Albums That Changed Me

“Revolver” US Version – The Beatles [ATCM]

It’s hard to write about The Beatles. Two-plus hours musing on this record, and way too many words. It was one of my first favorite albums. 

It’s an emotional rollercoaster. 

John and George’s terrifying cosmic explorations: “There’s people standing round, who’ll screw you in the ground.” “I know what it’s like to be dead.” “Play the game existence to the end of the beginning.” 

Paul devastates us with “Eleanor Rigby,” paints lovely dreams of shared bliss in “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Good Day Sunshine” then kills us again with “For No One” before bringing us back to hope with “Got to Get You into My Life.” (Only to wobbled at the close of the album by John’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.”) 

Sandwiched in there is the diversion of Ringo singing a children’s psychedelic anthem of togetherness. 

See, there’s really no room for “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Dr. Robert” or “And Your Bird Can Sing.” Those songs are fine on “Yesterday…and Today,” a US release that cobbled together tracks from the UK “Help,” “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” albums with great singles (and gave us the infamous “butcher cover”). 

The US “Rubber Soul” is different and maybe a little more compelling than the UK version (though with the songs left off the US edition, the acoustic framing lacks the R&B flavor referenced in the title). 

But the US version of “Revolver” is simply better. It’s way more focused and innovative sounding. And it’s the first Beatles album I fell in love with. 

Like the Elton John album I wrote about a couple days ago, the cover was a world unto itself, very mysterious. (I love that Klaus Voorman included a little picture of himself with his signature. It felt “behind the scenes!”) And the back cover, a dimly lit black and white photo with them wearing sunglasses indoors, looked like an outtake, the epitome of casual cool. 

Maybe I responded to it so readily because I’d just moved from big city Los Angeles to sleepy suburban Irvine. The Beatles looked a bit detached, but the music was so rich and emotional. The weird intro count on Taxman, the cough, the tight groove, and the cataclysmic guitar solo. The lovely lonely people, as I heard it. I could be lonely and still lovely in my new town! (Mishearing lyrics is a gift.) 

I’ve had many different favorite songs from this album at different times in my life. I love that it goes so many places sonically, and conceptually. And it’s not a concept album. Its perfection almost seems to be happenstance. And I’d argue it was for the band itself in this form. It was sequenced from a less impactful grouping with the usually agreed upon song allocations that the band had chosen in the UK. 

It’s filled with possibilities and the scariness that comes from death and life’s cycles (death and taxes!), from the mundane to the surreal. 

I was scared as a nine-year-old, but awed by the possibilities of the space of Irvine and the world of music that was opening to me as I started playing guitar from morning to night, writing songs to combat the loneliness of being the new “different looking” kid in town. This album gave me everything I needed.

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“Shadows and Light” – Joni Mitchell [ATCM]

In the days before you could carry your music collection everywhere, two records that went with me on every road trip, were Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” and Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira.” I conflate them in a way not only because the opening two chord groove of “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Coyote” are really similar, but because both albums are a couple years past the hit-making eras for both of them, but they’re really solidly crafted in a purposeful way, more concise and intimate than the records that preceded or followed. For Dylan, “Blood…” followed “Planet Waves” and preceded “Desire.” For Mitchell, “Hejira” followed “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” and preceded the double LP, “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.” I like all of those records, but they don’t feel as focused or well executed.

You can’t really call “Shadows and Light” a tightly focused record. It’s live, for one. It starts with a bit of “Shadows and Light” from “…Summer Lawns” interspersed with film clip audio from “Rebel Without a Cause,” and other elements, then a blunt cut in the middle of applause to “In France They Kiss on Main Street,” also from “Summer Lawns.” But that’s where the magic begins! 

This is not your regular pop/folk Laurel Canyon band. It’s Pat Metheny on lead guitar, Lyle Mays on keys, Don Alias on drums, Michael Brecker on sax, and the great Jaco Pastorius on bass. Along with Joni’s brilliant alternate guitar tunings and the choice to use electric guitar more that acoustic, Jaco was the sound of the three studio albums preceding this concert. And this culminated with “Mingus,” an album written with the legendary bassist and composer, Charles Mingus, the album this tour supported. 

I love Mingus! I love the Pat Metheny Group! Jaco’s “Word of Mouth” album is one of my all time favorite records! And I freakin’ love Joni! This album had them all!

But it was the first time that I’d heard them combined.

I have Sheldon Gomberg to thank for this. I was looking to put a new band together at one point and drove from Culver City out to Sheldon’s place in Silverlake to meet him. The way I remember it, he was outside on his landing practicing upright bass along with this album. I recognized the guitar on “In France….” It starts almost identically to “Coyote” but then the bass came in swinging, unlike the more atmospheric parts on “Coyote.” That surprise delighted me, then all of a sudden Pat Metheny shows up. It was, “You like this? I’m going to double your pleasure. Now I’m going to double it again.” 

Sheldon had an import CD and it wasn’t available domestically at the time, so that made it even more of a rare treat. And there was film of this show out there somewhere, but again, not available readily. Years went by before I was to actually own the album and see the film. 

But it didn’t take years for the inspiration to kick in. I soon drafted Todd Sickafoose and Mark Ferber from the UCLA jazz studies program into my band, along with Gustavo Aguilar from CalArts to join my stalwart keyboard player for all my bands to that point,  Jebin Bruni “Singer-songwriter” music didn’t have to be folk or rock based. It could be anything you wanted to explore with the best creative musicians you could find. 

What I love about Joni’s lead on this, it that she really led. Like Miles Davis, she allowed her musicians to be themselves in their roles, but she was clearly the visionary. And when it came time for her to take a solo turn to close the show on “Woodstock,” she owns it (and it’s a totally different interpretation than the version on “Ladies of the Canyon,” or “Miles of Aisles”). 

I think singers in bands often have a musical inferiority complex. We think we’re the least talented “musician” in the band, even if we’re the chief songwriter. That could just be my impression from starting out as a kid guitar player and thinking my band’s singer was the worst “musician” in the band. 😂 But when I decided I wanted to focus on songwriting instead of playing lead guitar, I started to feel like I was always the weakest technical link. Joni seems to have had none of that and owned her strength among other masters. 

The original task of this list was to select albums that influenced your taste in music. What this album taught me was that all of my tastes could be combined, that songs could dramatically be re-approached, working with those outside your “genre” was nothing to worry about, and that the singer can own his/her/their validity. 

And, damn, this album makes me so happy every time I hear it. It’s the sound of artistic freedom. 

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“Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” – Elton John [ATCM]

Two songs on this album are almost always guaranteed to make me cry. Of course, the only hit from the record, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” is one. The other is “Writing” and that one is tears of joy and hope. It gets me every time. 

Like the movie “Rocketman” opened my mind to the song, “I’m Still Standing,” “Captain Fantastic” opened me to Elton John. I know, I wasn’t even into double digits in age when this came out, but I already had serious thoughts about music and Elton John was a pop phenomenon, too flashy for my tastes. I was all about The Beatles, The Who, and more introspective singer-songwriters at that moment. My favorite song trajectory was Lynn Anderson’s “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” The Jackson 5’s “ABC,” The Carpenters’ “On Top of the World,” Al Wilson’s “Show and Tell,” and my first two jukebox picks, Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” and “Pinball Wizard” from The Who. A good mix of fluff and a little more artful stuff. 

Then the “Hey Jude” album and “Revolver” given to me by my babysitter sometime in 1974 set me down a Beatles rabbit hole that I pretty much still live in. EJ’s popularity was encroaching on The Beatles cultural domination and I was having none of it. 

“Captain Fantastic” changed all of that. First, it was that big fat chord (with the 5th in the bass) that opens “Someone Saved My Life” that got me when it played on the radio. Then it was crazy album cover that was illustrated by Alan Aldridge, the same guy who did “The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics” book. I think I got my dad to buy the record for me, but I remember my friend, Dave Anderson, and I listening to it over at his house and marveling at the artwork. There was some nudity and that probably piqued our interest, too! How bold! (haha) 

But opening the record was an experience. It not only contained a comic book sized illustrated lyric book, but another book that told Elton and Bernie’s story. And it all lined up with the autobiographical nature of the songs. I probably also responded to the really sweet story of two friends from different backgrounds sharing their lives. Even more impressive was that only one of them wrote the words, but it captured two perspectives so well. 

The whole album is epic, but the title song is especially cinematic, going musically and lyrically from suburban and countryside English homes to hope of adolescence, ugliness in the city to a creative flowering, then the naked ambition to go “From the end of the world to your town!” 

But “Writing” is my absolute favorite. I don’t know that I really noticed it much in my single digits. But as I got older, this song expressed the joys of free creativity, before the pressure of “professional” performance better than any song I know. There’s seriousness and doubt, of course: “Will the things we wrote today sound as good tomorrow.” Every songwriter knows that feeling whether concerned with legacy or just wondering if you’ll like what you came up after giving it space. 

Though this is the part that gets me about the craft and the passion:

“We could stretch our legs if we’d half a mind
But don’t disturb us if you hear us trying
To instigate the structure of another line or two
‘Cause writing’s lighting up
And I like life enough
To see it through
‘Cause writing’s lighting up
And I like life enough
To see it through”


I like life enough to see it through! That’s it! 

Then the suicidal ideation in “Someone Save My Life Tonight” becomes even more poignant. Especially seeing those guys together still after all these years. 

I couldn’t love this album more. 


I did see the Jackson 5 when I was 5, but this album led me to beg to go to my first “adult” concert. Before we got to Dodger Stadium, my dad said, “Wake me up when he plays ‘Bennie and the Jets.’” (Which is why I always loved that Branford Marsalis, in the Sting film “Bring on the Night,” names that song as the rock song that black people knew.) The fact is Dad’s best childhood friend from Mississippi was actually the stage manager at the Troubadour in the early 70s when Elton made his US debut, and Pops loved the eponymous “Elton John” record. If I were doing 100 records that’d definitely have to be dissected…

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“Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy” – Billy Bragg / “Suzanne Vega” [ATCM]

This is a twofer: “Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy” by Billy Bragg, and Suzanne Vega’s self-titled debut. I think the Vega album was probably more influential for me, but it’s pretty close. Both purchases were the result of seeing them live. I was able to immediately get the Vega record, but the Billy Bragg record took me ages to find. The reason was that I was looking for an album called “F**k me, I’m Famous,” which, of course didn’t exist. 

I started the school year seeing Echo & the Bunnymen play at Irvine Meadows. But first onstage that night was a guy alone, who sounded like a one guitar Clash. He introduced the set saying, “This is off my new album, “F**k me, I’m Famous” and he played “New England” with the chorus, “I don’t want to change the world / I’m not looking for a new England / I’m just looking for another girl.” Myself band-less … exhausted by the politics of the day … I was hooked! But I could never find that stupid album! My other favorite lyric from that song is, “I saw two shooting stars that night / I wished on the them, but they were only satellites / It’s wrong to wish on space hardware / I wish, I wish, I wish you cared!” 

At the end of the year, Suzanne Vega shows up for a noon concert at Ackerman Union. Another artist completely alone with a guitar, but quieter. It felt more portable. Her voice reminded me of Astrud Gilberto, pure, vibrato-less, intimate. In fact it was practically speak-singing, maybe Lou Reed influenced, maybe Laurie Anderson. And it was really bedroom music, songs told from and to those walls. Perfect for the disguised introvert that I am. “Cracking” opens the album with “It’s a one time thing…it just happens a lot,” and the last line of that song is “Wondering where the hell I have been.” 

“New England” and “Cracking” are like two sides of the same story, the disappointment of satellites and leaping for the “one time” repeatedly, then losing all sense of direction. It fit perfectly with the annual reinvention I felt as a freshman, sophomore, junior, then senior. 

And of course, the simplicity of the format, that’s what got me through college and into my career. I took one acoustic and one electric guitar to England after graduation and played on the street to extend my wandering. I had my Billy Bragg cassette with me. Not only did Billy have printed on the cover that you shouldn’t pay more than £2.99 for the record, but the opposite side of the cassette was left blank and recordable to “Bootleg the Bragg, confuse the enemy!” Of course, on that blank side, I recorded some of my own songs in tunnels by the canals in Venice. 

Tying things up, the first and only time I played CBGB’s, Lenny Kaye was an invited guest of my publisher which thrilled the hell out of me not only because of Patti Smith, but also because he produced “Suzanne Vega.” He was with Seymour Stein, and couldn’t have been nicer. (Seymour and I argued about my song, “Jackson, Mississippi,” but that’s a story for another day.) 

A couple years later I was in London and did some recording with Billy Bragg’s guitar tech/bestie, Wiggy who introduced me to the world of Cockney rhyming slang. 

Regarding impact, the reason “Suzanne Vega” had more of an influence at that time was that I’d been invested in the lane of Dylan to Strummer from where it seemed Billy Bragg emerged. Suzanne Vega, led me deeper into Joni Mitchell, probably prepared me for Nick Drake, and when I heard Lou Reed’s “New York” a few years later, I was truly ready to dive down that glorious Velvet Underground rabbit hole.

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“Getz au Go Go” – Stan Getz w/ Astrud Gilberto [ATCM]

This was another record my father played for me for I could walk. And when people ask me if I’m Brazilian, it’s because these rhythms were among the first that I ever heard. It’s kin to the ability to pronounce certain sounds in languages that we lose we try to learn them later in life. I don’t claim to be an expert, but the music and I’ve played with echoes of Bossa Nova and samba is a direct result of this and the Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim records in heavy rotation when I was playing the Quaker Oats drum!

This was another record in my cassette collection as I busked around Europe after college. Though I’d had the sounds in my head for years, it was during that time that I actually figured out the chords that would shape my songwriting after that. 

It’s really the vocal songs that get me on this album, that slightly flat, vibrato-less, innocent and intimate voice made fall in love before I knew what that was. It was such a thrill in the 90s to actually meet Astrud Gilberto after a show at Catalina Jazz Club. 

And Kenny Burrell is the guitar player! I didn’t put that together until I met him also in the early 90s, realizing that the sound that felt like it was part of me from birth was the man I was helping to play records for his Duke Ellington class at UCLA. 

I think that Burrell’s warmth and Gilberto’s purity are things that I’ve aspired to put in the brew whatever music I’ve created. 

I won’t say that this is a perfect album, but it was the welcoming invitation into a world of music that really enriched my life. 

(And, this cover is usually on my wall…)

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“Sin and Soul” – Oscar Brown, Jr. [ATCM]

Again, this was music that played in the house when I was a kid that I worked my way back to after “learning” the songs from other artists. I knew “Work Song” from Nina Simone. I knew “Dat Dere” from Rickie Lee Jones. “Afro Blue” from John Coltrane (the music was actually written by Mongo Santamaria, with Brown’s lyrics coming in 1959 for Abbey Lincoln to debut…)

I actually think it was my mom who was the most ardent OBJ fan in the family and encouraged me to see him if I ever had the chance. The opportunity came at The Jazz Bakery some time in the mid-nineties. Much of this debut record was still in his repertoire, as it should’ve been when you start out with such classics. But what was so remarkable was how the passing of time gave the songs even more depth. OBJ had actually been in advertising before committing to music, and he also had written a musical around the time he started working with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln on the “We Insist!” record. His performance was something like cabaret in the best way possible, meaning that it was theatrical and the storytelling was precise. And it was so honest, fearless. 

I should have started writing this earlier… listen to the music, you’ll get it. Good night…or good morning!

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“Wild is the Wind” – Nina Simone [ATCM]

This popped up on a playlist yesterday. It was “Four Women,” I think. It prompted me to listen start to finish. I used to hear this coming from the living room at our house and always wondered who that man was with the funny voice singing. “Break Down and Let it All Out” always kind of got to me in my bedroom down the hall. Flash forward from my memories as and 8-year-old to my 20/21-year-old self, very aware of Ms. Simone. She accompanied me via cassette as I traveled and busked through Europe with my copy of “The Autobiography of Malcom X.” That cassette was with me when I landed on the air-mattress in my dad’s living room in Inglewood. 

Somewhere along the line I started singing “Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair” in my shows. I don’t think I knew it was an Irish folk song when I first learned it. It felt like a pure celebration of black beauty. As a mixed kid in this White-ish folk/rock scene, it felt good to sing something #blackAF, unapologetically black. I’d even sometimes do the live version from Nina’s album, “Black Gold,” incorporating her guitarist, Emile Latimer’s take specifically addressing female beauty. His voice is so similar to hers that for many years, I thought Nina was taking a gender flipping approach, which struck me as another genius creative risk for 1969. 

One night at Luna Park, this kid from NY was sound-checking before me and he started playing “Lilac Wine,” also from “Wild is the Wind.” Yep, Jeff Buckley. I felt a kindred spirit and he turned out to be an amazing artist and extremely generous with me as I was starting to do shows in NY. 

This also makes me laugh, wondering what my dad might have said to his version of “Lilac Wine,” since he chastised me for playing Bowie’s version of “Wild is the Wind” over and over, saying, “Why did that white boy sing Nina’s song?!” Oh, Pops…

I love the idea that in a pre-internet world I was able to mishear, misunderstand, and incorporate these songs into my being, only to have them become even more meaningful as I grew up, listened more, and found others equally moved by this record. 

I went down the rabbit hole last night and found I’m REALLY not alone, as Pitchfork named this as number five in the list of best albums of the 1960s, just below “A Love Supreme” and above “Abbey Road.” 

Yeah, you don’t even have to mention the name of the artist for those album titles to recall their impact. But in a spiritual way, in an ambitious, poetic way, “Wild is the Wind” has probably inspired me in an equal way. And, though it feels a little weird to see it ranked so highly, because it felt like my private sanctuary, knowing that I’m not alone gives me hope. 

And, letting the lonely, the misunderstood, the misfits, the oppressed know that we’re not alone was one of the greatest gifts Nina gave anyone who took the time to listen.

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