Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives

January 01, 1970

(Harper Perennial)






“It ought not just to be a
joke, to say that there are albums that can change your life,” Mark Greif
writes in this collection of essays that, based on the résumés of its
contributors, would appear to offer little in the way of jokes. Selected by
journalist Peter Terzian, these writers seem more likely to be caught opining
on Joyce’s Dubliners than on albums
such as the Who’s Quadrophenia, but
here they are: Greif and Benjamin Kunkel, co-founders of the esoteric literary
journal n+1, sounding off on the
Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead and
Fugazi’s self-titled album, respectively; Irish novelist Colm Tóibín on Joni
Mitchell’s Blue; Pankaj Mishra,
author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha
in the World
(check your nightstand), on ABBA’s Super Trouper; the highbrow New
book critic James Wood on the aforementioned Who classic.


Still awake? Good, because
even though Heavy Rotation in theory
should rock you about as solidly as a left hook from Perez Hilton, the book is
a surprisingly engaging, often moving and, yes, occasionally funny exploration
of what it means to be irrevocably connected to a piece of music. As Terzian
and his contributors prove, this connection often begins by accident, be it
while shopping for pirated cassettes in a bazaar in India (Mishra), while spying
on the guitar-playing boy next door (Lisa Dierbeck) or after being dragged to
see a nightclub performance of the musical Hedwig
and the Angry Inch
(Claire Dederer). As a longtime acquaintance of Wood’s
pedantic literary criticism, I was surprised to learn the appropriately named
writer had ever even heard music –
let alone a monumental rock album such as Quadrophenia.
But in fact, his introduction to the album took place in the hoariest of
fashions: His older brother shared it with him. (Wood does an excellent job
dissecting Quadrophenia‘s themes and emotional
impact, though he doesn’t satisfactorily answer the question of how it changed
his life.)


Save Greif’s dry take on
Fugazi and Kunkel’s personal if familiar recollection about discovering the
Smiths (boy meets Morrissey; boy loses self to Morrissey; boy takes years to
realize Morrissey was kidding about all that death and stuff), these essays
capture the excitement of falling deeply and madly in love with an album, the
person who gave you said album or, in Sheila Heti’s hysterical and charming ode
to the Annie soundtrack, the
fictional character featured on this album. Several essays focus on albums that
appeared during pivotal moments in the writer’s life. After initially finding
the music of Gloria Estefan “torturous,” Asali Solomon later realizes the
singer’s Mi Tierra provided the ideal
soundtrack to a semester abroad in the Dominican Republic. Terzian credits
the music of an obscure British ’80s band named Miaow for his developing into a
professional writer.


Daniel Handler, meanwhile,
mounts a convincing argument that the Eurythmics’ Savage didn’t change his life “in a moment of personal crisis or
epiphany” but “more like a book changes lives: slowly, purposefully,
insidiously.” And surely, the man who created Lemony Snicket knows from insidious.


Nothing, however, will
prepare you for the emotional wallop delivered by Todd Pruzan in his essay
“Mental Chickens,” which concerns the soundtrack to a mid-’90s “Gen X drama”
from New Zealand titled Topless Women
Talk About Their Lives
. Featuring the Clean, the Bats, the Chills and other
stars of New Zealand’s singular rock scene, the compilation was “a curious
soundtrack” for Pruzan’s first year in New York after emigrating from Chicago
and “the album that brings [him] closest to that opening bell on [his] first
New York decade.” More important, it’s an everlasting link to the woman who
introduced him to it. His remembrance of this “big spirit” and her tragic fate
is at once beautiful and heartbreaking. Certainly, it’s no joke to say that
even an album with an outrageous name can change a life.


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