September 5, 2012

Mixtape Wars

Back-to-School: Gonzalez vs. McNeal

Chris McNeal and Jay Gonzalez

The start of fall means the start of the school year, a somewhat cringe-y time for those of us who recall our childhood educational years with varying degrees of PTSD. Moreover, and more pleasantly, the season seems inextricably linked with the sounds of youth. Trading tapes with classmates, scouring your parents' attic for LPs—the soundtrack to young life.

For Drive-By Truckers keyboardist Jay Gonzalez, who also fronts his own band, The Guilty Pleasures, many of his fondest musical memories involve just that: guilty pleasures, rainbow-colored bursts of saccharine pop stained with a vaguely discomfiting haze. ("I still get nauseous just shopping for my six-year-old's back-to-school supplies," he says.)

Maserati/Vincas bassist Chris McNeal's list is composed mostly of the harder-edged stuff of teenage years: the sound of hanging outside the gas station, smoking cigarettes and striving for "cool" before you knew what it means. Each mixtape tells the story of one guy's formative years; no doubt one or both will seem all too familiar to many of us.

Jay Gonzalez's Mixtape

1. "Let 'Em In" by Wings

Why Jay Gonzalez picked this track: One of my earliest memories is lying in bed with this song stuck in my head, then calling my mother in and asking her if this was a Beatles song… Being a child in the late-'70s, I knew more Wings than Beatles, due to the AM radio in the station wagon. Paul pulls out all the stops on this one, and I still feel that nostalgic tug when I hear it. If McCartney [was] the aspirin for a generation, this tune is extra-strength Tylenol—if not Vicodin.

Chris McNeal's reaction: I totally hear the druggy feel to this song. It's a soothing, rainy day jam.

2. "Rhinestone Cowboy" by Glen Campbell

JG: Another tune from the era when most of what I heard was from the radio. [This was] about the extent of my country influence, being from upstate New York. While I didn't understand the underlying theme of the trappings of fame, I knew that I loved the rousing chorus (though I wondered what a rhinestone was for years).

CM: This is definitely a pop song disguised as a country song. The stirring chorus is the meat of this one.

3. "Sometimes a Fantasy" by Billy Joel

JG: Off the first record I ever bought (well, my mother bought for me)… This album is an exercise in covering every pop genre of '79–'80, but mainly it's a Tin Pan Alley songwriter copping new wave. New wave for kids… They even made miniature albums for kids that had records made out of bubblegum. They were called "chu-bops." I didn't get the masturbatory message of the song (yet).

CM: Billy Joel usually makes my skin crawl, but I can tolerate his upbeat jams, and this is one of them. The outro solo is pretty rippin'.

4. "I'm Still Standing" by Elton John

JG: While I later found the gems in his earlier catalogue, at 10 years old, this was my jam. Yet another station wagon song. I remember hearing it in the summer of '83 while on my way to the pool, where my sixth grade "girlfriend" awaited to be gawked at. The "painted people dancing on the beach" video doesn't hold up, but the killer guitar solo does!

CM: I feel the same way about Elton John, but the lyrics, "And if our love was just a circus/ You'd be a clown by now" are pretty hilarious.

5. "Rocket Queen" by Guns N' Roses

JG: A most un-rock and roll memory for a most rocking song: I spent a few months living at my grandparents' house across the street from mine as a 14-year-old. I listened to this cassette on my grandfather's boombox while eating Cocoa Puffs before school every morning for months.

CM: The intro to this song is so great. I think we can both agree on this record. It's been a while since I've heard this song, and I've never noticed the crazy effects on the guitars and vocals until now.

6. "The Wizard" by Black Sabbath

JG: I found my aunts' and uncles' stash of records in my grandparents' attic at 14 or 15. It was a great mix of Zeppelin, The Ramones, Queen and this record was in there. I remember being terrified yet intrigued by the cover. I listened to it on my first record player—a plastic, portable Fisher-Price. The dry, dark sound of this tune creeped me out, despite the innocuous three-inch speaker it was coming out of.

CM: I always loved the harmonica in this song. Championship riffs!

7. "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" by Joe Jackson

JG: This was [also] in the aforementioned stash… Here was the bubblegummy pop I loved as a kid played fast and raw. I could certainly relate to the lyrics, as most insecure, girl-crazy teen guys could.

CM: Joe Jackson can write a hook, and this chorus explodes outta nowhere and takes this song over. I remember hearing this one on the radio when I was a kid—I couldn't get it out of my head.

8. "I Threw It All Away" by Bob Dylan

JG: I was driving around with some buddies, half-passed out in the back of the car, when this song popped up on one of his mix CDs. I was engaged to my future wife for probably several years too long, and this song was a wake-up call from Dylan for my slack ass to put a ring on it.

CM: I can see why this song was your wake-up call. This one really pulls on the heartstrings.

9. "This Will Be Our Year" by The Zombies

JG: Brings back fond memories of Athens in my 20s. This song is starting to become the pop standard it should've been from the get-go in '67… My wife and I loved it, and the album it's on, Odessey and Oracle, from the minute we heard it—as did my friends and bandmates in The Possibilities. We asked them to play it at our wedding as the recessional, and it's one of my fondest memories.

CM: This is a great song and an awesome record. I really like its short length and how it gets straight to the point. No filler.

Chris McNeal's Mixtape

1. "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits

Why Chris McNeal picked this track: My dad used to wear this cassette out in his truck when he was driving around. I think this was the first time a guitar riff got stuck in my head. I was officially hooked when I discovered the game-changing music video and its mind blowing "special effects."

Jay Gonzalez's reaction: My dad had this as well (as I bet a lot of dads did at the time). Always loved the riff, but could never get it to sound right when I played it.

2. "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" by Beastie Boys

CM: This was the first cassette I ever owned (my dad bought it for me), and I was once again hooked by an awesome music video. This song was played relentlessly and drove my family insane. Back then, partying meant staying up past 10 p.m.

JG: Listening now after a long while, I [was] taken aback by how tasteful Kerry King's solo is. Then I realized that I was remembering the insane solo he did on "No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn" instead of the one he did here. Both badass, both in service to the songs they were in.

3. "Surfin' Safari" by The Beach Boys

CM: Totally cliché, but my parents used to play one of their Greatest Hits records on our way to the beach in Florida. The record started with this song, I believe. Unfortunately, some form of Van Hagar would also be played on those trips.

JG: Better that than Sammy Hagar covering "Surfin' Safari," which I immediately started imagining the minute I saw you had written "Van Hagar." Great tune. Mike Love at his best.

4. "You're Gonna Miss Me" by The 13th Floor Elevators

CM: My family would go over to my uncle's house and hang out while he played records. I call him my "punkle" because he introduced me to so much wild music. Anyway, he played this record like crazy, and this song always got stuck in my head.

JG: Wish I had a "punkle." I have a "metaluncle," which was great, but I didn't hear this tune 'til I moved to Athens and found it on the Nuggets comp. I bought a jug a few years ago in hopes of replicating the killer electric jug part, but I don't possess the sort of mojo (or hallucinogens) necessary to pull it off.

5. "It's So Easy" by Guns N' Roses

CM: I stole this cassette from my mom's car, and it was the first time I realized my mom was cool. It was my soundtrack to occasionally skipping school and smoking a few of my grandmother's Basic Ultra Light 100s in the orange groves near our house.

JG: Maybe the nastiest song on Appetite. Just switch the Basic Ultra Lights to Marlboro Lights and the orange groves to outside the 7-Eleven and it was a pretty similar situation for me. I'm sure we both felt pretty badass listening to this at the time, anyhow.

6. "I Don't Wanna Hear It" by Minor Threat

CM: The perfect record to get into when you are a weirdo in high school. Your parents don't understand, some dude wants to beat you up, you can't figure out girls, blah blah. Just put a Minor Threat record on and everything is fine!

JG: Wow. A whirlwind at one minute, 16 seconds—kinda sums up that "piss-off" feeling while wasting no time.

7. "Boilermaker" by The Jesus Lizard

CM: This jam reminds me of going to shows in high school. The way this song starts is seriously jolting. When I first heard this band, I thought "Why the hell did this crazy band let this drunk, tone-deaf dude sing for them?" I learned to love it.

JG: Whenever I hear Jesus Lizard, I always think of it as in instrumental band, and David Yow's singing is like some f'ed up second guitar improvising over the killer riffs. Jarring.

8. "Vitamin C" by Can

CM: This song reminds me of when I first moved to Athens. Some awesome, rhythmic stuff that got me into so much crazy music.

JG: I've only ever heard Tago Mago, but I love this, especially when the keyboards and flute float in toward the end.

9. "Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen

CM: Too much nostalgia for this one to put into a few sentences. Let's just say, if I'm at a party and I see this record laying around, I'm putting it on, and I'm putting it on loud.

JG: Not many songs can get away with never changing sections, but with that keyboard riff and monster '80s-snare backbeat, this one does. They obviously don't wanna stop playing it, either, as Bruce counts it back in after it falls apart.