Hasten Down the Wind—Linda Ronstadt
After the Gold Rush—Neil Young
It’s Only Rock 'n Roll--Stones
The Last Waltz—The Band
Let’s Stay Together—Al Green
Barber of Seville--Rossini
Now one could reasonably attack my list as being anything but diverse. If those first 8 selections in fact were food items, they would all easily blend into a menu from Denny’s. But here’s the thing: such lists are above reproach. The point of the game is not for me to choose albums that satisfy your criteria. So it is never good form to attack anyone else’s list. To do so not only ruins the game, but it ruins the trust the game should be built on. When we share such lists, we’re not doing so to invite judgment from one another, but to reveal ourselves to one another. There’s a sensibility of shared vulnerability here that should be as distinct from stripping down in the boys’ gym class as is stripping down on your honeymoon night. It is not the time or place for ridicule--if, that is, you want to build a lasting relationship.
You may never know the story behind another person’s choices. I have a friend, for instance, who once put a Barry Manilow album on her list. I resisted my natural urge to scoff because I knew how that Manilow album had gotten her through a dark, suicidal night. Even when you share trivia, like these desert lists, with someone else, you have to be aware of the possibility that this someone has found meaning and import in places where you did not. It's humbling, I know.
We not only learn about others through these lists, but we can learn about ourselves if we put any thought at all into our choices. Music touches deeply emotional chords in most of us, and if you trace the song back in your life, you usually end up at an emotional moment. These are the chords my choices touch:
Hasten Down the Wind—Wife Lorna can hardly resist singing along when Linda Ronstadt comes on, and it is one of the most purely joyous sounds in existence to my ears. We go on long road trips, I drop on a Linda CD, and I get to hear Linda and Lorna duet over the miles, vanishing hours of tedium. Once long ago, Lorna made me a tape of her singing along with Hasten Down the Wind. It was the most prized piece of music I ever owned. Then the car it was in was stolen. Insurance easily replaced a Mercedes, but that tape was irreplaceable.
After the Gold Rush—I’m reluctant to sing along with anything, including "Happy Birthday." But for some reason, Neil Young uncages the little songbird in me. On my desert island, I want to feel free to sing.
Wavelength—There may be better Van Morrison albums, but I used to put this one on when oldest daughter Meagan was just a little girl, and then I’d lift her up on our rough-hewn, pine coffee table and we’d dance together like crazy angels on the head of a pin.
Beatles ’65—And there surely are better Beatles albums, but my brothers and I used to have to do our household chores every Saturday morning before we could go out and do anything else. The work and the wait all got a lot easier when The Beatles came along.
It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll—And there are better Stones albums, too. But in my mercifully few bouts with writer’s block over the course of my career, this has been the go-to album for getting out of it. Put on headphones, crank up the volume, and for some damned reason the words begin to flow. Thank you, Mick.
The River—I wanted to put Tunnel of Love here because (a) it was the music to the best live concert I ever saw and (b) it touched my father, who was not much of a music man. But one day, out of the blue, he told me how he really liked this Springsteen guy. So for his last birthday before he died, I put together a photo album for him accompanied by Tunnel of Love lyrics:
Well now the years have gone and I’ve grown from that seed you’ve sown/But I didn’t think there’d be so many steps I’d have to learn on my own/Well I was young and I didn’t know what to do/When I saw your best steps stolen away from you/Now I’ll do what I can/I’ll walk like a man.In the end, I chose The River because it was a double-album set and I got greedy.
The Last Waltz—this was the inevitable slap yourself on the forehead and ask, What-was-I-thinking? choice. First off, I don’t own the album and secondly I never even heard the album. I only know The Last Waltz from the movie and the DVD, which I do own and play often. It's timeless. But this is that spot that shows up on everyone’s list when you realize you left off something really important and have to eliminate something else to find room for it. What I left off was Keith Jarrett’s Köln concert, featuring one of my all-time favorite 26 minutes of music. I remember the exact moment I first heard it…I remember the room, the people in the room, the light in the room, the lift in my body as I entered the room.
Let’s Stay Together—Al Green is the proverbial guy who could sing the phone book. A few years ago I saw a Denzel Washington film called Book of Eli, which I really cannot recall liking or disliking overly much. But I do remember this: Denzel’s character is lost and alone in a post-apocalyptic hellscape when he plugs in his iPod and out floats the voice of the most righteous reverend ever to grace human ears, singing “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart.” And I'm thinking, yes, that is definitely the voice you want to hear if you ever find yourself as the last living person on a desert island.
Beethoven’s Ninth—Alex the Droog may have been a raping, murdering, foul-mouthed little thug, but we share his great taste in music.
The Barber of Seville—This could’ve been La Traviata, or La Boheme, West Side Story or My Fair Lady, but it had to be something with lots of voices, lots of people, lots of human drama and comedy. It’s a desert island, after all. It gets lonely.
A few years ago, I had to do a more serious version of the game when our house was threatened by fire. If you have enough warning, you get to take whatever you can pack into your car—no U-Hauls allowed. Talk about a values clarification exercise! So I packed the strong-box of course, clothes for a week, my laptop, external drive, many of the photo albums (note to self: get them all on CDs), most of my music CDs; a few collectibles-- Lorna’s program from The Beatles at Shea; my copy of the Beatles Yesterday and Today album with the famously controversial butcher block table cover; The Bobby Darin Story, which Darrin had secretly autographed in the final groove; "Hey, School Girl," a 45 RPM by Tom & Jerry, the duo that would later be known as Simon & Garfunkel; and finally an autographed copy of String Quartet No. 2 "Bucephalus"  - The Alexander String Quartet; Wir Weben, Wir Weben  - Musical Elements by my old roomie, Martin Bresnick. The rest of the car would be filled with the regrets I would feel later if worst came to worst. But it didn’t.
In much lighter circumstances, Lorna and I played a memorable version of the game about 5 tiny years into our marriage. In this variation on the game, we had to choose our top ten desert island “singles” (and if any cultural artifact is more obsolete than albums, it’s singles). Anyway, there we are, swapping entries on our respective lists back and forth, counting down like Mr. and Mrs. Kasey Kasem, until we come to the top, #1 single we would each take with us on a desert island. Lorna announces that her choice is “Travelin’ Man” by Ricky Nelson. We were driving on highway 9 from Brattleboro to Wilmington…in the snow…and I remember it quite distinctly because I nearly drove us off the road I was laughing so hard. It wasn’t that her selection was beneath me or “sucked,” which is too often the very wrong reaction in such games. It’s that it came from so far out of leftfield. Like the highest of comedy, it took me completely by surprise. I’d never once heard Lorna hum that tune or mention the slightest affection for Ricky Nelson. Yet, suddenly—bang--out of nowhere she tells me it’s her favorite song of all time. Thirty-five years later, all the Valentine’s days of our life together have been infused with the joy of such delirious little moments like that one.
(You’re all invited—nay, encouraged--to leave your own desert list below and in a good-hearted, progressive community such as this, we trust that no one's list will meet with even a whiff of snark.)