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Improve Your Taste With... Rob Sheffield

The author of Love is a Mix Tape and Talking to Girls about Duran Duran on Christopher Marlowe, Erase Errata, and the continuing surprises of LCD Soundsystem.

Author and music writer Rob Sheffield

By Ben Reininga

Rob Sheffield has turned pop-culture obsession into a career. A reporter for Rolling Stone, he wrote the memoir Love is a Mix Tape in 2007. He followed up last month with Talking to Girls about Duran Duran — the story of his efforts with women told through the lens of ‘80s music. We sat down with Rob and talked about the Mafia, sixteenth-century theater, and why Ann-Margret is the Bob Dylan of Swedish redheads.

“The Rain” Oran “Juice” Jones

My book is about ‘80s music. It was such a rich time of experimentation —  you’ve got these one-of-a-kind songs that really don’t have any other analog. This morning I was listening to “The Rain” by Oran “Juice” Jones. This was a totally ubiquitous song for a few weeks in the mid ‘80s. It has a bit of the R&B slow-jam thing with a little of the hip-hop proto-thug thing. It starts slow and then it goes into this little monologue where he’s like, “Yeah baby, welcome home. Did you have a nice day? Let me fix you some hot chocolate. Did you miss me today? I missed you; that’s why I followed you! I saw you with that flea-bitten, hush-puppy-wearing crumb cake!” It’s this really theatrical scene. It ends with him saying “You without me is like corn flakes without the milk.” They just don’t do break-up songs like that anymore.

Edward II, Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe / Ian McKellen as Edward II

It’s from the sixteenth century, but it’s totally Goth. It’s about this king who is almost literally too sexy to be king. There’s this movement to depose him because he’s this really decadent, debauched king who’s having too much sex. He completely terrifies the rest of the nation by being too sexy. It’s the sixteenth-century equivalent of a David Bowie album. He’s totally a rock-star king, and it’s such a new-wave story. But still so violent and so gory and so Goth.

Me, the Mob, and the Music

Me, the Mob, and the Music by Tommy James

Tommy James and the Shondells had a lot of hits in ‘60s, some of them very famous — “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Mony Mony.” He has a new memoir. It’s really funny; it’s his first-person account of being a mob-connected pop star in the ‘60s. He wrote all these songs, but he freely admits in the book that the songs became hits because he had the Genovese crime family backing him up. There has never been a music book this explicit about the sordid crime element. And it ends up being amazingly gossipy, but amazingly funny, and very sad. “Mony Mony” and “Hanky Panky” are just flat-out great songs, so there’s no question that the would have been hits anyway, but the way he just goes into such detail, as a musician and as an eyewitness to this whole thing, the way it took such a toll on his career, it’s really kind of fascinating. There’s never been a story quite like this.

LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening

LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening

It’s not like it’s an obscure thing in any way; it’s not like they’re not getting enough attention, but Jesus, is that a great record. I’ve been listening to this record nonstop for four months now, and I’m still like finding all this weird shit on it that’s completely brilliant, like the way it mixes the new-wave stuff with the more rigorous dance stuff. They clearly made it knowing that records come out, and they get a huge amount of attention for one week, and then the blogosphere moves on to something else. And on purpose they made a record that cannot be absorbed in a week. I love the audaciousness of it. It’s a record that unfashionably demands that you spend time with it, absorbing it and following it. Joanna Newsom put out a record like five months ago that was three CDs, and it’s funny, the hype cycle is so accelerated that there’s no way that anybody could really fully unpack that music in a week. That part of it’s strange to me. Music has an immediate impact, but then it lingers.

Nightlife, Erase Errata

Nightlife by Erase Errata

I’ve been revisiting a lot this record by Erase Errata — the album is called Nightlife and it came out in 2006. It’s one of those records that’s in and out in half an hour. Just like bam, bam, bam, one perfect song after another. It’s really rhythm-guitar driven. I went to see them in Greenpoint a couple years ago, and everybody was by the side of the stage watching Jenny Hoyston play guitar, like they wanted to see how she did it. And it has an owl on the cover. And there really should be more bands that put owls on their album covers.

Made in Paris

Ann-Margaret in Made in Paris

It’s a movie from 1966 with Ann-Margret and Louis Jourdan. It is so fucking incredible. It’s like if Ann-Margret is the Bob Dylan of ‘60s redhead ingénues of Swedish descent, this is her Blonde on Blonde. Bye Bye Birdie was the Freewheelin’ Ann-Margret, and Viva Last Vegas was her Highway 61 Revisited, this is her Blonde on Blonde. There are all these scenes where she plays the wide-eyed American girl just bopping around Paris, shopping, and then there are all these scenes where she goes to a café and the band comes out and goes “Mademoiselle, won’t you come out and dance the Mamba for us?” and the whole movie just stops so Ann-Margret can do one of her crazy genius dances. Also, it’s completely post-verbal. It’s fantastic.

The Mechanic

The Mechanic, starring Charles Bronson

Another movie I’ve been watching, an old favorite, is this Charles Bronson movie from the ‘70s called The Mechanic. He’s this lonely, aging hit man, and it’s got lots of scenes where he’s staring out the window with the neon light blinking in his face. He’s kind of like the Larry David of homicidal maniacs. If you’re wearing shorts on a plane next to him, he’s not just going to do a crotchety routine about it. He’s probably going to kill you. He lives alone, he lives by the gun, he has no human connections, and there’s this mega-intense scene where he visits a woman. She’s played by Jill Ireland, his wife in real life, and she opens the door and says, “Oh, why don’t you ever call? I think about you all the time. I miss you when you’re not here.” And then, later, he’s leaves, she’s like, “I delivered the lines just the way you wrote them, was that okay?” And you realize that he scripted that whole scene for her, that she’s a prostitute that he hired to recite these lines to him. And it’s just devastating. But really, it’s the Curb Your Enthusiasm of homicidal mania.

Commentarium (22 Comments)

Aug 10 10 - 1:38am

LCD is garbage...nothing inspiring or original. The same synthy, regurgitated 80's revival bullshit that we've been fed for a decade by everyone who though The Strokes were hot shit ten years ago. Real music hasn't been on "the scene" in way to long....

Aug 10 10 - 2:00am

LCD is so far from garbage. Find me an album with as much depth and dance-ability as any of their albums. I'd love to hear it.

Aug 10 10 - 2:09am
jr Are you joking? This band is a bunch of pretentious douche-bag trendoids in yesterday's clothes. If you can't find anything more worthy to dance to besides their vacuous albums, you need a lobotomy.

Aug 10 10 - 2:14am
jr Hmmm...I wonder why this is so Google worthy?

Aug 10 10 - 6:57am

People who argue about subjective questions of personal taste on the internet are like bacteria populating the dingleberries on a cat's asshole. You'll always be there, I suppose, and perhaps you may have some dim approximation of self-awareness, but in the end, the rest of the world only pays you enough attention to dismiss you as the bit of fecal matter overstaying its welcome that you are.

Aug 10 10 - 8:03am

I'll settle the argument. LCD Soundsystem is wonderful and "jr" just wants attention. On another note, terrific picks, I'm especially into that Charles Bronson movie, haven't seen it or one of his movies in years.

Aug 10 10 - 8:20am

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran was such an awesome book! For once, I'm not shocked at all by this column - I can see where Rob Sheffield was influenced by all his answers

Aug 10 10 - 1:19pm

@oms: The same applies to people who wear out tired analogies while complaining about other people complaining.

Aug 10 10 - 1:24pm

@Lebow: I think I can settle it better... You think being critical of horrible music = needing attention and LCD Soundsystem still sucks.

Aug 10 10 - 1:36pm

That Oran Juice song is amazing.

Aug 10 10 - 1:39pm

OK, jr, I'll bite: what "real music" are you listening to lately that you like or would recommend?

Aug 10 10 - 2:08pm

@George: I probably shouldn't have used "real" and should have used "new" or "fresh". LCD is "real" music no matter how much someone likes/dislikes the way it sounds. When you look at 1900-2000, music went through such an amazing evolution. I feel like the last decade or more has been recycled, predictable garbage with an over-compressed, declining production value. Actually, the only song I've heard in the last year that I liked was by the Black Keys, even if that doesn't sound "new" to me was still a great track.

Aug 10 10 - 3:57pm

yay for marlowe. too often is he forgotten in WS's shadows.

Aug 10 10 - 4:24pm

@jr. I'll engage since you actually attempted a smart reply and not just a "that sucks" discourse. Why does music need to sound "new" in order to be good or enjoyed. That whole premise is so hipstery is laughable. Just enjoy good music, whether it's "fresh" or not. What's actually in your cd player these days?

Aug 10 10 - 4:53pm

@Lebow: Well, enjoyment is personal...or dislike for that matter. I suppose if you don't like music that someone else does, you probably don't know how to listen to it. That would apply to everyone, including myself. I'm not really expecting to convince anyone that their favorite band sucks...but I definitely exercise my right to say so if I please. What I was explaining about "new" isn't "hipstery": I just wish that music was evolving in exciting ways right now. Imagine what it was like to witness the creation of jazz, rock, etc. It seems like everything today is either a complete rip or just a mash-up. I find most music these days to be quite boring. Maybe it's because musicians are too busy trying to get people to gawk at them all the time? Anyway... Trust me, I enjoy many types of music from many points in history. If I had a CD player I'd tell you what's in it. My iTunes is pretty damn bloated though. It could play 7.2 months non stop without playing a song twice. Last song played was by Jon Brion.

Aug 10 10 - 8:24pm

Ugh....Jon Brion is SOOOO unoriginal. Playing the piano? Puh-leeze. That tired old instrument has been out of fashion since Beethoven.

Aug 10 10 - 8:49pm

@TC Hahaha... Actually, you reminded me of something I thought was really great (and "new") that I just heard: Diego Stocco -
This guy is pure genius.

Aug 10 10 - 9:44pm

@jr. Good answer, I enjoyed that. And of course "cd player" is just an expression these days. I agree it would be amazing to witness the birth of an entire genre of new music, but that's only happened like 25 times in modern history.

Aug 12 10 - 10:24pm

I miss Chris Farley.

Aug 12 10 - 10:29pm

Bronson would have made a great Genghis Khan.

Feb 18 11 - 2:16am
Patch Janet

We've all been there: you can find yourself driving by means of a certain a part of town let you ...

Apr 13 11 - 2:38am

That's a mold-breakre. Great thinking!