Hey, you. We haven’t talked in a while because my life is going really well, overflowing full of promotions at work and adventures in life and love. And grad school, which is none of the above, but interesting and gratifying and a lot of work. It’s nice to be here tonight.
A friend shared an assignment with me for a music class he is working on, a get-to-know-you essay asking students to pick three songs (any genre) that most accurately speak to who you are. Make your case as to why these three songs, he said. Game on, I said. This is way more fun than reading development theory. I thought you might like to read my musings that I just sent back to him, and I’d love to hear yours.
Sept 2, 2014
I have an over-identification problem with songs. It’s ravaged me my whole life, from the time I first listened to “American Pie” and felt deeply, weirdly sad — off in some strange monumental place that I didn’t have any personal experience with, but I nonetheless understood. “A long, long time ago, I can still remember how the music used to make me smile.” Has there ever been a more perfect opening line for a song, or a sadder one? I didn’t know, but I wanted to figure it out. I then proceeded to listen to that song on a cassette tape that I taped off the radio, roughly 1352 times that year between elementary school and middle school. The day the music died? What a terrible thing for my eleven year-old brain to try and empathize with. I felt it, man, especially in those elegiac closing piano notes on the last verse.
So the assigned task of picking three songs that most accurately describe me is not difficult from lack of choices. If we could pause on different points in my life, I could have felt summed up by “Vogue,” (Madonna, fifth grade, bangle bracelets) “Man In A Box,” (Alice in Chains, trying to impress a dude), any number of terrrrrible Christian rap songs that still sometimes get inexplicably stuck in my head (like this morning: the entire bridge, mind you), and real sad heartbreakers by Ryan Adams or The National, for crying in your coffee when love is gone and you’re just a big shimmering ghost of snot and sadness. I am an excruciatingly active walking songbook, most days. Wouldn’t trade it.
But: game, set, match Professor. I’ll give you three songs.
Yellow Ledbetter – Pearl Jam
One of the transformative functions of music in my life so far has been to uproot me from the ground I felt was home, to give me something to rebel with, something to flip off the establishment with, and crowdsurf to in my Doc Martens at a Cracker concert when I was fourteen. Not that I suffered any great indignities that I needed escape from (except maybe the aforementioned Christian rap), but that separating seems to be one of the most natural (and essential) growing pains that music can shove us into and then ease us through. For American youth this is a leitmotif we all recognize, from lindy-hopping in scandalously short skirts, to watching Elvis gyrate and screaming over the Beatles, to turning on / tuning in / dropping out.
As for me, I got to be fourteen in 1993 and rage against the machine with Pearl Jam, much to the slight bemusement of my parents. The second Pearl Jam album Vs. was the first CD I ever bought (after having Ten on cassette), and something in me electrified and woke up roaring, even if I didn’t exactly know yet where that roar came from. I immediately became not just a huge fan, but the best fan. Although long lapsed now, I can still recite my official Ten Club fan club number: 50792. I once spent all $200 in my savings account to buy a single scalped ticket to see them play a secret show in Santa Cruz billed as The Honking Seals. In those nascent days of dial-up internet, I joined an internet list-serv and posted to message boards, participated in tape trees to distribute and share live recordings of shows because in those songs I found a sort-of closed eyed bliss. I knew alternate endings and unreleased versions and one time my dad stymied my youthful rebellion to take me all the way to San Diego to see them live in concert (after Eddie Vedder got sick at Golden Gate Park and cancelled the next leg of the tour much to my utter ruination).
As a hard-scavenged b-side in the days when b-sides were much more difficult to find, this song always felt like mine from the first time I heard it; enigmatic and bluesy and undeniably beautiful. It is, at its core, a fumbling, sweet mess of a song that glitters with a sort of hope that all the teenage angst could never quite beat out of me. This song is how I felt inside at fifteen, and maybe it is how a lot of me still feels. When I listen to it even now, the roundness of the notes always hang there golden in front of me, like nothing could ever get better. Who knows …maybe it never can.
Mary – Patty Griffin
Even though I kept the battered brown Doc Martens, I pretty quickly jumped myself from teenage rebellion and on into marriage, and then into parenting a wonderful sweet little boy who joined me in 2003.
I was fascinated the first time I heard this song because of all the hidden layers of a human being that it flays apart. In this instance, it happens to have religious allegorical tones, and we happen to be talking about a mother – one of the most archetypal of all women and all mothers. But really, to me, it is a song about how none of us are ever just one thing, or even a handful of easily-identifiable things. Being a young mother and then a single mother and then an adventurous single mother roaring out on her own joyful and terrified, most of the images I’m handed aren’t me. This song is a litany of all the things that Mary is covered in, so much so that we can’t quite even see her face anymore – just a ideally-shaped collection of roses and ashes and babies and wilderness and stains. And yet, there is a quiet and very honest dignity to the work of caring that she does, with far-reaching consequences in the world around her. It’s a beautiful and complicated transformation, isn’t it? A lot of this song feels like my twenties. Somewhere in the really deep loveliness of this song, there is something of me.
Ragazzo Fortunato – Jovanotti
In addition to the Pearl Jam that spurred me to start a music blog (named after one of their lyrics), and the glossy wide river that motherhood has gratefully carved through the middle of my decades here on earth, it was the months I have spent studying and living in Italy that forever altered both what I do for a living and the way I see beauty in the world. I knew the first time I started studying the mellifluous language that rolled over tongues like love itself (or maybe lust), and the first time I saw the powerful, bright brushstrokes of Michelangelo – I was a goner. I wanted to sink back into this culture, laying down under the water and feeling the rush and the release. I’ve spent some damn good times in that water – learning how to express what I wanted to say in a new language, forging friendships, seeing things through very different eyes, and hell – even getting to interview Italian mega-star Jovanotti himself at sunset on a Southern California beach (twenty-year-old Heather is still dying over that one).
Yet, for all the beauty of the language, let’s be unequivocally clear: this is an extremely lame, thoroughly dorky song. I think this is important in summing me up. Because I also love it. It is unfettered and jubilant –I mean– in the video Jovanotti gestures at the camera like a badass (in his defense, namechecking Siddhartha and referencing Dante), backed up by a bunch of Italians happily frolicking like they’re in a Mentos commercial, demonstrating the rule that all Italians know at least three Jovanotti songs by heart.
D’aww – but the wide-open chorus: I am a lucky guy (ragazzo fortunato) because I’ve been gifted a dream / lucky because there’s nothing that I need / and when the evening comes, and I return home to you / and no matter what happens, I’m fortunate to meet you again.” It’s a simple happiness splashed all through this song, and I ain’t too good for that. I truthfully sing this song in my head all the time, like a constant mantra. Sono ragazzo fortunato. I am. And I have everything I need.