The most fun argument starter you’ll read all year, and quite possibly the best music trivia book since ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy.
BY FRED MILLS
Quick, what’s the first song that comes to mind when you think of the number “19”? Yessiree, that would be the Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown,” no argument on my end. How about 19’s sibling, “18”? Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen,” natch; show me someone who disagrees and I’ll show you someone who don’t know their Jethro Tulls from their Lynyrd Skynyrds. Try “99”: why, the eternal “99” by the equally timeless Toto, of course! And—waitaminnit, you say “99th Floor” by the Moving Sidewalks?!? Sheesh. Hey, I’m all about Billy Gibbons and the first three ZZ Top albums, but c’mon! (More on this in a sec…) (Below: see how many numerical utterances Alice makes during his Beat Club performance of “I’m Eighteen”)
Perhaps we can agree on the ridiculously obvious “69”? That’s clearly the Stooges’ “1969,” no question about it, not to mention “70” and… Hold on, buckaroo. According to Chapel Hill-based music/pop culture journalist David Klein, who has just published what’s quite possibly the best music trivia book since Gavin Edwards’ 1995 mondegreens-in-rock dissection‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy, a true rock-songs numerologist must adhere to 3 prime (no pun intended) directives:
- The definitive song must have the number in its title.
- Both ordinals (“Positively 4th Street”) and apostrophized constructions (“Cruel Summer ‘89”) are OK.
- The number must stand alone—Klein’s example being that Prince’s “1999” is not eligible for 19 or 99.
Ergo, for the purposes of If 6 Was 9: And Other Assorted Number Songs (White River Press), “1969,” no matter how ultimate-top-ten-in-rock awesome Iggy & Co.’s legendary track might be, it technically can only be applied to the number one thousand nine hundred sixty-nine. And to be honest, it’s a good thing Klein does lay down some rules, because as it is, he disappears down plenty of rabbit holes over the course of his book’s 244 pages, taking the reader with him (and not necessarily unwillingly).
The project began when Klein was still living in NYC and grew out of (presumably besotted) conversation at his favorite watering hole. As he tells it, his there-might-be-a-story-in-all-this lightbulb moment arrived one evening while he and the barkeep/deejay were enthusing over “88” by singer Anna Domino. This led to the not-inaccurate observation that perhaps Jackie Brenson & His Delta Cats’ classic “Rocket 88” was a bit more “ultimate,” or at least more ubiquitous in terms of the number of times it’s been covered over the years, when talking about the number eighty-eight. Or perhaps even the Nails’ new wave goodie “88 Lines About 44 Women,” which gets numerology bonus points for nailing (sorry) not just one but two numbers in its title. At that, the rabbit hole opened wide for the pair: “Strawberry Letter #23”… “24 Hours”… “96 Tears”… and of course “I’m Eighteen” and “19th Nervous Breakdown.”
Klein’s book began life over beers, took flight via his blog, and by 2012 was a self-published volume covering numbers 1 through 33. Which, if you’re interested, are represented by Sparks’ “The No. 1 Song In Heaven” (don’t even get the author started on “One of These Days,” “The One I Love,” “One Nation Under a Groove” or even “One” and about a hundred other variants); and Stereolab’s “Peng! 33” (which apparently was far easier to select compared to “1,” since its main competition seems to consist of primarily Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” the Verlaines’ “Heavy 33,” the Clientele’s “No. 33” and Sinead O’Connor’s, uh, “33”).
For each of those initial 33 picks and, now, the other 66, Klein starts off with a general discussion of some of the cultural touchstones the numeral in question represents. For example, the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 comes up—it is actually namechecked in the “43” commentary—as does Yankees slugger Roger Maris, because he hit a record-shattering 61 home runs in, dare we say it, 1961). He also meditates upon other reasonable candidates for “ultimate” status, similar to how he and his bartender friend had wrestled with their “88” songs. Then he delivers The Verdict, which in perfect synch with the whole notion of rock-geek-dom does not always go for the most obvious pick. Yes, indeed, “19th Nervous Breakdown” and “I’m Eighteen” are the only reasonable choices, as is Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited” and Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Some things were just destined to be.
But Klein also isn’t afraid of stirring the pot, which is why I suspect he opted for The Who’s “5:15” over Wire’s “The 15th,” thereby guaranteeing an outcry from hipsters everywhere; or, going the opposite direction, Captain Soul’s (who?) “T-Shirt 69” over Ryan, sorry, Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.” I am quite certain that those who vote coolness/obscurity over obviousness are applauding that move, even if they don’t know that Captain Soul was a British quartet of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s who wound up on Alan McGee’s post-Creation/somewhat-also-obscure Poptones label. Of course, if you’ve been paying close attention to all the foregoing, you’re possibly saying to yourself, “But despite the note above about allowing apostrophied constructions, ‘Summer of ’69’ refers to the year 1969, right? So technically, by the prime directives, it can’t qualify, right?” By my reckoning, that’s correct, so unless for his songtitle, Adams was slyly inserting the image of he and his girlfriend simultaneously performing oral sex upon one another, we’ll have to pit the Wire tune against a couple of others Klein mentions in passing, R.E.M.’s “Star 69” and Ministry’s “Psalm 69,” both of which might justifiably rouse the hipsters from their beers for some serious kibitzing.
See what I mean about rabbit holes? You can even argue about those three prime directives!
I mean, don’t get me wrong; I adore Tom Waits and will respect him and treasure his recordings until I die. But his “Ol’ ‘55” was not what came to mind (and stuck there) when I got to the chapter on “55.” It’s a killer song, and it’s been covered by a slew of my favorite artists. Yet all I could think of was “I Can’t Drive 55” by Sammy Hagar, who is decidedly not one of my favorite artists. To his credit, Klein does bring up the Hagar track early on in his discussion, but he dismisses it almost as fast. Harsh, bro.
In a similar vein, getting back to that “99” issue I alluded to above, you have probably already guessed that the Moving Sidewalks’ “99th Floor” gets Klein’s nod for the ultimate “99” song, edging out such admittedly strong contenders as Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” (no doubt that would be Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s pick), Springsteen’s “Johnny 99” and the oft-covered soul nugget “Ninety-nine and a Half.” But he doesn’t even mention the Toto mega-hit “99,” from the equally-mega 1979 Hydra album! Admittedly, it is soft-rock pabulum at its most egregious, a whiny “I’m sorry I have to hurt you” ballad masquerading as piano-driven neo-orchestral fluff, and this will mark the last time, ever, I listen to it willingly:
But c’mon, David, the song was friggin’ ubiquitous on radio and, eventually, MTV in its day, and it still turns up in regular rotation on flashback-hits radio. Plus, the fact that “99” is itself a number song that references another number (both the song and the accompanying conceptual video are apparently tributes to the George Lucas film THX-1138) just screams to get it awarded bonus numerology meta-points!
Well, in a sense this brings us back full circle to the book’s drinking-establishment origins, eh? I may or may not raise the Toto argument next time I’m out at the bar and feeling feisty, for depending on who I’m getting drunk with, there’s a good chance I’d get my ass kicked for daring to namecheck “Toto.” But I’ll keep you posted.
Incidentally, in addition to my beef about the “99” snub, I’m personally heartbroken that we can’t bring Zager & Evans’ immortal “In the Year 2525” into the discussion, but since Klein at least mentions it himself in his introduction and also includes it on a delightful appendix list he titles with the “infinity” symbol (it includes several personal faves of mine, including Blue Oyster Cult’s “ME 262,” Gram Parsons’ “$1000 Wedding” and Ten Years After’s “50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain”), perhaps there’s a second book in him one day that will get as far as the number 2,525.
As it is, he has opted—wisely, according to his wife and kids, sources assure me—to close down his investigation at 99. Considering that the numbers one through ninety-nine yielded him 244 pages of, as the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood puts it so eloquently in his foreword, “geek shit at its finest,” I think we can all thank Klein for all the legwork.
And compliment him on retaining his sanity.
Incidentally, you’re probably wondering whether the Hendrix song that gave this book its title landed at the “6” or “9” spot: you’ll have to pick up a copy to find out. The answer may surprise you, though….