Some people spend a lifetime in bars waiting for inspiration to strike, but writer David Klein was lucky. He was several months into his time as a regular at a New York City watering hole when conversation revealed his calling: to compile the rock era’s greatest “number songs” (defined as songs with a number in the title) from one to 99.
Klein kept at it after a move to Chapel Hill, compiling his findings in a blog and now the first installment of a book series.
“If 6 Was 9 And Other Assorted Number Songs” (7/21 Books) has essays invoking songs from Sparks’ “The No. 1 Song in Heaven” to Stereolab’s “Peng! 33,” also covering all the numbers in between with nods to Jimi Hendrix (from whence came the book’s title), Bruce Springsteen’s “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and other large and small figures of rock numerology.
A second volume covering songs with the numbers 34 to 99 is in the works and should be out next year. First, however, Klein will read from and discuss “If 6 Was 9” in Durham Thursday night.
Q: So are you numerically inclined?
God, no. I never cared much for numbers or math, and it was a complete revelation that I found this so interesting. It came out of discussions with a friend over beers, a great song for every number, and it dawned on me that it would be a really neat thing to try and see through to the end. I’ve looked at it like a mountain to climb.
Q: You haven’t come up blank on any numbers?
No – there is always something out there. Go to iTunes and plug in 67, and you’ll find something. I’ve written up to 71 (winner: “Texas 71” by Magnolia Electric Co.) and have not been stuck yet. The hard part is finding something I consider really good for every number. But so far I have.
Q: Are there songs you missed?
Yes, and I’m sure I’ll keep discovering more. Just yesterday, a friend mentioned a Pulp lyric that talked about being 33 years old, which would have been perfect for that chapter. But I don’t think I missed anything huge. Eventually, I had to just stop or it would have been endless. The very last change I made was to add a footnote about Harry Nilsson giving his first-born son the middle name Nine, which perfectly dovetailed with John Lennon, “#9 Dream,” Lennon’s lost weekend and May Pang.
Q: What were some difficult numbers to fill?
I was stuck on 12 until finding “12 Red Roses” by Betty Harris, a soul queen from New Orleans – fantastic, produced by Allen Toussaint. And I was in a hole with 28 until I discovered Toni Basil’s “I’m 28” on this girl-group compilation, and it was so cool and singular and not at all what you’d expect from this one-hit wonder. Similarly, I’d been thinking there were no good 26 songs out there until I found Stereolab’s “Olv 26,” which wasn’t just good but really good. It was great to realize I wouldn’t have to settle for some crummy placeholder.
Q: Were there other numbers with the opposite problem, too many songs?
The number 16 was like that. There are two Buzzcocks songs called “16,” and I could not make either one fit into the discussion. So I left them out. “Sweet Little 16” made me appreciate Chuck Berry all over again and consider that without him, the Replacements – and “16 Blue” – would not exist. All 16 songs lead to Chuck Berry. It was satisfying to realize I’d found the right one.
Q: Since you’re closing in on the end, what do you think the ultimate 99 song will be?
I think “99 Luftballoons” will be the one. I’m not a huge Jay-Z fan, so “99 Problems” is out. It’s pretty funny, though, the ’80s and ’90s are where it starts to flag and get sparse. But it’s still interesting, the oddities you find.
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