I readily admit that I'm a numerically hyper-aware guy. In numbered lots, I'll only park in odd spaces, further preferring primes. To reheat leftovers, I program my microwave with the jersey numbers of my favorite hockey players. So David Klein's delightfully obsessive new music book, If 6 Was 9 and Other Assorted Number Songs, is right up my alley.
Klein goes digit by digit from 1 to 33 (two forthcoming volumes will continue up to 99), chronicling the wealth of songs with numbers in their titles and declaring one the ultimate song for that number. Taking its title from the Jimi Hendrix classic, it's a sumptuous, 33-foot buffet for the music lover, replete with thick steaks (the Beatles' "Eight Days a Week"), spicy sides (Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen") and fluffy desserts (the Shirelles' "Thirty-One Flavors").
Reviewer's Fact #1: I downloaded 13 new songs as a result of reading this book. And, yes, I considered finding a reason to download another just to avoid the unlucky number. Read If 6 Was 9 with a notebook or laptop handy. Blank "notes" pages are provided at the back of the book.
Klein's occasionally listy prose is generously seasoned with numerical information as he seeks to define the quintessence of each number, as well as music facts that confirm his comprehensive pop, country, rock, blues and soul knowledge. If 6 Was 9 has the feeling of a friendly playlist competition—with one hand on the iPod and the other wrapped around a beer at a bar in New York's Lower East Side—which is exactly how the idea for the book was born.
Klein, a freelance editor who occasionally contributes to the Independent Weekly, was sharing the Anna Domino song "88" with a bartender friend one afternoon, and they agreed that it was probably the greatest #88 song ever written. Before they knew it, they were firing off nominees for top songs for other numbers, and "three or four slightly damp bar napkins" were filled with song titles. Oddly, Klein leaves the number of downed beers unspecified.
Ultimately, this book aspires to find a heightened cultural understanding through its numerical lens, as if the notes of each song were tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. Klein transcends the novelty of his idea's barstool origins, delving sincerely and significantly into the mythos of each of these charged numerals that pop up in such a surprising number of the songs we love, hate or have never heard of.
Reviewer's Fact #2: The first night I had this book, I stayed up until about 2 a.m. reading it. I kept thinking of number songs and flipping ahead to see if Klein had written about them. He always did (except for one—see Reviewer's Fact #3).
The particularly poignant stretch of 14 through 18 delves into the weird and nuanced transition from childhood into adulthood, achieving the kind of broad cultural analysis and commentary that draws readers to Greil Marcus' work. Klein also touches upon songs with numbers in their lyrics—not solely in their titles—to capture the fine psychic gradations of how coming of age is conceived.
Songs in this range run the gamut from borderline pedophiliac (Donovan seems uncomfortably zeroed in on 14), to innocently wistful (cue the slow-dance doo-wop of The Crests' "16 Candles"), to hormonal and confused (Stevie Nicks' edgy "Edge of Seventeen"). And Klein slightly changes the thickness of the glycerin on Nicks' lens by noting that the song's brilliant title comes from her mishearing the phrase "the age of 17" through the drawl of Tom Petty's wife.
Reviewer's Fact #3: I only counted one glaring omission. Remember that funky "Eleven Twelve" counting song with the pinball machine animation on Sesame Street? Klein didn't. But is it better than Blondie's "11:59" or Betty Harris' "12 Red Roses?" I dunno. Might have to buy Klein a beer to mull it over together.
Some numbers require real craft to wrap a coherent chapter around them. Klein waxes upon 27's randomness and the near dearth of #32 songs, from which Robert Johnson nonetheless emerges with a gem. But these valleys are hardly Klein's fault, and they quickly disappear among the peaks. If 6 Was 9 is perhaps best read jumping around rather than consecutively, like how one skips to the next song in a playlist after realizing, 15 seconds in, that one doesn't want to listen to that tune at that particular moment.
Other than the many opportunities to discover new music to add to your listening library, the best thing about If 6 Was 9 is the suspense that Klein builds in each chapter leading up to his "verdict" about the best song for that number. Although you'll disagree here and there, Klein is very convincing without ever being that pretentious tunehead who knows everything about every song and finds joy in rubbing your nose in it.
You come away, instead, with that same breathless excitement you got when you first really connected with popular music, back when you were 13, or 14, or maybe 15 ...
This article appeared in print with the headline "Listening by numbers."