Heavy Rotation by Peter Terzian
As the album is fast becoming an outdated cultural artifact, the connections shared here seem as much mourning as nostalgia.
Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their LivesPublisher: HarperCollins
Length: 320 pages
Author: Peter Terzian
Publication date: 2009-06
I've always been a sucker for tribute albums — collections of cover versions of songs originally by one artist (the Carpenters) or from one movie ("Nashville") or one decade (the ‘80s). I bet I have dozens of them.
And nearly always, for the most part, I'm disappointed.
The reason: Most of the performers are either too slavish to the original (what's the point? We've already heard that) or turn the song so inside out that it feels as if they're trying to plow it under and pour salt over it, in hopes that it'll never rise again.
So why do I keep buying them? Because sometimes, there's a song that takes the original and captures its spirit without caging it up, turning the tribute into a vibrant celebration instead of a pale copy.
I had the same sensation reading Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives. Writer Peter Terzian gathered 19 up-and-coming writers and asked them to riff on a disc that made a difference to them — a tribute album for albums.
Predictably, many of the pieces are more about the writer than the album, if they're about the album at all. Terzian's own essay, for example, is an extended narration of his early fumblings toward becoming a writer, wrapped around his obsession for the nearly unattainable music of a British band called Miaow. The "album" he writes about actually wasn't released until years later.
But a couple of pieces show why the music matters — and how it made a difference in the writer's life — with passion and honesty.
Novelist Colm Toibin (“The Blackwater Lightship”) tells of finding in Joni Mitchell's classic 1971 album "Blue" something that, as a gay teenager growing up in a small Irish town, he had thought beyond his reach: a kindred heart.
Martha Southgate ("The Fall of Rome") relates the joyful relationship she had as a young girl with the Jackson 5's first greatest-hits album — a relationship tinged in sadness as Michael Jackson morphed into something surreal. "Nothing can take away the pride that those boys gave me, at a time when there weren't kids who looked like me out there to love and admire and dream over," Southgate writes. "There they were. There they were. And they were good."
There's a similar sadness hovering over the entirety of Heavy Rotation. That relationship between listeners and albums is almost gone for good. As more consumers shop for music a la carte, the album is fast becoming an outdated cultural artifact. That grim truth makes the connections shared here seem as much mourning as nostalgia.