The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 1: The Institute of Idle Time (A Re-Introduction)

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

The “Spotify Chronicles” were/are cobbled together out of random music-based thoughts I shared with the Institute of Idle Time via instant messaging as I “worked” from home, or typed piecemeal into a constantly-open Google Doc late at night as I was drinking old-fashioneds and plugged into my earbuds listening to Spotify…so some of it is a little venomous (talking to my fellow Idle Timers brings out my feisty side) and a little more rambling than usual (imagine!), but keep in mind, chunks of the following are literally copied-and-pasted out of IM discussions…

And, for the first time in Holy Bee of Ephesus history, this piece has a co-author. My friend and Idle Time collaborator for almost twenty years, MMDG, will be weighing in with his recollections. (In our written shorthand, we always refer to each other to this day by initials, like some kind of music-nerd Cosa Nostra…I’ve changed my actual initials to “HBE” here for clarity purposes.)

If you were to dig back into this website’s early history, say 2007-2010, you’d find me mentioning the Institute of Idle Time quite a bit. Since they’ve made a bit of a resurgence in my day-to-day life (due to the sheltering-in-place), and are an important part of the chronicles to come, I thought I’d re-introduce them. 

Idle Time Logo invert-01I co-founded the Institute of Idle Time in early 2002 with two people — WH and MMDG — who were my co-workers at the time. (Actually, I’ve known WH since I was 20 — almost literally a kid.) It was a jokey name for what we did in our spare moments away from being rookie middle-school teachers, which was talk about music, argue passionately about music (we have very different tastes), and make ranked and themed lists of music. 

Once we abandoned our Pitchfork-style decimal-based rating system, the Idle Time ranking process became a drawn-out and brutal ritual of MMDG’s invention we call Rock & Roll Roulette. The basics are simple, but the nuances and subtleties amount to sustained psychological warfare. Depending on the number of albums or songs we’re working through, it can take days, weeks, or months. It can be done in person (where it is the most fun, especially over several beers) or online (thanks to shared spreadsheets and polling apps).

We used to compile songs into individual mixes (or entire series of mixes) to share with just each other via burned CD-Rs. Then we started collaborating on group mixes for public consumption, and gave away CDs of our lists to anyone who was interested (they made great stocking stuffers and wedding gifts). Beginning in 2003, the CDs got elaborate — glossy covers and extensive liner notes (“blurbs” in IT-speak). We truly became a collective at that point.

Let’s hear from MMDG:

“Adrift on the wide-open internet waters was a bounty of images, mp3s, and treasure-map signposts towards albums, singles, and recordings that we never knew existed. It was a grand time to be a pirate. HBE had his Your Music Sucks series, which seemed to specifically target my indifference towards bands like Son Volt and Supergrass. I adopted The Promise Ring’s “Make Me a Mixtape” as a battlecry for any number of mix-CDs. We mail-ordered labels and booklets in bulk.

It was WH’s What I Heard compilation that gave real direction to our operation. Following his lead, we shared our favorite albums with one another just prior to winter break in 2002. Initially, these discs included songs from 2000 and 2001. That was before the project took on radioactive parameters and, screeching with mathematical fury, threatened to destroy Tokyo to the hundredth decimal point.

idle-time-002We went from friends, happy to find common ground in something like 02’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (HBE: I actually didn’t like it all that much past the first two songs, I think I was still playing nice), to bitter rivals, arguing vehemently over whether or not 03’s Hail to the Thief belonged on a year-end celebration of the best music. (HBE: It didn’t.) We were doing one list, one compilation, and affixing one name to the glossy inkjet-printed booklet: The Institute of Idle Time’s Top 20 Records of the Year. I even had the audacity (or foresight) to stick a little ® on there, even though I shamelessly stole the Jack White artwork from someone on the internet.

The cute pseudonyms were born in the 2003 CD booklet too. I think subconsciously all this rampant piracy made us a little nervous. How were we to know that not even a decade later intellectual property rights would hardly mean a damn and the world wide web would turn into a playground of digital socialism? So we hid cleverly behind the impervious anonymity of our own actual initials, confident that this would foil any FBI plot to root out felonious file-sharers and make an example of them. We had our own paper-and-staple usernames way before any online avatars came into being.”

The Institute drifted out of workplace lunch breaks and into our social lives. IT06Membership expanded and became fluid — different members have come and gone over the years (including myself, as we’ll see), but it always seems to hover around ten. 

At a certain point, several years in, a healthy portion of the group was made up of a handful of former students from out first year or two of teaching (we were only decade and change older than them, and they were the frequent, sometimes puzzled, recipients of those early CD-Rs).

This was the Idle Time Junior Division…still thought of that way even though they’re all now in their thirties. For those keeping track, the three original members are referred to as the Elder Idlers. The Elder Idlers plus the longest-standing member of the Junior Division (known by the moniker RF, who joined as an enthusiastic mascot while still in high school) are known as the Core Four.

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The Core Four looking like sad pandas, posing in front of our favorite record store that went out of business in December 2006

What self-respecting music junkie of a certain age can resist a lavish CD box set? We designed a pretty elaborate one (limited-edition, of course) for our fifth anniversary in 2007. An unprecedented two discs of the collectively-chosen “best of 2007” (featuring Spoon, Arcade Fire, the Shins, LCD Soundsystem, the White Stripes, Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, and many, many more), and including four more discs, each individually curated by a member of the Institute. (Mine sadly included a Velvet Revolver track, but I stand by everything else.)

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You don’t still have your copy?

The cover art of the box was intended to be a parody of the Hives’ The Black and White Album (see below), a timeless reference and sure never to date itself at all.

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Our version was a little off. We did what we could with the matching outfits. I normally keep my jowly double-chin covered with at least a goatee if not a full beard, but I took one for the team and shaved down to just a skeevy-looking mustache to replicate the cleft-chin glory of Hives bassist Dr. Matt Destruction.

I tried to capture his intense stare, looking straight ahead as fiercely as I could. Of course, I should have been staring straight at the camera lens…which was slightly to my right. Oh, well.

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I had to walk around looking like that for two weeks until my goatee grew back.

We self-published a few zines, and our magnum opus — a big, glossy book called Decades: A Tribute to Our 400 Favorite Albums of the Last 50 Years, which gave rise to the Roulette process.

MMDG can expound:

“It began idly enough, as most of our endeavors do. It was sometime towards the end of 2008, and we were all struggling through hours and hours of each others’ year-end picks.

I dropped a stack of burned CDs on a table in the lunch room, indistinguishable from one another save for the black Sharpie-scrawl, shuffled them together face-down, pulled out two at random and asked WH and HBE, “Which would you rather listen to?”

The ‘winner’ was set aside, primed to face-off against other round one survivors in a game that spontaneously took on the name Rock & Roll Roulette, despite having no real wheel to speak of, or gambling component whatsoever. The element of chance was certainly a huge factor, and damn if that name didn’t have a cool ring to it. Within minutes the discs had shuffled down to one final match-up, and a would-you-rather champion was selected with a 2-1 majority vote. WH held the final disc up and said, ‘There’s our record of the year.’

HBE scoffed. Not bloody likely, funny guy. We all knew that properly ranking our top albums required weeks of careful listening, ruthless campaigning, and a point-based scoring system where each decimal could mean the difference between an immortalized album and a butt-hurt Idle Timer. But… damn, if this wasn’t a helluva lot easier. And fun. To the system’s credit, both an informal 2008 roulette and the official, soul-draining scoring melee turned out the same number one album… Maybe opening up some part of us to the Fates wasn’t such an outlandish idea after all.

Fast forward to February, and WH arrived at work early in the morning after one of his brain-addling bike rides. ‘This is 2009,’ he said to me. ‘Do you know what that means? Best. Of. The DECADE.’ We had just passed out our third issue of Idle Times (HBE: Our old-school, paper & staples zine) and my thumbs were still black from creasing 2,200 folds, my fingernails cracked from countless staple adjustments. WH needed to calm down. But enthusiasm is contagious, and I love ridiculous projects. Twinkly-eyed and grinning mischievously, WH later suggested, “We may as well do all our favorite albums. Ever…”

HBE wanted to slap him (HBE: I’m lazy by nature and this sounded like a lot of work) but I was sold the second I came to the realization that sixty albums from the sixties, seventy from the seventies, etc., turned into a perfect list of 400 records. I’m not positive, but I think the ancient Assyrians believed this was the God number. Or their gods had 400 eyes. Something like that. A few days later I got a middle-of-the-night text from WH: ‘We need to roulette all 400 albums. I can’t sleep I’m so excited thinking about it.’ 

WH and HBE concocted the lists for the sixties and seventies; I contributed for the eighties and nineties; and RF, DH, and 3D (other Idle Timers — ambient electronica enthusiast DH is a part-timer, 3D has moved on) helped finalize the 100 albums of this decade. WH then printed off 400 little index cards with all the album cover artwork, housed them in a cardboard box, and the Great Roulette began.

isey roulettes

The Holy Bee, prepping a Roulette round, spring 2009. Two Modest Mouse albums are visible on my left, I don’t know if I could place the others at this point.

(HBE: This next part is key. Pay attention.) We made one important adjustment before ever dealing out the first match-up. Instead of choosing which album in a pairing we would rather listen to, we decided to vote for the album we would rather NOT listen to. This way we would be whittling down the list to our eventual number one record, reserving some suspense for the later rounds. The later rounds, which, we assumed, would be sometime the following week. How many shuffles could it possibly take? We are, every one of us, terrible with math.

The months that followed became a hectic blur of cardstock chaos and album art overload. Early on we took to verbally voicing our vote by indicating which album in each match-up “sucked.” As in, “Run DMC sucks,” “R.E.M. hella sucks,” “461 Douche-rock Boulevard sucks a fat one,” and “If it was Pyromania, maybe, but… Def Leppard sucks.” We forced each other to say it all the time: hearing HBE choke out a vote against Sgt. Pepper by saying “the Beatles suck” when matched up against Exile On Main Street, or WH whispering “Springsteen sucks” when the Daydream Nation flame was in danger of getting snuffed became irresistible slices of sacrilege.

The cards followed us everywhere: staff meetings, coffee shops, field trips, restaurants and bars. This pocket holds the “sucks”; this one has the “protected”. HBE even sustained a Decades injury when a mid-sorting papercut had him bleeding all over several cards. Within a few weeks we could identify any album by sight alone from across a dimly-lit room; fingers flicking right and left were code for which one got the axe. 

At pub trivia our quizmaster stopped by the table every Monday to check on our progress, usually concerned about whether or not Who’s Next was still alive. My cellphone buzzed itself into a coma with constant text messages of tie-breaking middle-fingers. DH spent an entire Saturday at Starbucks helping to keep my beloved Clap Your Hands Say Yeah alive, much to the chagrin of HBE (“Rumours Is A Perfect Album”) (HBE: More on that in a later installment.) 3D and RF made their every live-and-in-person roulette appearance an inebriated adventure: halfway into a pitcher of PBR at Old Ironsides, no one on earth could have taken more pleasure at cackling out “Bob Dylan sucks!” over and over again than 3D (he had, of course, ample opportunity: ol’ Bob accounts for eight of the 400, many of which hung on until late in the game).

And, finally, at two a.m. at my kitchen table, a full two and a half months after we started this mess, five determined Roulette addicts (including RF, Mighty Morphin’ drunk off his ass and screaming “What is that album and why does it keep beating everything that I hold most dear?”), sat and dealt, dealt and pointed, pointed and reshuffled… until all 400 index cards had numbers written on them and were forever housed in their little black card file.

Then we took another several months to write the book.

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The Institute occasionally branched out to other endeavors. As MMDG mentioned, we were a multi-championship-winning pub trivia team. We held a semi-annual athletic competition (“The Idle Time Games” — I mostly heckled from the sidelines, sitting on the big ice chest, mixing martinis.). We talked about doing a podcast (never happened) or downloadable audio commentaries for movies (we actually did one for Jaws that I recall being very good but nothing came of it, except a collective fondness for the word “squalus”). We even loaded up on digital audio recorders and EMF detectors to briefly become a paranormal investigation team. 

But it was really always about music.

Rouletting involves a lot of shit-talking other people’s choices. Idle Time is not for the thin-skinned. Yelling is often involved (in one instance, culminating in someone slamming both balled fists down on a random surface and hollering “I don’t think you even know what music is!”).

Let’s have MMDG weigh in again:

“We were mean. To each other, and to music in general. [In one set of blurbs from 2004] WH complains about the ‘year of text messages’ he got from me regarding ‘all the lame concerts’ I’d been to, and how his ears are still ringing from all ‘the damn cowbell’ in HBE’s roots-rock. My Ted Leo blurb rips on Tom Waits; WH’s Moonbabies notes insult the Hives. And both Statler and Waldorf (HBE: I’m presuming he’s referring to me and WH) take turns complaining about how mediocre that particular year in music was. WH also began his tradition of writing more about an album that didn’t make the list than any of his assigned albums that did get ranked.

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What that year really produced, or, at least, uncovered, was the sheer amount of ire that characterizes every single one of our music-ranking projects since. The trash-talking, sabotage, and “not admitting that we actually like something introduced” by another member charade, had their roots in 2004. Even today…the caustic comments and outright personal attacks are rampant.”

I’ll admit, there’s one time it really got to me.

After the triumph that was our book on the 400 Greatest Albums of All Time, we decided to do a sequel featuring greatest individual songs. It was…problematic. After two lengthy, failed attempts over as many years, we gave up. 

Here’s MMDG:

“After we published our Decades book in 2009, WH scribbled in my copy, like a high school yearbook. “I can’t believe this bitch was for real. Thanks for entertaining all of my stupid ideas. Next, 500 tracks!”

That book was the biggest list we had assembled to date: 400 albums curated, debated, and ranked in one of the most drawn-out processes any collective could have ever bothered with. But we didn’t want to stop there. And the idea that we could generate a list representing our favorite songs of all time didn’t seem at all daunting at the time. After that mammoth undertaking, this would be an afterthought, yeah? What marvelous hubris.

The first iteration, dubbed, simply, “500 Favorite Songs,” went off the rails fairly early in the process. We expanded the contributing roster slightly to include parties that, even if they hadn’t contributed to the Decades album list, at least participated in the ranking by taking part in one of the many Roulette sessions. So one by one, contributing Idlers dropped favorite songs onto a spreadsheet.

(HBE: What had been fun became a bit of a chore at this point. IT meetings grew more infrequent. Energy was lagging.)

The damage had been done. Things were said that couldn’t be unsaid. People got angry, hostile, and, ultimately, disinterested. The 500 Favorite Songs of All Time lives on only in a playlist in an old iPod that barely works. We tried to revive that list in 2010, but that, too, amounted to little more than frustration…”

At some point during the 2010 second attempt, we were having a Rouletting round at MMDG’s kitchen table. Somehow, we had come up with a surplus — more songs than were required for the project, so several needed to be dropped. I can tell you that WH is nothing if not a reliable contrarian…a pot-stirrer. He despises the complacency of universally-accepted opinion and the laziness of received wisdom. It’s one of his many good qualities, and the reason I’ve had hundreds of long, compelling conversations with him since 1995. But that rat-bastard overstepped this time.

So in this particular Roulette round, Chuck Berry’s absolutely iconic “Johnny B. Goode” came up against the eminently forgettable “Midnight City” by the eminently forgettable M83

Consider:

Elvis Presley is referred to as the “King of Rock & Roll,” but to my mind, the title belongs to Chuck Berry. Don’t get me wrong, I do love me some Elvis, but he was a peculiar amalgam of watered-down R&B, mainstream 50s pop (Dean Martin was his idol), syrupy Nashville corn, and a shitload of gospel. All knowingly — and at times carelessly and crassly — packaged and sold with a heaping side of controversy-generating, hip-swiveling, pretty/white-boy sex appeal. The “King” could certainly rock out, mostly via songs written by Leiber & Stoller (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”), but considering his discography as a whole, he was really a novelty act (albeit one with one of the best voices of the 20th century) peddling a crazy quilt of styles.

Chuck focused with laser intensity on the rock — he penned his own material, fired off nimble riffage on the electric guitar (the true voice of rock & roll — Elvis never mastered more than two chords), and his little combo swung like a self-contained big band.

The guitar intro of “Johnny B. Goode” is a revelation in itself…the opening seconds are a fleet-fingered, high-soaring double-stop run, then the full band slams down for a single beat– WHOMP!–as his Gibson E-335 drops down and gets gruff. The band joins in again, propelling a loping groove that will drive the rest of the song, and Chuck lets loose a genre-crossing hillbilly holler. It is jazz, it is blues, it is country. It is Duke Ellington shaking hands with Bill Monroe, with a kicked-up tempo and a backbeat fit to shake a rent party’s foundations. It is the great crossroads that is rock & roll. It is the sound of joy, freedom, and de-segregation. 

chuck-berry-essential-list-songs-listen-ed817d62-1b80-49b9-8a45-4d90294ec90a

Chuck’s influence is everywhere. When my son was learning to play guitar, I heard him working through the chords of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” unamplified. My ears tingled with recognition. Without its trademark fuzzed-out distortion, “Revolution” is 100% Chuck Berry, which I’m sure John Lennon knew. Jimi Hendrix knew, too (“Johnny B. Goode” was a Hendix concert fave). Keith Richards knows, Angus Young knows, Joan Jett knows.

And WH voted “Midnight City” over “Johnny B. Goode.” “Chuuuuck suuuuucks.”

Which would have been fine if this were any other of the hundreds of Roulette rounds, for just a spot on the list. I didn’t care if Chuck was #500 as long as he was represented. But this happened to be an elimination round. WH had consigned one of the founding songs in the canon of rock & roll to the rejection pile in favor of some half-assed, shoegaze synth-pop horseshit. I don’t even think it was one of his own contributions to the list. 

“I just keep hearing Marty McFly,” he shrugged as I attempted to flip over MMDG’s kitchen table with one hand while shoving my middle finger into his smug face with the other.

I almost quit the whole group on the spot, but I (sort of) got over it. 

IIT Caricatures

Mid-period Institute of Idle Time, as caricatured by MMDG, 2010. We had auxiliary nicknames as well as our official “initial” pseudonyms. My role in the group is indeed “salty curmudgeon,” but I don’t really wear an eye patch.

I held on for a couple more years, but in 2012, after a decade of our shenanigans, I retired from the Institute. Us Elder Idlers had long since stopped being co-workers, we all lived in different towns, and we no longer saw each other every day. But the deciding factor for me was that I was heartily tired of new music…especially the new music that everyone else picked. MMDG and WH remained roughly in sympathy, taste-wise, with the Junior Division. I was (and remain) totally out of step with all of them, at least as far as post-Y2K music is concerned. I made a conscious decision to exist in a warm, selfishly nostalgic cocoon of music I already knew and liked. Keeping up with every new release fell by the wayside. (I explain my “retirement” more in-depth in this piece I wrote at the time.)

After sputtering and almost dying, Idle Time carried on without me, Rouletting albums and songs from 2014, 2015, 2016, etc. and producing online playlists (CD-Rs now an antiquated relic) posted, along with blurbs, to the official Institute of Idle Time website (currently more of a forum for MMDG’s obsession with comic books.) 

One of the major criticisms of Idle Time leveled at us by family and friends outside of our hive was that the musical choices we made were obscure, elitist, and pretentious. That we deliberately disdained the mainstream and trafficked in stuff that the average listener would never have heard of. 

And it’s 100% true. 

We were music nerds of the highest order. Deep Cut Sluts, if you will (an Idle Time term for those who fetishize the totally arcane and unknown, or when dealing with a well-known artist, swoon over finding and championing an under-heard, unappreciated gem in their catalog). And these insular tendencies had started growing so, so much worse as time went on. Idle Time lists of the 2010s are infested with artists like Lykke Li, Jens Lekman, Deerhoof, Perfume Genius, Jai Paul…the list — literally — goes on and on. Solange, Darwin Deez, Beirut, Frightened Rabbit, Yeasayer.

Heard of any of them? This is the kind of stuff that forced my retirement.

To Roulette correctly, you had to listen to everything submitted by eight or nine other people…and it was all starting to be stuff along the lines of what I listed above. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Life is too short to grit your teeth through hours of music that you really, really hate. As I put it at the time, I own it as my failing. If you know and like any of the above artists, I’m not denigrating your taste, I’m denigrating my own. I’m basic.

So I guess I was/am Idle Time’s resident classicist, and I couldn’t take a minute more of everyone’s super-indie, arch, overly-arty nonsense. It became a tiresome collection of a lot of muddy, amateur hip-hop. A lot of droning, third-rate electronica. A lot of warbly “bands” that play their effects pedals more than their instruments. More shitty drumming than you would think could exist on a planet of sentient beings. More oh-so-sensitive Swedes and Scots with tremulous voices than you can shake a stick at. Roll it all up tightly and cram it, I’m out. I’ll just crank up some fuckin’ Stones. Keep your Tyler (comma) the Creator, I’ll stick with Big Daddy Kane.

The trilby. Shut up.

Despite my music-for-the-common-man rallying cry, my wife unabashedly calls all of us by that painful epithet “hipster.” In my defense, I’ve never referred to Bob Dylan as “Zimmy.” Yes, I frequently wear a flat driver’s cap (just look at the pictures). I once — once — wore a trilby in public. But I’ve never sported a handlebar mustache, nor have I ridden a fixed gear bicycle since I had my Huffy BMX when I was ten. (I wouldn’t mind living in Portland, however.)

So to sum up, my retirement was of the “semi” variety. I invoked my “professor emeritus” status and joined in on a couple of projects I didn’t want to miss. Once to participate in Rouletting our 15th Anniversary “Best of the Idle Time Era, 2002-2017” playlist…

…then, in early 2018, Idle Time decided to shut down all the critics and their Deep Cut Slut-shaming. The next major project would be ranking ONLY songs that charted in the Billboard Hot 100. Ten of us chose ten “popular” songs each. The only stipulation beyond Hot 100 status is it had to be a song that was in some way meaningful to whoever chose it, rather than just thinking it was a cool song (otherwise “Good Vibrations” would have been at the top of my list — no, not the Funky Bunch one…)

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Leopards can’t change their spots, and some Idle Timers deliberately chose the most unknown songs ever to get within shouting distance of notional “popularity.” Many of us almost gave up on the whole endeavor in disgust in the first fifteen minutes when someone (RF) chose Sisqo’s audio diarrhea “Thong Song” in the opening round. (EDIT: I’ve since been informed he chose that one to prove a very Deep Cut Slut point about popularity not being a bellwether for quality. Yes, we know. That wasn’t the point.)

But we soldiered on. The tracks were duly Rouletted and ranked…

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…then the project stalled when people didn’t want to do the heavy lifting of writing the damn blurbs for the website. (Getting some of us to blurb is like pulling teeth. Not the Holy Bee, of course, and to no one’s surprise, mine are usually the longest by quite a bit.)

Life moved on.

But during this coronavirus, work-from-home spring, Idle Time’s Hot 100 rose from the ashes due to all of us deciding to pass the time by simply sharing our thoughts on these songs with each other informally, via instant messaging. 

This triggered my decision to go back through all my favorite artists, re-listening to their catalogs with fresh ears, and assembling playlists on the music streaming service Spotify…

More to come. Stay tuned.

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The Institute of Idle Time

3 Comments

Filed under Life & Other Distractions, Music -- 1960s, Music -- 1970s-80s, Music -- 1990s, Music -- 2000s

3 responses to “The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 1: The Institute of Idle Time (A Re-Introduction)

  1. Dee

    Great to read about your old times…..glad it sparked your engine to look again and relive those times…..😊

  2. Donald fucking nailed it in that Hives homage though, didn’t he?

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