7 Albums That Have Shaped My Life

I don’t know about you, but certain music has always been the soundtrack to my life. From gospel at an early age, to contemporary Christian artists, to rock and popular music, the tapestry of my life has been painted with various paintbrushes wielded by lyricists and musicians who will probably never know the influence they have had and continue to have on me.

Yes, I went through my phases with two-step, and dancehall, and even ska, depending on my relationships at the time, but one thing has remained steadfast for me: a great album is a great album regardless of when it’s played. The primary characteristic of a great album (and not just a collection of songs) in my mind is that there’s a resonance from start to finish, that it flows together seamlessly like a well-tailored garment where I don’t know where it began and where it ended.

Some of my favorite albums have snuck up on me like thieves in the night. It’s funny how that happens sometimes. I stumbled upon them and they have had a monumental impact on my life. Here are 7 such albums, in no particular order…

s11777a1wfm1. Marc Cohn – The Rainy Season.

Yes, the “Walking in Memphis” guy, but he’s so much more than that. In fact, by the time I discovered him the year was already 1995 and I had never heard the iconic song. In fact, my favorite music right then was Alanis Morissette, the kind of angst that made me put on the huge headphones and scream at the top of my lungs. So the idea that some “old-school” singer-songwriter who relied on a piano more than a synthesizer or an electric guitar was somewhat ludicrous to my teenage self. But there he was anyway, when I stumbled upon a CD that shouldn’t have even been available to the public. It was a collection of songs that were being marketed to radio stations, and it should have been at a radio station, but instead someone had sold it to this hole in the wall used CD shop (probably for a pittance). I recognized a few artists on it, so I bought it for a buck. Best buck I ever spent.

Somewhere in the middle of that CD’s tracklist, which was broken down into genres, was a song they weren’t able to separate into a genre. The song was called “Ghost Train” and it was so hauntingly beautiful that I couldn’t move past it once I stopped on it. Indeed, it was several months before I even heard the whole back half of that sampler CD. I was hooked on his voice, on his melody, on his piano playing, and on his lyrics. I had to own the album the song really came from, so I searched the world around (okay, the greater Philadelphia area) until I located a used copy of The Rainy Season, Marc’s second CD and bought it for a dollar. Second best buck I ever spent. From start to finish the album was as perfect as “Ghost Train” had hinted at. I’ve since recommended it, and Marc Cohn, to anyone with a pulse.

Depeche-Mode-Songs-Of-Faith-And-Devotion-Album-Cover2. Depeche Mode – Songs of Faith and Devotion.

As usual, I was late to the party on this one. For some reason back in the ’90s it wasn’t really about immediate music (unless it was gangster rap), but about finding things after the fact, and usually at used CD shops in and around South Street. In fact, sometimes it was through my arty friends that I found out the best music, like Rage Against the Machine, Portishead, and Garbage, music that I never would have stumbled upon myself. It was at one of those gatherings when we were writing and sharing poetry, while we were getting drunk and playing music from random CDs we put in the boombox that’s when I first heard “Personal Jesus.”

That song hit me over the head with its straightforward lyrics and pounding repetitions, but what really stood out to me was the painful, gut-wrenching performance by the lead singer (who I found out later didn’t even write the lyrics — astonishing), so understated and yet still so powerful, that stirred something in my soul. But it would be three years later before I finally saw one of their albums in a used CD store, and its cover stood out to me before I even realized it was the same group that sang “Personal Jesus.” That album was Songs of Faith and Devotion, and it had a hole cut out of its barcode, but that didn’t bother me. I bought it without listening to even one song, took it home and listened to it start to finish. Before I even finished the first song I knew I had heard that voice before, and it brought back all of those memories. It still does. Continue reading “7 Albums That Have Shaped My Life”

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Chatting With Lexi: On Memory

funny memory quotesI don’t think I’ll ever understand it. My 9-year old can clearly recall what happened 7 years ago in startling detail, from the clothes we were wearing to the shows she watched on television. She can remember every single one of her birthdays, the names of people she met once 5 years ago, and when I said that swear word when I hit my thumb with the hammer 6 years ago. But if I ask her what happened 5 minutes ago she’s completely clueless.

It drives me crazy, and I’ve been trying to do these techniques with her that are supposed to help out short-term memory, but nothing’s worked to this point. Today just added to it…

Me: Lexi, let’s get your homework out and get started.

Lexi: Well, I knoooow I put my folders in my bookbag.

Me: So get them out and let’s move along.

Lexi: Well, I knooooow I put my folders in my bookbag but they’re not there now.

Me: What do you mean? If you know you put them in there then they should be there now, right?

Lexi: But they’re not there.

Me: So you didn’t put them in your bookbag.

Lexi: But I know I did!

Me: Okay, so you “know” you put them in there, but they’re not there now, so you were mistaken, right?

Lexi: I guess so, but I don’t know what happened.

Me: I know what happened. You forgot to put them in there. You were probably distracted.

Lexi: I really thought I put them in there.

Me: Where was the last place you saw them?

Lexi: Well… I know they were on my desk before I put my chair up.

Me: So they’re probably still sitting there right now.

Lexi: But I know I put them in my bookbag.

Me: Okay, we’re done with that. They’re not there, so you didn’t put them there. They must still be on your desk at school.

Lexi: So what are we going to do?

Me: I’m going to take you back to school and you’re going to hope someone’s there who can let us back into your classroom to get your folders and planner.

Lexi: I hope somebody’s there to let us in.

Me: And you’re going to lose screen time for tonight because you haven’t taken care of your responsibility.

Lexi: NOOOOOO!

Me: You’re 9 years old now, Lexi. At some point you have to learn some memory skills. If you need your homework at home, then you have to make sure you put it in your bookbag.

Lexi: But I was sure it was in my bookbag.

Me [after taking a long breath]: It’s called double checking. Memory is like riding a bike, Lex. Once you learn how to make it go you can’t unlearn it. But you have to learn how to do it first, and the more you complain about not being able to remember the more you won’t be able to remember. I know you can do it.

Lexi: How do you know I can do it?

Me: Because you’re smart, Lexi. I’ve seen you put your mind to something and you get it done. You just need a little help with this one.

Lexi: Uh, can we go to school already, though? You’ve been talking for FOREVER and the room’s probably not open now.

Me: It won’t be my fault if we get there and the room’s not open. This is the second time you’ve forgotten and I’m taking you back for what you’ve forgotten. It won’t happen again.

Lexi: But what if I forget again?

Me: Then you’ll just lose your playtime the next day for not getting your homework done. Maybe that will be what it takes to help your memory.

Lexi: Yeah, I’ll remember then. You know, if I lose my playtime. I love playtime!

Me: And I love you.

Lexi: Daaaaaaad. Let’s go!

Sam

6th & South, Circa 1997

good-dog-bar-and-restaurant-philadelphia-1344978990I hate her, with her hand on her hip like she’s got attitude, spouting words like water, ranting for her supper like some old guy in skinny jeans with a goatee. But she’s not that old guy and she’s never going to be. Instead she’s a pretentious rich girl who feels like “slumming it” is the ticket to getting recognized for what she calls poetry but what I call swill. Call a spade a spade. Christian is thinking the same thing I am as he sits across from me rolling his eyes faster than she can spout her idiocy. It’s her first night here. I would have remembered someone like her.

But then again I guess everyone’s like her at the Good Dog Cafe, in the back room that’s really just an extension of the one room. The place is small, probably about as big as one of the lofts a couple of doors down where a few of my friends crash. And it’s cramped. We fit inside it like sardines in a can wriggling to be free, no one claustrophobic in here, which rules out quite a few people who visit South. The street, not the pub. Out in the main room someone’s singing “Free Bird” and I want to puke, but I’m not drunk yet. Getting there, but not yet. Christian is throwing down shots someone bought him. He’s so lucky, I think.

On the small makeshift stage she’s still talking like the world owes her something, liberally abusing the F-word. It’s apparently going out of style and she wants to get as much usage out of it before it’s as passe as the old guy she’s trying so hard to be. She’s a smoker. It’s obvious in her eyes, that haunted look that’s probably about the most authentic thing about her. Her fingertips are stained too, I notice, as she accentuates her words with a motion of flinging her hands out like she’s trying to reel in a fish, to reel in an audience that has already moved on to the next guy waiting in the wings.

2340520709_fc49d94674Christian is flipping through pages of poetry he writes but never shares. He’s cool like that. It reminds me that some people are real, that not everyone changed their underwear this morning, that not everyone has more than one pair of underwear. And that’s okay. That’s real. It bleeds out in his words. I’ve been lucky enough to hear them in private, not on this ramshackle stage that could fall apart at any moment. He shifts in his seat, a sure sign he’s getting antsy, that he needs his pills, but he’s not going to take them tonight. We’re going on the street later to do some major improv and he likes to be lucid for it. His word, not mine. I’m ready to go now.

She finally finishes on stage, and I realize I never caught her name, or if I did I threw it right back. She’s interchangeable with all the other trust fund kids who think the world owes them something, who think they’re being “cool” by coming to South Street, by hanging at coffee shops and pubs and doing open mics because they can. But in back corners, and in alleys, and out windows that overlook the river, we laugh at them. We laugh at their plastic faces, and at their stained fingers, artfully arranged to full effect. We laugh at their over-inflected words that condescend instead of celebrate. We think we’re so incredible when all we did was happen to be born in the slums and we never did anything to rise above that.

Christian has that look in his eyes now, that psycho look that I know too well. He took something before he came in here, and I sigh because I know he won’t be lucid at all, that he will only spout so much nonsense when we ad lib later. It makes me sad, and I know he doesn’t understand why. Sometimes even I don’t know why, but at times like these he reminds me more of people like this girl who got a quiet clap when she left the stage instead of the force of nature I know he can be when he’s sober. He gives me a look when I glance his way, a look full of pain that I only see when he’s vulnerable like this, and I feel nothing.

I feel nothing as I sit there waiting for the next round, and my turn on that makeshift stage.

Sam

Dear Journal: Changing From Boyz II Men

boyz-ii-menDear Journal,

Maybe I just liked it when they were Boyz, trying to be Men, but not quite there yet. Perhaps it was the journey of becoming Men that really fascinated me and captured that lightning in a bottle because once they became Men they just haven’t been putting out the same level of music. I remember a few years ago when someone said that there was no clearcut “new Boyz II Men” and I thought, “But Boyz II Men is still around.” Then I thought some more, and I realized that they really aren’t. Not the way they used to be anyway.

They defined my adolescence just as much or more than any other singer/group of the early ’90s. “Water Runs Dry” still brings me back to high school faster than just about anything else will outside of Rod Stewart’s “Motown Song” and LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out.” There was just something to be said about amazing melodies, harmonies, and refrains, and the Boyz did it better than most.

Then the ’90s began to wane, though, and the boy band took over from the actual boy group. A subtle distinction, I guess, but one that is important to make. As groups like Backstreet Boys and N*Sync blew into town on their white Boyz-II-Men-II-Del-1994-Delanterahorses the old black stallion of Boyz II Men just seemed out of date anymore, and they seemed to know it. They spent a lot of their time and energy trying to remain “hip” that they lost touch with what made them so special in the first place. They began to morph into some kind of dance group, which didn’t resonate. At all.

Now they spend a lot of their time (minus a member) singing cover tunes, their poor versions of other groups’/singers’ hits. No, I didn’t want to hear them sing the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris.” I honestly have no idea who wanted to hear that. Or even Peter Cetera’s “If You Leave Me Now.” When did they decide that becoming a karaoke group was preferential to continuing to trailblaze? And now they’ve completely lost their way with a new album that, while it doesn’t plumb the depths for cover tunes, does nothing to enhance the brand, relying on overproduction and more dance friendly tunes.

I guess I just miss the Boyz more than I thought I would. It happens to everyone, I guess, most notably to those child stars who lose their way as they move on with their lives, as they grow up, but it’s sad to see. I find myself listening to those first two Boyz II Men albums and pretending that’s all they ever did because it’s better that way. No one likes to see a decline after it’s already happened, especially with one of their favorite groups. Right now I’m listening to “I Sit Away” and hoping that the group reunites with L.A. Reid and Babyface just once more before they call it quits, maybe with a last chance to recreate some magic.

But then again, I hope they don’t. Because if it’s still not magical I might lose my belief in the magic of being Men, real Men who don’t have to rely on the Boyz they used to be anymore.

Sam

Ain’t Pickin’ Cotton

racecardWhy is race never an issue until it is?

We spend so much of our lives not concerned with race, but when something happens how come it’s the first thing we think about? A picture flashes up on the TV screen, and it’s a mug shot of a black man. He has two gold capped teeth and he grins broadly, seemingly proud of whatever crime they claim he’s committed, the words scrolling across the bottom of the screen. My first thought is that he’s been set up, but my good friend Phil says it’s obvious he’s guilty. The difference between me and Phil? He’s white.

My wife said something stark and real the other day when we were talking about people who play the race card, whose first excuse is always that people had bias against them because of the color of their skin. She said that she doesn’t consider race unless she’s in a place where she is one of the few white people in a sea of “others.” When she’s in the minority, she says, it becomes almost the default to consider race. And she wondered if maybe that’s why those people who play the race card as their calling card do it so quickly, because they’ve been forced into it by societal definitions.

And I see her point as clearly as I see my own face in the mirror. Just as I’ve been conditioned to recognize race faster than she is because I’ve always been in the minority, she’s been conditioned not to recognize race because she’s always been in the majority. But our world is changing. This nation is changing, and what constitutes minority just isn’t the same anymore. We commingle and reproduce, shifting the sands of a culture that was never really inclusive to begin with. So playing the race card just isn’t really that relevant anymore.

That’s not to say that race can’t still be an issue. There are still enough racists out and about, breeding their hate like pollution, but we ain’t pickin’ cotton no more. We ain’t standin’ idly by while others define us. But we also ain’t blamin’ others for what we do as individuals. History doesn’t define us. Antagonism doesn’t show us its mirror image. What we do we take responsibility for, but we won’t be caught dead taking slack for something we didn’t do, for something our ancestors did instead, and we won’t hold others responsible for what they didn’t do. While there may be the few out there still using that race card as an excuse, even they know how flimsy it is.

Because we ain’t pickin’ cotton no more.

Sam

Hug Buddies

OLAHFROZEN2-710x1024I hugged six people today.

Three of those were reserved for my family (even though Maddie originally told me “No!” when I asked her if I could have a hug), which is something I do every single day. Can you believe that not every family hugs each other every single day? I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t get those hugs from them. I’m a physical person, so holding those I love close to me is huge.

The other three were special too, though, because those were my hug buddies. You know, people who are just as touchy feely as me, who understand sometimes without words that all I need is a hug. Or vice versa. Sometimes all it takes to turn a sour day sweet is for a friend to just reach out and give me a hug. No words necessary. And I know it also makes me feel good to give one of them that hug that turns their day around too.

Not everyone has hug buddies. In fact, not everyone needs that physical contact. For some people they get that feeling of closeness and understanding from a small note left on their windshield, or from a text message with a smiley face attached to it, or from an impromptu drop by. And while I appreciate all of those other things, a hug just says so much more to me, so my hug buddies help keep me sane.

Oh, and I have absolutely no idea how a snowman can give warm hugs, but I’m on board.

Sam

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