Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Tales of a Scorpion Hunter


This essay is not for the faint of heart; or the squeamish; or anyone who might be repulsed by vivid descriptions of battles between humans and predatory arachnids. So if you think you may be grossed out by what you are about to read, I would suggest clicking away from this blog now. And if you opt not to heed my warning and end up losing your lunch on your lap, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I never encountered a scorpion—cockroaches, rats, and wise guys with bats, sure—but scorpions, never. In fact, my only exposure to scorpions in my youth was through James Bond movies, which gave me the distinct impression that all scorpions were the size of salamis and their stings would kill you instantly. But I never much concerned myself about these creatures, because I never thought I would be in a location exotic enough to encounter them.

Not long after I moved to Arizona in 1995, I finally came face to face with a scorpion, but it was dead and encased in glass in a souvenir shop in downtown Scottsdale, so it posed no threat to me (unless another patron picked up the container and smashed me in the head with it, but I didn’t consider that a real possibility.)  Indeed, I actually found them kind of cool looking and decided to buy some for my three oldest nephews who were nine, eight and six at the time. When I went back to New York a few months later and presented the souvenirs to them as “real live scorpions” (even though they were clearly not alive) they were all very excited. At the same time, I gave their younger brother, who was two, a stuffed animal and he started sobbing, “But I want a real live scorpion,” making me feel like an awful uncle. Clearly, though, the scorpions were a hit.

The souvenir scorpions seemed like a hokey reminder that I lived near the desert. But where I lived there were sidewalks and pavement and buildings, so really, the desert, and any critters that might live there, seemed a world away. It never occurred to me that desert creatures might happily wander into the urban landscape, so encountering a scorpion that was not under glass never crossed my mind. And for eight years I lived in this utopian fantasy.

In February of 2003 my wife and I bought a house in Chandler. Previous to that we lived in apartments in Tempe and Mesa, but now we were homeowners and were quite excited about it. Everything seemed perfect until one night a couple of months after we moved in…

We were settling down for the night. My wife was brushing her teeth and I was heading to my side of the bed to go to sleep. As I approached, something on the floor near my nightstand caught my eye. I focused on the small, orange-brown object scurrying about and my brain, at first, could not register what I was looking at, seeing as how it wasn’t dead and under glass and all. Then I suddenly realized that what I beheld was a deadly, venomous creature, which should only exist in spy films and tourist shops, yet was somehow waltzing around on my floor. It was about one-inch long. I stood there, petrified.

When my wife came out of the bathroom and took one look at my face from ten feet away, she said, “What is it? Scorpion?” How she came to that conclusion so quickly, I’ll never know, since we had never seen a scorpion before and didn’t really sit around talking about them. I guess my facial expression just screamed “Scorpion!” Whatever the case, her talking to me snapped me out of my trance and I quickly picked up the small plastic trashcan nearby and whacked the scorpion with the bottom of the can. The scorpion, for its part, appeared amused by this gesture, and I think it gave me the finger before attempting to scurry away. I then flipped the can over and trapped the scorpion, while my wife and I had a fevered conversation about what to do.

“You have to kill it with a hammer,” she said.

“I do?” I asked, incredulously.

“Yes. It’s the only thing that will crush the exoskeleton.”

“Oh.” What a strangely scientific response that seemed to be. “Okay, grab me a hammer,” I said while I sat on the trashcan, half expecting the scorpion to gnaw its way through the plastic. My wife went running to the garage and came back seconds later with the hammer. I took it, slowly stood up, and removed the can. There was the scorpion.

Do you remember the scene in Home Alone when Joe Pesci is lying on the ground with the tarantula on his body and Daniel Stern is standing above him, wild-eyed, holding a crowbar high over his head, trying to summon the nerve to crush the dread creature below? That was pretty much how I felt as I held the hammer aloft. I took a few deep breaths and then brought down the tool with all the fire and fury I could muster.

SQUASH. The scorpion was no more and I was emotionally exhausted.

My wife and I hoped that this incident would be a one-time anomaly, but sadly, that was not the case. From this point forward we would start seeing these critters several times per month. We hired an exterminator, which helped only marginally, but mostly we left a hammer lying around on the kitchen counter for on-the-spot executions.

Each scorpion sighting became less stressful than the one before. Whereas the first sighting brought the reaction of, “Oh my god, we’re all going to die!” by the time we got to our 20th sighting the reaction was more along the lines of, “Oh great, another one.” I knew that I took these creatures completely for granted when I had this exchange with my brother, Mark, who was calling from New Jersey:

Mark: (Probably talking about Oscar predictions.)

Me: Oh, hold on a second. Just need to do something real quick. (Puts down phone, picks up hammer, bashes scorpion crawling on wall in den, picks phone back up.) Hey, sorry about that. What were you saying?

Mark: What was that noise?

Me: Just had to kill a scorpion.

Mark: I’m sorry, what???

Me: There was a scorpion on the wall. Just had to kill it real quick with a hammer.

Mark: There was a &%!#$ scorpion on your wall! How are you so %*&@# casual about this???

Me: Oh, it’s no big deal, we get them all the time. They don’t actually kill you. If you get stung, it’s about the same as a bee sting.

Mark: Why the &*%%^& are you living in Arizona?!?

And such was our casual lives with scorpions in Chandler. But about three years after we moved into our house my wife became pregnant with our first child and it suddenly occurred to us that maybe it wasn’t the greatest thing to have several scorpions per month scurrying around the house with a baby scurrying around the house beside them. So we got aggressive.

We had our house fogged.

We got a new roof, because we were told they could be getting in through the shingles.

I spent an entire day putting caulking along every baseboard, every vent, every window, every crack, and every crevice in our house.

We hired an exterminator that specialized in scorpions.

We bought a second hammer.

And lo and behold, the scorpion sightings became much less frequent. Instead of several times per month, it became once or twice per year. But, because the frequency went down, the anxiety upon seeing a scorpion went back up. Whenever one was spotted (often by our cats who consider them exotic toys) the whole household would go into crisis mode. Like the time, three years ago, when I was sitting in the bathroom doing my business when my then 7-year-old son came running into my room and started banging on the bathroom door, shouting, “There’s a scorpion in the kitchen!” I came out as quickly as possible and headed to the kitchen area where I found my sons standing on the dining room chairs with my wife shielding them as though she were warding off a knife-wielding intruder. In the kitchen our cat, Dobby, was looking intently at something in front of the oven. You can guess what it was.

I grabbed my trusty hammer and strode toward my foe in battle posture. As soon as I approached, it ran under the oven. An evasive maneuver I was not expecting. So I got a yardstick to reach under the oven and coax it out slowly. But as soon as I stuck the stick under the oven the thing came charging out at me at a speed I didn’t think possible by such a diminutive creature. Startled, I fell onto my butt and dropped the yardstick as my family screamed in unison. I quickly recovered and viciously thwacked it with my hammer as though I were Thor defending Asgard from the Frost Giants. But I hit the thing so hard it flipped into the air and hit me in the arm causing my entire family to scream in unison again, this time with me joining in. The creature was dead, though, so it caused me no bodily harm—just some minor psychological damage.

This incident marked the most bizarre encounter I’ve had with a scorpion up until about a week ago. It had been a long time since we had seen a scorpion in our house; probably well over a year. I was sitting at my computer and my wife was sitting at hers when suddenly I heard her say a bad word. My wife rarely says bad words, so it caught my attention.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, and as I did, I looked over at her. She sat there looking up at the ceiling with a very pained expression on her face. I followed her gaze to the ceiling and then I said a bad word, too. There, about five feet from where I sat was the largest scorpion I had ever seen in our house. The thing was like a foot long…give or take nine inches.

I ran off to get the hammer and a stepstool. I came back, positioned the stepstool just so and started mentally psyching myself up for the battle.

Okay, I should pause here and give you one last chance to abandon this blog entry before it gets real ugly. Truly, I debated whether or not to even write about this incident, lest I give my readers the heebie-jeebies for life. Maybe do a crossword puzzle instead, because we are about to enter Stephen King territory, here. Okay, for those few who are still with me, here we go…

I got up on the stepstool and was now about ten inches away from this massive arachnid. I’ve killed scorpions on ceilings before, but it’s never easy. The angle is always awkward. Once, about six years earlier, I didn’t hit one on the ceiling quite right and it ended up falling down behind my desk in a spot that was unreachable and unseeable. I never saw that one again and it had me looking over my shoulder for months.

The key to killing a scorpion on the ceiling is hitting it firmly and squarely and not pulling the head of the hammer away too quickly, lest it fall to the ground and run off to get reinforcements. So, I took a few deep breaths and then—POW—smacked the beast hard, right in the middle. It wriggled for a second or two and then stopped, which is when I felt comfortable about pulling the hammer off the ceiling. But then—and no, I’m not exaggerating for macabre comic effect here—the head of the scorpion started running across the ceiling. To be clear, the creature was now in three separate pieces—the tail was attached to the ceiling, the body was attached to the hammer, but the head just took off on its own. I jumped off the stepstool, stunned and looked at my wife—a rictus of disbelief and horror was transfixed on both of our faces. After a few seconds I realized the only logical thing was to destroy the head, as though I were in some sort of scorpion-zombie flick. As I started up the stepstool my wife said in anguish, “Don’t go back up there!” as though she were in the same flick. I’m not quite sure what she thought might happen to me if I went back up there, but I decided to take my chances. After all, I had a hammer and the scorpion only had a running head. Terrifying as that concept was, I didn’t see how it could do much to me. So I got to the top of the stool and—BAM—crushed the mutant head. This time it wasn’t going anywhere—foe dispatched. I cleaned off the ceiling and my hammer and curled up into the fetal position for a while.

So goes my life as an Arizona scorpion hunter. It’s a thankless job, and at times horrifying, but I’ve gotten good at it and I wield my hammer like a pro. Next time I see one on the ceiling though, I might just call Thor.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

For the Love of Apes


There are many people who feel compelled to see the latest blockbuster movie the weekend it opens up. There are even some who wait on line the night before, so they can be the very first person into the theater. There are still fewer who have been known to camp out in front of a movie theater for weeks prior to the opening of a highly anticipated film, because apparently their lives have evolved in such a way that they have no commitments to family, friends, employers, or general hygiene, and are thus able to put their lives on pause for a large chunk of time, so they can get the seat they want, as opposed to the one right next to it. I am not one of those people.

I prefer to see a film when it has been out for the past 14 weeks and it’s a Tuesday morning and there’s maybe three other people in the theater. Less crowds, less noise, less distractions, less hassle. Besides, while I love movies, I never feel like I have to see them as soon as they come out. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Ape movies.

I was raised on Ape movies. My brothers—especially my oldest brother, Steve—loved the Ape movies and, as an impressionable young lad, this fervor seeped into my veins. While I was born a year after the original Planet of the Apes came out and thus, did not see it in the theaters, I watched it and its four sequels—Beneath, Escape, Conquest, and Battle multiple times on television as a kid. And, speaking of television, I was about five when the Planet of the Apes TV series came out and I faithfully watched all 14 episodes. I had action figures, I had a t-shirt, I had a coloring book. Yes, I went ape for the apes.

That unadulterated passion for a movie franchise never translated to any other film series. When Star Wars came out, I saw it and thought, “It’s okay, but it’s no Planet of the Apes.” While all my friends were suddenly walking around with a light saber in their hands saying “Use the force,” I was still clutching my plastic Cornelius, while groveling on the floor yelling, “You maniacs! You blew it up!”

Yet, in the ensuing years, while Star Wars-mania seemed to grow and grow, Planet of the Apes culture seemed to fade into the woodwork. While my inner love for the Ape movies never died, over the years there was less and less reason to engage with the franchise. That is, of course, until 2011, when the series underwent an incredible reboot. (Side note: I was one of about eight people in the world who actually enjoyed the Tim Burton version made in 2001, but I won’t get into that right now.) The 2011 film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, presented a completely new—and seemingly, almost plausible—vision of the origins of an ape-controlled planet. When I saw it, I felt like a kid again—albeit one with a substantial amount of grey hair. The next film, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, continued where Rise left off and strengthened the franchise’s mythology.

I was becoming obsessed again. And that is why this weekend I broke my long-standing policy and decided to see a movie on its opening weekend. (Not opening night, though, because despite my ape-love, that’s just ridiculous.)

War for the Planet of the Apes was a film I had been anticipating pretty much since the credits rolled on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Given that the word “war” is in the title, you had to figure there would be even more talking apes fighting against even more crazed humans and from that perspective, the film did not disappoint. Woody Harrelson played the main crazed human in this installment and he did a commendable job, despite the fact that I’ve never been able to fully buy him in his various tough guy roles after years of playing a lovable simpleton in Cheers. Andy Serkis as lead ape, Caesar, was brilliant yet again. The character is tough, tender, intelligent, just, and dare I say…human. He’s an ape you’d want to have a beer with.

Overall, War for the Planet of the Apes was a solid film, though not quite on the same level as the first two in the new series. Nonetheless, it sated my thirst for simian cinema and, even though I saw the film on opening weekend, the 60 or so people in the theater were surprisingly quiet. I was too, although inside I was going ape the entire time.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Dobby the House Cat: 2003 - 2017


When my wife and I first met Dobby in the spring of 2003, he was going by the name Rhumba. He was a six-week old orange tabby cat living in a small enclosure at the Arizona Animal Welfare League in Phoenix. When we first saw him he was playing in his own litterbox and repeatedly hitting himself in the head. He was a tiny, furry, adorable, klutzy kitten and perfect for the Schwartzberg household. We renamed him Dobby (after the house elf of Harry Potter fame) and brought him home to meet our black cat, Squeakers, who was then 11 years old.

Squeakers did not particularly get along with Dobby in the beginning, as she was used to being the only pet in the household for a few years. Also, in cat years, Squeakers was old enough to be Dobby’s grandma, so she just wanted to quietly go about her business without being bothered. Dobby, on the other hand was a frenetic fur-ball of energy who always wanted to play. He was constantly running too fast for his own good, which made him slide across our laminate floor while he desperately tried to gain traction and inevitably knocked into a wall or door.

As a kitten, Dobby got into every nook and cranny in the house, and would often relax inside one of my shoes. He also had an odd penchant for computer hacking and would jump up on my keyboard when I stepped out of the room, whereupon my return I would see ominous messages on my screen like “Are you sure you want to delete Windows?” (It was at this point that I began shutting down my computer if I knew I’d be away from it for more than a minute.)

Dobby demanded attention—especially from those who did not want to give it to him. My mother never liked house pets, although she had tolerated Squeakers because of that cat’s very calm demeanor. When my mom came out to Arizona for a visit not long after we got Dobby she was terrified of him, because of his rambunctious ways. She did her best to ignore Dobby and we tried our best to keep him at bay, but one morning I simply wasn’t fast enough. I was sitting at my computer (making sure it wasn’t getting cat-hacked) when I heard the unmistakable sound of Dobby sprinting across our floor. I looked up to see him making a beeline for my mom, who was sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. She was sitting in such a way that the newspaper was fully blocking her view of the oncoming feline. I jumped up from my chair to try to stop him, but it was too late. In one swift motion Dobby leapt across the kitchen table and swatted the newspaper out of my mom’s hands. My mom screamed, “He’s attacking me! He’s attacking me!” although Dobby didn’t touch her beyond forcibly moving the newspaper from her grip. He never did anything like that before or after and I’m sure it was simply his way of saying to my mom, “I will NOT be ignored!”

Everything I just described happened prior to my wife and I having human children. But in the fall of 2006, when our first son was born, things changed a bit for the cats. Suddenly the amount of attention the cats got decreased significantly, as did their access to certain parts of the house at certain hours of the day. It was around this time that Squeakers and Dobby finally started getting along, or more accurately, conspiring.

One day, a couple of months after the baby was born, I was walking down the hallway when I encountered Squeakers standing in front of the bathroom, meowing. When I locked eyes with her, she walked into the bathroom, looking over her shoulder, as though I should follow, which I did. When I was fully in the bathroom I noticed the door began closing and when I turned around I saw, to my astonishment, Dobby on his hind legs closing the door shut with his front legs. As I watched, slack-jawed, Dobby fully closed the door and the two cats just looked up at me as though to say, “Now that we’ve trapped you in the bathroom, you must give us attention.” I made sure to pet them both a lot before exiting that room slowly.

Sadly, in the spring of 2007, at the age of 15, Squeakers passed away, making Dobby the household’s sole pet. While clearly out of sorts for a while, Dobby eventually adjusted well to being a solo cat and spent most of his time hunting for pipe cleaners and scorpions. Fortunately, pipe cleaners are more abundant in our house and Dobby loved nothing more than batting one around for 5 to 10 minutes before picking it up in his mouth and dropping it into his water dish. If he was feeling particularly crafty he would first drop it in the water dish and then pick it back up and drop it in his food dish. There were lots of messes to clean up.

As for hunting scorpions, this was luckily a very infrequent service that Dobby would provide. A few times over the years he would spot one crawling around and would mess with it until one of us noticed and searched frantically for a blunt object (generally a hammer) with which to smash the creature to bits. Dobby always looked disappointed after the scorpion’s execution and would shoot us a look as if to say, “Hey, man, you wrecked my toy.” But then he would find a pipe cleaner and all would be okay again.

In the summer of 2016, after almost ten years of being a one-cat household, we got a second cat, named Ping. Although not a kitten, at three years old, Ping was (and is) a youthful cat. Dobby, who was 13 at the time and set in his ways, was not amused by the new addition. The cats avoided each other for days and when they did start to interact, it was mostly hissing and swatting. Eventually they tolerated each other and Dobby, once the young upstart, now played the role of the curmudgeonly elder. He wore this role well.

The end, of course, is not fun to talk about, but in May of 2017 it was time for Dobby to join Squeakers and all the other great cats that came before him. In his prime, Dobby was a big, muscular, mischievous cat and that is how I will always remember him—proudly swatting newspapers, playing with pipe cleaners and defending the household against scorpions.

He was well-loved and will be well-missed.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

My 25 Favorite Albums: Or 10% of My Brother’s Effort



My brother Mark has a deep obsession with music, movies, and lists, and has found a creative outlet for these obsessions. He and his friend Bill (who shares his obsession with music, but not necessarily movies) write a private blog in which they provide readers with countdowns of their favorite music-specific things, with detailed essays about their rankings. And we’re not talking short countdowns, either. After about two-and-a-half years, these two dogged individuals just concluded their countdown of their 250 favorite rock albums. Yup, 250!

As Mark is my older brother by seven years, many of his interests have rubbed off on me, only to a lesser extent. I, too, share a love of music and movies and writing lists—but I’m only willing to put in about 10% of the effort that my brother does. The idea of coming up with a list of my 250 favorite albums hurts my brain, but 25 seems manageable. So, following in my brother’s footsteps, below are my top 25 personal favorite albums, counting down from 25 to 1.

25- Violator (Depeche Mode, 1990)

If you were to have told me 20 years ago that I would one day put a Depeche Mode album on a list of my favorite albums, I would have likely rolled my eyes, made some dismissive clucking sounds and said, “That’s just electronic dance music.” But that also would have been before I married a woman whose favorite band was Depeche Mode. Now I’m not suggesting that just because it’s my wife’s favorite band, I automatically felt compelled to like them. This has actually been a gradual process—occasional exposure to this band over the past 17 years has helped their intoxicating, hypnotic music seep into my veins. As it turns out I was actually familiar with several of the songs on Violator from my club-going days in the early 1990s. Songs like “Enjoy the Silence,” “Personal Jesus,” and “Policy of Truth,” were songs that I sweatily danced to with reckless abandon more than two decades ago.  I liked these songs, but never realized it was Depeche Mode until my wife helped me connect those dots. It also turns out that I like all of the non-hits from this album, as well. The rhythmic, repetitive nature of the music on this album has a primal feel to it and when it’s listened to from beginning to end it produces an almost cathartic effect. In less pretentious words…I really like it.

24- Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John, 1973)

Elton John was a hit machine in the 1970s and this double album is chockfull of them. Side one starts out with my favorite Elton song, “Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding),” which is over 11 minutes long, but is so great it doesn’t feel that long—at least not to me. That side also contains the hits “Candle in the Wind” and “Bennie and the Jets.” Other songs on this album that got lots of airplay include “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Harmony,” and of course the awesome title track. But beyond the many hits on this album there are several great deep tracks. I love the ridiculously named “This Song Has No Title,” which has lush piano playing and picturesque lyrics. I’m also a big fan of the songs “I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” “All the Young Girls Love Alice,” and “The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909- 1934),” which is the haunting tale of a Depression-era gangster gunned down too young. All of the aforementioned songs are why this album made my Top 25, but the reason why it didn’t make it closer to the top of the list is because there are also several songs that I simply don’t care for. Songs like “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n Roll),” “Roy Rogers” and “Social Disease” simply don’t do anything for me. And then there’s Elton’s very sad attempt at a reggae song—“Jamaica Jerk Off,” which just doesn’t work on any level. But ultimately there are so many great tunes on this album that it negates the filler enough to make it on this list. Had Elton put the best tunes on this double album on to one single album, it would likely make it into my Top 10.

23- Flood (They Might Be Giants, 1990)

“Why is the world in love again?
Why are we marching hand in hand?
Why are the ocean levels rising up?
It’s a brand new record for 1990.
They Might Be Giants brand new album Flood.”

So starts the greatest alternative comic rock album I’ve ever heard. The above lyrics are from the album’s 27-second long first track, “Theme from Flood,” which then leads into one of my all-time favorite songs, “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” which always makes me smile. They Might Be Giants, the two-person band that flew under everyone’s radar except for the geeky college set, explores a variety of musical styles with this album, but the one constant is that all the tunes are incredibly catchy and all the lyrics are incredibly compelling. Many of the songs are irreverent and amusing, with a few, like “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair” that are just laugh-out-loud funny. If I’m ever in a crappy mood and need a musical pick me up, this is my go-to album.

22- Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (Bruce Springsteen, 1973)

Bruce Springsteen’s debut album established him as a poet-rocker to watch and portended even greater things to come. Of course, I will admit, that when this album came out I was but a toddler, so for me it portended nothing. In fact, I wouldn’t end up hearing this album until my college years, well after I was familiar with his more popular third through seventh albums and was already a pretty big fan of The Boss. I remember when I first heard the album thinking, “How in the world did I not hear this before?” It has so many great cuts like “Growin’ Up,” “For You,” and “Spirit in the Night,” to name a few. But my favorite song on this album is “Lost in the Flood,” a moody piano-driven song with lots of gritty imagery about gritty characters doing gritty things in gritty places. In some ways I feel like this song is the forefather of “Jungleland,” which I will probably have more to say about later on. If I were to create a list of my favorite debut albums this would probably be in my top five.

21- Strange Days (The Doors, 1967)

Jim Morrison has one of those unique rock growls that you either love or hate and I’m in the “love” category. His is the perfect voice to give life to those dark and brooding tunes. But even though Jim is the iconic front man of The Doors, I do believe it was Ray Manzarek’s keyboards that ultimately gave them their distinctive sound. And for my money, no album of theirs sounds more dark, mysterious and “Doors-like” than Strange Days. From the first notes of the album’s opening title track, the stage is set for some heavy duty gloom and intrigue—but I mean that in the best possible way. The songs “Love Me Two Times” and “People Are Strange” are the ones that get the most radio play, but there is a lot more than that to like on this album. In fact, my favorite song on the album is “My Eyes Have Seen You,” which starts off slow and moody like much of the album, but gradually builds in tempo and heaviness until it reaches a frenetic pace that I can only assume caused hippies to create rudimentary mosh pits when the song first came out. Ultimately, I really like or love nine of the ten songs on the album. The tenth song is “Horse Latitudes,” which is basically a minute-and-a-half of Jim shouting avant-garde poetry over random noises. While the song is no good, it does remind us that Jim dropped a lot of acid, so I suppose it has historical value.

20- A Picture of Nectar (Phish, 1992)

This album is crazy—lyrically, musically, psychically crazy. People who listen to this CD (yes, I’ve dated myself) in its’ entirety for the first time likely have one of two reactions—take it out of the player and smash it repeatedly with a hammer or listen to it again and again and again to take in every insane detail. You can probably guess which category I fall into. Phish explores a variety of musical styles on this album, but the predominant one is jazz fusion. The instrumentation is incredible, but where it gets really interesting is the lyrics. Phish generally does not use lyrics to tell a coherent story; instead lyrics are written more for the sounds of the words and are usually a series of interesting non-sequiturs. So, for example, you have this couplet from my favorite song on the album, “Stash”: “Zipping through the forest with the curdling fleas/To grow with them spindles, the mutant I seize.” It doesn’t really mean much, and trust me, the lines that come before and after, give it no further context, but these lyrics, coming from lead singer and guitarist, Trey Anastasio, seem to fit perfectly with the music that accompanies them. Another of my favorite songs on this album is “Guelah Papyrus,” which includes the profound lyrics: “And mindful of his larval craze/The rhinotropic micro-gaze/Ignored it and to my amazement/Rode to Paris in twelve days.” Again, it’s nonsensical, but it somehow works. But if you don’t want to deal with the seemingly schizophrenic lyrics, at least give one of the four instrumentals a try. All of them are great, but my favorite is “Magilla,” a piano-heavy jazz tune that shows off keyboardist Page McConnell’s incredible skills. Phish is definitely not for everyone, but if you want to test them out, this is the album to try.

19- 2112 (Rush, 1976)

Rush is my favorite band and has been for the past 31 years. As such, there were eight different albums of theirs I contemplated making this Top 25 list before I painfully narrowed it down to the three you will see here. Side 1 of 2112 is a 20-minute long, epic sci-fi tale of a man who discovers a forbidden guitar in a futuristic society. As I write those words I realize it sounds a little bit ridiculous, but really, it works—especially as accompaniment to the hard-driving prog-rock music that makes this one of the best sides of an album of all-time. Side 2 contains five songs, the most well-known of which is “A Passage to Bangkok.”  It also features “The Twilight Zone” a fun tribute to the famous television show, “Tears” a rare, mellow Rush ballad, “Something for Nothing,” which is my favorite song on Side 2, and “Lessons,” which is the one song on the album I could sort of take or leave. This album is essential for any Rush fan, not only for the music, but for the now snicker-worthy back cover photo of Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart and Geddy Lee in over-the-top, flowing white robes. Hey, it was 1976—give them a break.

18- Are You Experienced? (The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1967)

There is a line from one of my favorite children’s picture books, The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater that goes like this: “Their houses were all the same. But Mr. Plumbean’s house was like a rainbow. It was like a jungle. It was like an explosion.” Every time I used to read this book to my kids when they were little, this line would make me think of the album Are You Experienced? It too is like a rainbow, like a jungle, like an explosion. Fifty years after it came out, it still blows people’s minds, so I can only imagine what it did to people first hearing it back in 1967. From the opening, iconic power chords of “Purple Haze” all the way to the trippy, psychedelia of “Are You Experienced?” that closes out the album, you know you are listening to something special. Every track is intense and in-your-face. Most of the songs on the album are on the short side—with only two of the eleven longer than four minutes, but each one is full of incredibly-dense, virtuoso musicianship. While the masterful guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix is obviously the centerpiece of the album, the other two band members—Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums are masterful in their own right. In fact, Mitchell is my second favorite drummer of all time; his work on songs like “Manic Depression,” and especially “Fire” is every bit as mind-blowing as any of Jimi’s guitar playing. That Hendrix was gone by age 27 is thoroughly depressing, but at least we have this and two other albums to remember him and his two bandmates by.

17- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles, 1967)

The Beatles posed a similar problem for me as did Rush—so many of their albums could have potentially made my Top 25. Ultimately, I narrowed it down to two—this one and…well, you’ll see later. This is arguably the most celebrated and revered album in the history of music and with good reason. The 13 songs on this album are all varying levels of good to great and capture a variety of moods. There’s the rocking and triumphant title track, the sweet and cheerful “When I’m Sixty-Four,” the psychedelic and mysterious “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the dreamy and wistful “She’s Leaving Home,” and the genius and surreal, “A Day in the Life,” to name a few highlights. Speaking of surreal, one of my favorite songs on this album is “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” This song, that describes a variety of circus acts, matches its subject matter musically with an unusual carnivalesque sound that I’ve found enthralling ever since I first heard it as an impressionable young lad listening to my brother’s record collection. The only songs I don’t love on this album are “Lovely Rita” and “Good Morning Good Morning,” which happen to play back to back on the album. They are both good songs, but they’ve never really captured my interest in the same way that the album’s other songs did.

16- Disraeli Gears (Cream, 1967)

Clearly, 1967 was a good year for rock music. (And I didn’t plan to put three from the same year in a row like this—it just sort of evolved that way.) The power trio that was one of the most major influences on early Rush started out as a more bluesy rock band and then with this, their second album, evolved into what I would call psychedelic blues metal. The album features several heavy, trippy hits like “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” and “Strange Brew.” There are a lot of similarities to be found here between this album and Are You Experienced?, which was released six months earlier. But whereas Hendrix wrote 10 of the 11 songs on Experienced and sings lead vocals on all of them, Disraeli Gears is more of a group effort. The song writing and singing duties on this album are shared mostly between bassist Jack Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton (although drummer Ginger Baker did write and sing one tune). And when I say “shared,” I mean it. While there are several songs in which either Bruce or Clapton sings exclusively, there are also several in which they both sing. The best example of this is the lesser known, but equally great as the album’s hit songs, “World of Pain.” On this song Bruce and Clapton go back and forth singing solo and then sing the chorus together. This song also provides a pretty good example of their weird but compelling lyrics: “Outside my window is a tree/There only for me/And it stands in the grey of the city/No time for pity, for the tree or me.” There are 10 very good to great songs on this album and one fun, silly one. The last song on the album, “Mother’s Lament,” is a drunken bar ditty, featuring the three band members singing a ridiculous song accompanied by a piano. That last song aside, the playing on this album is legendary, with three masters of their craft in peak form.

15- Permanent Waves (Rush, 1980)

While it’s the album after this—Moving Pictures—that is generally considered their most significant album, to me, Permanent Waves is the quintessential Rush album, because it bridges the gap between their early epic prog rock excesses and their later, tighter song writing style. The first two songs on the album, “The Spirit of Radio” and “Freewill” are the ones that get airplay and are both great songs, featuring unbelievable musicianship and insightful lyrics; but the other four songs on the album are equally great. As I mentioned, this album bridges the gap between their styles, and the songs “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Natural Science,” which close out sides one and two respectively, are the ones that retain their older, epic ways. Both are longer songs (“Ladder” at 7:31 and “Science” at 9:16) and have myriad musical shifts, keeping the listener on their toes as they are taken through a journey of sound and mind. Of the two I prefer “Jacob’s Ladder,” but if I were to be locked in a room with Rush and told they were just going to play “Natural Science” over and over for the next two hours, I wouldn’t complain. Going from the albums longest songs to its shortest, the song “Different Strings” features gorgeous guitar playing by Alex Lifeson in another rare Rush ballad. That leaves the only song I have yet to mention—“Entre Nous,” which I think could have become a radio hit along with the album’s first two songs. It also features my favorite lyrics on an album that has very strong lyrics throughout. The first verse:


“We are secrets to each other
Each one's life a novel
No one else has read
Even joined in bonds of love
We're linked to one another
By such slender threads.”

Yes, Neil Peart knows a thing or two about writing compelling lyrics.

14- Led Zeppelin 4 (Led Zeppelin, 1971)

This album, which is the second best-selling album in the United States of all time (note: Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which is the best-selling album of all time, will not be appearing on this list) technically has no title. But since it was Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, and the first three were called Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III, society has named it Led Zeppelin IV, so we have something to call it. There are no bad songs on this album—only good, very good and great songs. Of course, the most famous song on this album is “Stairway to Heaven,” which is often atop lists of the greatest classic rock songs of all time. This song gets A LOT of radio play on rock stations; so much so that you would think it runs the risk of being “overplayed.” But, personally, no matter how many times I hear this song on the radio, I stop and listen intently—to me it cannot be overplayed. While it’s not my favorite song of all time, I do feel it richly deserves all the accolades heaped upon it. The other songs on this album that get a fair amount of radio play are “Black Dog” (good), “Rock and Roll” (very good), and “Going to California” (great). Of the albums other four songs, my favorite is “The Battle of Evermore,” which is simultaneously folksy and intense and has the distinction of being Zep’s only song that included a guest vocalist—Sandy Denny. Every rocker worth his or her salt needs to own this album…and have it memorized.

13- Mental Jewelry (Live, 1991)

This is the only band on the list whose members are younger than me, though only by a couple of years. As such, they are my contemporaries, which may be part of their appeal. When this album came out I was 22 and the members of Live were all 20 and 21. Because we came from the same zeitgeist, I think this album spoke to me in a way that others did not. There is a certain hidden intensity in the music of these songs and it combines quite well with the Eastern philosophy-tinged lyrics written by lead singer Ed Kowalczyk. This is the band’s debut album and my friends and I sort of “discovered” it while listening to the alternative music stations of the time. The songs “Pain Lies on the Riverside” and “Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition)” were getting a decent amount of airplay on these stations and we sought out the CD it came from. Once I put it in my player I was riveted to the album from beginning to end. The songs I already knew are the first two on the album but the ten that follow are equally as intense and compelling. Ed’s raspy, cool voice complements the hard-driving alt rock tunes and the peace-loving lyrics appeal to my inner hippy. Besides the two songs I already mentioned, other highlights on the album for me include “Beauty of Gray,” “Brothers Unaware,” “Tired of Me,”…wait, I’m just mentioning all of the songs in order. That’s because I love every song on this album. At some point, probably in 1993, I got to see Live at a club in Brooklyn. The place was jam packed and Live put on a great show, but in addition to playing songs from Mental Jewelry they also played a bunch of songs from their yet-to-be-released album called Throwing Copper. That album, with its megahit “Lightning Crashes,” is what propelled them to stardom, but for my money, their first album is still their best.

12- Rubber Soul (The Beatles, 1965)

This is my current favorite Beatles album. I say “current” because at various times The White Album, Abbey Road, Revolver, and the aforementioned Sgt. Pepper’s have been my favorite of the Fab Four’s; but for the last couple of years it has been this one. This is partly due to the fact that my kids seem to respond really well to this album whenever I put it on, so I play it more often than other Beatles albums; and partly due to the fact that there is such an abundance of truly great songs packed into this album. First off, I should mention that this album contains my all-time favorite song of theirs—“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” At 2:04 it is the shortest song on the album, but the tune is one of the best in the history of rock. And the lyrics tell a bizarre and amusing story of a guy invited back to a girl’s apartment only to find that she’s abruptly left him in the morning…which prompts him to burn her place down, as revealed by the last lines: “And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown/So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood.” Interestingly, for a band that became famous writing straightforward pop love songs about endless devotion to one’s girl, this album has an unusual amount of songs about unhealthy relationships, unrequited love, and murderous jealousy. Take for example, this line from “You Won’t See Me”: “I don't know why you/Should want to hide/But I can't get through/My hands are tied.” Or this line from “I’m Looking Through You”: “Why, tell me why, did you not treat me right?/Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.” Or this one from “Run For Your Life”: “I'd rather see you dead, little girl/Than to be with another man/You better keep your head, little girl/Or you won't know where I am.” That last one in particular is sort of scary, yet the tune that accompanies it is fun and upbeat. In fact, all of the aforementioned songs about relationships gone horribly awry have tunes that are catchy, pleasant and bouncy. It’s an extremely odd juxtaposition that makes for some very compelling songs. On the other hand this album also contains one of the greatest and most recognizable love songs of all time—“Michelle,” so it’s not necessarily all songs about guys who might get restraining orders slapped upon them. Ultimately, I really, really like or love every song on this album except for one—“What Goes On,” which to me is okay, but not on the same level as the other 13 songs on the album. But 13 out of 14 is still 93%, which is still a solid A in my book.

11- Californication (Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1999)

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have two distinct fan bases—those who were into their first four albums during their underground alternative days and feel like they sold out with the commercial success of Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 1991; and those who only became aware of them because of the commercial success of Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 1991 and have been into them ever since. I will freely admit that I am in the second group and I don’t care if that makes me a lame poser, and dang if Californication didn’t blow my freaking mind the first time I listened to it. I had heard a few of the album’s songs on the radio prior to buying the CD. “Scar Tissue” was the biggest hit, but songs like “Otherside” and the album’s title track were also getting airplay on the stations I listened to, and I really liked all of them, so I bought the CD. But this album is definitely one of those cases where the sequence of songs matters, and though I liked the three songs I’d heard on the radio individually, in the context of the album those songs, and all the others that come before and after them, are elevated to an exalted level that few other albums can match. The songs on this album fall into three basic styles—mellow, dreamy alt rock; hard-driving, relentless alt rock; and hip-hop funk. While I’m not too keen on the hip-hop funk songs, there are only a few of those and I see them more as amusing bridges to the other amazing tunes on the album. In the “mellow/dreamy” category, “Scar Tissue” is the one that became a mega-hit, but “Road Trippin’,” which got a little bit of airplay, is equally as good. For my money, though, the best song of this type on the album is “Porcelain,” which didn’t get any airplay, but plays like a beautiful rock lullaby. The hard-driving tunes make up the majority of the album and help make up the intense feel that makes the entire album feel like it’s building to a crescendo. I remember the first time I heard the song “Parallel Universe” looking around my apartment in amazement. I was by myself, but I felt like I wanted to shake my couch and yell, “Are you hearing this???” The intensity level of that song is through the roof, which is also true of the songs “Easily” and “Savior.” This album definitely has an ebb and flow to it and when listened to straight through you may feel exhausted and sweaty by the end. I don’t smoke, but if I did, I would imagine I would want a cigarette after the last song plays. It’s one of those albums.

10- Master of Puppets (Metallica, 1986)

I actually purchased this album as a goof and would never have predicted it would end up becoming one of my favorite albums. It was the mid-1980s and I was a proud member of the Columbia House Record Club. Some of you may remember how this worked—you buy 10 albums for a penny and then have to buy a certain amount of albums at “regular club price” throughout the year to fulfill your obligation. As the year closed out I needed to buy one more album, but nothing in that month’s catalog caught my eye. At this point in time I had not heard of Metallica and when I happened across this album in the heavy metal section of the catalog with the picture of a bunch of graves, I laughed and thought, “This looks ridiculous. I’m going to buy it just so I could make fun of all the ridiculous songs on this ridiculous album.” When it eventually arrived I didn’t listen to it right away. In fact, it was months before I finally got around to it. I put the needle down on the vinyl waiting to laugh heartily at what came out of my stereo and was surprised to hear picturesque classical guitar. I was caught off guard since, after all, the name of this song was “Battery.” For 37 seconds I was pleasantly riding the wave of Kirk Hammet’s impressive guitar work and then, suddenly, the classical guitar disappeared and was replaced by very heavy electric guitar replaying the same classical tune. That actually worked quite well, I thought. Then, at 1:06 into the song it happened—it was like a switch was flipped and a musical buzz saw appeared. The heaviness increased and the tempo seemingly picked up a thousand-fold. My heartrate was instantly elevated and my head was moving up and down rapidly in time with the music. It was an involuntary reflex. I felt like I was in the front car of a roller coaster—you have no control and all you can do is let go and enjoy the thrill of the ride. Most of “Battery” can only be described as relentless—in fact much of the album is this way, but interestingly that classical guitar sound comes back from time to time. The second song is the masterful title track, which starts off relentless and about three and a half minutes into its 8:36 run segues over to another gorgeous classical interlude, but soon goes back to relentless. This album is like a dark adrenaline rush. As aggressive as the sound of this album is, most of the lyrics are actually antiwar and antiviolence in nature. This album also contains a Metallica “ballad” called “Welcome Home (Santitarium).” This song is inspired by “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and is about someone wrongfully locked up in an asylum. This is not like your everyday rock ballad, as it retains the sinister underbelly of all Metallica’s work. Ultimately, my first listen to this album was far from my last and I did not laugh once while listening to it. I did, however, get a lot of involuntary exercise.

9- Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin, 1969)

My favorite debut album, Led Zeppelin managed to find a way to give the blues a heavy, psychedelic feel and make it work sensationally. While I think every song on the album is very good to great, I feel that Side 1 should be in the argument for greatest album side in the history of rock music. It starts off with “Good Times Bad Times,” which is by far the shortest song on the side at 2:47 (the other three are all well over six minutes), but manages to pack a musical wallop of mammoth proportions. From the get-go the song is hard and heavy and in your face and it showcases the immense talents of all four band members. In particular we get to be amazed by John Bonham’s unbelievable drum work—he’s not just keeping the beat for the other players, he’s making the drums a central force of the song. Of course, Jimmy Page’s guitar work ain’t too shabby either. The second song on the album is “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” my favorite song on the album, and, indeed, one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s beautiful and haunting and stirring and intense and once again treats us to amazing instrumentation. And Robert Plant’s vocals on this song are, well…astonishing. His voice is an instrument as impressive as Bonhams’ drums, Page’s guitar and Jones’s bass. The next song, “You Shook Me” is a cover of a Willie Dixon song (as is “I Can’t Quit You Babe,” on Side 2.) This is the bluesiest song on the album and Zep gives it the heavy psychedelia treatment to great effect. It also features a fun section toward the end where Page plays a guitar piece and Plant imitates the sound with his voice. It’s great! Speaking of psychedelia, the last song on Side 1 is “Dazed and Confused,” possibly the trippiest song in Led Zep’s canon, and also one of my favorite songs of theirs. The wah-wahing of the guitar throughout is relentless, but in a good way—really, a hypnotic way. While Side 2 is very good (my favorite song on this side is the keyboard driven “Your Time is Gonna Come”) it is not quite on the same epic level as Side 1. But few album sides have ever been on that level and that’s why this album is in my Top 10.

8- The Wall (Pink Floyd, 1979)

Arguably the most well-known concept album in rock history, I spent a large portion of my junior high school years sequestered in my room wearing my giant Princess Leia-esque headphones listening to this double album on cassette over and over and over again. Indeed, I am pretty safe in saying that I’ve listened to this album straight through more than any other album ever. And maybe I shouldn’t be so proud of this fact, since the concept of this concept album revolves around a rock star who has a complete and total mental breakdown. But it’s seamless and musically magical, taking the listener through a series of highs and lows, while we see the world through the eyes of this semi-fictional (Roger Waters based it partly on his own life and partly on the life of former Floyd front man Syd Barrett) rock star slowly losing his mind. It’s tough to talk about just a few songs on this album, since each song bleeds into the next and is often merged by sound effects or talking. For example, moments after the song “Mother” ends we hear birds chirping, followed by the sound of a distant motor and then a little boy says, “Look, mommy, there’s an airplane up in the sky,” at which point the beautiful guitar notes of “Goodbye Blue Sky” start up. These types of segues happen throughout the album, giving the feel that you are listening to a movie, rather than an album. (Of course, they did make this album into a movie three years later.) The most famous song on the album is “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” which was the band’s only number one hit and features the famous chorus of kids singing, “We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control.” Other songs that get significant rock radio airplay are “Hey You,” “Run Like Hell,” and “Comfortably Numb.” While this entire album is a masterwork, “Comfortably Numb” stands out in particular both musically and lyrically as one of the great songs in rock music history, with unparalleled guitar work by David Gilmour. But ultimately, as I mentioned previously, this album is not about a few great songs—it’s about a musical story that works on multiple levels from beginning to end.

7- Paranoid (Black Sabbath, 1970)

I’m pretty sure if this album had never been made Metallica never would have existed. Sure, there were other heavy albums being made in the late 1960s—in fact, some that have already been on this list, like “Led Zeppelin,” “Disraeli Gears,” and “Are You Experienced?” but I don’t think you could really characterize those as metal. Heavy? Yes. Metal? Not quite. There’s a dark, aggressive, emphatic through-line that permeates this album, that I would argue did not occur in any album before it. All the songs are heavy and in your face with the notable exception of “Planet Caravan,” which is a beautiful, trippy, acid rock classic. But the pioneering aspect of this album by itself is not what propels it so high on my list; it’s the tunes, each with memorable, distinctive guitar riffs from Tony Iommi and full-throttle drumming from Bill Ward. And similar to what I mentioned with “Master of Puppets,” the tunes on Paranoid may be aggressive in nature, but many of the lyrics are anti-aggression. The song that leads the album, “War Pigs,” is an antiwar song: “Politicians hide themselves away/They only started the war/Why should they go out to fight?/They leave that role to the poor.” The song “Electric Funeral” is about the potential horrors of atomic war: “Flashes in the sky, turns houses into sties.” And the song “Hand of Doom” is an antidrug song: “Oh you, you know you must be blind/To do something like this/To take the sleep that you don't know/You're giving Death a kiss.” Because the band is called “Black Sabbath” they get a bad rap and people assume their lyrics are evil. But as you can see from the aforementioned examples, lyricist/bassist Geezer Butler and singer Ozzy Osbourne were actually trying to guide—dare I say, mentor their listeners to avoid destructive behaviors. But not all the songs on this album have important social messages. In fact, perhaps the albums most well-known song, “Iron Man,” has no meaningful message at all. While some think the song is about the comic book character of the same name, this is not the case. It’s about a time traveler who “was turned to steel, in the great magnetic field” and is now planning vengeance upon mankind. Okay, maybe that song is a little bit evil, but only in a sci-fi fantasy sort of way. Ultimately, the greatness of this album (and to me, all eight songs on this album are great) comes from the tunes they are playing, not the words they are saying.

6- Fragile (Yes, 1972)

This album opens with my favorite song of all time. Why is “Roundabout” my favorite song? Well, I would say that no song that I’ve ever heard surpasses the level of musicianship heard on this song. Steve Howe starts things off with 45 seconds of masterful classical guitar. He begins with sparse, clean notes and builds in tempo until Chris Squire joins him with a ridiculous bass line and Bill Bruford accompanies with his precision drum work. At one minute in, Jon Anderson joins in with his angelic vocals, singing: “I’ll be the roundabout/the words will make you out ‘n out/I spend the day your way.” And then, twelve seconds later, Rick Wakeman joins in with his swirling keyboards and the band is all working in glorious unity. The eight minute and 35 second long song is a musical tour de force that my ears can never get enough of. It’s intense and beautiful and rollicking and mysterious and heady and exciting and when I listen to it, all my neurons do a joyful dance. But the reason for ranking Fragile as my sixth favorite album is not solely because it happens to contain my favorite song. There is a lot of other greatness to go along with the opening track. In fact, the album’s closing track, “Heart of the Sunrise,” is my second favorite Yes song and would likely be in my top 15 songs of all time were I to make such a list. At 11:27 it’s the album’s longest song and also displays the musical mastery of these prog rock gods. Of the albums other seven songs only two have lyrics of any significance. Those would be the uncharacteristically short (3:30), but still characteristically impressive “Long Distance Runaround” and “South Side of the Sky,” which runs a little over eight minutes. Both great songs, with instrumental wizardry, but of the two, I prefer LDR. The other five songs on the album are instrumentals highlighting one of each of the band’s five members. And, as I keep on referring to their musicianship with words like “masterful” and “wizardry” you can imagine that these solos are pretty dang impressive. My favorite of these is Steve Howe’s gorgeous guitar solo “Mood for a Day.” The oddest of these songs is Jon Anderson’s vocal solo called “We Have Heaven,” in which he sings the phrases “Tell the Moon dog, tell the March hare,” “We have heaven,” and “He is here, to look around,” over and over again. It’s an interesting piece, but not really on the same level as the rest of the album. Regardless, the great stuff on this album is so great that there are only five albums I’ve ever heard that I like more. Let’s find out what those are, shall we?

5- A Farewell To Kings (Rush, 1977)

This is my favorite album by my favorite band, which also happens to contain my favorite song by them—“Cygnus X-1 Book 1: The Voyage,” which closes out the album. I understand the title may be off-putting to some, who assume this is nothing more than campy sci-fi claptrap. And I will admit there is an element of campy sci-fi to the lyrics—especially the first few lines of the song, which are spoken in a distorted voice, rather than sung in a normal one. But I’m actually a big fan of campy sci-fi, so that’s never fazed me. But it’s not the lyrics that make this my favorite Rush song, it’s the music. Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart take us on an epic musical journey, with crazy time signatures and prog rock musicianship at a level that few can touch. (See entry #6 for the names of the few musicians who can touch it.) This song never fails to make my adrenaline surge and my heart rate skyrocket—which is why I try to listen to it only after I’ve taken my blood pressure medication. But this is not the only epic song on this album. In fact, while “Cygnus” may be my favorite song on the album, it is far from the most popular among Rush fans. That spot is strictly reserved for “Xanadu,” which is often considered the band’s magnum opus amongst its fans. And I certainly can’t argue with those who feel that way. While I may prefer “Cygnus,” it’s only by a small margin and “Xanadu” is every bit as epic and impressive. And if the rest of the album was just mindless grunting and people hitting pots and pans, the strength of these two songs alone still probably would have put this album into my Top 25. But, as it so happens, the other four songs on this album are all very, very good.  The album opens with the song the album is named after—“A Farewell to Kings.” While not as long as the two songs I’ve already discussed, it still has a very epic feel to it. And the lyrics are strangely apropos for our current political climate. The song opens with the lyrics: “When they turn the pages of history/ When these days have passed long ago/Will they read of us with sadness/For the seeds that we let grow?” Really all the lyrics of this song resonate today, but I’m not going to reprint the entire thing—you can look it up if you like. The most well-known song on this album to casual Rush fans is the short but great “Closer to the Heart.” Its lyrics propose a solution to the problems posed in “A Farewell to Kings.” CTTH begins:  “And the men who hold high places/Must be the ones who start/To mold a new reality/Closer to the heart.” The remaining two songs on this album are “Cinderella Man,” my least favorite song on the album, but still very good, and “Madrigal,” which is an extremely rare beast in the Rush canon…a love song! The music is beautiful and the lyrics are much more poignant than your average love song. To wit: “When all around is madness/And there's no safe port in view/I long to turn my path homeward/To stop a while with you.” This is an album I’ve stopped a while with on many occasions.

4- Aqualung (Jethro Tull, 1971)

There is no album I have ever heard that better juxtaposes hard and soft music as effectively as this one. These songs go seamlessly from heavy, kick-ass guitar riffs to light, gorgeous acoustic guitar work. Sometimes the change is sudden and sometimes it builds, but always it works perfectly. The title song, which opens the album, is a perfect example. It starts off with that iconic, heavy guitar riff and goes into Ian Anderson, in his best evil-throated voice singing, “Sitting on a park bench/eyeing little girls with bad intent.” (Yes, the lyrics, which describe the wanderings of an unstable person living on the streets, are a bit gritty.) The song continues in this heavy, aggressive fashion until the 59-second mark, at which point it shifts into pretty, acoustic strumming as Anderson sings, “Sun streaking cold—an old man wandering lonely.” A piano joins in about 30 seconds later to continue the picturesque sound. Throughout the song we get changes in pace, heaviness, instrumentation, in some cases revisiting riffs from earlier in the song, in others presenting new bits, but always done in a seamless way to serve the song. Many of the songs on this album take this approach. “Locomotive Breath,” probably the second most well-known song on the album after the title track, takes the inverse approach. Whereas “Aqualung” starts off hard and heavy and shifts to soft and light, “Locomotive Breath” begins with a slow bluesy piano and guitar duet before bursting into a full-throated aggressive sound at the 1:21 mark. But not every song uses this mixed approach. There are several shorter acoustic only songs that work beautifully. My favorite of these is “Wond’ring Aloud,” which is composed of guitar and piano only and paints a beautiful picture of a couple in love who are “wond’ring aloud- will the years treat us well?” The song ends with the great sentiment, “And it’s only the giving that makes you what you are.” Of course, I can’t talk about Jethro Tull without talking about Ian Anderson’s flute work. Nobody rocks the flute like this man. I guess this is a bit of an odd statement, since nobody really tries to rock the flute besides him. He doesn’t use the instrument in every song on the album, but when he does, the effect is brilliant. It adds a dimension to their music that completely separates them from every other band before or since. He uses his woodwind to best effect in the aforementioned “Locomotive Breath” and “Cross-Eyed Mary,” a song that is musically masterful and lyrically demented. This is a darn near perfect album to my mind with nine great songs and two very good ones. You can’t get much better than this…unless you’re one of the next three albums.

3- Who’s Next (The Who, 1971)

Pete Townshend is not one of the greatest guitarists of all time. He’s very good, but not on the same level as guys like Hendrix, Clapton, Page or Howe. What Townshend is, however, is one of the greatest songwriters in the history of rock, and this is the album that cements that fact in my eyes…or more appropriately, my ears. Townshend wrote eight of the nine songs on this album and all are great, both musically and lyrically. (Incidentally, the 10th song, “My Wife,” written by bass player John Entwistle, is also great. It’s about a guy who’s petrified about what his wife will do to him once he comes home from a weekend-long drunken bender. It’s the funniest song on the album and opens with the stanza:  “My life's in jeopardy/Murdered in cold blood is what I'm gonna be/I ain't been home since Friday night And now my wife is coming after me.”) But back to the Townshend songs, which are the meat of the album. Five of these songs are rock radio staples, perhaps the most famous of which is “Baba O’Riley,” which many casual fans mistakenly think is called “Teenage Wasteland,” due to the chorus. The song starts out with that iconic, hyper-fast synthesizer repeating the same notes over and over and is slowly joined by other instruments until Roger Daltrey comes in at the 1:07 mark with one of the most distinctive vocals in the history of rock: “Out here in the fields/I fight for my meals/I get my back into my living./I don't need to fight/To prove I'm right/I don't need to be forgiven.” This is the song that opens the album and right away puts you on notice that you are about to hear 43 minutes’ worth of music that is equal parts catchy and heavy. The other songs on this album that get significant airplay include: “Bargain” (choice lyric: “To win you, I’d stand naked, stoned and stabbed”); “Goin’ Mobile” (choice lyric: “I don’t care about pollution/I’m an air-conditioned gypsy”); “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (choice lyric: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”); and “Behind Blue Eyes” (choice lyric…well, the entire song is choice lyrics.) “Behind Blue Eyes” is my favorite Who song, and probably in my top five favorite songs of all time. Musically, the song starts off with beautiful guitar pickings by Townshend and soft, smooth vocals from Daltrey, as he sings: “No one knows what it's like/To be the bad man/To be the sad man/ Behind blue eyes.” Entwistle joins in with a subdued bass line soon after, but it’s not until about two-and-half minutes in that Keith Moon comes thundering in with his impressive drum beats, at which point the entire tone of the song switches from mellow to raucous. It’s at this point, too, that Daltrey switches from his sweet, angelic voice to his rough, evil one as he sings: “When my fist clenches, crack it open/ Before I use it and lose my cool.” A stanza later, still in his hardcore voice, Daltrey sings one of my favorite lines in the history of rock: “If I swallow anything evil/Put your finger down my throat.” Not sure what evil thing Daltrey was planning on swallowing, but since he was hanging around with Keith Moon, it could have been anything. The other three songs on this album that don’t really get mainstream airplay are “Love Ain’t for Keeping,” “The Song is Over,” and “Getting in Tune.” To me, these three songs are every bit as good as the rest of the songs on this album—that is to say, they’re great. Really this is one of those albums where once I put it on there is no reason to do anything else other than listen to the entire thing all the way through, as there isn’t one weak moment.

2- Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd, 1975)

Here’s an album with five songs—four really, if you consider the fact that the last song on the album is really just a continuation of the first song on the album. And every song is not just great, but wonderfully epic. This album is like a luscious chocolate layer cake—smooth and moist and textured and delicious. The keyboards provide the foundation—the perfectly baked cake upon which the other layers rest. The guitar is the delectable mousse filling and the lyrics are the tasty and decorative icing. This cake is a treat you would be charged top dollar for at the finest of restaurants. Okay, enough with this contrived metaphor and onto the songs. The album opens with “Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Parts I – V),” which at 13:32, is the longest song on the album. The bulk of the song is Richard Wright’s mind-bending synthesizer work, punctuated by David Gilmour’s sparse but bluesy guitar work. There’s no singing until the 8:43 mark, at which point Roger Waters comes in with: “Remember when you were young/You shone like the sun/Shine on you crazy diamond.” The song is a tribute to former Pink Floyd guitarist and vocalist, Syd Barrett, who was kicked out of the band due to erratic behavior caused by LSD use, mental illness, or some combination of the two. While there’s not a ton of lyrics, considering the length of the song, what few lyrics there are have a poetic punch. We’re told that while he once shone like the sun, “Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.” While he wore out his welcome with the band, they still wish him well: “Come on you raver, you seer of visions/Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!” This song leads seamlessly into my favorite Pink Floyd song of all time, “Welcome to the Machine.” It’s a synthesizer heavy song that bores its way into your brain and then into your soul and makes you feel like you’re weightlessly drifting in space with the music. This is the way of Pink Floyd—they take you on these ethereal musical journeys and to me, this is the song that does it most effectively. The song is about the harsh reality of a musical artist who finds that his success means that he’s owned by the greedy music industry machine. The lyrics are sung from the point of view of the soul-sucking record executive who says: “What did you dream? It's alright we told you what to dream.” The song that follows, “Have a Cigar,” plays off the same theme of record industry greed, but focuses more on the entire band rather than an individual player. This song, which is more guitar-driven than synthesizer-driven, is also told from the point of view of an industry executive. A clueless one, no doubt since he says: “The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think/Oh by the way, which one is Pink?” The song that follows is “Wish You Were Here,” which is arguably their most famous song.  This is also a guitar-centric piece, but more of a light acoustic one than “Have a Cigar,” which is more heavy and bluesy. “Wish You Were Here” has a beautiful melody and poignant lyrics to match. To wit: “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year.” Roger Waters is a darn good lyricist and I think this may be his best effort. Another favorite line from this song is: “Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?” As the guitar fades out on this song it is slowly overshadowed by the sound of wind blowing which gradually merges into the beginning of the album’s last song: “Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Parts IV – IX).” While I prefer the first portion of “Shine On” to start the album, this is great too and closes out the tribute to Barrett wonderfully. Like the song that opens the album, it also has an epic feel to it at 12:29 in length and also spends a good portion focusing on the music before the lyrics kick in, but it’s worth the ride. Waters does add on a new thought in this song, suggesting that he, like Barrett, could be vulnerable to psychological troubles given the right set of circumstances.  He sings: “Pile on many more layers and I'll be joining you there.” The song ends with: “Come on you boy child, you winner and loser, come on you miner for truth and delusion, and shine.” Waters is definitely rooting for Barrett—and by extension himself—to be okay in the end. It’s a great end to one of the greatest albums of all time. There’s almost no album I like better. Almost… but not quite.

1- Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen, 1975)

What makes an album your favorite of all time? It’s difficult to articulate. Of course the songs have to be great—the music and lyrics have to be great. But it goes beyond that. The album resonates with your very being, touches you deeper than any other, moves you in a way that words can’t describe, and stirs something in you that no other album can. And that’s how I feel about Born to Run. Every note, every lyric, every scream, every pause for dramatic emphasis, works in tandem to make my soul pulse with pleasure. Perhaps part of this stems from my early exposure to the album. Born to Run came out when I was six and by the time I was ten I had every moment memorized. Needles were worn out on this album. Springsteen is a supreme storyteller and every song is like an epic novel told in poetic prose. And the full-bodied sound of the music, which is almost orchestral in its feel, weds to the lyrics perfectly. The album opens with the beautiful piano and harmonica of “Thunder Road,” and the lyrics: “The screen door slams/Mary's dress waves/Like a vision she dances across the porch/As the radio plays.” I actually have to fight a temptation to simply reprint the lyrics to every song on this album, because as I write this, I realize my descriptions could never do them justice. Every line of the song “Thunder Road” is rock and roll poetry. Lines like: “Show a little faith there's magic in the night /You ain't a beauty but hey you're alright,” “Well I got this guitar/And I learned how to make it talk,” and “There were ghosts in the eyes /Of all the boys you sent away/They haunt this dusty beach road/In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets,” are all rock-lyric gold. “Thunder Road” is a staple of rock radio, as are four other songs on this eight-song album. This includes the album’s second song, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” which is a very lose telling of how Springsteen’s E-Street Band formed. In this song Springsteen refers to himself as “Bad Scooter” and saxophonist Clarence Clemons as “the Big Man.” A quick note on Clarence Clemons—his sax playing is amazing and a big part of what gives this album its distinct sound. The central presence of that horn elevates these songs to a level they couldn’t possibly achieve otherwise. The next song up is “Night,” which may be the least famous song on the album, but a gem in its own right. It’s about someone who works an unsatisfying 9 to 5 job just to make it through to the night when they can take their beloved car out on the road. After this song comes the great “Backstreets,” which also gets a bit of radio play. At 6:30 this is the second longest song on the album and has an epic feel to it as it starts off with heavy piano and organ for a little over a minute before Springsteen’s voice comes in with: “One soft infested summer/Me and Terry became friends/Trying in vain to breathe/The fire we was born in.” This song manages to be equal parts poignant and ferocious and sets the stage beautifully for the song that follows, which is the greatest song in the history of rock. Yes, earlier in this post I mentioned that the song “Roundabout” by Yes is my favorite song of all time and that is true, but I do believe that the song “Born to Run” is the greatest song in the history of rock, and I will fight anyone who disagrees. (Note: I won’t actually fight anyone over this—it’s just a figure of speech. If I were actually to fight you—whoever you might be—I would probably lose.) From the moment this song opens, it plays with a somehow controlled and deliberate wild abandon that is joyfully relentless throughout its four minutes and 31 seconds. Every instrument on this track—guitars, bass, piano, organ, sax and drums—is equal in its insistence on being heard. And as insistent as the instruments are, Springsteen’s voice, with its distinctive, gravelly rock yell manages to one-up them all. From the iconic opening line: “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream,” to the iconic closing line: “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run,” The Boss sings with a reckless passion that draws you in and doesn’t let you out until the song’s final moments. When this song comes on the radio while I’m driving, the volume knob gets turned up as high as possible and I sing along until my throat goes raw. This is the song that rock music was invented for and it took a visionary like Bruce Springsteen to discover it and give it to the world. It seems a bit anticlimactic to talk about the last three songs on the album, given what I just said about “Born to Run,” but the interesting this is, I still haven’t gotten to my favorite song on this album. The next song on the album is “She’s the One,” which is very good, but living in the shadow of “Born to Run,” doesn’t get very much notice. Best line in this song is: “With her long hair falling/And her eyes that shine like a midnight sun/Oh-oh, she's the one.” The song that comes next is “Meeting Across the River,” which is the slowest and bluesiest song on the album, with Clarence’s sax taking center stage. A song about a couple of petty criminals trying to make a buck, it is filled with great lyrics like: “Here stuff this in your pocket/It'll look like you're carrying a friend,” and “Well Cherry says she's gonna walk/'Cause she found out I took her radio and hocked it.” This song evokes a sad, seedy feel better than few others I’ve ever heard. But as good as this song is, it pales in comparison to the last song on the album, my favorite song by Springsteen: “Jungleland.” The truth is, I’m a sucker for long, epic over the top songs, and with a run time of 9:36, this song is definitely all of those things. “Jungleland” takes the listener on a series of highs and lows and tells a story as riveting and poetic as any Springsteen has given us. It begins with an intro of piano and…violin! Yes, Bruce employed a violinist for this song with amazing results. But the violin is only one of many great aspects of this song. Really every instrument shines in a way that gives the song a majestic feel. And lyrically this song is a masterpiece. Again, I’m fighting the temptation to reprint the whole song, which is about a character called “the Magic Rat” and his romantic efforts with a “Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge/Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain.” These efforts eventually go tragically awry by the end of the song, but in between The Boss paints a vivid picture of the street life that these characters live among. Great lyric: “From the churches to the jails/Tonight all is silence in the world/As we take our stand/Down in Jungleland.” Great lyric: “Man there's an opera out on the Turnpike/There's a ballet being fought out in the alley.” Great lyric: “And the poets down here/Don't write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be.” I could go on like this for a while, but I’ll stop here. This song is the perfect end to a perfect album. It doesn’t get any better than this—at least not to my ears.

Well, that’s it—my Top 25 albums. If you have managed to stick with this post all the way to the end, you are either a real diehard rock fan, or desperately need to find a new Netflix series to binge watch. In either case, I thank you for indulging me in my narcissistic musical musings. I promise my next blog post won’t be nearly as long…unless my readers demand reviews of my 26th through 50th favorite albums.    

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Signs Point to Mother's Day

It is a tradition in the Schwartzberg household to make surprise signs for people on special occasions. Mostly this happens on birthdays, but Mother’s Day is also a big one for signs. (I once contemplated making signs for Groundhog’s Day, but here in the desert, the closest things we have to groundhogs are prairie dogs, and those things carry bubonic plague, so it didn’t seem appropriate.) In years past I have always helped my sons make the signs for Mother’s Day, but at ages 10 and 8 they are now perfectly old enough to make their own signs without my assistance. So, this morning, I told them to get the construction paper and markers and make signs while their mom slept. Then I left them to their own devices, which may or may not have been a wise choice.

The first sign, James, the 8-year-old, came up with is a variation on a classic. He could have just written “Happy Mother’s Day” and left it at that, but he wanted to make sure his mom knew that the opposite emotion was simply not an option today.




Then AJ, the 10-year-old, went with simple and heartfelt.





Then, James also went with simple, but rather than heartfelt he went with stomachfelt. (Note: This sign he intentionally hung from our stove range hood.)




Then things started getting really interesting. AJ dug deep for the next sign. He is an empathetic young lad and has recognized that he and his little brother can be a tad exhausting to their dear mom. When her eyes are drooping and she looks to be an hour past naptime, she’s still willing to help them with their homework, make them a snack, or mend a torn stuffed animal. I’m sure it was with this thought in mind that he created this sign.




Not to be outdone by his older brother, James decided to thank his mom for his very existence—from a biological perspective, of course.




James also made and hung a wordless sign, in which he illustrated a gleeful piranha about to eat a very glum smaller fish; because nothing says “Happy Mother’s Day” like cartoon images of predatory sea life.

When I first saw the signs the kids made, the serious, do-everything-by-the-book parent in me almost came out and told them not to hang the ridiculous ones. Fortunately, though, I caught myself before saying anything, because I realized that these signs showed my sons’ personalities better than generic one’s ever would, and my wife would enjoy and remember them for a much longer time. Sure enough, when she came out of the bedroom and started seeing the signs, she was cracking up and loving every sign she saw. Hmmm…maybe next year I will have the boys make signs for Groundhog’s Day. It could be a big pick-me-up if we find out there’s going to be six more weeks of winter.