I didn’t think that, when I decided to write about the 22 significant songs in my life, it would be so significant to me. It started out as a fun little “greatest hits” exercise, and I figured the hardest part would be trying to keep the list to 22 songs. I didn’t expect it to turn into music therapy. Figuring out why I chose these songs made me look at where I’m at in my life, how I got here, and what I’ve learned about myself along the way. I hope this little couch trip has been entertaining and hasn’t made anyone feel like they should be charging $200 per hour to listen to this.
So here we go, the most significant 11 songs in my life.
11) “I Should've Known,” Aimee Mann. For a long time, I was kind of sexist about my musical tastes. It’s not that I wouldn’t listen to female artists—I had a number that I liked very much. It’s just that, when push came to shove, I didn’t really take them as seriously as male artists. Early on in my music fandom, this had more to do with female musicians not engaging in the pseudo-masturbatory fretboard wankery aimed directly at teenage boys. But my bias didn’t really change even when my musical horizons widened.
Aimee Mann changed that. I liked her work in Til Tuesday, thanks to The Lovely Becky’s inclusion of those songs on our mix tapes, and Mann got dork props by appearing on Rush’s “Time Stand Still.” Her first solo album, Whatever, turned mild appreciation into revelation. From the chorus of this impeccable pop song, she not only grabbed my attention, she made me realize that I had viewed female artists differently. That in turn got me thinking about how I felt about women in general. I’ve always believed in female equality, but I hadn’t really treated female songs, movies, books, and art equally. By recognizing how great Aimee Mann was, I realized how subtle that bias could be.
That’s a pretty big revelation to get from a five-minute pop song, and that’s why Aimee Mann is on this list. I also apologize in advance for the rest of this list being a sausage fest.
10) “In Between Days,” The Cure. As I wallowed in a miasma of guitar solos and double-bass drums and fantasy concept albums, I attended a Southern California high school that was all Boingo and Depeche Mode and The Cure. My friends listened to that stuff and mocked my appreciation for hard rock. That made me sink my heels in deeper to my metal dragon mount and ignore the wider world of pop music.
One day, talking to my friend from junior high school, Tom—a fellow brother in Rush and my former Dungeon Master—he mentioned that he had started listening to The Cure. I was all, No way. And he was like, Way. Had he been replaced by some Dep’d, cargo-pants-wearing pod person? Or did The Cure really not suck? I set out on my fact-finding mission by borrowing a copy of Standing on a Beach, throwing the tape into my stereo with skepticism stiffer than Robert Smith’s bangs.
Not only did it not suck, I found myself enjoying what I heard. When “In Between Days” played, I stopped the tape, rewound it, and played it again. And again. I loved this song. It was emotional and mopey like I expected, but catchy and even a little rocking. I made a copy of the tape and played it to death for the rest of the year, bought Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me when it came out, and even wound up seeing them in concert when I was visiting Tom.
No other song expanded my musical horizons like this one. It opened my ears to music I never would have tried.
Except for Boingo and Depeche Mode. They can still suck it.
9) “Pretty Vacant,” The Sex Pistols. Punk was a natural progression for me after The Cure, because at least punk was loud and heavy like my beloved heavy metal. My first punk exposure was The Ramones, who I liked very much. They were catchy, funny, and so dumb they were clever.
It was The Sex Pistols, though, that made me a punk fan. I knew plenty about the Pistols, but had never heard a single song until my friend lent me his copy of Never Mind the Bollocks my senior year of high school. I expected the Pistols to sound more like the discordant hardcore punk that the Pistols inspired. I was shocked to find that these were real songs, with memorable choruses and words you could decipher. Yet they also had the power of a Doc Martin kick to the head. I couldn’t get over the fury of this record. I had heard political music before, but not like this. “Holidays in the Sun” and “Pretty Vacant” in particular stuck with me, and I wound up with a new set of air guitar heroes. This in turn led to....
8) “Complete Control,” The Clash. I got into The Clash via the most un-punk manner possible: I checked out the best-of The Story of the Clash, Vol. 1 from the library. I wasn’t even wearing any safety pins when I showed my library card.
As much as I liked the Pistols, The Clash took my appreciation for punk to a whole other level. They had the same fury, but it was more focused, more meaningful. There was construction among the destruction. Unlike the Pistols or Ramones or most other punk groups, The Clash grew with me. Over the years as I played their albums, I’d pick up new nuances I’d missed: lyrical meanings or instrumental flourishes. The Ramones and The Pistols and most other punk groups were moments in time. The Clash were timeless.
The Clash became even more important to me as my political views changed in college, especially when I went to graduate school. There I was, studying American history and questioning a lot of what I had learned growing up. Here were The Clash, challenging what they had been taught. Even though this song is about the record industry and the punk movement, the idea of throwing off those who would control you meant a lot to me, because I had to cast off a lot of preconceptions to get to the place where I could think for myself. The fact that they put that message in a fiery, classic bit of punk rock made that lesson stick.
7) “Hammerless Nail,” New Bomb Turks. Of course, some songs stick with you because they perfectly capture a moment in time. That’s what this hyperfast bit of Columbus, Ohio, punk does for me.
I was living in New York City when this came out, just getting started in the working world and married life. Married life was easy, as it always has been with TLB. I also loved being in the Big Apple. The buzzing guitar in this song reminds me of getting out of work on a nice day and walking around Manhattan, soaking up the hustle and bustle of the big city.
But then there was working and what I wanted to do. My original plan had been to get a Ph.D. in history and become an academic. Seven rejection letters from the programs I wanted to attend got in the way of that. TLB already had a job in New York, so I hit the pavement and got what seemed like a dream job, working for the history editor at a publishing house. I got to talk to scholars I really respected and I liked the people I worked with a lot. I envisioned myself becoming an editor, and for a while, I was happy.
Unfortunately, I found that to be an editor, you had to like working with authors. Most of them were great, but the ones that weren’t ground on my nerves like nails on a chalkboard. They were needy, they were arrogant, they were demanding. Over time, they wore me down. The final straw came when I worked with a very talented but very difficult author. He had a touch of Ken Burnsitis, a rock-star mania gripping historians who had appeared in a Burns documentary, as he had. To be fair, he was writing a big, important, and widely acclaimed book. But he also wanted to be treated like a big, important, widely acclaimed scholar, before he had achieved any of those things. One request had been a research assistant to help him sort through hundreds of photo choices for the book. We didn’t have the budget for that, but in the spirit of soothing his ego, I volunteered to come over on a Saturday and help him out.
I showed up at his apartment on a hot summer day, where he greeted me shirtless. I sat on the floor and began going through hundreds of photocopies of photos and artwork, while he worked on the book. Halfway through, he excused himself, and suddenly his wife entered. She had this pixieish presence, with a very girlish voice and ethereal way of speaking. She proceeded to tell me how great he was and how important his work was and that we should do everything we could to make this book a success.
I thought, why the fuck do you think I’m here working with your husband on a fucking Saturday? Of course, what came out was a completely polite acknowledgement of his greatness, which made me hate myself even more. I decided to cash out my chips. Not only would I quit my pursuit as an editor, but to leave New York altogether. I needed a new change, and a move and career change seemed like the perfect elixir to cure my blahs.
But there’s a line in this song that captured another, key part of the story: Avoidance is my stock in trade, I do it almost every day, til the days go by in a haze of okays.
TLB and I left for Chicago, I got out of editing, and I started over. I went into marketing and advertising, and for a while I was happy. Until I started getting annoyed with clients, with some of the idiotic products I had to promote, with....sound familiar? As much as leaving New York and editorial work was the right move, my motivations were all wrong. I was naive and foolish for thinking a simple change of career and locale would magically cure my ennui. I realized that there has always been a large part of it’s not you, it’s me when it comes to my happiness, and that for every external thing bringing me down, there’s usually something internal acting as an accomplice. This song always brings that lesson home.
6) “That’s Entertainment,” The Jam. I am an Anglophile. I have been ever since I first saw Monty Python. But even more than my sense of humor, my taste in music tends to favor the British. Which is why one of my favorite bands is arguably the biggest British band to never make it in the states.
Along with The Clash, The Jam were one of the few early punk bands that managed to mature and change their sound without losing their edge. They kept the youthful energy and anger that led them to start playing music in the first place, but found new, more mature ways to express those feelings. This song is a perfect example. It’s acoustic, it’s quiet, it’s pretty slow. Yet it captures the disillusionment and discontent of its surroundings better than faster, louder, and snottier songs. I was always impressed at how The Jam pulled that off, and it showed me in my own work that you don’t have to hit someone over the head to kick them in the balls.
5) “Cut Your Hair,” Pavement. Oh, sweet irony, where would I be without thee? I have admittedly kind of grown out of Pavement, but they hit me hard at the right time. I had not, before buying Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, listened to music that was clever and funny. The clever stuff was usually serious, and the funny stuff tended to be a tad crude (like David Lee Roth).
Pavement managed to be both. I loved the wordplay, the jokes, the we’re-trying-so-hard-to-look-like-we’re-not-trying vibe. They were one of the first bands where I paid more attention to the lyrics than the music. This song in particular captured them at their best: writing a perfectly crafted pop song that skewers the industry that creates pop songs. If you didn’t listen closely, you could easily miss the joke. That’s the key ingredient in all great satire, and it’s the model I try to follow when I write.
4) “Valentine’s Day,” Bob Hillman. This song is Iowa City for me. I met Bob the second year TLB and I lived in The IC. He was a fellow Wouse—Workshop spouse—who came to Iowa so his significant other could attend the Writer’s Workshop. We went to see him play a local club. From the moment he started playing, I dug the cleverness, catchiness, and craft of his songs. He closed with this number, a song that should have been huge, a song that should have been used in a movie where John Cusack realizes what an ass he’s been and that he has to drop everything right now and go get that girl.
Bob and I became friends, and while I’ve always enjoyed his music, it’s taken on a different meaning for me since we left. When TLB and I came to Iowa City, we were both in transition. Moving to Chicago had been very beneficial in a lot of ways, but we weren’t really satisfied, especially TLB. The specter of infertility was already haunting us, and TLB in particular was being ground down by white-collar life. What we found in Iowa City—and what we needed even more than we knew at the time—was a community of great people who were in flux just like we were. On many an occasion, we all met up to watch Bob play a show and then drink with him afterward, talking about music and politics and writing. It was like being in college again, only now I wasn’t broke and had at least a clue of what I was doing.
I was very sad that our time there had to end, even though that was the natural order of things. But now when I play this song, I think of those nights and how happy I was that TLB and I took the plunge to move there. Even though I wish Bob had hit it huge and made enough money to buy Bushwood, there’s a selfish part that’s glad I don’t have to share my little memento of Iowa City with millions of other people. Although John Cusack really should use this in a movie.
(If you like the samples on Amazon, you can buy CDs directly from Bob.)
3) “I Am a Scientist,” Guided by Voices. Robert Pollard, the guiding force of Guided by Voices, was 37 when he became an indie rock star. He went from being a grade school teacher in Dayton to a rock savior, a guy melding British Invasion pop with the surreal creativity of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, all of it recorded with on cheap home equipment that made the songs that much more immediate and personal. No other songwriter of the last 20 years has cranked out as many gems as he has. If he had been from Athens or Austin and ten years younger when he was “discovered,” he would have been a household name.
More than being a great songwriter, he’s been an inspiration. Like I said, Pollard was already an old man in the rock game when he hit it big enough to quit his day job. By the time I saw GbV live for the first time, he was graying and well on the other side of 40. Instead of playing a cozy, VH1 Storytellers type of set that would have been age-appropriate, Pollard and has band of elder musicians proceeded to plug in, drink up, and rock out for three hours like they were 18.
It blew me away. As I’ve amply documented, I have had many self-imposed hang-ups about getting older, about making it as a writer, about being a success. When I started listening to GbV and especially after seeing them live, I realized how much unnecessary bullshit I had piled onto my psyche. None of that stuff mattered. If you wanted to create, create whatever you wanted, no matter how weird it was or how long it took. If somebody else dug it, great, if not, it didn’t matter as long as you were having fun. And if you kept working and kept having fun and stayed true to yourself, you might someday craft a two-minute diamond of a song that breaks you through long after most people thought you'd broken up.
2) “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” The Who. Most of these songs, while great on their own, are here for personal reasons. This song is here because it’s the greatest rock and roll song ever recorded, at least in my humble non-Rolling Stone opinion. It captures, as Spinal Tap would say, the majesty of rock and the mystery of roll. Epic, angry, amplified, political, and personal, it’s the rock anthem to end all rock anthems.
I see Pete Townsend as rock’s Shakespeare, the man who managed to be both accessible and wildly popular while keeping his work complex, deep, and adventurous. Imagine a song today being nearly nine minutes and featuring a long instrumental break in the middle becoming not just a huge hit, but one of the great songs of its age. Imagine the same song being unabashedly political, and yet being meaningful to liberals and conservatives. Now imagine that song being so timeless that it always seems appropriate, not matter how much things change or how much they stay the same.
It’s a case study of why breaking all the rules is necessary if you want to create something lasting, powerful, and original. And when I think of rock and roll, I think of this song.
And now, the number one...could I have a drum solo please....
1) “Walking on Sunshine,” Katrina and the Waves. The beauty of pop music is that it can say so much while still getting you to tap your feet. This ostensibly simple song is really an exploration of humanity’s place in the universe, grooving between the dark nihilism of Nietzsche and the blind faith of evangelicalism. The rhetorical and don’t it feel good? of the chorus challenges us to define good on our own terms, to find our own rays of sunshine on which we can walk toward perfect consciousness. Plus it kicks the crap out of Belle and Sebastian.
Okay, okay, the completely obvious number one....
1) “Tom Sawyer,” Rush. I have been a Rush fan for 26 of the 37 years I’ve been alive. In that time, I have loved and left a lot of bands. Being a creature of lists, I always have a running Top 5 bands in my head. Not only has Rush always been on that list, they have always been at the top of the list. Why?
The honest answer is I don’t really know. They tend to be a polarizing band. Their lyrics could be preachy and corny. Geddy Lee’s voice could range into dog whistle territory. In their efforts to evolve with the changing tide of music, they could do things like rap. Believe me, I know the criticisms of Rush much, much better than the critics of Rush.
Here’s the thing, though: Rush is the soundtrack of my life. When I heard "Tom Sawyer" and started listening to them, my family started moving around a lot because my father went back into the military full time. I continued those itinerant ways after I left college and got married. I’ve had arguably two constants amid all that flux: an enjoyment of boners and an appreciation for Rush. While most boners tend to blur into one lifelong erection, I can pop in any Rush album, play any song, and recall exactly what was going on in my life at that time. Not only can I not do that with any other band, I can’t do that with any other thing.
What’s more, their music lets me be a kid and grow up at the same time. They’ve changed their approach to music over time, leaving behind some of the youthful excess to craft more mature music. But even though they shortened their songs and Geddy Lee’s voice re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, Rush still retain a geeky adolescent energy, full of drum fills and guitar solos and screeching vocals about dystopian futures and adventures through black holes. They never lost what made them Rush in the first place.
More than anything else, that’s the lesson I have taken out of my love of rock music. I am going to grow up and mature and change. In fact, I should embrace those changes instead of fearing them and fighting them. But I should never, ever forget why I became a rock fan in the first place, and I should always keep this fountain of youth around, so that even as I get older, I never get old.
* * *
These two posts on these 22 songs have been the culmination of the Friday Random 11. I started writing music posts because I wanted to not only express my passion for rock, but challenge myself to express that passion in a creative ways. Since I started doing this in January 2007, I’ve written more than 42,000 words on my music collection.
That’s why, at least for now, I’m going to retire the Random 11 with this post. It’s been a great writing exercise for me—every week, I never knew what I’d write about, and it was really fun to find patterns in seemingly random songs. But I want to get back to writing more original material, and having one extra Friday a week to do that will help. I hope you enjoyed reading all those words as much as I did writing them.