Inspired by this wonderful post by the Irish Bird Assassin, I offer up a collection of four songs without which I would not be who I appear to be. This is most definitely self-indulgent, but that is why we blog, yes? In no particular order whatsoever, as ranking songs that seem so completely a part of who I am seems absurd.
R.E.M. “Hairshirt” Simple – voice, mandolin, keyboards and a triangle. This one has spoken to me in many ways during my life. At first, it was literal, as the idea of wearing a hairshirt plays so obviously into my penchant for self-flagellation. Later, I heard it as an invitation for “her” to stop kicking herself down when the world is so beautiful when you allow it in. Now, I hear it as a clear call to see life for what it is – sometimes lonely, sometimes overwhelming, but when you stop and really take it in, it’s beautiful. Tomorrow, I may hear something new.
Chris Isaak “Wicked Game” – To be honest, this has never been so much about the words for me as it is the sound of that guitar. While I have at times submerged myself in the unbridled romantic heartbreak overtones of the lyrics, the guitar haunts me in ways I cannot adequately express. It puts me in a memory that I am not even sure existed, but may just be an amalgam of numerous memories. It’s the lake lodge. My maternal grandmother. My father. A cold, snowless day. A blue Ford station wagon. Bits and pieces, vividly specific, but without context. From the very first note, this song sucks me into another place and time that I cannot pin down.
Hüsker Dü “Whatever” – This band was my touchstone as a young man who rebelled only in his mind. Listening to them, the brutal ferocity of Bob Mould’s guitar and raging wail, the not-quite-in-time but perfect drumming and off key cry of Grant Hart, and the glue of Greg Norton’s bass holding these two blazing geniuses together, gave me more pride in my home state than anything else. Zen Arcade was an epic mess of a concept album, and I mean that in the most endearing way possible. There is so much fire here, just flecked with the amazing songwriting brilliance of both Mould and Hart trading amazing songs. Anyone who knows me knows that my least favorite word in the English language is “whatever” – it’s dismissive, when used in a certain way it embodies intellectual laziness. This song transforms that word into a weapon of rebellion. But it’s a rebellion of the mind – I will not do whatever you want. I am my own, no matter what. I could have put almost any song by Hüsker Dü here, but this is the one that shaped me.
Simon and Garfunkel “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” – Really, is there any song that has more over the top romantic imagery? And says it so beautifully? Every overblown, flowery, heartfelt poem I ever wrote as a paean to unrequited love pales in comparison to this absolutely tender and perfect song. Art’s voice, Paul’s guitar. Yes, please.