Now more than ever, the field of rock & roll literature is a crowded one. With each new tome that tumbles into the world, there’s an ever-increasing sense that you’re being told a story you’ve heard before about the music you love. But amid this densely-occupied literary landscape of tropes and truisms, David Klein has defied the odds and come up with a fresh perspective from which to write about pop music. For the New York-bred, North Carolina-based writer, music is a numbers game—at least, numbers provide the unifying principle for the dizzyingly eclectic array of songs, styles and artists he covers in If 6 Was 9 and Other Assorted Number Songs.
“The impetus was a conversation that occurred over a beer,” says Klein of his new book, describing what’s been the genesis of countless author’s most intriguing works over the years. “When we were singing the praises of [avant-pop singer/songwriter] Anna Domino’s ’88,’ and I made the possibly rash statement that it had to be the greatest 88 song of all time. Of course I wasn’t considering [Jackie Brenston's '50s rock & roll classic] ‘Rocket 88,’ or [The Nails' New Wave hit] ’88 Lines About 44 Women,’ which got me thinking, ‘What would be the ultimate 33 song? What would be the ultimate 12 song?’ We started making a list, and pretty soon the thing just sprouted legs…and that was 5 years ago. I started posting on a blog and it evolved over a couple of years.”
Klein’s book is anything but a dry list of song titles, though; for this initial volume—two more are in the offing—there are essays for the numbers 1 through 33, each one digging into not only into the details of the relevant songs, but the history of the artists, and most fascinating of all, the crazy connections that can be made between them, all with a minimum of academicism and a maximum of humor and pure, unadulterated music-geek passion. “Part of what excited me about it was finding new connections in this subject, pop music, that has been so studied,” says Klein. “It was like finding a little buried treasure, to find an avenue to look at these things that possessed these wild collisions, these strange juxtapositions. Like, Beyoncé and ['80s punk-jazz band] Tupelo Chain Sex both have records called 4, I found that kind of funny. [John Lennon's] ‘# 9 Dream’ leads to John Lennon’s ‘lost weekend,’ leads to [Lennon drinking buddy] Harry Nilsson, leads to Harry Nilsson’s firstborn son, whose middle name was Nine. That was the last thing before I closed the book.”
Of course, finding the proper way to make all these disparate elements flow together between the covers of a book is no simple task. “It’s like climbing Everest,” says Klein. “The numbers we can count on our hands are the most essential, you find hundreds of 7 songs and 3 songs. They don’t have as many inherent associations the higher you go. Once you get into even the mid 30s or the mid 40s, what does 46 mean to most people? You’ve got to search a lot harder.” But one of Klein’s most daunting tasks ended up being what to leave out. “The more songs I turned up, the more the pieces were in danger of being lists,” he recalls, “and I had to kill a lot of my darlings…just for the sake of concision. I didn’t want songs that were so obscure that only six people would hear them. You’ve gotta deal with the elephants in the room—you can’t write about 45 without writing about ‘Stars on 45.’ I love ‘Seven Seas’ by Echo & The Bunnymen, and then I just thought ‘It’s gotta be Love’s “7 & 7 Is”’—there’s just so many.”
According to Klein, things will get even more interesting in Volume Two. “38 and 45 and 40 all have the distinction of being nouns,” he explains. “You can drink a 40 and shoot a .45, so there’s a whole subgenre. 44 is really the big gun one, it goes all the way back to ‘Stagger Lee.’ You can connect the dots between Woody Guthrie’s sheriff chasing him with a .44 [in "Billy the Kid"], and The Stones’ ‘Heartbreaker’ with your .44. These connections exist and haven’t been uncovered.” So, does thinking this way about music ever seem strange to Klein? “It’s sort of like insanity,” he assesses. “An insane person never thinks they’re insane, and a geek never thinks he’s a geek, he thinks he’s writing about something really important and pretty freaking cool. I’ll wear it proudly,” he says of the geek mantle.
Naturally, this is the kind of compendium that seems to beg for Monday morning quarterbacking from opinionated readers, but in fact, that’s exactly what Klein is counting on. “I’m hoping that enough people see it that I can get all kinds of flak for things I’ve forgotten,” he confesses, “that’s my ideal. I’m starting the conversation. There’s been a million list books, but nobody’s ever written this book before, nobody’s ever looked at it this way before. This is my take, and these are the ones that are important to me. I really think there could be a book like this written just for the blues, or just for hip hop. This was my very Catholic collection of observances on the subject.” In fact, some musicians have already begun to pick up on If 6 Was 9 and make their own opinions clear to Klein. “[Americana songsmith] James Jackson Toth, who goes by Wooden Wand, wrote me a really nice letter of feedback,” Klein reveals, “and said, ‘Sorry man, “23 Minutes in Brussels” [by Luna] beats Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter #23,” it’s the perfect song.’ That’s the fun of it, it’s subjective. I come right out and say, ‘Obviously The House of Love couldn’t hold a candle to Robert Johnson, but I’m gonna pick them for my 32 song anyway.’”
So what is it about numbers that fascinates us, especially in the context of as ostensibly non-linear a subject as pop music? “They are more definitive than words,” reckons Klein, “and they are locked into an order. What they define is only one thing. There’s something iconic about them. I’m not a math guy, so it’s funny that I should end up pursuing this. They have a legitimacy, they’re like the beginning of the phone book before the letters start. I feel like I’ve found the rock phone book, and the first section’s all blank, so I’m filling it in. As Robert Pollard said [in Guided By Voices' "Motor Away,"] ‘The time will come when you add up the numbers.’ And I feel like that time has arrived.”