Joel Stein

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Author and Time columnist Joel Stein takes us through the songs that defined his identity as a youngster, from musicals to rock operas. He also sympathizes with the sensitive nature of E from the Eels and includes a nod to his Jersey upbringing with a Bruce Springsteen track.  Joel’s book “Man Made” is out now.

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Track List:

1. Bruce Springsteen - Jungleland

2. The Who - I'm One

3. Donald O'Connor - Make 'Em Laugh

4. Eels - On the Ropes

5. Wilco - Outtasite (Outta Mind)


Anthony Valadez: Hi I'm Anthony Valadez and I'm here with TIME columnist and author Joel Stein. Today we're going to talk about songs that he has selected that inspired him over the years as a part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Joel, welcome!

Joel Stein: I am so excited. This was a dream of mine, literally. I mean, I knew this was going on and there was a huge part of my ego that was like ‘why won't they ask me, maybe one day. What do I have to do to have them ask me?’

AV: And now you're here.

JS: And yeah, so you've saved several lives because that was my next plan. 

AV: Awesome. Well I'm definitely looking forward to hearing what you brought for us. What's the first record?

JS: I'm from Jersey so I had to pick a Springsteen song and there's a Springsteen song called “Jungleland”. It ends “Born to Run”, and this song brings me back to being a confused teenager who didn't know where he fit in and what his identity was and kind of searching for all that stuff ,and then searching in this weird place because this song was as close as I could get with poetry and art and still feel okay about it. So yeah, it reminds me that it's hard being a teenager. It's much easier being a forty-one year old. 

Song: "Jungleland" -- Bruce Springsteen 

AV: When you're sitting in front of, I don’t know if you're old school, the typewriter or Word Perfect, do you listen to a lot of music for inspiration or do you like silence? I'm curious.

JS: I write to music. I've been spending a lot of time trying to learn more about classical music so I listen to a lot of that when I write, but then there are albums I'm so familiar with that they help me write and I don't even hear them. If I'm really in a groove writing, I can go an hour or so without realizing it's on repeat or hearing it and it's just helps me, rhythmically, kind of keep typing.

AV: It's like a blanket?

JS: It's a blanket. It's a way of drowning out everything else. I don't deal with being alone in silence real well which is bad for writing, so yeah, putting a song on repeat sometimes is just a way to keep me in a rhythmic groove. 

AV: That was Bruce Springsteen with the song "Jungleland". Up next is the track "I'm One" from The Who's Quadrophenia. So, why this track Joel?

JS: The whole album is just one big song for me, so it's hard to pick one. I think this is the song that’s emerged from the album as kind of being what it's all about and if there were four  -- I could talk about Quadrophenia for hours, sadly, so cut me off soon -- but if there were four characters in the album, it was the Pete character that I kind of related to the most because that was the artsy-ist and most sensitive and wimpy-ist of all four characters. Now Keith Moon I couldn't relate to or Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle just seemed weird and dark. 

Song: "I'm One" -- The Who 

JS: I think for me, especially, maybe for everyone,in high school you based your identity around a couple of key things and one of them was a band. You had to have a favorite band. And I grew up in the late ‘80s and graduated high school in 1989 and me and my friends and a lot of people were into classic rock. And there were The Beatles kids, there was definitely, there were some kids who were into Rush. We are all kind of the same kind of nerds but you can separate out, depending on what type of nerd you were. 

I was a Pete Townsend nerd which was usually like a sensitive kid, who had rebelled a little bit. I wore my dad's long army coat, kind of like Quadrophenia. I had a mullet. I was always wearing rock t-shirt, often a Who t- shirt, if I had seen them recently. I just looked like a troubled, troubled child. My parents are great; we grew up upper middle class. And yet, I really related to Quadrophenia. Whenever I got sad, I would play that album.

AV: That's "I'm One" by the Who's Quadraphena. I'm Anthony Valadez, sitting here with TIME columnist and author Joel Stein talking music as part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Joel, what is next?

JS: I picked Donald O'Conner's song from Singin' In The Rain "Make 'Em Laugh".

I know that movie probably better than I know any other movie. When I was little I was very, very shy and anxious. Nevertheless, I wanted to be an actor. When I would watch a movie, I kind of always seemed to like the guy who wasn't the star, because that seemed like too much pressure. So like in Star Wars, I wanted to be C-3PO. I thought he was cool. 

So in Singin' In The Rain, I wanted to be Donald O Conner. Kind of the goofball sidekick, who doesn't even get the girl. I would never even aspire to be the guy that got the girl. 

So yeah, this movie made me think ‘Oh, that would be a really fun job, to be a comedian.’  This is kind of famous dance scene where he basically trips and falls and I used to set up pillows from couches and between Chevy Chase and the scene with Donald O'Connor, I would bring my parents in and trip over things and hope they would laugh. 

Song: "Make 'Em Laugh" -- Donald O'Conner plays

JS: We just made people on KCRW listen to "Make 'Em Laugh". That makes me really happy, that we just ruined some hipster’s day by making them listen to something from a musical. 

I only listen to -- just to get back to "Make 'Em Laugh" -- I only would listen to musicals until I was old, like 11 or 12. I thought rock was the devil’s music. I grew up in an Atheist Jewish household. I was a really sensitive kid, and I thought that people who listen to rock were bad, bad people. And I remember my babysitter had a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers shirt. I was like ‘Omygosh! She is one of them.’ She was trying to explain to me how it wasn't devil music and I was like ‘I’m pretty sure it's devil music’. And so, the first song I ever bought was when Gloria and Mickey came out. I had to listen to rock, or else I’d had no friends. 

AV:That was Donald O'Connor song with "Make 'Em Laugh" from the soundtrack  Singin' In The Rain. Love that one. What's next? 

JS: The song is "On the Ropes" from the Eels new album. I've never had a rock star friend, never thought I'd have a rock star friend, and the last rock star friend I had was E from The Eels. Because he is kind of famously hermit-like, I know he is listening to this so it's probably not the best way to phrase it. He's a loner, as you can tell from his music, and I was a big fan. 

Then through the most random series of events I met him and then he invited me to play in their weekly croquet game. There is a rock star croquet game at E's house every weekend, which he's cut back on now because it was a little too much because people started to get married and stuff and having kids. But yeah, I learned to play croquet through E. 

Song: "On the Ropes" -- The Eels

AV: E always seems to write from a place of being kicked and punched and just kind of maintaining a sense of optimism. With you as a writer, I'm sure you must get some feedback where you get kicked and punch and yet you must maintain some sense of optimism. Do you feel that with this song? Do you feel a connection with your writing and this song? 

JS: Yeah, anytime I write something that gets a lot of hate mail, when I didn't see it coming, I always feel horrible. My stomach hurts. I don't want to write again, ever. Then, after some time, you forget about it. A couple of them go well, and you're back. But yeah, you always feel… I mean you're putting yourself out there, so you're going to get attacked, so you have to be ready for it. But still, it's hard every time. I'm not as sensitive as E. He is a sensitive dude. But I know how he feels.  

AV: That was The Eels with the song "On the Ropes".

So your last song choice is "Outtasite" by Wilco, talk about this track.

JS: Music to me was super important to me when I was young and less so now. When Wilco kind of happened for me, when I was introduced to Wilco, I was like, ‘Well this is a band that speaks to me at this point of my life.’ In a way that I didn't think a band would become important to me again.

I'd say everyone I listed are people who have much more dramatic lives than I have, but I can still relate to them. I mean there are a lot of  Tweedy songs about drugs, but they're really complicated, they're really beautiful. You can spend a lot of time with those lyrics. They work as poetry for me. 

Song: "Outtasight" -- Wilco  

AV: Thank you so much for joining us at Joel.

JS: This is a dream come true, literally. Thank you!

AV: Awesome. For a complete track listing and to find these songs online go to and subscribe to the podcast through iTunes

("Outtasight" by Wilco continues to plays out)