Soundtrack to My Life

August 31, 2017

Listen on Apple Music.

I am going to skip over the “It’s been a while since I last posted” intro because everything I have written in the past few years either does or could have that introduction.

A while back a friend told me about a mix he was asked to make by one of his friends. It was a mix of songs that detailed his “musical history.” Maybe he used the words “musical evolution.” Basically, the point of the mix was to include the songs that have meant the most to him over the entire course of his life presented in chronological order. By chronological order, he did not mean the year the song was released, but rather, the time at which the song was important in his life. I am not going to write about every song on my mix. I’ll write about the ones that mean to most or have the strongest memories associated with them. Without further ado…

“Beat It” by Michael Jackson – To my knowledge, Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the first album I ever owned (that wasn’t kid-related). On vinyl, for all you trendy, hipster douchebags. I do not recall listening to it, but I imagine I must have. What I do recall, however, were the videos for the songs on that album, specifically “Thriller” (obviously!) and “Beat It.” To a 5-year-old me, “Thriller” was probably terrifying and “Beat It” probably seemed pretty badass. I mean, how could a knife-fight turned choreographed dance scene seem anything less than badass to a 5-year-old? It also was a precursor of my future peace-loving, liberal self. “Come on guys, let’s put down the nukes and just dance.” Also, the riff in “Beat It” was probably my first taste of “rock” music and set the stage for a lot of the music I would like over the next 33 years.

“Surfin’ U.S.A.” by The Beach Boys – I don’t know if he still does, but when I was young my dad loved sailing. As such, my sister and I spent a lot of time on a sailboat as children. My dad told us it was his friend’s boat, but to this day, I’m not sure if that was entirely true. Either he was lying and it was his boat or his friend never used the boat and didn’t mind that my dad used it all the time. On this sailboat, there was a cassette deck that was attached to speakers both above and below deck. My dad was the music fan in the family and he was the one responsible for providing a soundtrack for our sailing expeditions. Many of the songs on that soundtrack were by The Beach Boys…for obvious reasons. I have no clue what album it was. Possibly a greatest hits album. When I was in my teens and twenties, I thought these early Beach Boys songs were beyond cheesy. As a kid, they sounded like fun. They sounded like freedom. I still remember summer days playing in the yard with my sister while we sang “Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” and more.

“Pinball Wizard” by The Who – My oldest daughter is almost three years old and she’ll tell you her favorite singer is Taylor Swift. What she means by that is that she loves the song “Shake It Off.” She doesn’t want to listen to 1989, she wants to listen to “Shake It Off.” Again and again and again. When I was little, I might have told you I liked The Who. What I meant by that was I liked “Pinball Wizard.” Tommy was one of the albums my dad frequently played in the car. As a kid, I could not have named one other song on the album. It was “Pinball Wizard” or bust for me. I would like to think it was Pete Townsend’s furious strumming on an acoustic guitar that hooked me. If I’m being honest, it was probably the subject matter. A song about pinball for Christ’s sake. I loved arcades and probably thought, “A grown-up song about pinball. Cool.” I should probably thank my father for introducing me to a great song by a great band, but I’d rather thank him for answering “What’s a deaf, dumb, blind kid?” about a million times.

“Faith” by George Michael – So far, two of the three songs were influences from my dad. Like I said, between my two parents, he was the bigger music enthusiast. Not to be outdone, however, this one is all my mom. My mom was always more of a radio listener. I couldn’t tell you too many other albums she loved, but holy shit did she love Faith by George Michael. Over the span of a couple years, it felt like this cassette never left the cassette player. Though there are a number of good songs on the album, there is little doubt that “Faith” is the best of them. Like 99% of people who had this album, it was the song we listened to the most. The other thing I remember about this song/album was the cover art. For whatever reason, I remember sitting in the front seat and looking at it countless times. Maybe it was the earring. Maybe it was the perfectly trimmed stubble on his face. Maybe it was the mystery hiding in that shadow. Maybe it was the fact that George Michael was probably my first exposure to homosexuality – or rumored homosexuality, as he had yet to come out – and I wanted to see what gayness looked like. He only had one earring and it was in his left ear…he had to be gay! This was a lot to take in for an 8-year-old boy in 1987.

“Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi – I grew up in New Jersey in the 80s. Need I say anything more? I remember riding bikes with my neighbor John and singing this song non-stop as we went up and down my driveway. To this day, this chorus is hard to beat.

“Patience” by Guns N’ Roses – Guns N’ Roses was the first band I remember really liking that my dad hated. As all kids know, that meant something. It meant you were doing something right. I still recall watching the video for “Welcome to the Jungle” and him passing some derogatory remark about them. It only made me like them more. I probably could have picked a number of songs by G n’ R, but this might have been my favorite. I never had the Lies EP and as such, the radio and MTV were my main sources for hearing this song. Every single time I got in the car or turned on MTV, I would hope and pray that I’d hear “Patience.” I am sure I had a version I taped from the radio, but it probably sounded like shit and had a DJ talking over the intro. It was this song that made me wish for a recordable cassette deck in the car. The reception in the car was far superior to the reception in my house and I would have loved to have been able to grab a version while in the car.

“Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin – I was on the way to a rec basketball game with my dad in 7th or 8th grade. We were in his gray Jeep Cherokee. We were listening to the classic rock station. We had just turned onto Cupsaw Ave. when the song came on. It reminds of the scene in The Perks of Being a Wallflower when Emma Watson’s character hears David Bowie’s “Heroes” and needs to know who sings the song. I needed to know who was singing. I asked my dad and he told me the thought it was Led Zeppelin, but wasn’t sure the name of the song. And so began my quest to find that song. After this day, I would buy a new Led Zeppelin CD in hopes of finding the song. I think it took me three or four albums before finding it. When I heard it again, I knew instantly. It was “Over the Hills and Far Away.” This song changed everything for me. Led Zeppelin was the first band I really got into. It ignited my interest in classic rock. This was the song and experience that would come to shape the rest of my musical life.

“Scenario” by A Tribe Called Quest – In middle school, I desperately wanted to be “cool.” I believe this song was released when I was in 7th grade. Maybe 6th grade. All I do know is that this was the song that a lot of the “cool” guys liked. They knew every word. I wanted to be like them (so sad to type that now), so of course I had to know every word too. The thing about it is that this happened to be a really, really good song. To this day, this might be my all-time favorite rap song. At the time, I didn’t know A Tribe Called Quest was one of the more influential rap bands. For all I knew, they were a one-hit wonder. Prior to this, my exposure to rap largely consisted of Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, etc. Yes, shitty rap. I think “Scenario” laid the groundwork for a lot of the music that would come to define the next couple years of my life.

“Nuthin’ But a G Thang” by Dr. Dre – If “Scenario” was my introductory course to real rap, “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” was my master class. I mentioned earlier that G n’ R was the first band I remember liking that my parents didn’t like. Well, gangster rap took that concept to the nth degree. Looking back, this genre of music was to me what the British invasion was to my parents. Just like their parents, they did not understand or appreciate this music at all. I don’t think that was a conscious thought at the time, but I’m sure it made it even more appealing to me on a subconscious level. It was raw. Gritty. Defiant. It was absolutely perfect for a 14-year-old.  I still remember seeing this video for the first time and thinking to myself, “What the fuck is this? I need more.” From that moment on, I was hooked. This was also the first time that an artist or song made me start tracking a genre backwards. After listening to The Chronic, I searched out music by NWA, Easy E, Ice Cube, etc. I recently listened to The Chronic, largely as a result of watching the HBO documentary The Defiant Ones (highly recommended). It still holds up. Still my favorite rap album ever. For the next couple years of my life, rap was the genre I listened to the most.

“Open Arms” by Journey – Let the record state, I appreciated  Journey long before two rich kids from Laguna Beach let it be known that they kinda liked “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Also before it played out the series finale of The Sopranos. I had my first girlfriend in 8th grade. She was the first person I ever kissed. Late start, I know. Like I said above, I wasn’t that popular at that point in my life. This was “our song.” This also marks the first time I had a song with a member of the opposite sex. I couldn’t tell you the song associated with all my subsequent girlfriends, but I’ll never forget this one.

“Creep” by Radiohead – During my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I mainly listened to rap, as stated above. The first song that made me think that maybe this “alternative” genre deserved some of my attention was “Creep” by Radiohead. As much as I came to love the music being made in the Pacific Northwest during the early-90s, it was only after getting into Radiohead, Weezer, etc. that I gave those bands a serious listen. I never ended up buying Pablo Honey, the album on which “Creep” appeared, but I came damn close. I have purchased every single Radiohead album since though. 1997’s OK Computer cemented their status as one of my favorite bands. “Creep” isn’t my favorite Radiohead song, but it’s the first song by them that I liked and that made me pay attention At that time, I pegged “Creep” as a one-hit wonder. Boy, was I wrong.

“Plush” by Stone Temple Pilots – Thankfully, I wasn’t quite as snobby in 1993 as I am now. Stone Temple Pilots are somehow remembered more fondly than they were received at the time. I remember hearing a lot of talk about how they were nothing more than a Pearl Jam ripoff. Thankfully, I didn’t love Pearl Jam yet. I also never really heard the similarities. To this day, I still don’t really hear it. Creed? Sure. STP? Not so much. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of the songs here have strong memories associated with them. This one is no different. For some reason, I distinctly remember this song playing while on a ride at a carnival in a neighboring town. I remember being there with my aforementioned girlfriend, but I don’t remember if we were together on the ride. The only thing I remember is that song playing. One of the best things about listening to music as I get older is how songs act as windows to the past.

“March of the Pigs” by Nine Inch Nails – “Closer” was the hit, “March of the Pigs” was the song that hooked me. A lot of songs from this period in my life remind me of a dear friend from HS. This is one of those songs. His older brother was a musician who had some minor success in the shoegaze genre. To this day, I don’t know why he had The Downward Spiral. It didn’t sound like a lot of the stuff he listened to, such as My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab, etc. My friend would grab his CDs from time to time and I’m guessing he grabbed this one to listen to “Closer.” I remember going to his house and him saying, “B, you gotta listen to this. The new Nine Inch Nails CD is crazy.” He meant that in a good way. The first song he played for me was “March of the Pigs.” I was blown away by the way Trent Reznor balanced fury with delicateness all within the span of three minutes. I quickly got the album and fell in love.

“Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd – As I mentioned above, I was introduced to a lot of classic rock growing up. For one reason or another, I don’t remember ever hearing the music of Pink Floyd though. I also never heard Frank Sinatra or Bruce Springsteen’s 70s material, but I understand that. My dad didn’t care for crooners and growing up in Connecticut, I suppose The Boss wasn’t his cup of tea. Pink Floyd though, I am surprised he never listened to it. At least not around me, he didn’t. I remember exactly who I was with and where I was the first time I heard “Comfortably Numb.” I also remember asking, “Who is this?” I probably deserved it, but the guy who’s car we were in responded incredulously, “Pink Floyd.” I don’t remember if I played it cool, but it was unlike anything I ever heard. I think I only heard a few songs that night, but I had heard enough. I rushed out to buy The Wall and continued to buy Pink Floyd after Pink Floyd album throughout high school and college. “Wish You Were Here” is probably my favorite Pink Floyd song, but it all started with “Comfortably Numb.” This also reminds me of the time the friend mentioned above and I watched The Wall. We rented it one night and were so excited to watch it. I don’t even remember if we finished it. We were like, “What the fuck is this?” I’d like to blame it on the fact that we hadn’t really gotten into drugs yet, but I don’t think that would have helped.

“Footsteps” by Pearl Jam – Considering the 20+ year love affair I have had with the music of Pearl Jam, this might be the most important song on this mix. This could get long, but I’ll try to keep it as short as possible. I was familiar with the music of Pearl Jam going back to Ten. If you were of a certain age in 1991, you knew “Alive,” “Evenflow,” and “Jeremy.” I liked those songs but wasn’t crazy about them. For whatever reason, I purchased their second LP, Vs, the week it came out. Again, like it, but didn’t love it. I passed on their third album even though it had a number of radio hits, including “Betterman” and “Corduroy.” Then, one night in 1995, I was in the car of someone who wasn’t a close friend. More of a friend of many of my friends. He was playing a cassette tape of some Pearl Jam rarities, such as “Footsteps” and “Crazy Mary.” Possibly “Yellow Ledbetter” also. I asked him who was singing and he explained that it was Pearl Jam, but that these songs were b-sides. I liked these songs much better than anything I had heard from them before. Just like my experience upon hearing “Over The Hills and Far Away” for the first time, this set me off on a quest to find everything I could by Pearl Jam. I bought bootlegs and singles for the B-sides. I collected articles. I scoured the internet for everything I could find about them. Considering it was only 1995/1996, there was considerably less than there is today, but there was still enough to keep me satisfied. I could go on and on, but I won’t.

The person who played me that tape? He’s now a U.S. Congressman representing a district in Florida. Go figure.

“Got Me Wrong” by Alice in Chains – One of my good friends in high school was in the grade above me. Naturally, he had his license a year before me. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time riding shotgun in his car. Seeing as how his family was well-to-do, his car had a 12-disc changer in it. As his frequent co-pilot, he usually gave me full control of the stereo. For what must have been a year, if not more, every single time I got in his car, the first song I played was “Got Me Wrong” by Alice in Chains. Around this same time, I was a big fan of Kevin Smith’s Clerks. “Got Me Wrong” was on the soundtrack to the movie, but it was in his car where I fell in love with this song. Some songs, you can describe why you like them. Maybe it’s the lyrics or the guitar work. To this day, I can’t tell you why I love this song so much.

“Dream On” by Aerosmith – My high school football coach played this song before every game. The team would huddle around, get on one knee, hold hands, and he’d put on “Dream On.” The rhythm of his speech always followed that of the song. He wouldn’t start speaking until Steven Tyler started singing. He’d start sort of quiet and slowly build as the song did. I’ve always liked the song, but I can’t hear it without thinking of those Saturday mornings.

“Silver Springs” by Fleetwood Mac – “Silver Springs is a great old song.” That’s how Steve Nicks concluded “Silver Springs” on Fleetwood Mac’s The Dance. She didn’t mention that nobody had really heard it before. It was originally intended for Rumors but didn’t make it on the album. It ended up as the b-side to “Go Your Own Way,” but with the success of Rumors, I’m not sure how many people were purchasing the album’s singles. I had always liked Fleetwood Mac, especially Rumors, but it was The Dance that made me really pay attention to Fleetwood Mac. Amidst the new songs and the old classics, it was “Silver Springs” that stood out. I wasn’t alone in this either, as a few of my close friends at the time and my sister shared my affection for the song. It became an instant car singalong classic for us. I think about these singalongs every time I hear the song.

“A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke – Before music became my main passion, television and music held that place. Much in the way that a song can remind you of a person, time, or place, they also can remind you of something you were watching. For example, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody?” I’m guessing if you are of a certain age, it’s this:

I used to watch a lot of HBO. In today’s world of on-demand watching, the concept of watching something simply because it’s on and you have no choice seems incredibly foreign. I am not sure I would choose to spend three hours watching Spike Lee’s Malcolm X countless times these days, but it was a different time. Towards the end of the movie, there’s a scene where Denzel Washington, who plays Malcolm X, is being driven to a speech he is about to give. The song playing during this scene touched me in a way not a lot of music has. However, I didn’t know the song. I suppose I could have paid attention to the credits, but for some reason, that never worked out. I would look at the soundtrack in the store but had no way to be sure that the song was on it. It’s not, by the way. It would be years before I would figure out the song. I was listening to an Otis Redding greatest hits box set while at an ex-girlfriend’s house when I heard it. Even though I hadn’t heard the song in years and couldn’t even hum it to you, I knew instantly. I thought to myself, “This can’t be it. I’m sure I’m wrong about this.” I wasn’t. Well, maybe a little. The version in the film is Sam Cooke’s original. Songs don’t come much better than this one.

“Faith” by Limp Bizkit – If we learned anything from the first season of True Detective, it’s that “time is a flat circle.” Apparently, a flat circle in which I would be reacquainted with an aggressive cover of an 80s pop hit that my mom was obsessed with. God, I wish I could take back the Limp Bizkit years…but I can’t. I’ll admit to really liking them through their first two albums. Thankfully, I was out after that. What can I say? Limp Bizkit found a way to combine the rap I enjoyed early on in high school with the harder rock music I came to enjoy after that.

“Naked As We Came” by Iron & Wine – Iron & Wine is probably the last artist I really got into. For a couple of years, I sought out anything I could by Sam Beam, the man behind Iron & Wine. Demos, bootlegs, singles, etc. The thing that bothers me the most about this one is I cannot remember how I became aware of his music. I’m guessing I heard “Naked As We Came” on Pandora, but clearly it did not have a profound impact on me at the time. However, I must have liked it enough to purchase Our Endless Numbered Days, the album on which it appears. As much as I liked that album, it was his first album, The Creek That Drank The Cradle, that I fell in love with. It didn’t sound like anything I had heard before. It still doesn’t. It was like discovering something from the Dust Bowl. A recording never intended to be heard by anyone other than the person responsible for it. It may be a top 20 album for me. We had a little separation period for the last few years as he experimented with his sound. However, we got back together recently with the release of 2017’s Beast Epic. It’s not quite as good as his early stuff, but it’s close.

“Breathe Me” by Sia – Before I knew her as a songwriter for some of today’s biggest pop stars, I knew her as the person who soundtracked the best final sequence of the best series finale on television…ever. (Spoiler Warning: If you’ve never seen this show and want to, don’t watch the following video.)

As I mentioned with “A Change Is Gonna Come,” certain songs are forever stuck in my memory based on an association with a movie. I wouldn’t say this is a favorite song of mine, though it is a really great song. I put it on here because Six Feet Under is probably my favorite show of all time. That may or may not have something to do with the fact that it had, as mentioned above, the best series finale I’ve ever seen. This is the song that played out my favorite show.

“Blue Sky” by The Allman Brothers Band – An onomatopeia is a word suggests the sound it describes. For example, meow, thump, or bang. I don’t think there’s an equivalent in music, but if there were, “Blue Sky” sounds exactly like its name implies. Every time I hear this song, it just feels like a sunny day with a bright blue sky. It doesn’t hurt that it has one of my favorite guitar solos. Sometimes, there’s not a whole heckuva lot behind why we like a song.

“Sleep Forever” by Portugal. The Man – The first time my girlfriend became pregnant, it was an accident. Planned or not, we were ecstatic when we found out. Our excitement was short-lived, however. Less than 24 hours later, she had an ectopic pregnancy which required emergency surgery the following night. It was a crazy 24 hours, needless to say. I went from thinking I was months away from adding a life to hours away from losing two. Things really didn’t look good for an hour that night, but thankfully, they finally figured out what was going on and were able to successfully operate. That following night, as she slept, I sat in a chair next to her bed browsing Twitter and listening to music. For whatever reason, I chose to watch the video for “Sleep Forever / Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now).” For whatever reason, it really resonated with me in that dark hospital room. I didn’t expect to like the entire album it was on, but it became my favorite album of 2011 and remains a favorite to this day.

I realize the beginning of this one is a little depressing, but I now have two healthy and happy daughters, so all’s well that ends well.

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