Friday, December 26, 2014

Soundtrack of My Life

Originally posted on an iWeb log on Friday, December 28, 2001

Anyone who loves music can pinpoint specific music that has been most meaningful to them at various stages of their life.  Here is the "soundtrack" of my life, so far.  No, I’m not claiming that this represents every bit of music that has influenced me in one way or another.  These are just the highlights.  A few of these are nonspecific, but it was so long ago that I really don’t remember the titles of the songs or albums that I heard.

1.)    “Return To Sender” - Elvis Presley.  This song was #1 in the United States on the day that I was born.  I didn’t find this out until much later, obviously, but I still think it’s funny to this day.

2.)    Any song by Louis Armstrong.  My earliest significant musical memory.  My mom loved Louis Armstrong and, when I was growing up, I was exposed to his music on my parents’ stereo.  Later in my teen years, regardless of what I may have done to rebel, I never “dissed” Satch.  He just sounded cool.  I am proud to say that I am still a big fan to this day.  Want to improve your mood?  Listen to Louis Armstrong.

3.)    Scottish bagpipe music.  This was my dad’s influence.  A first, I couldn’t stand it, but he played it a lot and it grew on me.  Today, I just love it.  I proudly wear the kilt of my family tartan, on occasion, I have attended numerous Scottish Highland Games events, and my blood races when I hear the sound of the pipes. 

4.)    The early songs of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.  Secretly listening to AM radio on a small transistor under the covers after my parents thought I had gone to sleep, many of the most powerful AM stations were either playing doo-wop, early 60s pop, or country.  I remember being completely drawn in by the songs of folks like Cash, Haggard and Nelson because; back then, they were telling some great stories in their songs.  My love of a well-told story, in any form, can most likely be traced back to these songs.  Sadly, the popular “country” music of today seems more interested in making money than telling a good story.

5.)    “Hey Jude/Revolution” (45 rpm single) – The Beatles.  I remember a very pleasant afternoon when a childhood friend and I were taking turns playing 45s on a Close-n-Play phonograph.  Previously, we had access to stuff like Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and we thought we were so cool (without having any clue about the drug reference!)  However, that day, my friend managed to finagle this single from his older brother.  I honestly don’t remember how young I was, but I was blown away.  This was a definite turning point for me, at least in terms of my musical horizons.

6.)    “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” – Iron Butterfly.  The first full-length record album I ever owned and as strange as it may sound, I got it as part of a shoe store promotion.  This 17 minute psychedelic epic, which took up all of the b-side, stuck with me long after my fascination with the record wore off.  To this day there are times when I find myself tapping a pencil on a tabletop and realize I’m tapping out the rhythm to this song by some sort of subconscious default.

7.)    The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd.  Other than simply hearing the song “Money” on the radio, I discovered this entire masterpiece of recorded music when I was 14 years old.  The album was still relatively new then, and I have distinct (and very fond) memories of listening to it on the stereo in a friend’s basement bedroom.  Each of us was huddled up to a speaker and we sat there, reveling in the swirling sounds and samples that overtook us.  I still adore the album just as much to this day, even without the “herbal influences” we enjoyed back then.  Dark Side could easily be one of the greatest recordings ever made.

8.)    “Young Americans” – David Bowie.  Walking home from school with a girl in my neighborhood that I, shall we say, admired.  She seemed cool and sophisticated and beyond her teenage years and I was rather smitten.  She was into fashion and art, and absolutely worshipped David Bowie.  I don’t know if it was in an effort to get to know her better or simply because I was so intrigued with her Bowie stories, but I tried to walk home with her as often as she would let me.  The Young Americans album had just come out, so I was the beneficiary of her excitement about it.  I don’t know where she is today, but she gave me the gift of a lifelong appreciation of the man, his vision, and his music.

9.)    Will the Circle Be Unbroken – Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  This sprawling 3-record (now 2 compact disc) set included a virtual who’s who of traditional acoustic music, and is responsible for opening my ears to the spirit and virtuosity of bluegrass and old-time music.  The record is an in-depth American history lesson set to music.  If push came to shove and I had to pick a single song for this soundtrack, let’s go with the title track.

10.)    “Caravan” (live) – Van Morrison.  Hearing this version, taken from Morrison’s mid-70s live set called It’s Too Late To Stop Now, for the first time nearly caused a traffic accident.  I had just recently learned to drive, but had to pull off the road because I was concentrating so hard on what I was hearing.  By the time it was over, I was just sitting there completely dumbfounded.  The version on the Moondance album is great, but it’s nothing compared to this one.

11.)    “Cinema Show” – Genesis.  Believe it or not, there was a time when Genesis was not simply a vehicle for Phil Collins’ sappy pop songs.  The thing I loved about older Genesis (as well as the music of other “art rock” bands) was their blend of folk music themes with the grandeur of classical music.  In high school, for me, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Yes, and Jethro Tull would have been in the soundtrack.

12.)    “Thunder Road” – Bruce Springsteen.  I suppose, if anything else would have been in my high school soundtrack, it would have been Springsteen.  This guy knew how to evoke the passion of those years, as well as the confusion, in his songs.  Listen closely to the lyrics of this song and I think you’ll hear what I mean.

13.)    “Positive Vibration” (live) – Bob Marley & The Wailers.  Bob Marley’s Babylon By Bus, a 2 LP documentation of his 1978 world tour, opened the door to reggae music for me.  My love for the genre has only continued to grow over the years.  I prefer what is generally called “roots” reggae.  This is reggae with that familiar “rock steady” beat that you hear on nearly every Bob Marley record.  (Difficult to describe in words, but just about everybody knows it when they hear it.)  The lyrics very often deal with Rastafarian beliefs, nature, and/or the struggle of the Jamaican people.  It is often very uplifting, even for a white guy from the Midwest.  That a dirt poor, oppressed people can write songs filled with such hope gives me pause when I am tempted to complain about something relatively trivial in my own life. “Positive Vibration” is the first track from this album.

14.)    “Precious” – Pretenders.  One of the great 80s band, as far as I’m concerned.  It didn’t hurt that Chrissie Hynde was also from Northeast Ohio.  This song (besides kicking some serious butt) mentions “East 55th and Euclid Avenue,” which is very near the college I attended in Cleveland.

15.)    “Church Not Made With Hands” – The Waterboys.  I was raised in a fairly liberal-minded Presbyterian family, but there came a time when I began to question organized religion.  During college, I learned that there were aspects of many different “religions” that made sense to me, as well as aspects of many that did not.  This song came along at about that time, and made me realize that developing my own personal set of beliefs was not something for which I should feel guilty.

16.)    “Nowhere Road” – Steve Earle.  In 1987, I was hanging out in a record store in Cleveland when the owner (who had become a friend) put the needle down on Steve Earle’s Exit 0 album.  “There’s a road in Oklahoma, straighter than a preacher, and longer than a memory.”  I was immediately hooked, and have been an Earle fan ever since.  This guy is single-handedly responsible for renewing my faith in the power of a well-written song.  My interest in Earle’s music has led me to countless other great artists.  If push came to shove, his music might be categorized as country, but this is also a guy who claims that “Garth Brooks is the Anti-Hank (Williams)” and that “Shania Twain is the world’s highest paid lap dancer.”

17.)    “The Rainbow” - Talk Talk.  By the close of the 80s, I was listening to more and more esoteric music.  I was spending a lot of time listening to college radio stations and exploring music that flew well under the commercial radar.  Heck, some of it couldn’t really even be called music.  Listening to some of that weirdness on CSU’s radio station one night during a pledge drive, I heard them announce that this album was their premium for donating during the show.  I was already a fan of Talk Talk’s synth-pop music, and couldn’t get my head around why they were offering this as a premium on an experimental college radio show.  So I took the bait, donated, and a copy of the album arrived a week or two later.  It just blew me away.  It was like nothing I had heard before, and nothing like I have heard since.  20 years on, Spirit of Eden remains one of my top five albums of all time.  “The Rainbow” is, essentially, Side A of this amazing album.

18.)    “So What” – Miles Davis.  Okay, this one is really out of place, at least chronologically.  Miles’ Kind of Blue album was recorded in 1959, and is a masterpiece of jazz improvisation.  It is the album that finally allowed me to “get” classic jazz and, as such, acted as a floodgate to the joys one of the most interesting musical forms in existence.  The only sad thing is that I didn’t discover it until the early 90s, and until then was content thinking that “jazz” was some sort of instrumental rock hybrid.  (see fusion)

19.)    “The Book of Rules” – The Heptones.  Back in the mid 90s I started making reggae a regular (daily) part of my musical diet.  Sure, I owned the requisite Bob Marley albums and some Police / UB40 kind of stuff before that, but this is where I dove into the deep end.  I was hanging out in a local record store where I had become friends with the owner.  He was playing some great reggae on the store stereo with delightfully dependable regularity.  I started asking questions, he started playing more, and before I knew it we were both placing special orders from obscure little labels in order to satisfy our seemingly unending cravings for the stuff.  We were discovering "new" voices and vibes (many of which were recorded in the 70s) and the whole experience really opened a door to a type of music that has become very special to me.  I honestly believe that I see the world in a different light after being immersed in roots reggae.  Believe that.  My passion for the stuff eventually led to a very memorable trip to Jamaica in 1996.

20.)    “Over the Moon” – Luka Bloom.  A song that encapsulates my feelings for my wife pretty well.  “When she moves I watch her, when she speaks I listen, when she stands I stand beside her, when she laughs I’m over the moon!”  Early in our relationship, instead of having a single song that was “ours,” I made her mix tapes of songs that made me think of her.   Perhaps I’ll post track lists one day.  In the meantime, this song was a cornerstone of one of those tapes.

21.)    “Johnny’s Garden” – Stephen Stills.  This beautiful song from the Manassas album has become the theme song for life around the home we bought in 1998.  It starts, “There’s a place I can get to, where I’m safe from the city blues, and it’s green, and it’s quiet.  Only trouble was, I had to buy it.”  Our song of home.

22.)    “Silver Lining” – David Gray.  Quite literally, Gray’s White Ladder album is the soundtrack of our daughter’s birth.  We were playing it in the delivery room when my wife delivered her.  This song is particularly special with its chorus of, “We were born with our eyes wide open.”

23.)    "New Jerusalem" - Mark Hollis.  When I woke up on September 11, 2001, I could tell something was very wrong.  My wife was watching the news, the terrorist attacks had just happened, and there this an intense feeling of disbelief in the air.  By the end of the day, everything seemed so trivial in comparison to what had happened.  I couldn't listen to music for days, maybe weeks.  It, too, seemed trivial.  What eventually opened the door again was Mark Hollis' solo debut, and this song in particular.  If it were possible to record peace and serenity, this would be it.

24.)    "No One Knows My Name" - Gillian Welch.  I was adopted.  I never knew my birth parents nor did I have a desire to know them.  I'm not bitter, it's just that my adopted parents were so loving and caring that I felt no need to search for others!  This is not to say that I have never wondered about who gave birth to me or, from time to time, felt a little adrift in my bloodline.  I certainly never thought I would find a song that encapsulates these feelings, let alone as well as Gillian Welch does here.

To be continued...

Here’s to an ongoing musical soundtrack for everyone!

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