In his memoir, The Perfect Sound
, poet Garrett Hongo writes lyrically and lovingly about all of the ways music has defined his life — from the waves in Hawaii to the doo-wop and soul in LA to a ghostly lute in Rome — as well as his lifelong journey in pursuit of the perfect stereo set-up. In this playlist he put together for us, Hongo takes us on a similar musical journey, from heartbreaks in California to arias in Milan. Turn your speakers up and enjoy.
1. St. Louis Blues by Sol Ho'opi'i
Ho'opi'i was the first internationally known master of the Hawaiian lap steel slide guitar. His instrument, a metal-body National tricone invented by John Dopyera, created a quaverous sound that gave off a bounty of micro-tones that possessed a captivating signature. Ho'opi'i played jazz tunes as well as Hawaiian. His version of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" (ca. 1928) is one of my favorites, full of gandy-dancer rhythms, syncopations, and struts, as well as the famed habanera bridge played with shimmering glissandi. Not only can you hear its Storyville roots and Twenties jazz improvisations, but also its hybridity with Hawaiian ukulele
styles of picking and strumming.
2. Earth Angel by The Penguins
In the mid-60s, I was fourteen and in tenth grade at a junior high school in South Los Angeles. I'd wait at a bus stop with other kids — all of us Japanese Americans — some of whom had transistor radios usually tuned to an AM rhythm & blues station that put out what we called slow-dance music
. It was a doo-wop treasure trove of teen heartache, harmonized paeans to blue-balls frustration, and earfuls of echoing reverb, all to a slow and steady, two-note bass beat targeted for dancing up tight with a girl. But few of us had, yet we aspired like hell. With pocket radios to our ears, we tried to imagine the body and personality of the opposite sex swaying and dipping under our rhythmic caresses on the dance floor. The Penguins crooned “Earth Angel” and I fell into my first lessons on love and poetry, ardor and longing.
3. She's Not There by The Zombies
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The Zombies were part of the British Rock Invasion of the Sixties. At the start, they'd schooled themselves covering American blues, Fifties rock, and even some Gershwin tunes, but quickly evolved into their own sound with original tunes full of close harmonies, the soaring tenor of a lead singer, and a virtuoso keyboard artist. "She's Not There" was their first American hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100
in December 1964. A ballad about an alluring tease of a girl, it exuded a teen’s fresh cynicism and sad experience with a catchy dance beat, a memorable chorus, and a stuttering crescendo that broke into a scramble-fingered electronic piano solo. Please don't bother trying to find her. // She's not there....
4. Cactus Tree by Joni Mitchell
I had a memorable first love in high school. She sat in front of me in a creative writing class my junior year. She got me to read Dylan Thomas, Rainier Maria Rilke, and Herman Hesse and to listen to Songs to a Seagull
, Joni Mitchell's first album. Though Rilke may have been the poet we read, Mitchell was the poet we felt
. Her beautiful voice and her song's images penetrated our bodies, prophesying the daggers of erotic grief that might later strike us down, if we were brave and lucky enough, if we could live as Rilke instructed and Mitchell lamented. I marveled at the plain things in life that Mitchell transformed into shining talismans of seaworn glass that seemed wrenched from a nature that was better than the one we lived in, where beaches stared up past dolphins playing in the sea
to skies emptied of pain. Through her lyrics, I felt deeply that there were other worlds expanding in my heart, taking away the rage and boredoms that possessed and vexed me, replacing them, in the words of the song, with globes of ambergris and amber stones and green
. The world could be pretty then, and despair wasn’t so much its core, but its trailing lace of fond and sorrowful emotions intermingled in the aftermath of having lived through a miraculous splendor. A relentless prophetess of erotic sorrows I could not pretend to understand, Mitchell (and my girl too) seemed a dervish at the crossroads where I’d soon have to make a deal with love.
5. America by Simon and Garfunkel
After I lost that first teenage love, I drove the freeways a lot, crisscrossing L.A. in all directions, desperately trying to get away from the grief I felt from as many quarters as there were points on a compass. On the car radio, I heard “America,” an intensely wistful song from Simon & Garfunkel. Then I bought the record and played it all the time. Simon’s lyrics spoke to the loneliness I felt, to the new, desolate feeling of despair. On the LP, the tune begins with a fade from the song before, then two voices in different registers double sweetly on the melody as a guitar accompanies them, at first deftly picked as its strings are bent. Then it's emphatically strummed and a drum kit kicks in, sticks traveling across a set of toms. When Paul Simon’s airy tenor voice sings, Let us be lovers / We’ll marry our fortunes together
, his lyrics had me moving with the itinerary of the narrative, boarding a bus with the two idealistic lovers searching for a place to be
across the wintry Michigan landscape of its setting, where a moon rose over an isolated field. The song reminded me of my lost girlfriend and that Rilkean world of poetry she loved, the feeling just over the edge of the bluff over the Pacific we'd visited so many times, beyond the gray rim of the sea we could barely make out past the brutal haze of L.A. It was like a sanctuary I could fold my waking self into as I drove, listening, the car stereo drenching the cab with its gorgeous sound as though I sat beneath a waterfall of music spilling over me, slicking over my skin in a tender forgetfulness for the time I could hear it. It drew a pain away even as I allowed it to abide, restfully, turning rage and sorrow into the sweetness of regret, fragrant with its own life, a kind of body just being born within the soul. Out of grief. Out of the loss of the lithe torso next to mine, her brown hair peppered with burrs of ryegrass.
6. So What by Miles Davis
So much written about "So What," the first track on Kind of Blue
, the epoch-making album of the first Davis sextet, I can hardly add to it. It set the standard of cool for decades and launched jazz into its modal period. For me, it was the first jazz LP I’d heard, checking it out from my college library, then buying the record at a vinyl shop in Claremont village. I played the hell out of it, stacking it onto the spindle of my record changer every night, using it as a kind of homeopathic Xanax, its soothing notes providing me with a cool so vibrant, I could hit it the next day with confidence among all the graduates from toney prep schools back East. Its alluring yet emphatic sound made my soul over. Its modulations entered my bloodstream and took up residence. Davis’s Harmon-muted trumpet and Coltrane's bracing tenor sax became the sistolic pump and thump of my heart.
7. Allegro, String Quartet No. 7 in F major op. 59 “Razumovsky” No. 1 by Beethoven, Budapest String Quartet
This first movement of Beethoven's “Razumovsky” No. 1, a string quartet in F major, has the cello singing out a gorgeous melody echoed by the violin, then picked up by the full ensemble playing harmonies and falling into rhythmic counterpoint at times, together weaving a tapestry of delicate and nimble string sound sere in its clarity yet spirited in character. Set to an elegant dance rhythm of some kind — I don't know which and I won't cheat by looking at Google — it, too, came to me during my college years. I'd sandwich its Side One between Kind of Blue
and Coltrane’s Ballads
, making for a hybrid concert in my dorm room — a gorgeous reward after a night’s study writing Chinese ideograms, reading romantic poetry, and memorizing lines from a play by Bertoldt Brecht. Hearing it felt like skating into a soft, summer wind, literature and foreign languages curling around me in eddies of the sublime.
8. Equinox by John Coltrane
This tune by the Coltrane Quartet has real jump. McCoy Tyner's piano initiates a catchy ostinato with Elvin Jones on drums ratcheting a crunchy pattern on top of it, quickly followed by Paul Chambers’s bass pulsing on an insistent, ominous figure underneath. Then, Coltrane's tenor comes in with the soaring melody, a vamp he repeats with minute yet arresting variations that seem to crawl, measure by measure, like a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. Paradoxically, the tune’s relentless dramatics pick you up by the cords of your spine and lift you in irresitable ascension to a musical empyrean. ‘Trane's solo is magical, its style not quite dervish, yet the dance of it lifts like a Sufi's ecstatic meditation with the emphatic beat of the blues under his brocade shoes. I heard it first on the car FM radio just after college, on my way to get a passport so I could sojourn in Japan for a year. It blessed my impending journey and launched me abroad with America singing in shimmering cascades of a saxophone soloing behind me.
9. "Ch’e gelida manina," (from La Bohème by Giaccamo Puccini) Luciano Pavarotti (w/ Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert van Karajan, dir.)
In 2005, already middle-aged, I was at La Scala in Milan, at a performance of La Bohème
on the famous set by Franco Zefferelli, but I’d no idea what I was in for. I’d gone to operas before — in L.A. and D.C. — and was curious about them, but no afficionado. I’d only heard about Puccini’s verismo
opera and knew nothing of its story, setting, or music. I figured I’d just read the synopsis before curtain and hope the crawl of recitative and lyrics on the viewscreen of the seatback in front of me would be followable. Well, I’d landed on a three-stage rocket of poetry, song, and romance. The story was about a group of struggling Bohemians in the Latin Quarter of Paris during the late 19th century — a poet, a seamstress, a philosopher, a painter, a waitress, and a composer. This is the aria that Rodolfo, the poet, sings to Mimí, the seamstress, and was so stirring, it lifted tears from my eyes for its poignancy and declarations of love. My body literally shuddered with emotions at every ringing high note. So much like I felt as a young poet, standing against all odds of survival and recognition, it was an anthem of a poet’s avocation and romantic feeling. It was about how love and poetry can lift you from tatters into dreams and then life. Come vivo? — Vivo!
10. “Kyrie” from Great Mass in C Minor, K. 427/417a by W.A. Mozart, performed by Natalie Dessay with Le Concert d’Astrée, Louis Langrée dir.)
"Kyrie" is the glorious first movement of Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor
, a missa solemnis
left incomplete at his death at the age of 35. Its spellbinding first soprano part, for which there are several grandiose arias, was written for his wife, Costanze, herself an Austrian singer of note. The aria here is intensely lyrical, with touching passages the singer can ornament with delicacy or power, and Dessay’s contemporary performance takes complete advantage, weaving a quaverous coloratura staircase of almost evanescent ascension to its wondrous climax in praise of God. She is supported by a grand choir, with grandiose parts of their own, by turns stark, solemn, then majestic. The period orchestra supports all of these, quick thunders of timpani strikes accentuating its opening measures and first crescendo, then giving way to sensitive string and woodwinds, trailing clouds of glory. The liturgical phrase kyrie elaison
is sung back and forth from Dessay to the choir, echoing, tailing, and rounding back on each other in a spiral of vocal magnificence that bespeaks the mysteries of spiritual emanation. I came to this piece, composed 1782–83, late in 2006, playing it on my stereo system time and again, captivated by its gorgeous style, fine musicianship, and rapturous effects. Dessay slowly builds a sinuous solo that curls around you like feathers from angelic wings.
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was born in Volcano, Hawai'i, and grew up on the North Shore of O'ahu and in Los Angeles. His most recent books are The Mirror Diary: Selected Essays, Coral Road: Poems
, and The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo
. A regular contributor to SoundStage! Ultra
, he lives in Eugene, Oregon and is Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon.