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Improve Your Taste With… Rob Sheffield

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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

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.