There are times when you just need to let yourself have a break and recharge your batteries. Friday was one of those days. Which is why I am doing the random 11 on a Monday instead.
First things first: Last week’s Top 10 was an open poetry slam, for which I promised a prize. Ten different people responded, so I used this scientific method to select a winner. I rolled a 4, so congratulations to the man who puts the “bit” in bitter, Res Publica, el jeffe de Republic of Dogs. Res wins a $20 Amazon gift certificate for helping me out. Res, shoot me an e-mail me at brando.cjsd at yahoo dot com so I can e-mail you your gift. There is one stipulation: you must use the purchase at Amazon's new cockring store.
So, the music. You may want to use the facilities and grab a beverage, because this is a long ‘un.
A few weeks ago, The Lovely Becky went on our lovely college radio station to play two hours of her favorite music. I was extremely jealous, because I constantly have a burning desire to a) share my opinions in a definitive manner and b) apply “a” to music whenever possible. It also got me thinking about the songs that have made the biggest impact on my life.
I’ve been a music fan since my parents bought me a Mickey Mouse record player when I was a kid. I played your standard kid fare, but my earliest forays into pop music were Meco’s disco remake of the Star Wars theme and Chipmunk Punk. I am not lying when I say that Alvin and company turned me into a rock fan, albeit a fan for sped up vocals sung by fake animals.
When I was 10, my parents bought me a boom box for Christmas. That really opened the floodgates, as I started taping stuff off the radio a lot. I wish I still had those old Memorex tapes, full of The Knack and Blondie and Loverboy, with songs starting as the DJ talked over them and getting cut off three seconds into the following commercial. I would sit and listen for hours, waiting for a new song I wanted to record. These kids with their Internets and their torrent sharing, they don’t know how good they got it.
So for the next two Random 11s, I’m going to pick the 22 most significant songs from my life. They may have influenced me creatively, gotten me through some tough times, or turned me into the overgrown adolescent dillweed I am today. But they played some role in me being me.
22) “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” The Beatles. I’ll cut off the pretentious cobag accusations with this revelation: the first album I played to death after I got my boom box was Kenny Rogers Greatest Hits. I loved how every song told a story, and how the melody helped you remember the story. It was like redneck prog, minus the time changes and swords and demons.
Growing up in the 70s, I also soaked in The Beatles like Palmolive, and I knew a lot of their songs as well. Which is why Sgt. Pepper’s was the first tape I bought for my boom box.
The title track isn’t even my favorite song in the album, but the concept is what hooked me. Like Kenny Rogers, the album told a story, but more than that, The Beatles were pretending to be someone else, a fictional band playing a fictional concert. It struck a chord as deep and lasting as the final one in “A Day in the Life.” The opening title song epitomized that fiction, starting with the crowd and orchestra sounds and going all the way until they introduced Billy Shears before “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
21) “Take It on the Run,” REO Speedwagon. If Kenny Rogers doesn’t take me down, this certainly chops me at the knees.
To say I played Hi Infidelity a lot would be like saying there are a lot of Orcs in Mordor: a true yet woefully inadequate assessment. I didn’t just play this album, I air guitared it every chance I could get. I wanted to be on stage, ripping off Gary Richrath solos and having thousands cheer. By the time I would get to the solo in “Take It on the Run,” I was someone else, somewhere else, letting my imagination run as wild as the notes squealing out of the speakers. It pretty much ensured that I would be a life-long music fan. That makes this song a diamond in my book, even if the sparkle is stained with cheese.
20) “Country Feedback,” R.E.M. This song came out when TLB and I almost broke up. We both went to separate colleges, thousands of miles apart. To everyone’s surprise, including our own, we made it work. The problems started when I started making plans for post-graduation. I wanted to go to graduate school, and the places I picked would have kept me away from TLB for another year at least (she was a year behind me in school). The thought of more long distance and putting something else in front of us became too much. Visiting her that summer, we spent our time together growing steadily apart.
Like millions of other people that year, we played R.E.M.’s Out of Time religiously. This song in particular captured how I felt about what was happening: a dark sense of loss, that it was all slipping away and there was nothing I could do about it.
Except I could. I realized, like Michael Stipe sang, “I need this.” I needed TLB more than anything else in the world, because I didn’t want to be singing a song like “Country Feedback” and wondering how I let the thing we all chase harder than anything slip away. So I promised her that once I finished undergraduate school, I’d go to graduate school at her college so I could be with her. That saved our relationship. Now this song reminds me of what could have happened but didn’t.
19) “Still Be Around,” Uncle Tupelo. This is the flip side of “Country Feedback.” I had decided to go to grad school to be with TLB, but hadn’t thought much beyond that. While I was still away, she put this song on a mix tape for me. Now, as a long-distance couple in the 80s and 90s, we had a long history of mix-taping. There are probably a half-dozen other songs I could put here that would be equally important. But this one captured what we had gone through: after four years of being apart, we still wanted to be together. What more did I need to realize I wanted to be with this woman for the rest of my life? When TLB came out to California to help me move, I planned a stop in Monterrey, where I got down on one knee in front of the ocean and asked her to always be around. When this song plays now, I always think of that moment.
18) “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions. I was a very tardy Costello fan, not really getting into him until I was in my late 20s. I was also not a liberal until late in life, as it took me a long time to divorce the conservative beliefs I inherited. Nothing sped up that process like the events after 9/11, when I watched terrorists use murder to supposedly promote freedom, and then watched our government squash freedom to ostensibly fight terror. It all seemed so nuts. One day I was driving down the street, thinking about the insanity of it all, and this song came on. I’d heard it plenty of times, but never quite like this. I sang along as loud as I could. When the song ended, I felt energized, like I wanted to say my piece about what was going on....
17) “Far Away,” Sleater-Kinney. Shortly after my Road to Iowa City event, I picked up Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat, which featured this song. After all the rah-rah flag humping filled the airwaves, it was a breath of fresh air. No other song about 9/11 sounds as horrified, appalled, and angry as this one. I still play it all the time, and it hit the same chord Elvis Costello did.
All great comedy comes from the blackest of emotions, from pain, anger, and depression. Hearing songs like this made me want to vent, but I don’t vent like this song does. The more pissed I get, the more I joke, skewering with humor. These songs didn’t plant the blogging seed, but they definitely shaped what grew from that seed. Some of my best stuff has been written while these two songs have played, and I think a lot of what I’ve written tries to focus their energy through my own prism.
Plus, I like women that rock. More on that next time.
16) “Highway to Hell,” AC/DC. It is no secret that I have a lot of Beavis in me. For all my master debating and cunning linguistics, at my heart I’m a 14-year-old boy that wants to play games and think about girls and listen to rock music. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that you do have to grow up, that having a Peter Pan complex isn’t healthy. At the same time that inner Beavis is still a core part of who I am. When I throw in some AC/DC, I get to release him for a bit, let him air guitar and shout fire! for a few healthy minutes. No other song lets me do that like “Highway to Hell.” Monster guitar riff, snarling Bon Scott, and singing about literally rocking you straight to hell. It’s a Flintstone vitamin for my soul.
15) “Welcome to the Jungle,” Guns N' Roses. I had a hair band problem in high school. As in I liked them. Ratt, Dokken, Whitesnake...the REO admission is tame by comparison. When I was a senior in high school, I took off with a couple friends to the beach. While riding in the back of my friend’s jeep, he popped in Appetite for Destruction. This was another of those musical moments where the scales fell from my ears. What the fuck was this? It sounded so dangerous and sleazy and genuine. There were no overly flashy solos or lunk-headed party anthems or faux danger. When Axl screamed “You’re in the jungle, baby, and you’re gonna die,” it sounded like he not only meant it, but had lived through it. For me, that moment stabbed hair metal through the heart with a sharpened can of Aqua Net.
Except for Def Leppard. I can’t quit Pyromania.
14) “Master of Puppets,” Metallica. Despite being into metal, I had avoided the really heavy, thrashing stuff in high school. I’m not sure why, because nothing gets Beavis going like fast riffs and pounding double-bass drums. But after seeing the GnR light and also discovering punk music, I gave the thrashier stuff a try. I borrowed my buddy’s Metallica CDs, and Master of Puppets immediately became a desert island disc. It sounded as dangerous and dark as GnR, but it added a progressive streak, with musical twists and turns amid the aggressive head banging. Even though I hate everything these guys now stand for, I still love this song.
“Highway to Hell,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Master of Puppets” form a metal fountain of youth for me. When I feel the weight of the adult world bearing down, I play these songs and still get that youthful buzz. With every passing year, that fountain becomes more valuable to me.
13) “This Boy Is Exhausted,” The Wrens. There’s a famous scene in Garden State where Natalie Portman tells Zach Braff to listen to The Shins, because they would change your life.
The Wrens Meadowlands is my Garden State Shins. I was at a low point when this album came out. I had just gotten rejected again from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, after doing the best writing I had ever done to that point in my life. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep trying, yet the prospect of ditching writing to focus on my day job seemed even more depressing. TLB and I were also in the trenches of infertility. I was, frankly, exhausted.
Lots of musicians write about being angry teens, disillusioned 20-somethings, or remorseful middle-aged adults regretting what could have been. This album captured that in-between time, being in your 30s and not only feeling clueless about what you wanted to do, but realizing you were running out of time to do it. I don't think any other album has ever captured my mood the way this one did. It was the perfect album at the perfect time.
As “Country Feedback” and hundreds of other songs have done, wallowing in this musical depression became cathartic and helped pull me out of the funk I was in. When it comes to the Hi Fidelity question of “do I listen to pop music because I’m miserable, or am I miserable because I listen to pop music,” it’s definitely the former for me. And miserable music can almost always make me feel less miserable.
12) “Stevie Nix,” The Hold Steady. A lot of this 30-ish turmoil had to do with the conflict between being the person I was raised and the person I was becoming. I had gone through a whole range of changes: reversing most of my political beliefs, losing at least some of my religion, and not knowing what I wanted to “do” with my life. Maybe that’s why I had a Peter Pan complex in the first place: being young and not having to think and question seemed so much easier.
Of course, I know that’s a dead end, that it leads to the sad pining of Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” Which is why The Hold Steady blew me away the first time I heard them. Here was the soundtrack for lapsed Catholics who didn’t want to grow up but knew they had to. Even when Craig Finn sings “Lord, to be 17 forever,” he later adds “Lord, to be 33 forever.” In ten years, I’m sure it would be “Lord to be 43 forever.” As tempting as perpetual youth is, it’s not living. That realization has made me a much happier, saner person in the last few years.
Next week, all the way to number 1. I don’t think it will be much of a surprise....