By Riley Silverman and the Pajiba Staff | Music | April 29, 2016 |
By Riley Silverman and the Pajiba Staff | Music | April 29, 2016 |
“Music, you know, true music - not just rock n roll - it chooses you. It lives in your car, or alone listening to your headphones, you know, with the cast scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain. It’s a place apart from the vast, benign lap of America.” - The late Lester Bangs, as portrayed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous.
It’s no secret to anyone that 2016 has been really, really unkind to lovers of music. From serious audiophiles to casual fans, all of us have felt a little bit of loss as the greats have gone, often unexpectedly and always seemingly far too soon. But the reason we feel these pains so hard is because music loves us, it finds us when we need it most, and becomes a part of who we are. I asked some of my fellow Pajiba writers what songs or albums they’ve lived with, or have found when they’ve most needed it, or just in general felt like they’ve found a place for themselves in.
Riley - “Gracie” - Ben Folds, Songs For Silverman
“Gracie” is the second of two songs that Ben Folds wrote for his children on his post-Five solo albums, the first being “Still Fighting It” on Rockin’ the Suburbs, which had been dedicated to his son, with “Gracie” to his daughter. “Still Fighting It” is a much more introspective song, a father looking back at his own life and mistakes, the similarities he sees in himself and his son, and the pain and triumph of life the kid is in store for. “Gracie” seems a little more like a cut and dry love letter from a father to a daughter. The thing is that when both of these albums came out, I was living as a man, and never believed that I would transition, so I thought of “Still Fighting It” as the song that I was supposed to relate to, and “Gracie” was just a song that I appreciated musically, and at most made me imagine having a daughter of my own some day.
Folds’ music always has a way of sneaking up on me though, and hitting me at the exact times that it needs to. The first time that happened with “Gracie” was 2012. My brother was killed in a car accident, leaving his two young daughters without their father. This once quiet, delightful little song became 2:38 seconds of pure sobbing from me. The line “There will always be a part of me // Nobody else is ever gonna see but you and me” to me became about the traces of my brother we’d see in the faces of his girls, and the part of him that would just be how they remembered him, how his life and loss would forever become part of their selves. A box marked “daddy” that would be forever sealed in their psyches.
But Ben wasn’t done with me yet. Having shelved “Gracie” for a couple of years, it found its way back into a playlist recently and came on when I was driving. It was the first time I’d heard the song since beginning transition. It takes on yet more sadness for me because of the awareness of the fact that I know choosing this path means I likely will never have children, never have my own Gracie. But also, there’s some joy too. Because for the first time, I’ve heard it in a world where it was public knowledge that I’m someone’s daughter. When Ben sings to Gracie, “And I would never try to make you be // Anything you didn’t really want to be,” I’m immediately brought back to a conversation I had with my father in 2014, when he could sense that I was deeply unhappy living the way that I’d been trying to for so long. He flat out asked me if I’d considered transitioning, living as a woman. I responded “It’s too late for that,” and without a second of hesitation he responded “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
Petr - “Child In Time” - Deep Purple, Deep Purple In Rock
In just over a month it’ll be six years since my dad shuffled off this mortal coil. It was a complete freak occurrence that none of us were ready for. I was 22 at the time, and it was the most defining event of my life. But let’s rewind a minute and switch tracks.
Up until the age of 15, when it came to music, I had lived my life as a completely passive and apathetic sponge. I had zero conscious preference, and less than zero knowledge of the divine art. My dad on the other hand was, and always had been, a huge appreciator of the form. Having grown up with them, he loved classic, blues-based rock bands. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd — you name a titanic band from that era, he loved ‘em. He loved them so much that having the records smuggled through the Iron Curtain into Prague didn’t seem either a physical, or mental, obstacle. The music just had to be had.
So I can only imagine him biding his time as he watched me grow up in London, seemingly unmoved by the wealth of aural greatness available to me at a whim, until — somehow — he must’ve sensed that it was time. He walked into my room one day after school with a CD in his hand. Making a beeline for my Hi-Fi as I looked up from my PlayStation gormlessly, he opened it up (it was, of course, empty — only the radio would ever play), put the disc in, pressed play, turned it up, and sat down. I had no idea what was going on, and I was about to speak up when those two softly-spoken G chords and an A minor rang out. The only sound then in that room was the most immense and transformative song I had ever heard. With Jon Lord’s apocalyptic organ, Ian Paice’s hyper-controlled drums, Roger Glover’s grooving bass, and Ian Gillain’s impossible banshee wail, I suddenly knew what music was.
And then the three-and-a-half minute mark hit and Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar cried out and I was a changed man. Thirty seconds in to being a changed man the band sped up, Blackmore changed up his playing, and all I could see in my mind’s eye from then until the solo ended were guitar fretboards burning and skies exploding and I knew what I had to do.
Four minutes later the song finished, I grew my hair and picked up a guitar.
I’ve since lost the hair but kept up the guitar, and to this day if I’m just liquored up enough on the way home from a night out and this song comes on in my headphones I will instinctively raise my fist with a defiant set of devil horns to the sky. I’ll most likely shed a tear too, because this track — like the best pieces of music — has that uncanny and unfathomable power to allow your mind to momentarily transcend time and space, and to briefly glimpse the totality of things, both good and bad.
And that solo? Still the best thing ever.
Emily - “Terrible Love (Alternate Version)” - The National, High Violet
I’m going to level with you: this thing was a real punch to the dick, artistically speaking. See, on the one hand, I believe myself to have a better than average … most things. In this case, taste in music which I very much want to show off. On the other hand, music is intensely personal for me, and I’m not what you would call a “sharer.” So I had to either pick my ego or my alarming inability to admit feelings. Ego won.
But I’m still not ready to share anything with personal significance outside of the song itself. So no songs attached to an ex or family member or friend or specific event. A song that could be snipped from the spider-webbed memories surrounding it while maintaining the now isolated emotional connection. Clearly that song was always going to be “Terrible Love.” This is my go to song whenever I need to feel my way through anything. I use it for sadness, happiness, uncategorized funks, when I need to be comforted, when I need to be empowered, when I need to get out a good cry, and when I need to be reminded that there are things that transcend.
And people, seriously, make sure you get that good-shit alternate version. The stripped down album version is good, but it’s not this. This is expansive. Also no, you’re not wrong to believe that some of the lyrics are vaguely gibberish. “It’s a terrible love, and I’m walking with spiders” doesn’t really mean anything. In a lesser constructed song, those lyrics would negate any musical value. In this song, it’s instinctual poetry. It means nothing and everything and it just makes sense. The whole song makes no sense while somehow making all of the sense. Nothing so small and sad while also being so big and powerful should work as well as this does. The drums relentlessly drag the rest of the song towards the climax; a quiet confession of personal shortcomings surrounded by a couple of driven guitar riffs and someone’s haunting falsetto. It’s huge and private and heartbreaking and strangely uplifting. Matt Berninger shouts “It takes an ocean not to break,” and I break. Every. Goddamn. Time.
Gross. Now I’ve got feelings all over me.
Jodi - “Livin’ On A Prayer” - Bon Jovi, Slippery When Wet
Put some shut in your up and stay with me here. Yes, this choice seems super cheesy in comparison to some of the other songs. However, I am someone who finds joy in the goofy and ecstasy in the idiotic. This is just like my younger cousin.
When my cousin and I were younger, “Livin’ On A Prayer” elicited strong yelps of excitement that turned into warbling along with exaggerated falsettos. This tradition carried on throughout our teenage years, early twenties, and the start of our thirties. We even performed the song on a karaoke machine at a family reunion. As we energetically screeched and dissolved into laughing attacks, all of our previous iterations of the song mutated into one loud, idiotic, ridiculous performance.
Then life happened. Unfortunately, my cousin began to drift away from me. She was skipping family events. Her appearance had changed and something was wrong. If she ever sees this post, she’ll probably rage and curse my name. That’s because she’s become addicted to some terrible substances that have ripped the cousin I used to know from me. The fun-loving jerk that would run everywhere with me when gas was cheap and weekends were full of adventure is gone.
Now when “Livin’ On A Prayer” comes on the radio, I have to change the station. I can’t think about what she’s become. What might kill her. What we may never have again: a moment of pure ridiculousness made possible by warbling along to Bon Jovi.
Kristy - “Novocaine For the Soul” - Eels, Beautiful Freak
People think because I have a funky sense of personal style and an unusual haircut that I know about music. I don’t. I’ve just been lucky enough to have friends with great taste, who have thankfully introduced me to bands like The Cure, The Pixies, and David Bowie. But there was one band that I found. And just when I needed them.
A film nerd in a small town needs some ingenuity to feed their habit, or did back before the internet made just about every film ever readily available. Blockbuster only got you so far. So, once a month I’d hunker down and map out a TV Guide schedule of what movies to program the VCR to record over night from the movie channels. From there, I was exposed to indie movies like Sling Blade, Clerks and a charming little-known rom-com called A Dream for an Insomniac. That movie about a girl who declares “anything less than extraordinary is a waste of my time” introduced me to Eels, and their first big hit “Novocaine for the Soul.”
Scratchy and earnest. Jaunty yet pained. “Life is hard, and so am I. You’d better give me something, so I don’t die.” It spoke to my soul. I was an agnostic in a Catholic school. The girl with short hair and the nerve to never fake bake, not even for winter formal. I stuck out. And I was outspoken. Particularly about how my peers and teachers should stop saying “gay” like an insult and should stop saying “faggot” all together. None of this was welcomed in a small town way before the concept of marriage equality had gained momentum. And for all this, I was regularly harassed and openly mocked. One boy in particular used to follow me to class, spitting the word “fag” in my ear the whole way to see if I’d cry. Another girl threatened to kick my ass so often that I gauged how many friends I was making by how many people warned me over the course of the day. Someone trashed my locker—literally threw trash in my locker—and the principal (a nun who wasn’t a fan of my protests) basically told me that maybe it wouldn’t happen if I shut my mouth and smiled more.
I was furious. A lot. But I had friends and I had theater and I had a secret. I was better than this. I was going to get out of here. I was going to move to New York. I would spin my love of movies into a vocation I’d love. I just had to get through now. This awful, shitty, juvenile now. Cue the chorus, “Novocaine for the soul. You’d better give me something to fill the hole. Before I sputter out.”
I listened to this song and this album every day before school. It was my armor. It was my shield. It reminded me that there were more people like me out there. And day after day it got me through. I even used a lyric as a final “fuck you” in the yearbook, though the editors went with the radio version “This paint-by-numbers life is messing with my head.”
Listening to this song used to make me feel strong and resilient. But now, I can’t hear it without crying. In part, because that girl was so angry and so hurt, and I can still feel reverberations of all that pain nearly two decades later. But mostly, I cry with joy. Because she did get through. She got to New York. She’s seen the world grow in some ways that have meant the world. She loves her chosen home, adores her friends, and relishes her work.
“Life is good. And I feel great.” Really.
Courtney - “The Way Things Are” - Fiona Apple, When the Pawn…
I was 15 when Fiona Apple released When the Pawn…, her second album, lengthy of title and perfect in every way. Every song spoke to me in that 15-year-old way, when painful love songs destroy your soul in an epically relatable way, even though you’ve never even been on a date. But this song was different. I remember listening to it on my Discman on repeat, and just staring. It burrowed into me and stayed put, until I’d need it later.
Over the next 15 years up to today, I’d experience heartbreaks varying in size and depth and ache. The scenery would change, and some of the characters, but the song never did. “I wouldn’t know what to say to a gentle voice, it’d roll right past me / And if you chalk it up you’ll see I don’t really have a choice, so don’t even ask me / I’m much better off, the way things are / Much much better off, better by far.” It wasn’t the most positive, sunny “I’m going to be OK” song out there. But it was what I needed in every moment I needed it. It was real. Because life sucks sometimes. And I’m not necessarily in a place to have what I think I want or need. I’m better off the way things are. Much much better off. Better by far.
Lord Castleton - ‘Soup’ - Blind Melon
Everyone goes through a period of life where they feel “stuck.” ‘Soup’ got me through that time of my life. I was stuck in one of those jobs that was grueling and soul-crushing, with long hours and too much responsibility without enough actual authority. And I wasn’t writing. I was creatively dead and in debt and I remember feeling so unbelievably trapped. Just trapped. And every morning I would get into my car and put my hands on the wheel and sigh. It was like “fuck, can I do this again today?” I would just sit there with my hands on the wheel, the car not even running, and try to gather the energy and toughness to weather another day in hell. I would turn the key enough to get my CD player to kick on, and I’d tab it over to track 7: ‘Walk’
It starts out:
find myself singing the same songs every day…ones that make me feel good when things behind the smiles ain’t okay
…and I’d find myself slowly smiling. I just love how it opens, love the acoustic guitar and Shannon’s voice. A few minutes later we get to the most empowering verse:
And I can’t believe that I have to bang my head against this wall again. But the blows they have just a little more space in-between them. Gonna take a breath and try…and try again.
And when I’d hear that it would help me muster up the courage to face another day.
I’ll never understand how ‘Soup’ isn’t more beloved, but it’s the first album that made me feel completely understood. It’s a little-known, much ignored, but underappreciated gem of musical risk and honesty and brilliance. It was Shannon Hoon’s farewell to the world and more than twenty years later it still feels relevant and it’s still a cornerstone of my library. For more on it, and why it never succeeded, there’s a great article here.
The whole album is above, but start at 16:05 to hear ‘Walk’
Lainey - “Extraordinary” - Liz Phair
I was in a go-nowhere relationship that was putting me through the ringer. He had severe depression and on top of it, was still in love with his ex. I had Florence Nightingale syndrome and thought I could fix him (ha!) and on top of it, was beyond crazy about him. We were “together” off and on for a couple few years and my self-esteem was basically in the toilet.
I had heard Liz Phair before and had enjoyed her songs. In fact, before he and I hooked up, I used to (loudly) sing along with “Why Can’t I?” about him. A friend made me a mixed CD (yes, children, that was a THING) and Phair’s “Extraordinary” was on it. As I said, I’d heard it before. Several times. But one day, one day I HEARD it. One day it sunk in.
“See me jump through hoops for you// Stand there watching me performing// What exactly do you do?// Have you ever thought it’s you that’s boring?// Who the hell are you?// I AM EXTRAORDINARY, IF YOU EVER GET TO KNOW ME!”
And that was it. That was my lightbulb moment. It wasn’t me. It was him. I was fine and I was going to be fine. And now whenever I feel less than fine, when I have those moments of self-doubt or the Imposter Syndrome starts whispering its taunts, I throw on this song and sing it at the top of my lungs and I’m more than fine. I am extraordinary.
Dustin - “Club Can’t Even Handle me Right Now” - Flo Rida
I have no idea who Flo Rida is, but about four and a half years ago, a reader sent me a link to a YouTube video that has since been pulled for copyright reasons. It contained a montage of various television characters — Matt Smith, David Tennant, the cast of ‘Community’ — gleefully dancing. It remains the most joyous video I have ever seen. The song was called “The Club Can’t Even Handle Me,” by Flo Rida. I’d never heard it before, but I cannot explain how happy that song made me. At the time, my wife was in a months-long stay in the hospital, pregnant with twins that we weren’t sure would live. Every single day, I’d wake up and wonder if my future daughters would survive another day in utero, and every single day, I would drive my son to the hospital with my laptop and work in the hospital room with my wife until bedtime. In the evening, I’d walk a few blocks away to grab dinner for the family and on the way to and from I’d listen to that song over and over and over. I — unhip, aging frat-boy looking white dude — would fucking dance my way to the pizza joint or the sandwich place. I swear to God, it was the only thing that kept me going. It made me hopeful. It made me happy. It suppressed the dread and fear and anxiety and it brought out hope, hope that would live until those two girls miraculously arrived, alive and healthy. I think I played that song 100 times on the day they were born (and to reader who sent me that video, if you’re still out there: Thank you).
TK - “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” - Paul Simon w/ Ladysmith Black Mambazo
It’s hard to fully explain how momentous Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album was when it came out in 1986. My family had moved to the United States from South Africa only a year or so before, fleeing Apartheid. While I had briefly lived here before, this time I had more of the South African experience under my young belt, and we truly often felt like strangers in a strange land. People forget that for the most part, South Africa and its racist, tyrannical government had been largely ignored, or worse, countries were complicit with its regime, and so few people seemed to understand the struggle. And then out of seemingly nowhere, “Graceland” arrived. It wasn’t a particularly political album, although there were absolutely political moments to it. But it brought attention to our country, and it brought sudden international renown to the amazing Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The album was accused of being exploitative by some, of appropriating the South African culture and music. But we never saw it that way — we saw it as an awakening for the American people, a bridging of our two worlds, the flavors of our old home merging with that of our new one. “Graceland” was incredibly important to me and my family, and within weeks all four of us — my parents, my sister, and I — had all memorized all of the songs and would routinely sing them together. Years later, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and Apartheid finally fell, we went to see him speak and be welcomed by the world at the Hatch Shell in Boston, and Simon and Ladysmith were there and it was — it is — one of the most incredible moments in my life, full of joy and tears and celebration. It’s a perfect album full of terrific songs, but it’s this one — the wonderful, lush, “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” that I always remember most fondly, the perfect merger of the two acts and a glorious celebration of my two worlds.