal performance as I have ever heard.  Plus, of course, it’s simply a fantastic song that could have been about anyone taken from us too soon.

The Bridge–Another example of a song with simple lyrics and a powerful message.  It’s about not giving up, despite the odds, and following your dreams.

Empty Garden–The only place Elton every performs this John Lennon tribute song is at Madison Square Garden.  This song is even more poignant, with its startk imagery and haunting metaphors, as we arrive upon the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s murder.

A Word in Spanish–Another great story song about the universal language of love.

The Last Song–I have no idea what the song is exactly about, but it’s haunting and Elton’s vocals are superb in conveying the emotion of whatever the hell he’s singing about.

This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore–One of Elton’s more recent songs, it is, in some ways, the opposite end of the spectrum from Your Song, about the culmination of a long career rather than it’s inception.  Also, look up the video and see how amazing Justin Timberlake looks as a young Elton.

I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues–Elton said in an interview that this is one of his favorite songs to perform because he can do it so many ways–pop style, bluesy, just about any way you can do a song, this one will work.  I like it because it’s cool no matter how it’s done.

Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters–One of Elton’s “New York Songs”, this one describes the bustle of the Big Apple in as poetic a way as another other you can find.

Rocket Man–The best song about space exploration, with apologies to David Bowie, ever.  Also, a wonderful metaphor about celebrity and how lonely it is at the top.

If a picture says a thousand words, then the words “Michael Jackson” say a thousand pictures. Whether it’s the young Michael, performing with his brothers as the Jackson Five, to his breakout solo performances like “Billie Jean” and “Thriller”, to his physical transformation and legal troubles in later years, Michael is an icon of our time and our culture. Close your eyes. You can still see him jamming with his brothers. Transforming into a monster in red leather. Moonwalking. The glove. Attending his child molestation trial in his pajamas. From Ed Sullivan, to MTV, to Court TV, Michael grew up before our eyes.

There is an entire generation that only know Michael Jackson as the “Wacko Jacko” of tabloid fame. Most of the people I work with, college-age kids who consider acts like Linkin Park “old school”, never saw Michael Jackson perform in his prime. There is still, thanks to sites like YouTube, evidence of the greatness that was Jackson’s career. The King of Pop was the most energetic and dynamic performer I have ever seen. Spinning and sliding, he moved in a way that was almost superhuman in its utter smoothness. To this day, I have yet to see another human being pull of a Moonwalk with the ease and fluidity of its creator. His concerts were to us what P. T. Barnum’s circus was to another generation—a cultural phenomenon that transcended race and class, an event that baffled the senses and went far beyond reasonable expectations of entertainment. The bestselling album of all time, dozens of number one hits, Neverland.

Then, as we all know, it went to shit. Paparazzi. Plastic surgery. Child molestation charges. More plastic surgery. More child molestation charges. The odd marriages. The three children. The masks and the sunglasses and the skin that lightened like a sick dawn. All of that was part of the story, but today we do not care.

There will be a great deal of debate over the legacy Michael Jackson leaves behind. To people my age and older, we will remember Michael the Performer, the peerless master of frenzied crowds across the globe, the most beloved musician of his age. To others, mostly the young, he will be recalled as Michael the Freak Show, the damaged ten-year old locked into a adult body that seemed to fall apart before our eyes.

I have my own theories about Michael Jackson. Raised from poverty to a level of fame and fortune that most of us cannot possibly imagine, Michael is the purest distillation of the American Dream. No one has traveled so far, so fast, along that path. Like a diver rising too fast from deep water, there were pains to be had from such a climb. Michael grew up in series of boxes—the first of his parents’ making, then one made from his stardom, and finally one of his own making designed to preserve the stunted life he was forced to give up at an early age. Michael Jackson, mentally and emotionally, never grew from the time he entered the public domain and we took possession of his soul. We, the raving masses screaming for his favor and his talent, we created the tragedy that played out over the last two decades of his life. As soon as we sensed vulnerability in the superstar’s mental state, we set up the 24/7 crazy watch, looking for more and more to justify our opinions that, somehow, we were better than this demigod we had ourselves made.

So, rest in peace, Michael. Hopefully, you are somewhere where there are no cameras and only music.

Following the Titans game this afternoon, I stayed at the neighbors’ for several hours watching some of those in attendance play Rock Band. After a long while of refusals, they finally wore me down enough for me to attempt the drums.

Never in the history of man has there been a greater suck. Not even the W. presidency sucked as bad as those few moments of me banging away to “Enter Sandman”. The only good thing about it was that everyone else was just as bad as I was.

So, as I said before, I have zero musical ability. Were it possible to have negative musical ability (e.g. radios fail when you walk by, etc.), I would probably have that. Granted it was my first time playing, but it was not a promising beginning to my musical career.

I think I’ll stick to writing stories. I’d probably even suck at poetry. Too much like music.

I was very dubious when I saw the advent of such games as Rock Band and Guitar Hero. My thinking was, “Here is a way for people with no talent or discipline to indulge their fantasies of being rock stars.” This point of view was enforced by my utter lack of ability on any such games.

Now, however, as I walk by my neighbor’s house in the evenings and hear the Xbox-generated music blaring from their living room, I have taken a completely opposite point of view. The mass appeal of these games has actually done a great many positive things that I overlooked in my initial take. First of all, they have awakened an interest in a lot of great music that would otherwise be overlooked by the younger generation, songs from my generation and before that were sadly falling towards obscurity. Also, the games have reawakened an interest in music as an art form and avocation. The time people young and old alike spend belting out “Freebird” or “Carry On My Wayward Son” builds that flicker of interest that, in many cases, is growing into a flame of desire for the real thing. I’ve heard many, many people tell me how they either received musical instruments or are considering buying them after building their confidence through video games. Not all of these Keith-Richardses-in-training will stick to the real instruments, but even a few more would be a great thing.

Now, if somebody would only invent a video game for writing novels like they have for playing rock and roll. Sure, we have National Novel Writing Month, but frankly the graphics on that suck and you can’t unlock bonus stories by posting a high score. Maybe they’ll work on that for next year.

There have been a lot of blog posts from writerly types discussing the idea of putting playlists with their novels so that readers could listen to the music that inspired the author during the act of composition. Some authors have included a lists of songs and artists in their books. Some have put together lists on iTunes and linked the songs to their blogs. Others have proposed including a CD of the music to save the reader the trouble of looking for the individual songs, an idea that promises to provide a lot of headaches for publishers in the future as authors haggle for the rights to include the music.

A lot of these writers stick with a certain genre of music. For example, Stephen King has repeated expressed his love for hard rock and heavy metal accompaniment while he spins his tales of horror. Others tend to vary the music according to the mood of the scene they are writing. A love scene may require some Luther Vandross or Barry White while a fight scene may take the entire soundtrack to the movie 300. Regardless, every person’s choice of music says something very personal about that person, writer or otherwise. The music that inspires and entertains us opens a window to the public that allows them to see what we value and how we see the world when we look out that same open window.

I’m taking a moment as I near the halfway mark of my new novel and am looking at the music I have listened to while I’ve been writing. I have eclectic tastes and the only thing I can figure out from these choices is that I am very fucked up.

Here’s a mostly-complete playlist of the music I’ve listened to while working on Project Superhero:

Elton John–I’m not gay, but I still enjoy his music, even at 60+ years old. More than Sir Elton’s part, though, I love the stories that Bernie Taupin gives him to sing–all surreal, all fantastic, all perfect for his career musical collaborator

Bob Marley–Particularly of late, I’ve been down with reggae, an odd choice as the music is mostly upbeat and the scenes I’ve been writing over the past few weeks have really grabbed my character by the short hairs.

Stevie Wonder–Again, upbeat music for a mostly downtrodden story. I love Stevie, though, so he stays.

Various Jazz–Duke, Miles, Dizzy, Ella . . . yeah, dig it.

Spanish Guitar–Bought a 2-CD set of instrumental music last year and have damn near worn the thing out

Various classical–Mozart, Strauss, Rachmaninoff, and Vivaldi mostly. I have several others that I mix in, but those are the ones I keep going back to.

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young–WTF? I don’t even like their music.

Various Christmas–This is more of a prep for a later project, but it still feels awkward jamming to Destiny’s Child singing “Opera of the Bells” while mowing the grass in 95 degree heat.

James Bond themes–Bought another instrumental CD and it’s gotten a lot of play.

Jabali Afrika–An African choral group that came to nearby Bethel College not too long ago. My wife bought a CD and I’ve stuck it onto my bedside table. Again, really too upbeat for what I’m writing, but great sound nonetheless.

27b-6–A college band consisting of members my wife knows from college. They play a funky sorta music that is really too good to be a college band, but they’ve all moved on to other projects. We saw them last year at a local event for a reunion of sorts, but I don’t know of any plans to do so on a permanent basis. I wish they would. My wife bought one of their cd’s nearly ten years ago and I’ve adopted it as one of my favorite sources of writing music.

Beatles–The number 1’s CD, especially “Paperback Writer”

Broadway Tunes–Particularly the score from Rent–the music is fantastic. I’m also big on Phantom, as we used nearly the whole score as our wedding music, and Cats.

George Michael–Faith. Forget the bathroom shit. I don’t care. The man can sing.

Various others–I even mix in a little current music (gasp!) like Brooks and Dunn, Rihanna, Big and Rich, Maroon 5, and several others from just about any station you want to find on the radio.

See? I told you.

Anyway, I’m always on the search for more music to add to my collection. Speaking of which, I just found this CD of German drinking and beer garden songs . . .

Hmmm . . . anyone up for a cold one?