“It is my experience that music is more like water than a rhinoceros. It doesn't charge madly down one path. It runs away in every direction.” – Elvis Costello
It is, perhaps, a failing of mine, but I don't like people who say they don't care to listen to too much music. I will not be friends with those people. I don’t even know what people mean when they say that. It's like people who say, "If you want to come to America, you'd better learn the language." Alright. Well, you're human, so if you want to be human, I think you should learn THAT language. Music is the one tongue every human can at least understand. If you can’t get on board with that, go be an ape, I say.
I have spent more hours listening to music than practically any other pursuit in my life, except maybe sleeping. (And even then…) I regret none of it, because it took me into the points of view of more minds than I could ever have hoped to reach on my own. Music helps me enter the world, which like many nerds, I’ve always needed help entering.
Still, part of being a fan of music is realizing that it’s a language everyone can speak. That means I can share my intensely personal feelings with people without ever having to say a word. You might look at my list of Seven Songs I Can’t Live Without and think I’m bananas. But I bet that, given enough time, I could teach you my language. And you could teach me yours. Then we’d be cookin’ with gas, bucko.
"You're Gonna Miss Me"The 13th Floor Elevators
Quite simply, the most awesome song to ever feature a jug. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is everything I want from rock ‘n’ roll -- it’s raw, it’s a little unhinged, it lifts me up out of my seat, and it makes me feel like ‘everything gon’ be alright now.’ The Elevators were led by the visionary Roky Erickson, whose life is a Greek tragedy. Like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barret and even The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, he fell into drugs and mental illness the hard way and is only now coming out of it. It is a sad truism of the world that our madmen often make our best art, but then again they earn it, don’t they? Anyway, a little screaming, a scorch-the-earth guitar solo and jug-induced hyperventilation is sometimes what a heart needs. You put it on, you turn it up, you play air drums. You feel good to be alive. Amen.
"Nothing But a Heartache"The Flirtations
There’s something about ‘60s girl groups that encompasses everything I love about pop music. The rule for a good girl group is to boil everything down to its most elemental form. The harmonies are a pure sugar rush. The beat gets your heart rate up. And the words are simple to the point of being stupid – BUT the best girl groups also bring this ache, this longing that everyone can identify with. Viola Billups sings “He’s got me / Oh why can’t I get him?” and it reads as standard teenage angst -- but it plays like the end of the world. Every emotion comes bursting out in a three-minute rush. You get the sweet, the sour, and the beat all in one package.
"On The Way Home"Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
During their 1974 tour, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s covered an old Buffalo Springfield song that ended up leading off their ‘Four-Way Street’ live album. Despite his knockout ability as a songwriter, Neil Young’s voice was considered to be a liability by Springfield’s label, and his songs were often rearranged to fit bassist Richie Furay’s voice. This recording, I imagine, is Neil’s way of reclaiming his own song. It’s my very favorite CSN&Y recording, if for nothing other than the way David Crosby and Graham Nash resolve their final harmony at the end of the song. The first time I heard this song, it gave me chills and rewired my brain to Neil Young’s eccentric vision. In other words, it taught me his language.
"Secret Agent Man"Johnny Rivers
Bear with me here. Part of my warm and fuzzy memories of being a small kid was being driven around listening to Solid Gold Saturday Night. It was my parents’ radio show of choice. And that’s where I heard this song for the first time. Yes, it’s a pretty goofy song, but it was the first song I ever remember hearing that I immediately wanted to hear again. It was perfectly geared to my little kiddie ears. It means something to me because even though it’s a pretty weird place to begin, it was my starting block with music, so to speak. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures – you either like something or you don’t, and you might as well man up and own it – but if I had one, this would be it.
"Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4"Elvis Costello
So if you're not into Elvis Costello, I don't know what I could do to change your mind. He's done so much stuff and gone in so many different directions that it isn't easy to recommend his work to people. This song will likely not change your mind, either, but over the course of my life, it has probably been one of the most important for me. It's a song about faith and loss of faith and anger and sadness and hope and what happens to us after we leave this life. And as I age, the song changes meaning for me. The last line goes "I can't believe / I'll never believe / In anything again." And if you think about it long enough, that one line can have totally different meanings. And they're all correct.
Nick Drake never had a breakout hit while he was alive. He almost didn’t have any fans, either. A great many people, including myself, had never heard of him until they featured one of his songs in a Volkswagen ad, which is a pretty depressing way to have been introduced to someone’s work. Then again, Nick Drake was a pretty depressing dude. But he was also an incredibly jazzy, sophisticated songwriter. No one every plays Nick Drake songs because they’re too hard to figure out. That said, this was probably the most hopeful song he ever did. “But now you’re here,” he sings, “Brighten my northern sky.” Everyone wants to feel that way.
"Rock 'n' Roll"The Velvet Underground
So yeah, if you’ve made it this far through the list, you’ve figured out that I’m a heart-on-my-sleeve romantic when it comes to pop music. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Lou Reed’s paean to the music of his youth. It wasn’t the first time the king of hard living put his own heart up on his shoulder, but it was the first time he was so blunt and direct. Reed felt then – and may still today for all I know – that rock ‘n’ roll saved his life. It gave him a means and an outlet and an escape. There’s so much you can’t do about all the bad things in the world, but music like this is how you can protect yourself. You can ‘just dance to that rock ‘n’ roll station.’ And you can learn to speak other people’s languages, if only so someone can tell you it will be alright. When Lou Reed sing/screams “It’s alright” with all his heart over the fadeout of this song, I believe him in the way I believe very few people in this world. If he’s saying it, it’s GOT to be true, right? I have the faith that it will be.