Jun 04, 2010, 09:11AM

Rolling Stone turns educational

A new "collector's edition" of the magazine lists rock n' roll's top 500 songs with a solemn authority.

One mid-week evening in 1975, after the campus pub had closed—this was during the brief period that Maryland’s drinking age was 18—a group of us gathered at the rowhouse apartment of a really uptight guy who was popular more for his expensive hashish than his personality. Bill was no dummy, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s a very successful doctor today (his pre-graduation drug bust might’ve put a slight crimp in his plans, but such offenses tend to disappear in a few years if your parents spent the cash for an elite and clubby lawyer), but it’s my bet that his bedside manner really sucks. Personalities don’t change all that much, and I recall that on this particular night a generation ago Bill was obnoxious and condescending to a young woman he was putting the moves on.

Sheila was looking at his extensive record collection—alphabetized, of course, and separated by genre—and picked out an obscure John Coltrane album to play on Bill’s fancy stereo system. The rest of us were slumped on couches, gabbing and taking turns on a bong, but I was appalled by the conversation that took place when Bill noticed Sheila’s selection. Naturally, she wasn’t allowed to put the record on the turntable herself, and then Bill, as if he were talking to a fifth-grader rather than a chick he had hopes of rolling in the hay with later on, lectured her on the subject of jazz. It was a 10-minute monologue and if he got lucky that night maybe he was more of an operator than I gave him credit for.

Anyway, I was reminded of this long-ago incident upon purchasing at the local 7-11 the latest “collector’s edition” issued by Rolling Stone, a fat copy (by today’s standards) devoted to the magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” The thought occurred to me, after correctly picking four of the Top Ten before flipping open the magazine, that Rolling Stone, after 43 years of publication, has taken it upon itself to provide primers on pop music for younger generations. That’s one way to prop up newsstand revenue, I suppose—and, as someone who has a weakness for such trivialities, even if the results are always irritating, the gambit worked on me—but it’s my hope that on the off chance a sizable number of teenagers look at this “collector’s edition,” the lessons provided by RS’s editors won’t be taken seriously.

As it happens, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is my favorite pop song—still, even after hearing it a million times—so no argument with its top slot in RS. But John Lennon’s unbearably limp-wristed and naive “Imagine” as Number Three? Jeez, and Lennon made fun of his former partner Paul McCartney for tripe like “Silly Love Songs.” Now, any such list is promiscuously subjective—the order can change day to day—and naming a definitive Top 500 Songs is fairly ludicrous, but that’s the business of media. It’s the capsule review of “Imagine,” written with a textbook air of impenetrability that really made my head explode.

Lennon knew he had written something special. In one of his last interviews, he declared “Imagine”  to be as good as anything he had written with the Beatles. We know it’s better than that: an enduring hymn of solace and promise that has carried us through extreme grief, from the shock of Lennon’s own death in 1980 to the unspeakable horror of September 11th. It is now impossible to imagine a world without “Imagine.” And we need it, more than he ever dreamed.
Trotting out the 9/11 card is bad enough, and cheap at that, but was “Imagine” (which, in my own opinion is as unlistenable as “Seasons in the Sun” or “Ebony and Ivory”) really “better” than “Strawberry Fields,”  “In My Life” or “A Day in the Life”?

By the way, the four songs I correctly predicted would make RS’s list were “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Satisfaction,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Johnny B. Goode.” “Hey Jude” at Number Eight threw me, as did “What’s Going On” at Number Four. And “Yesterday” at Number 13 seems off, but again, it’s all just opinion; I got ticked off at the justifications.

When you look at an issue like this, it’s inevitable you’ll come up with your own favorites, if not 500. So, at 12:35 on Friday afternoon, June 4, 2010, here’s my Top 10, subject to change in an hour or two.

“Like a Rolling Stone,” “He’s a Rebel,” “Just Like Heaven,” “What She Said,”  “Visions of Johanna,” “What’s So Good About Goodbye,”  “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame,” “Contract on Love,” “Panic in Detroit,” and “Hickory Wind.”

And you?

  • Here are a few of my top ten. Like you Russ, they change by the hour. Hey Joe, Badge, Songbird, Casey Jones, When the Levy breaks, Stawberry Fields, Major Tom/Twenty Years, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Hey Ya (I know this will piss a lot of you off but it is catchy as hell and can't help but to sing along), All along the Watchtower

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  • I almost forgot, Knockin on Heaven's door. All versions

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  • where was van dyke parks on that list? probably not even on it. dude gets no respect, and "song cycle" was better than pet sounds.

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