Desert Island Discs: Updated for the iPhone Age

[Stolen shamelessly from NBC News]

“We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.” — Bob Dylan. Visions of Johanna. Blonde on Blonde.

I’m listening to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks as I write this: in my opinion, one of the finest albums ever produced in any musical genre. I’ve listened to it so many times that every note seems familiar, every word stirs a memory; yet I never tire of it. I still discover something new every time I listen to it. It’s the album that introduced me to Van Morrison and still my favorite of his.

Don’t get me wrong; Moondance, his second solo album, is every bit as good and contains some of my favorite songs but, if I were ever forced to choose one of the two, I’d go with the former.

You see, Astral Weeks started me down a path that eventually, years later, culminated in a personal library of well over a hundred albums, including every one of his studio albums as well as dozens of concert bootlegs.

At this point on our journey to the desert island, I need to confess to a slight problem with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder — a fairly benign case that I’ve blogged about in the past. I don’t wash my hands obsessively or iron my shirts repeatedly; it’s not that kind of OCD.

I just may, occasionally, obsess over an author, a musician, a director. When that happens, I end up obsessively following the artist, learning everything I can about them: listening to all of their albums, watching all their movies chronologically, reading all their books, reading their biographies and interviews, looking up Wikipedia articles on their albums as I listen to their work… you get the idea.

A bit creepy, if you want to know the truth; a stalker would be proud of my diligence. But, as I said, it’s harmless and entirely positive in spirit. I seem to obsess mostly about public figures and artists, as a distant but doting admirer. So, as I was sitting here listening to Astral Weeks for the umpteenth time, I had a thought: Yup, that would be on my desert island list.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept. It started as a BBC radio program over half a century ago but I first came to know of it as a teenager in the late seventies. It seemed like every radio DJ and every celebrity guest was busy introducing us to his or her favorite desert island discs.

The list was always limited to a small number — usually three — due to the obvious limitations of air time availability and also in an attempt to force the participants to pick the absolute best. The DJ would then tell you a bit about the album and the artist and play a song off the album — most often, the hit single the band was already known for. The implication here, of course, was that you can tell a lot about a person by their taste in music. In reality, the same few bands ended up at the top of most lists and everyone ended up listening to the same dozen or so bands.

Depending on the station you listened to, this usually meant many repetitions of a few songs. In my case, it resulted in a steady diet of Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, classic rock and roll.

It wasn’t until I arrived in the US that I got broader exposure to artists ranging from Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, from Quiet Riot and The Allman Brothers Band to Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker… just to name a few. The universe of music available in the US was so much broader than I’d ever imagined.

At the time, in the late seventies and early eighties, to an immigrant teenager with no adult supervision in sight, the Columbia Record Club was magical. You’ll send me twelve albums in the mail for just a penny? What a deal. Sign me up. In fact, you know what? Sign me up using these two other misspellings of my name as well. Oh, I just moved from one apartment to another? That means I can apply for another membership for a penny using the new address, too.

I’m ashamed to admit that I was probably personally responsible for the demise of the Columbia Record Club as I signed up for half a dozen accounts so I could get my hands on more and more albums. I knew that I was supposed to buy more albums at full price over time but that was “later”; no reason to worry about that right now.

Over the next few months, I begrudgingly bought several esoteric albums from their anemic catalog but eventually just gave up trying to keep up and returned the envelopes unopened with “Addressee Unknown” scribbled on the back. Someone had explained to me that this would make the problem go away. I didn’t think much about the ethical implications of my actions at the time, not as long as it meant I could get my hands on more music. I hope the statute of limitations is up on that particular adolescent crime!

Anyway, this temporary gateway offered me a much better view of music than I could have hoped for. I listened to everything from rock and jazz to disco and blues. I quickly gave up on disco but became increasingly passionate about the other genres. To be sure, my taste in music is heavily influenced by the times, but I suspect there’s still a large audience out there for the kind of music I like.

So, as I was sitting there thinking to myself that Astral Weeks would definitely be on my desert island disc list, the next obvious thought popped into my head: What else would be on that list?

This is usually where my previous attempts at creating such a list have hit a brick wall. Refusing to limit myself to three discs, I’ve never been able to go through with the excruciating task of eliminating candidates from that list.

Then it occurred to me that, with the advent of iPods and smartphones with tons of storage, it is no longer necessary to limit yourself to three albums. You can carry thousands of albums in your pocket. So, as befitting a true procrastinator, having refused to “finish” the task, I’d waited around long enough for the solution to no longer require a compromise.

By the way, if you came here looking for my “top three album” list, I hate to disappoint you. The abbreviated DJ lists robbed the artists of the opportunity to present their most important work to a broader audience. I refuse to take part in that.

I have no intention of listing just three albums. I’m going to list three artists instead. Your iPhone can hold all their collected works, even if you don’t have an internet connection and a Spotify account on your desert island. Thanks to technology, you can enjoy many hours of music right in the palm of your hands. There’s no reason to be stingy and only list three when you can take three thousand.

My list would obviously and necessarily include the collected works of Bob Dylan. I can already see friends and family rolling their eyes. Not that guy again. His voice is shrill, his music is loud, he makes no sense most of the time.

I’m sorry, but you don’t understand Bob Dylan. You haven’t even met Bob Dylan. You’ve been exposed to a tiny subset of his work. There’s a reason the man won the Nobel prize in Literature! Seek him out at his acoustic best in the early sixties and you will find there is no artist more articulate, more wise, or more perfect in execution.

His studio albums at the time are a good introduction, but even more so, I would highly recommend his official “Bootleg Series” — unreleased material from throughout his career. It’s encyclopedic in scope but with an emphasis on his early years. Volume 12 alone included eighteen discs! Heaven for an obsessive personality like me.

As you listen to him, keep reminding yourself: “These are his throw-away songs. These are the ones he didn’t use on his albums.” Needless to say, I’d pick his discarded music over the collected works of any other artist. For the most part, by the way, these albums consist of a guy with a guitar and a harmonica and nothing else. Pretty raw, bare bones stuff; just the way I like it.

In the case of Dylan, you have to also read his lyrics, immerse yourself in his life story, read his books, see his paintings, listen to his interviews. Don’t ask me to pick out a single Dylan album as a favorite. I can’t. I own at least 250 Dylan albums — and I can’t imagine living life without roughly 100 of those discs. Enough said.

My favorite documentary about Dylan is Martin Scorsese’s wonderful four hour long No Direction Home. I hope your desert island has an internet connection!

As I glance at my iPhone music library, I see dozens of other artists that I keep going back to. My tastes have changed over the years, going from head banging heavy metal and arena rock to acoustic instruments, from Dire Straits to Amy Winehouse, from Led Zeppelin to Muddy Waters.

But if I had to pick a third artist, it would have to be Miles Davis. What he did to (and for) jazz will never be repeated again in any other musical genre. He invented a whole new language without ever speaking a single word. I never get tired of listening to Miles because there is always something new to discover in his music. By the way, do yourself a favor and go watch Ken Burns’ wonderful ten hour documentary, Jazz. It’s well worth your time.

“What kind of desert island is this, anyway?,” you might be asking by now. It seems to have electrical outlets for chargers as well as an internet connection.

What can I say? Most of us are already inhabitants of such islands— transported there magically as soon as we pick up our iPhones and put on our headphones. And most of us don’t seem to want to be rescued either.

Which three artists would you want on your desert island?

Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, Head of Engineering & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering long distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.

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