Desert Island Files

     Many of us have taken a vacation camping in a redwood forest or along one of California’s great coastal parks; perhaps you’ve been to a riverfront, lakefront, or oceanfront hotel or inn. Maybe there was an island vacation you never forgot or dreamed of exploring. Sitting in a remote location under the influence of amazing scenery can lead us to think about the ultimate getaway, or at least my idea of the ultimate getaway: a desert island. A vacation for a week or two is one thing. The idea of a permanent island getaway isn’t for everyone but the imagery is alluring to many. I recall sitting at a bar overlooking the Caribbean in 1975 thinking I could live here. I had the same feeling a few years later in Hawaii. Great idea. Then reality smacked me along side the head and I got back to thinking about earning a living.

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     Over the years the idea was refreshed when I started reading about people who had compiled their list of desert island discs. In the glory days of vinyl singles and LP records the idea of hauling a collection of 500, 2000 or more vinyl records of any size became obviously impractical. At one or two LP records per pound, we were charged with thinking about just the records we couldn’t live without. This was no abstract stream of consciousness. Even the idea of 100 albums or singles or both was a bit daunting when you had to think about the turntable, speakers, amplifier, needle and cartridge, cables, electricity, and the shipping weight. As I said, daunting. Nevertheless I thought about a list, my list, which brings me to a somewhat (I hope) interactive idea. From time to time I’ll be writing about tracks or complete albums or both that will be on my Desert Island Disc list (or perhaps Desert Island “digital file” list). I’ll keep adding to my list and, I encourage you to email a track, or an album, or both and I’ll publish them, as appropriate. Yes, you must tell me why, but be brief. And when I publish yours, I’ll only use your initials and town, as in “DS/Gualala”. So here goes.

• 1950s: Marty Robbins was born in Arizona but staked his claim in Nashville. One of his biggest hits was “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation”, which spent 26 weeks on the charts, peaking at #2. Many of his songs were often stories, like “Big Iron” and “Ballad of the Alamo”. A third story/song was a 1959 single titled “El Paso”, about a cowboy—presumably white—who falls in love with a Mexican girl, Felina. He gets in a gunfight over Felina and, to get to the point, the gunfight ends badly. If it sounds corny, it is. And wonderfully so. El Paso spent 22 weeks on the charts and peaked at #1.

• 1960s: Ral Donner’s career was probably doomed from the start. He sounded way too much like Elvis and recorded for a small label (Gone Records). Donner did achieve a measure of success getting five singles to chart on Billboard’s Hot-100 chart. His biggest hit was “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It)” which peaked at #4. However, my favorite was 1961’s “She’s Everything”. The session was easily described as modest. Best guess is guitar, organ, bass, drums, and a couple of male background singers. The lyrics have the singer telling his first love that his current love is “everything I wanted you to be”, hence the title.

• 1970s: B.W. Stevenson had a total of four singles make the Hot-100. Two of them got my attention. “Shambala” and “My Maria” in 1973. The first single was covered by Three Dog Night and essentially killed the Stevenson version which peaked at #66. However, “My Maria”, release about two months later, rose all the way to #9, spending nine weeks on the charts. “My Maria” was catchy from the opening riff, and then nails it with a falsetto as he sings “Maria” during the bridge. 

• 1980s: My 1980s pick is an unusual recording. It combines a hit act—The Pet Shop Boys—with a pop music legend, Dusty Springfield. Pet Shop Boys had launched their chart success with “West End Girls” in 1986. But it was the decision, two years later, to bring Springfield in to sing the bridge that I absolutely loved. The “boy’s” lament is sung by the band: 

You always wanted a lover, I only wanted a job,                                                                               I've always worked for a living, How am I gonna get through?                                                      How am I gonna get through?

To which Springfield responds,

Since you went away, I've been hanging around                                                                              I've been wondering why, I'm feeling down                                                                                     You went away, it should make me feel better                                                                                   but I don't know, How I'm gonna get through?

(What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?)                                                       How I'm gonna get through?

It’s absolutely great 80s pop music, but these two artists working together create a fabulous (and memorable) track. “What Have I Done To Deserve This” peaked at #2 in 1987.

1990s: I can easily select “Good Riddance” (Time Of Your Life), a 1997 release by Green Day. Their success on the charts, on tour, and even on Broadway is well documented. But this one song—which was heard on the final episode of Seinfeld (and I believe it also found its way onto a final-season episode of Murphy Brown) is great pop-music songwriting, and a brilliant sad and yet hopeful boy-to-girl song. The lyrics are simple, poignant, emotional, and complete:

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road                                                                              Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go                                                                       So make the best of this test, and don't ask why                                                                              It's not a question, but a lesson learned in time                                                                                It's something unpredictable, but in the end is right,                                                                           I hope you had the time of your life.

So take the photographs, and still frames in your mind                                                                   Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time                                                                        Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial                                                                                      For what it's worth it was worth all the while                                                                                    It's something unpredictable, but in the end is right,                                                                           I hope you had the time of your life.

The song and recording is about moving on and has become a staple of proms across the country. Rolling Stone declared “Good Riddance” one of the “20 Best Graduation Songs of the Last 20 Years”.

     So there you go. Five tracks that are on my Desert Island list. Give them a listen. One or more may end up on your list as well. After all, whether dreamily looking out over the Mendocino Coast, or on your own desert island, music is a part of our lives, and I highly recommend that any of these tracks be placed in your luggage.

 

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