This is a story of musical revenge. It’s also the story of how music creates a story. Read on.
In the early 2000s, I worked for Borders, the now-defunct bookstore chain. In the early morning, usually two or three hours before store opening, we would have shifts reserved for stocking. During these times, employees could play whatever music they chose on the overhead sound system all throughout the store, including burned playlists brought from home.
Let’s just say some of my coworkers’ musical choices were, in my opinion, not suitable for public performance and much better left in private. When a song requires a separate version to be safe for radio play, I’d say there’s something lacking in artistic integrity—and it was those non-radio-friendly tracks that frequently polluted the morning air. As someone who lives and breathes music, being forced to listen to such garbage was offensive to my ears. And it seemed to go on for months (although it probably didn’t really).
The morning’s musical choice was decided basically by whoever was there first and chose to put something on. Eventually, I came up with my own burned CD playlist to add to the mix, and since I was almost always there first, I was thereafter able to subject my coworkers to my own brand of musical hell—which to me was quite pleasant.
That first mix I made contained some real gems. It featured the Beatles’ infamous “Revolution 9” (even though I’m not really a Beatles fan). I included “The Waiting Room” from the Genesis story album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway—a bizarre five-and-a-half minute track mostly made up of weird sound effects (it makes perfect sense in context, trust me, but frankly doesn’t stand alone very well). I had a Queen song from the Queen II CD, a bonus track called “See What a Fool I’ve Been,” which is probably the gayest song Freddie and the boys ever recorded.
For variety, I included some favorite Disney tunes, “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” from The Aristocats, “Trashing the Camp” from Tarzan, and the Hawaiian language “He Mele No Lilo” from Lilo & Stitch. To satisfy my Celtic/folk side, I included Fairport Convention’s “The Eynsham Poacher.” Of course, there was more Queen, some Jethro Tull, Sting, Elton John—all the weirdest stuff I could find from my favorite artists.
The resulting CD playlist was massively eclectic, and generally unlistenable. Nonetheless, it was listened to every morning I worked the early shift at Borders for quite a long time. And yes, it was always rather satisfying when someone would ask, “What are we listening to?” And I could answer, “That’s the Beatles. Haven’t you ever heard this before?”
That playlist, which I titled Weirdsville, created back in 2004, started a tradition. Since that time, I’ve created a new weird playlist at the start of each year. I learned from that first attempt how not to construct a playlist, so in succeeding years the resulting CDs have generally been much more harmonious while still including a generous helping of the weird.
Each time I create a new weird playlist, I also design a CD cover that goes with the music. Basically it’s just a fun exercise to take advantage of some of the design and layout skills I’ve learned over the years working in publishing and gives me the chance to practice with Photoshop and InDesign. I always try to create a design that feels like it matches the music of the particular playlist, but in turn my impressions of the playlist can be altered by the artwork.
Sometimes I’ll have a theme in mind when I begin assembling the music for a new playlist. For instance, one year I put together a collection of songs in various non-English languages or with elements of other languages and dialects. But more often, I just choose the songs that speak to me at the moment, and then see how they fit together. The remarkable thing is that I’ve always been able to find thematic connections in the music even when I didn’t choose it up front—my unconscious mind working out something on its own.
In this year’s Weirdsville collection, after listening to it for a few days, I began to hear a story emerging. The first thing that struck me was that multiple songs were about a character named Johnny—although the songs were from different artists, genres, and eras. From there, my mind began connecting the dots: What was this Johnny character up to?
Eventually, I wrote Johnny’s story, linking each of the songs from the 2013 playlist into a surreal quest. There are perhaps two great motivating factors that ultimately lie behind all stories: love and revenge. I’ve told you my story of (admittedly weak) revenge. Johnny’s story is a quest for love. I’ll post that story on my Creative Writing page.
Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins