While I sit here typing this, my daughter is in her room, listening to music. Although our generations have very different ideas on what constitutes “good” music, I forgive her because I recall vividly my own parents looking at me with a somber disappointment when wandering into my room while I had my own tunes cranked. Music is music. If it moves your soul somehow, it’s doing its job. I’m left wondering if any of the songs playing in her room will make it to her own life soundtrack. If the one I’m hearing this moment makes it, my daughter must have a future in rave clubs or Hindu prayer. I’m baffled. And kind of wish I had a glow stick right now.
Having said that, I introduce you to my Life Soundtrack, Volume 2:
Track 1: Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong by The Spin Doctors—Before you can drive, finding yourself in your older sibling’s car as a passenger is exciting. Factor in that sibling’s friends, and you aren’t simply riding to the store or another errand. You are taking a journey. You are peeking into the wonderful world of what will be. Taking a short trip out of town in the back of my sister’s white Ford Tempo, observing the interactions between her and her friends Chris (a drummer in a band) and Brian (the singer and a guitar player in the band…and the man who would become my brother in law many years later), I was overwhelmed. What that overwhelming sense was exactly, I couldn’t have told you at the time. As a grown man now, I realize that it was my first glimpse into the magnificence of those friendships we develop in our late teens and early twenties. Those friendships that incorporate our views on how the world affects us through the art around us. The Spin Doctors were thrown into the stereo and Chris went on a rant about how they were completely underrated when it came to their percussion. He slapped out the drum beat on the dash with reverence. Brian tossed out his own air drums while singing along in harmony with my sister. I had not known friendship of that kind yet. Nor was I sure that I would. That would come later. But for those three minutes and fifty seconds, I was involved in something special.
Track 2: Black by Pearl Jam—Most regular karaoke singers can tell you the first song they sang. Mine was included in Volume 1. Karaoke can be a blast when you’re out with friends. Drunken renditions of anything by mediocre or poor singers are the staple of karaoke. Having worked in karaoke bars for a little over a decade, I saw more than my share. I have advocated many times for the possession of special licenses being necessary to sing Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Adele, Whitney, and Journey. Many, many have tried. Most have failed. Horribly. But at least it gets the crowd smiling, even if it’s from overpowering uncomfortableness. On the other end of the spectrum are those singers who take part in competitions. I’ve competed myself. Karaoke competitions can be brutal. They are far from The Voice, but within the community of karaoke singers, there is a feeling of honor to be included on stage with other, incredible vocalists. And the Midwest is filled with those. Thus, when stepping into competition, it can be daunting. I never felt like one of the strongest singers in the group. Judges felt I was good enough to make it to the finals quite a few times, so I believe I’m decent at it. However, competing isn’t my strong suit. My stage presence is awkward, to put it very mildly. I never know where to look—At the judges? The crowd? Over their heads? The stage occasionally so I don’t fall off and die? The screen with words occasionally so I don’t forget where I was and then die? So, I cope with it by drinking a lot of the free beer in the green room prior to going on stage. Obviously, this is the best course of action. It has resulted in me usually making some inappropriate, sexually-connotated joke toward one of the male judges. Once, it resulted in me dropping to my knees for dramatic effect at the end of the song…only to realize there was another run of the chorus through which to make it…now on my knees. In short, I feel like I often fail miserably at the competitions. However, back in 2008, I performed Mustang Sally by Wilson Pickett (which involved a lot of pacing back and forth drunkenly across the stage) followed by Pearl Jam’s Black (which many people told me not to do for competition) for round two. For whatever reason, a certain calm came over me as soon as I started singing and I stopped worrying about the judges, the crowd, stage presence, and even my vocals. I just sang. I let a song that I loved take over. I sang it for me. And I won first place. I’ve performed it more times than I can count since then. But I think of that song any time I feel I don’t belong, or I’m in over my head. My own little grunge rock version of “I’ma do me.” Even typing that out made me cringe.
Track 3: Heaven by Warrant—Yes, this dates me a bit. Shut up. In fairness, this song was released when I was ten. It didn’t come into my life significantly until I was thirteen, at which point it would go on to represent the loss of childhood as I knew it. Small town life meant that all the kids in school knew one another and options for romantic relationships were limited. Add a kid being overweight and obnoxious into the equation, and you have a boy who focuses most of his attention on his step-father’s stolen Playboy magazines and practicing how to kiss on My Pet Monster. I’m not proud. But those shared affairs with that furry, plastic-nosed, stuffed son of a bitch prepared me for my shining moment with Emily Corn. Granted, Sarah Dixon was my first kiss (and resulted in a mixed tape), but with Emily, I shared the dance. You know the one. That junior high dance at a home off school grounds. Young hormones were racing. I didn’t have much of a clue as to what to do with those racing hormones, but she didn’t seem to mind the slight poking against her thigh and I certainly didn’t mind that she didn’t mind. All I knew was that I could smell her perfume and her giant hair tickled my neck. And that there was no way I was going to pull away for a second in case she came to her senses. It was with Heaven playing in the background during my most-assuredly stellar slow dance moves that I had that real kiss. Emily, if you read this, I apologize. Your lack of giant, warty nose or elongated plastic teeth probably threw me for a curve. I can only hope you were cheating on your pillow or a random poster on your bedroom wall.
Track 4: Seasons by Chris Cornell—If you haven’t seen the film Singles, do yourself a favor and find it immediately. The storyline is incredible. The actors are brilliant. It’s a fun and heartfelt watch, especially for those in their twenties who are trying to “discover” themselves. The best part about the movie, though, is the phenomenal soundtrack. It encapsulates rock music of that time, especially the Seattle Sound. Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam have cameos. Throughout the film, Cornell’s Seasons plays periodically. I was in high school when it was released. I didn’t find it until a couple years later. Despite not being in my twenties yet, it spoke volumes to me. Now in my thirties, that hasn’t changed. And Cornell’s brilliant chord structure and amazing vocals still punch me in the heart every time. The song is so well-written that it doesn’t take me back to a specific time or place in my mind. It takes me inside myself. This piece itself represents those seasons of change.
Track 5: Break on Through by The Doors—The 1960s marked a change in the climate of music. Even the Beatles took a turn. In 1967, The Doors attacked the music scene. Jim Morrison saw himself as a poet and the music was background to that poetry. Being well before my time, I didn’t discover The Doors until high school, when I read that a lot of my favorite current bands at the time had been influenced by them. The first song I found was Break on Through. It embraced the angst in me and gave validity to the questions I was asking about “what it all means.” Even the keyboard had the desperate urgency I felt about things I didn’t yet fully understand. It was listening to The Doors that I experimented a lot with hallucinogens in an effort to see the world differently. Whether it worked or not is up for debate. And I’ve chosen to avoid angst as much as possible now. But the music still reminds me to never stop trying to see the world through different eyes.
Track 6: While My Guitar Gently Weeps by The Beatles—Todd Griffin was the biggest Beatles fan I’d ever met, and my best friend in high school. While I was listening to both modern and classic rock, The Beatles had just been something I’d disregarded. I knew their stuff. She Loves You and Hold Your Hand just weren’t my bag. They were a little too pop for my taste. They were cute. And they didn’t have that poetry that I wanted. And, so, while riding in Todd’s car (his car, his music, was the rule), he put a cassette in (yes, a cassette) and I found myself listening to a beautiful tune. He’d thrown in The White Album by The Beatles. While My Guitar Gently Weeps blew me away. I’d been duped into enjoying a band I told him I wouldn’t ever like. That summer was spent with us cruising around after work, jamming out to The Beatles from their album Rubber Soul up to Abbey Road. Once, while sitting at a stop light, a couple in their forties pulled up next to us and told us that we were listening to some awesome music. Then we all sang along at the top of our lungs until the light turned green. It’s not often that teenagers blasting stereos at intersections have positive interactions with adults. The Beatles made the world a better place that day.
Track 7: The theme song from Wow, Wow, Wubzy—If you’re a parent, you have at least one of these awful song types stuck in your life soundtrack. This was a cartoon my daughter watched non-stop until the Care Bears snatched her attention during age two. In case you don’t know about Wubzy, he’s yellow with a high-pitched voice and a jagged tail on which he bounces from time to time. Think of a canary-colored rectangular Tigger on crystal meth who has not had the decency to go through puberty. Then give the little bastard a catchy theme song that still sneaks into your brain after a decade. I give you Wubzy. The unfortunate thing is that this annoying song, regardless of its ability to make me consider breaking my television years ago, makes me smile when it attacks my mind like an unwanted musical ninja. It conjures up images of my daughter in her pajamas squeezing up next to me on the couch after an afternoon of chasing bubbles and riding her tricycle outside. In the realm of songs that move your soul, this one is up at the top.
Track 8: Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin—I credit my love for Zeppelin to my step-father. When I was young, my relationship with The Step-Dad was typical. He wasn’t my father. He would never be my father. I would make it very clear to him that he was not wanted. This naturally led to us not being BFFs. I thought he was an asshole. He rightfully felt I was the same. Our interactions in my early youth consisted primarily of me being a prick and him punishing me for it. Every year for my birthday, he would buy me one of those small paddles with the elastic band coming out of the middle that attached to a rubber ball. A toy that no normal human being could figure out how to work properly without some contractual aid from Satan. Within a week or two, the elastic band would break. And now he had a new paddle with which to spank me when I was yet again doing something stupid. One day, while in the middle of a spanking I’m sure I deserved much more from, the flimsy paddle broke on my ample butt cheek. Like the moron I was, I laughed. He spent the next two hours in the garage carving The Mother of All Paddles. This thing was a beast. Taped handle. Holes drilled into the center for better aerodynamics. And I’m fairly sure it was partially forged from the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor. That was our relationship. I misbehaved and said horrible things to he and my mother. He responded by swatting me on the ass with Sauron’s Wrath. We had an understanding.
In high school, my mom found my weed and hitter in my pants pocket because delinquents are idiots who forget they also expect their mothers to wash their laundry. My step-father volunteered to drive me back to my dad’s house that evening. I slumped in the car, waiting for the lecture that I was going to dismiss. Instead, he broke the silence by telling me that he used to smoke a lot of pot back in his day and he just wanted me to be very careful about the weed I got. “People put all kinds of crap in it these days. Make sure you know what you’re smoking so you don’t end up with something dangerous.” He then went on to regale me with tales of pot-smoking from his early days. We laughed. We bonded. It was on that car ride that he became a person to me. This was parenting that you won’t find in any how-to books. But for me, it was real. Not long after that, I started pouring through some of his music. One of the first songs I found was Over the Hills and Far Away. I can’t listen to a Zeppelin song without thinking about the man who provided tough love and eventual openness to a kid who went out of his way to make it hard. Thank you, Gary.
What songs are part of your life soundtrack? Why? I’d love to hear them.