Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats (Andrew Lloyd Webber). 40 Songs for 40 years, 1985

Like nearly all adolescents, I wanted to listen to music that drove my parents crazy. They didn’t make this easy: both my parents have cool record collections and pretty broad taste. It was thus useful to learn that my dad couldn’t abide Andrew Lloyd Webber. Armed with this, I repeatedly listened to Cats and Jesus Christ Superstar, and I extolled their virtues at every opportunity.

My mom was more sympathetic to this particular musical enthusiasm, and she took me to see the Los Angeles touring production of Cats for my birthday. I loved it. My grandma was visiting at the time and she came along, too. Much to my mom’s annoyance, Grandma was overcome by the darkened theater and fell right asleep.

Even at the time, I thought Memory was overwrought, and I’ve since expanded that assessment to include pretty much this whole show. It’s one of the few musical obsessions that I’ve really soured on. Nonetheless, I credit Andrew Lloyd Webber with introducing me to the poetry of T. S. Eliot. Toward the end of my Cats kick, I picked up a copy of The Four Quartets in the school library. Once I’d gotten over my confusion that this came from the same guy who wrote Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, I fought my way through Burnt Norton. This gave me the first real inkling of what poetry could be, which has proved to be a considerably more enduring legacy.

White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (Grandmaster Melle Mel). 40 Songs for 40 Years, 1984

Welcome to the awkward adolescence I promised earlier.

I entered seventh grade as a weird, nerdy, chubby kid. It sucked, and I remember this year as almost unbearable.

Of all the records that were released in 1984, the one that probably would have helped me the most was Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü. Loud, alienated, and very angry, it would have been the perfect soundtrack. Sadly, I wouldn’t hear it until college.

Instead, what I really remember from this year were the songs I heard at dances, where my adolescent awkwardness attained a crystalline purity that makes this song ironically apt.

White Lines was a massive club hit with a cynical anti-drug veneer added to make it commercially viable in the heyday of Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No program. Given the unrelenting wholesomeness of my junior high social life, I’m surprised I heard it so often.

I was way too square to really get this song at the time. Instead, this song made me want to dance and gave me the fleeting illusion that I could be one of the cool, beautiful people. In seventh grade, I wished that feeling would last forever.

Billie Jean (Michael Jackson). 40 Songs for 40 Years, 1983

Speaking of things that weren’t cool. This is the first record I bought with my own money. To my credit, I also bought The White Album at the same time, which redeems things somewhat.

It’s probably just as well that I didn’t know that this song was about disputed paternity. What I did know is that the record was really fun to dance to. I was also fascinated by the stripped-down drumming on this record and how much discipline Ndugu Chancler must have had to play essentially no fills at all. Nowadays, such things are handled by machines, and records aren’t as much fun to dance to. Alas.

Hotel California (The Eagles). 40 Songs for 40 years, 1982

As all hipsters know, liking the Eagles is irredeemably lame, and in 1982, I was not cool in any way. I did, however, think that the idea of a band led by a drummer was pretty neat.

Oddly enough, the thing I remember most about this album is that I got it for Christmas on cassette tape along with my trusty Sony Walkman TCS 310. I remember listening to Hotel California in my new Walkman, crammed into the back of my dad’s sports car as we drove to Christmas dinner with my granny.

Sony Walkman TCS 310

Sony Walkman TCS 310

Dollar for dollar, that Walkman was the best audio equipment purchase ever. It was built like a tank (admittedly a mixed virtue in portable electronics), but it proved to be nearly indestructible, and the integrated microphone came in handy for a budding musician. I recorded hundreds of hours of performances and practice sessions on that thing and listened to thousands of hours of music. It finally succumbed midway through college.

Watching the Wheels (John Lennon). 40 Songs for 40 Years, 1981

As a huge Beatles fan, I was shocked by John Lennon’s murder, and it’s the first public tragedy I remember. The publicity surrounding it led me to ask for a copy of Double Fantasy, which had just been released.

I don’t know what—as a nine-year-old—I found so compelling about Watching the Wheels, a song about abandoning the quest for achievement. It would be several years before anxiety and ambition became a part of my life, and several more before I questioned whether they should be.

Now that I’m well into middle age, the fantasy of just letting things go is a lot more potent. John Lennon was about my age when he recorded this song, and I wonder how much of the melancholy in this song stems from knowing—at some level anyway—that his best work was behind him.