I see them all the time in the record bins at the thrifts or in the dollar bins at record stores – in the '50s and '60s there was a subgenre of LPs designed as incidental music for specific activities. "Music to study by," "music for dining," music for "that special feeling" (a subgenre dominated by famous lothario Jackie Gleason), "music to quit smoking by," "music to watch girls by," "music to dangle prepositions from."
This was functional music, meant to slip into the background and allow the player (not the listener, this was not music to listen to music by) to go about their busy (or relaxed, there was lots of music to relax by) lifestyle with beat or lilt. Muzak would later bring this concept into the workplaces and elevators of America, increasing our productivity and desire to buy things. Brian Eno would parlay it into a sophisticated system of "ambience" and begat any number of coffeehouse laptop disc jockeys to provide music to sip lattés by.
How effective these albums were at enhancing the specific experience they were designed to complement is an open question, but in the spirit of these bygone albums, from time to time here at Junker's Blues we'll present a few songs in the "music to score junk by" series – tracks that specifically address the "junker" lifestyle in one way or another.
• "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" by The Blue-belles: It seems appropriate to start this series off with a number that's the most famous song acknowledging the existence of "junkmen" of all time AND the song that launched Patti Labelle's career. What's interesting is that it's a "used" song. Already an uptown blues standard, recorded by Dinah Washington in the '40s, the hit girl-group version was recorded in 1961 by a band called the Starlets, for a label called Newton. The Starlets, however, were under contract to another label at the time, so Newton couldn't release it. Rather than scrap the recording Newton recycled it, claiming it was performed by the Blue-Belles, a group they did have under contract. The label claimed the vocals were erased and replaced with Labelle and the Blue-Belles, but they weren't. Newton versions of "Junkman" are actually the Starlets.
• "Smithsonian Institute Blues (The Big Dig)" by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band: From his 1971 LP Lick My Decals Off, Baby (and a happy day junking it is to he or she who turns one of those records up) comes this song about excavation and discovery, ostensibly at the La Brea tar pits. But with its repeated invitations to "come on down to the big dig" and observation that "the new dinosaur is walking in the old one's shoes," you know he's talking about thrifting.
• "One Man's Trash Is Another Man's Treasure" by Charlie Burton and the Cutouts: Lincoln, Nebraska's great, overlooked rock and rollers Charlie Burton, has been putting out weird and hilarious rock and roll and country records in general obscurity for almost 30 years. We touched on the possibly false wisdom of this song's title a few weeks ago, but that doesn't take away from the its tragic plot: a guy goes to a yard sale, finds a box of obscure 45's and obsesses over them so much that his baby dumps him for another man, leaving him to wonder whether the records were worth it or not. If you don't feel some of Charlie's ambivalence by the end of the song, you're not a true junker.
• "The Things You Leave Behind" by Amy Rigby: Written by Patti Smith Group guitarist and Nuggets LP compiler Lenny Kaye, himself no stranger to junk culture of any kind, this sweet and sad little song was recorded by occasional Wreckless Eric collaborator Amy Rigby for her 2005 album Little Fugitives. Yard sales and storage units, attics and basements – the song is overwhelmingly full of junk. The metaphoric comparison between accumulated possessions and emotional baggage might strike some as maudlin, but that doesn't mean it's not true. I got a copy of this CD at Smiley's a few weeks ago for a buck.
• "White Elephant" by The Volcano Suns: As far as I know, the greatest song about junking ever. Boston's Volcano Suns, led by Mission of Burma drummer Peter Prescott, were essentially a trashy version of Burma: stoopid, noisy and loud instead of intellectual, noisy and loud.
Most of the songs on this list, and most yard sale/garage sale songs I've run across, have a sense of sadness, but this is the junker anthem. Its chorus proudly bellows "I've got a white elephant! I've got a red wagon! I've got a blue balloon that nobody else can use!" Prescott revels in being "a collector of stuff that most folks ignore" and with its gigantic, feedback-y guitar hook and huge drums, it's brash, big and proud to be down in the dirt and part of the big dig.