September 2, 2014

You, in three songs

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.

Heather Browne
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.

Tagged with .


  • California Dreaming

    London Calling

    About Today

    Todd — September 3, 2014 @ 8:32 am

  • Midnight On The Water – Iain Matthews

    Fountain Of Sorrow – Jackson Browne

    Brothers In Arms – Mark Knopfler Solo Version

    Fairly mainstream. But they feel more right than anything else. Good to have you back. Glad all is well.

    Roy — September 3, 2014 @ 9:19 am

  • Heather,
    Glad to have your words back…even if it’s only a brief respite from “real” life.

    I am sure I can speak for all of your readers when I say that if a lack of posts from you means everything else in your life is going so well, I hope that we don’t see another post anytime soon.

    Thanks for posting this assignment. This assignment will be in my head all day. What 3 songs best speak to who I am? So many to choose from.

    BG — September 3, 2014 @ 9:51 am

  • Heather, your words inspired me … here’s my thoughts on the topic.

    Bruce Springsteen – “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”
    I had fallen for music in a big way in high school and spent many countless hours driving the straight mid-western roads through the long hot nights of summer surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans. Southwestern Ohio was a dead end for anyone who dreamed big, to this day I still wonder how it is that I escaped from a life of factory work or meaningless jobs that awaited so many of my high school friends. While Springsteen was from New Jersey and spoke of many things I didn’t relate to the rage and desperation of “Darkness” was universal. I can remember driving down by our own river, passing the nearby steel mills and knowing what it meant to want to be somewhere else. I had a 66’ Camaro (no shit!) with a glass pack muffler that sounded big and bad even though I was anything but. Bruce can still do it for me.

    REM – “Sitting Still”
    I would be the first to tell you that my maturity level on entering college wasn’t where it should be. Blame it on my sheltered mid-western upbringing I suppose but it’s clear that it took me until my junior year to really begin the process of defining the person I would eventually become. REM’s arrival in my music life was perfectly timed to coincide with my internal inscrutability. The music and lyrics were undefinable, wrapping your mind around the lyrics and trying to decipher meanings from Michael Stipe’s mumblings became a favorite pastime. We mistook art for irony and struggled to be sincere through our own self-appointed coolness. When Stipe sang “I can hear you, can you hear me?” it spoke to my need to be understood – to find connections to others – often through music. Those early REM records helped me find my way.

    Brown Bird – “Fingers To The Bone”
    For the last three and a half years we’ve been running a concert series in our home. In that time we’ve met many amazing musicians and experienced music in a wholly new and remarkable way. One of those bands, Brown Bird, became friends and frequent visitors. They generated fans wherever they went and I have no doubt that they would have went on to conquer the world were it not for Dave Lamb’s untimely passing earlier this year. Brown Bird’s music came to symbolize my reconnection to music after a few years of being a less active fan. Dave’s lyrics speak to struggle and acceptance. To the desire to live simply, love well and strive to be something. “Fingers To The Bone” speaks to the struggle to understand while getting older and moving through a life. Brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it and I suspect it always will.

    I want to make my home on a mountain high
    just me and my lover and the big old sky
    I ain’t asking for much
    just a little bit of rest before the day that I die

    I lift my voice to the forces above
    the Lords of labor and the Goddess of love
    ain’t i been a good, hard working
    faithful servant and son?

    Billsville House — September 3, 2014 @ 10:27 am

  • Hi!

    1. THE AMAZING – Gentle Stream
    2. I AM KINGFISHER – Smile with your 1000 teeth
    3. LITTLE CHILDREN – Hollow

    Thank you for your blog.
    Great job.

    fredfromfrance — September 4, 2014 @ 7:49 am

  • Of course I had to do this too and of COURSE I had to get wordy ; )

    Fast Car-Tracy Chapman

    There is a photo in my baby book of me sitting on the floor, enough of a baby that sitting is probably all I knew how to do yet, listening intently to my dad play the guitar. Music was on all the time in our house and I had parents who made sure we got a good variety of it in our little diets. There are a lot of artists that I loved as a kid and then discarded but one of the few who made it through to my adult life is Tracy Chapman. Even today, when I hear the first few bars of “Fast Car” I can instantly put myself back onto my white wicker day bed in my bedroom wallpapered with pink striped and a ballet slipper border. Even though the theme of the song was probably more adult than I understood, the song was wistful, and wistful is what you are looking for when you are 12 and you want to feel things and dream things. I didn’t really listen to her again until college when I bought her album and it’s feminist and racial storylines started to make more sense to me. Her next few albums were far less political but she writes intense, deeply emotional songs and she seemed to release one during all the major eras of my young adult life. For someone who has often been described as both intense and deeply emotional, I suppose it makes sense that she is one of my favorite soundtracks. I finally got to see her play after my mission and it’s still one of my favorite shows, nothing flashy, just Tracy playing song after song I knew by heart.

    Fake Plastic Trees-Radiohead

    I moved to California for a job when I was 25. I arrived full of the naïve expectations of anyone whose sole experience “moving away” consists of the relatively safe perimeters of college and an LDS mission. Which is not to say I didn’t know what it meant to feel crushing homesickness or loneliness, or “what they hell have I done-ness”. But both missions and college share the safety net of being surrounded by people also going through crushing homesickness and loneliness, friend-making, distraction-providing structure and a firm expiration date. Showing up in LA with a car full of everything I owned there was no Welcome Week to attend, no cafeteria full of fellow nervous missionaries. No one knew I was coming and no one would have cared if I turned my little Honda around and drove straight back to Utah. A friend who had made a similar move a few years earlier told me it was a good opportunity to figure out “what you are like when no one is telling you what you should be like”.

    I was miserable for months. But he was right, with no one around to influence me, I figured out what kinds of movies I wanted to go to when I was the only one deciding, discovered what kind of friends I would make when there was no way to tell who was “cool”. I formed a relationship with my faith that wasn’t based on everyone around me being Mormon too. I was 25, a college graduate, a returned missionary, and had just worked on an Olympic Games and yet it felt like I was just starting to settle into my adult self.

    One of the defining factors of that little era was a huge shift in my musical tastes. I made some friends who had varied ears and liked making mixes so I was constantly listening to new things. I was training for a marathon and in those days pre-iPod that meant hours and hours of the same 12 songs on a Discman. Someone put “Fake Plastic Trees” on a mix and although I feel like the ultimate cliché even writing this, it was on those long runs along the beach that I fell wildly, deeply, hopelessly in love with Radiohead. I wasn’t cool at all though, I bought “The Bends” instead of Kid A and listened to “Bulletproof…I Wish I Was” and cried about boys like it was my job.

    I am not the first girl to move from Utah to California and fall in love with Radiohead. Probably not even the first one to do it while training for a marathon. But I can’t look back on time of my life without nearly passing out from the weight of all the nostalgia.

    Islands in the Stream-Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton

    When I was a little girl and I would think about God, which was a lot because I was a little Mormon girl, I thought He looked like Kenny Rogers. Truthfully, as an adult when I try to picture God, He still kind of looks like Kenny Rogers. My dad liked Kenny Rogers and I had every word to the The Gambler memorized at a younger age than I probably should have. And then there is Dolly Parton. Some day I will get around to writing my piece on my “Board of Lady Directors” about all the women I would seat on my Board of Life and you will see all the many and varied reasons she would be the Chairman of this Board. But for the purposes of songs that describe me, Dolly gets a nod for being a smart, talented, unapologetically ambitious woman but also managing to be funny, generous and positive. There is some trickiness to being a woman in the world of sports and I’ve never wanted career success to come at the expense of remaining the nice person I hope is the real me.

    Also I chose this song because although I’ve never been one of those girls who daydreams about her wedding, I’ve already asked my friends Jed and Rebecca to sing this at the reception should that occasion ever arise.

    KC — September 4, 2014 @ 10:14 am

  • I’ve been thinking about this and absolutely can NOT narrow my list down, but thought I’d share a story, that you may (or may not) remember…

    When tickets were released for the Pearl Jam concert in Golden Gate Park, I spent upwards of an hour hitting re-dial, but never got through. I was DEVASTATED.

    When they re-scheduled the concert and moved it to Spartan Staduim, I thought maybe there was a chance I could get there. AND THEN I found out you had and extra ticket. AND THEN YOU OFFERED IT TO ME and I almost died of happiness.

    Then my mom said I couldn’t go.
    Worst day ever.

    I’ve still never seen Pearl Jam. Tickets I got in college had to be sold when I realized that the show was at the same time as a mandatory class event – I wanted to go but I really didn’t want to fail that class.

    But seriously, the fact that you offered me that ticket way back almost 20 years ago (OH MY GOD WHERE HAS THE TIME GONE) still sticks with me, even though I didn’t get to go.

    So thank you for that. :-)

    Jillian — September 5, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

  • Clem Snide – Find Love (the demo version is my favorite)

    The Beautiful South – Good As Gold (Stupid As Mud)

    Joan Shelley – Not Over By Half

    Pete — September 7, 2014 @ 1:05 am

  • […] you sum yourself up in three songs? Heather over at Fuel/Friends did (in rather stunning fashion, as she’s prone to do). I’ll be giving this a whirl at […]

    Monday Links | songsfortheday — September 8, 2014 @ 7:31 am

  • Wonderful assignment :) This made me thoughtful as I started wondering about the songs that would describe me. Ummm I think I have to write one for myself. I haven’t heard anything as weird as me :D haha! this is fun.

    Scarlett_Indie — September 9, 2014 @ 1:53 am

  • A+
    You’re a fabulous writer.

    I don’t know how to begin to whittle it down to three, because it would only be three songs that describe me today.

    …but I’ll give it a shot.

    Mark — September 10, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

  • James Gang – Tend My Garden
    Coming of age. It was wide open.

    Tori Amos – Ribbons Undone
    My granddaughter; the daughter I wasn’t granted. We’re bonded for life.

    Augustines – Now You Are Free
    The struggle with regrets.

    Mark — September 10, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

  • Talk about a difficult challenge. A person would really have to know themselves to choose three songs that describe them accurately. Coupled with the fact that we are constantly changing. Keeping that in mind, here are 3 songs that I can relate to, for now.

    John Fullbright – Happy
    Sturgill Simpson – Turtles All The Way Down
    Ha Ha Tonka – Lessons

    Chaz — September 13, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

  • It’s the right thing to do to post a PJ song. It’s been too long. You know it.

    Jerome turner — September 17, 2014 @ 11:32 pm

  • My three:

    John Hiatt — Have a Little Faith
    The Replacements — Can’t Hardly Wait
    Pearl Jam — Just Breathe

    Can you tell that I’m almost 50, a freelancer after being out of work for 15 months, with four kids (3 teenagers) and another teen that we’re semi-fostering?

    Glenn — September 24, 2014 @ 1:58 pm

  • Janis Joplin – “Little Girl Blue”

    She was the first artist whose pain made I completely identified with as a teenager.

    Patty Griffin – “Useless Desires”

    Because I have a chronic illness, and I spent a lot of years being angry about it.

    Blondie – “Picture This”

    My whole life changed the day I picked up a camera.

    Jessie — September 27, 2014 @ 3:13 am

  • I would like to know which terrible Christian rap songs get stuck in your head. Occasionally, I have that occur to me too. I hope yours are worse so that I don’t feel as bad. “Your spinnin’ ’round!”

    Joel Martin — October 16, 2014 @ 4:33 am

  • I FINALLY finished my assignment!!

    carolyn — December 2, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

  • Guitar magazine used to make one artist do something similar to this assignment in every issue, except it was enough songs to fill 60 minutes. That was in the 90s and I was a subscriber…

    … at the time, knowing I would one day be a rock star, I figured I should get a head start on the assignment. I have been trying to complete the assignment ever since. Hats off to those of you who were able to pull it off.

    Matt Z — December 7, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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