Throughout 2022 I’ll be counting down my 100 favorite albums, because why not. I’m up to number ninety-four.
“You always wanted a lover. I only wanted a job.”
- Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
In the summer of 1984, before heading off to my senior year of college, I wanted a lover and a job. The latter got taken care of when I landed summer employment at Lipton, where I spent most of my days in a large room with two dozen senior citizens taking Cup-A-Soup packets, putting eleven croutons in each and heat-sealing them. You thought a machine did that? Nope. It was yours truly and the cast of Cocoon, sitting at a long table in a brightly-lit room that had a transistor radio, a source of several conflicts, all but one of which were started by “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” by Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson, with most of the women taking the pro-Julio position and most of the men taking the anti-Julio position. There’d be shouting and name-calling and occasionally croutons flew through the air like ICBM missiles set to destroy those who didn’t take to worshiping at the Iglesias. The one conflict that wasn’t brought about by this song came from one by John Denver. One afternoon his song “Hey, it’s good to be back home again” came on, which so angered Lipton’s answer to Wilford Brimley. He got up from his chair and yelled “I CAN’T TAKE THIS ROCK AND ROLL!” and when angrily reaching for the power dial he knocked the radio off the table, breaking it and putting an end to the bellicose effects of Julio Iglesias-Willie Nelson duets. Rock and roll causes such violent reactions, kids.
How is it I’m spending the summer of my 20th year counting croutons with people 100 times my age? (I excel at math, btw.) Why am I at a place where the threat to decency is Johnny Rotten Denver and not somewhere using my intellect? What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this? I didn’t feel I belonged there, my stellar crouton-packing quota notwithstanding.
The feeling of being somewhere I don’t belong is a feeling I’ve experienced often:
- in elementary school, where Ellen Baker and Michelle Somethingoranother told skinny me I look like a shriveled up piece of bacon;
- in the public high school I attended for ninth and tenth grades, where a fellow student nicknamed me Professor simply because I knew from latitude and longitude;
- in the private high school I attended for eleventh and twelfth grades, where our typing teacher whispered a racial slur in my ear, and where the student body was full of wealthy white snobs, one of whose murder years later was the basis for a Lifetime TV movie starring John Stamos;
- in college, where I didn’t drink or get high or go to the games and root for the home team. To this day I don’t know if my university even had games or teams;
- at the Passover Seder table, as I’ve been an atheist since my Sunday School teacher first told us about God, plus in my twenties and thirties my siblings and cousins conversed about which friends were getting married (my friends weren’t), who was having babies (my friends weren’t), and the latest goings on at Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210 (I was never a big TV watcher);
- at the gym. If you’ve ever been to a gym in a gayborhood, you know that most everybody there doesn’t need to be there as they are already in perfect shape while those of us who should be there shouldn’t be there lest we want to feel like a shriveled-up strip of bacon;
- on Facebook, as I rarely feel like anything that happens in my life is noteworthy, nor do I think any of my connections cares about what music I listen to or what TV shows I watch, nor do I wish to engage in discourse with folks who think a simple act that may stop the spread of a deadly virus is an assault on their freedom.
At my workplace, post-Lipton, was where I often felt I belonged. The music business was perfect for the kind of guy prone to making a list of his favorite albums. My first job out of college was at CBS Records, in their Accounts Receivable department. (I excel at math, remember.) Most of the people with whom I worked were nice, though I also worked with a Karen. An actual Karen, not a 2020s pejorative Karen. Being in the same department as Karen meant being in the wrong place. I’ll tell you why via an anecdote. There was a coffee shop in the lobby of the building where we worked. Every day they offered a free cup of coffee if you could answer the day’s trivia question. One day the question was “What four presidents were assassinated while in office?,” to which Karen answered “I know Lincoln was, and Kennedy was, and I think Reagan was, but he’s still alive.” (Reagan was still president at that time.) She had to pay for her coffee. I had to get out of that department.
The more I moved up, the more I felt more like I fit in. There was a time in 2006 when my company sent me to Geneva to do a presentation for our foreign affiliates. That’s where this strip of bacon sizzles. I’m very comfortable giving presentations, perhaps because it’s a situation over which I have control, for the most part. This Geneva convention coincided with the Montreux Jazz Festival, taking place about an hour away. A bus was rented for conference attendees to head off to Montreux, spending the afternoon at the home of the festival’s founder, Claude Nobs, before going to the concert. Nobs’s home was a gorgeous multi-house chalet atop a mountain that overlooked Lake Geneva. Jac Holtzman, founder of Elektra Records, joined us there, and I made him laugh with several of my stories. A helicopter landed and out stepped Lyor Cohen, the founder of Def Jam Records and at that time the Chairman and Chief Executive of Warner Music Group. He was with new signing Paolo Nutini, who had magnificent facial bone structure. Paolo and I engaged in conversation and shared a lot of ha-has, about what I have no idea due to his thick Scottish accent. Still, I felt uplifted seeing a beaming smile emanate from his magnificent facial bone structure. The view from the top of this mountain, even when I wasn’t looking at Paolo, was spectacular. In a snap, shy awkward Glenn realized he had arrived, being at a chateau overlooking Lake Geneva with Jac Holtzman and Lyor Cohen and Paolo Nutini and Paolo’s magnificent facial bone structure and Claude Nobs and his all twink staff. This is where I belong.
It’s not a feeling I now feel 100% of the time, but more often than before I feel comfortable in my own skin – at work, at the gym, and, non-existent one help me, at a Passover Seder. It’s progress, which is welcome as I draw closer to the age where I should be putting croutons in Cup-A-Soup packets and railing against rock and roll.
Continuing along those lines, one of the two New Year’s resolutions I made for 2022 is to spend more time on Facebook. There are things in my life worthy of sharing, and linking to these essays about my favorite albums is my way of keeping that first resolution. My other resolution is to watch more TV, a goal I’ve had for years, mostly so I could get my money’s worth from my cable TV bills. 2021 was the first year I really made a dent there. The best thing I watched was It’s a Sin, a five-episode series set during the first few years of the AIDS epidemic, which delved into the feelings of shame people experienced about who they are – from their peers, their families, their co-workers, society, and their own internalized feelings of insecurity. Named after a song from Pet Shop Boys’ Actually, the show impressed me with its top-notch acting, directing and writing, which resonated with me deeply and remains resonant. A year later I still cry when I think about the show, which I do whenever I listen to the song. The song “It’s a Sin” is not about AIDS, but rather the feeling of shame from believing you’re always doing the wrong thing. Based on PSB Neil Tennant’s Catholic school education, the lyrics reverberate with this atheist.
The album’s other big hit in the US was “What Have I Done To Deserve This,” performed by Pet Shop Boys against their record company’s wishes with Dusty Springfield. Like It’s a Sin the series, this song boasts great writing – lyrics and music – and perfect performances. I won’t go as far as NME calling it “possibly the greatest pop song in history,” though as duets go, it certainly tops “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Put down that crouton, Jessica Tandy.
Elsewhere on the album you get a song with the refrain “I love you, you pay my rent,” a Hallmark card waiting to happen, and you know what? Those three songs alone are enough for me to consider this album great, though “Shopping,” “Heart,” and “King’s Cross” are also worthwhile.
There was a weekly dance party I attended when I lived in New York City. Whenever they played Pet Shop Boys, which was several times a night, the dance floor would fill up, and I found myself part of a large group of like-minded people, sharing this joyful experience. I wasn’t shunned for being too skinny or too smart of too different. I found a place where I could let loose and be me and experience happiness. I deserve this.
There are more from Pet Shop Boys and from Dusty Springfield to come on this list.
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