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“Dance, or fade out.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, this waiting at a green light. And for what? I craned my neck to see around the SUV ahead of me, but I had nothing on which to focus my anger. I was just about to lay on my horn with gusto when I saw a man. It must have been like when the Jews saw Jesus walking on the water, except this man was in the middle of an intersection, and he certainly wasn’t Jesus. Oh, and he was dancing.

Earbuds in, swaying to the beat that only he could hear, he wore a leather jacket in 60 degree heat, oblivious to the elements. Oblivious also to the hard stares from the motorists who waited with hands raised above horns, with epithets painting the corners of our lips. We had places to go and things to do, and this man… well, he was standing there dancing.

I love to dance, to sway my hips to a particular beat, usually in the comfort of my own home, but this wasn’t the comfort of his own home. This was the streets of Utica, NY. This was rush hour traffic. Honestly, I’m surprised no one ran him over. If my kids weren’t in the car with me maybe I would have given him a nudge. Okay, I wouldn’t have. And he was an interpretive dancer too, the kind I usually like, but there’s a time and place for everything.

It wasn’t like this was some one man flash mob or something. It wasn’t like this was 2005 or something. A dancing man in the middle of the street against a green light for traffic… it’s just not done. At least not socially anyway. So we sat there waiting for him to shimmy along to what I could only surmise was a Gwen Stefani song, to reach the island in the middle of the street so we could safely pass and flip him off in the process. 

Except no one flipped him off, this dancing man. Maybe because we saw in him a little of our own self-restricted selves, begging to slip free.

And dance. 

Sam

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“…and that R.E.M. song was playing in my mind. Three and a half minutes. Felt like a lifetime.” ~Better Than Ezra

remsplitI always wondered what “that R.E.M. song” was, which one from their vast catalog made such an impression on a young Kevin Griffin (lead singer of Better Than Ezra) that he immortalized it in his own song. The song is about the death of a young friend, who after graduation had a car wreck and died, the lyrics a poignant reminder of the brevity of life, and how quickly it can be taken from any of us.

With that in mind, I began to dig deep into what could possibly be the mystery R.E.M. song from the lyrics. It’s a good thing, then, that I own the entire R.E.M. catalogue, because it would take a hell of a lot of digging to arrive at the ultimate truth. For starters, here is the full list of the band’s songs that hit 3:26 – 3:34 on the scale (prior to 2001, when the Better Than Ezra song was written)…

Gardening At Night (3:30)
Disturbance At the Heron House (3:34)
Romance (3:27)
Good Advices (3:30)
Begin the Begin (3:28)
What If We Give It Away? (3:34)
I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (3:28)
Let Me In (3:28)
Moral Kiosk (3:31)
Perfect Circle (3:30)
Departure (3:30)
Low Desert (3:32)
Half a World Away (3:28)
Time After Time (3:34)

That’s an awful lot of songs, so I tried to break them down by lyrics, by which ones might be depressing. I realized as I was doing this that most of R.E.M.’s catalogue is full of depressing, sad songs. Kevin Griffin literally had his choice of songs to complement his own, just by the sheer volume of sad songs to choose from, even from this relatively small list.

For a very long time I thought the song he referenced was “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream,” from the Monster record. It fit nearly every aspect of a depressing song that would hearken back to a premature death. “I’m looking for an interruption. Do you believe? Some medicine for my headache. Hooray.” The only thing that didn’t fit was the length of the song, because while I thought my range was pretty good, the lyric of the song was “Three and a half minutes,” and if I was being literal that one would not fit.

In fact, the more I thought about it the more I thought the song I was looking for was exactly 3 minutes and 30 seconds, which left me with Departure, Perfect Circle, Good Advices, and my personal favorite, Gardening At Night. In fact, the lyrics of “Gardening At Night” are very compelling. “We fell up, not to see the sun. Gardening at night just didn’t grow. I see your money on the floor. I felt the pocket change. Though all the feelings that broke down that door just didn’t seem to be too real.” Something about the shifting reality, the yearning to do something that seems right but doesn’t have positive consequences, it clicked in me.

But that wasn’t it. Here is the full lyric of the verse from the Better Than Ezra song from earlier…

“And I know I wasn’t right, but it felt so good
And your mother didn’t mind, like I thought she would
And that R.E.M. song was playing in my mind
Three and a half minutes, felt like a lifetime.”

5b8a1cb234e9b2d7ba2ad332ab262588That part of the song has always hit me like a hammer to the gut, the idea of something feeling so good but not being right, of approval out of nowhere, not for the means to an end, but for the end itself. It’s almost like it is a eulogy, not for the person who has died, but instead for the enterprise itself, for being adventurous. That R.E.M. song felt like a lifetime because when it ends the glory of a life lived for adventure ends as well.

The song was “Perfect Circle,” by the way, the idea that life is indeed this circle. We are born to die, but in the space between the wails of birth and the silence of death we either truly live or we go through the motions. “Perfect Circle” is all about truly living, taking the moment and wringing every ounce of glory from it so we can live on the nostalgia of that moment for years to come.

“Pull your dress on and stay real close. Who might leave you where I left off? A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends…”

Three and a half minutes. Felt like a lifetime.

Sam

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“It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year which makes my eyes feel sore. Oh, I never should have said the books that you read were all I loved you for.” ~The Sundays

audio_mix_tape_wall_decal_singleI don’t remember exactly when I first heard it, but I do remember how it made me feel. Something about it was ethereal, airy in a way that few songs to that point had ever been for me. It had a whimsical side to it that was both lilting and fragile at the same time. It drew me in and I wanted to hear that voice again. The only problem was that I had absolutely no idea who was singing it, and it drove me absolutely insane.

It was on this mixed tape that a girl sent me. Don’t ask me to remember the name of the girl because they all blur together from back then. Needless to say, it was a girl whose musical opinion mattered to me. We didn’t know each other in real life, but in the early days of my Internet obsession it was surprisingly easy to talk to people outside of the cluster of real life acquaintances I had at the time. After we had been conversing for a few weeks, I suggested we exchange mixed tapes. So we did.

I have to back it up a step, though, because back then I exchanged mixed tapes with a LOT of people. In fact, I would go into Tower Records and purchase a package of 20 blank tapes for expressly that purpose, and use them up almost as quickly as I bought them. I had one rule, though, when exchanging mixed tapes. I wanted to come into the experience completely oblivious to what I would be hearing as I listened, so I told each person who was going to send me a tape not to label it in any way.

Hence, my dilemma. Most songs on most mixed tapes I got at that time were easy for me to figure out as they were mostly songs I had in my collection already, or were songs I had heard on the radio. I must have listened to about 50 mixed tapes through those years of swapping, from all kinds of people all around the globe, but there were very few songs on those tapes that I didn’t know. Arguably the song I liked the most from one of those mixed tapes was one I didn’t know, and thus began the journey.

“It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year which makes me wonder why. And it’s the memories of the shed that make me turn red. Surprise. Surprise. Surprise.”

Remember I said this was in my Internet infancy? That would play a huge role in my growing frustration over the next few years. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t just email the girl who sent me the tape and ask what the song was, and that would be a good question to ask. However, it took me ages to actually listen to that particular tape for the first time, and in the intervening time I had a falling out with the tape’s sender. For all the beautiful songs she put on that tape for me, it was surprisingly easy for her to completely cut me out of her life. So I was back at square one.

So yes, my Internet infancy… it wasn’t just mine, because the network of sites and resources that we take for granted now wasn’t even remotely in place back in the ’90s. Lycos, or AltaVista, or whatever, didn’t quite have a lyrics engine, so my typing in random parts of the song into the search engine yielded absolutely no results. There was no social media so I couldn’t exactly ask my FB friends if anyone recognized the song. There was no Shazam, so I couldn’t hold up my nonexistent cell phone and capture the song in its clutches. I was stuck.

Years went by, and I wore that tape out from constant listening. It wasn’t the only song on there that I loved to pieces; it was just the only song on there that I didn’t already know. And as the years passed I guess I just forgot about trying to figure out who sang it anymore. I just let it wash over me when I listened to the tape, enjoying it for what it was, and just happy that I had a version of it at all. I even copied it from its location onto other mixed tapes that I sent to others.

Eventually I’m sure the Internet progressed, but I stopped typing lyrics into Lycos, AltaVista, or wherever, anymore. I’m certain at some point along the way if I had kept it up the World Wide Web would have caught up and spit back a name for me. It’s funny how some things happen, though, when we least expect them. By the time I had finally given up on finding out who sang the song it fell from the heavens into my lap. And in the most coincidental of ways too. It was on another mixed tape.

You see, after several years of swapping mixed tapes with others, I relaxed the rule of no labels, and the tapes kept pouring in. So many people were pretty creative with their labels, too, mixing in some artwork around the song titles. I still have so many of those tapes, and I have to say they put playlists to shame. But this post isn’t about that, even though it’s still fascinating to me.

On one of those mixed tapes I heard a voice I had listened to so many times before that I had memorized it for all time. My mouth dropped wide open as I flipped over the tape case and scanned the song titles for the one I wanted. And there it was, at long last, the name of the band that sang the song that had haunted me for what had seemed like forever. Oh, it was the Sundays, by the way. The song was “Here’s Where the Story Ends,” and before too long I had all three of their albums and I was in heaven.

Well worth the wait. Shortly after that, the mixed tape broke.

Sam

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purple-rainNovember Rain,” “Let It Rain,” “Here Comes the Rain Again,” “I Can’t Stand the Rain”… all songs about rain that I like better than “Purple Rain.” In fact, I’ve kind of always found that song a bit too slow and languorous for my liking. I generally skip it when I listen to my endless collection of Prince songs. You also won’t find it on my “Prince’s Best” playlist.

Why am I telling you this? Because from the second I heard that Prince was dead I’ve seen a bevy of quotes from that song, memes with those song lyrics on them, photos of things turned purple in his honor, and even photos doctored to make the rain itself look purple. I’m sure it’s a fitting tribute to a man who absolutely adored the color, but you do realize he had literally over a thousand songs he wrote, right?

When I think of Prince I think of “Let’s Go Crazy,” “7,” “Kiss,” “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” “Diamonds and Pearls,” and the list is endless. It just doesn’t include “Purple Rain.” The one time I saw the movie I couldn’t even finish it. It wasn’t that the acting was bad. It was that the acting was atrocious, and not well directed either.

As dynamic as Prince was in concert, and as prolific as he was as a song writer, there were some songs that never resonated with me. Maybe it means I’m not a real Prince fan, as others tend to insinuate when you can say something negative about the music, but I prefer to think I’m a discerning listener instead. “Purple Rain” simply doesn’t make my list. And I have a pretty extensive list when it comes to Prince.

learn-to-appreciate-what-you-have-life-quotes-sayings-picturesIt’s interesting how people react when they find someone has died. When Robin Williams committed suicide a spike went up in the Robin Williams movies that were rented and bought by people everywhere. When David Bowie passed earlier this year his new album sold like alcohol on a Friday night. People like to feel a posthumous connection with those folks they consider icons.

The same is true of Prince as hordes of Purple Rain, both the DVDs and the soundtracks, are hurtling off shelves, and winging their way from Amazon to “fans” everywhere. These people suddenly love Prince so much, and appreciate him so much, since he shuffled off this mortal coil, that they have to have as much Purple Rain as they can possibly handle.

I have one question, though. Isn’t this just like not taking advantage of the genius while he was alive and then coming late to the party? I’m not saying it’s a negative thing, but I’ve just noticed a pattern. And completing the pattern means that a few weeks from now, when the next person has passed, when the purple rain is no longer falling down like tears, these DVDs and CDs will begin collecting dust on the shelves of those who just “had to” have them right now, with no delay.

I guess there are two types of fandom. There are those who suddenly remember how much they absolutely LOVE “Purple Rain,” and there are those who would always rather listen to “The Cross.” I count myself in the second group, but it’s okay to be in the first. Just realize why you like it. Don’t jump on some kind of bandwagon just because someone famous died. Okay, time to climb back down from my soapbox.

Sam

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“Give it to me straight from the heart. Tell me we can make another start. You know I’ll never go as long as I know it’s comin’ straight from the heart.” ~Bryan Adams

76c4ebafaed5ae433ba9c536d5f380b8I used to love Bryan Adams. There was just something cool about the way he stood there holding a guitar that was simply undeniable. Combine that with the cool rasp in his voice, and he was every man, yet better than every man. While others were lining up to see Bruce Springsteen I was dying for a ticket to a Bryan Adams show. He was the poor man’s Springsteen, but he was better than Springsteen at the same time.

I’m not from Jersey. That’s not sacrilege.

But that was long ago, my love for Bryan Adams tied up and twisted with his soundtrack anthems, attached like Siamese twins to his lyrics that touched a place in my soul that I hadn’t known existed. It was a subtle bromance… because he never knew it existed. And I never got to see him live, even though he came through town every couple of years like clockwork in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Maybe it was because there was always someone else to see, someone who cost more money so I had to save up, and Bryan Adams was the odd man out. Whatever it was, it remains one of my regrets.

I still get that Bryan Adams feeling, you know, the one that makes me want to light out for the territory with my guitar slung across my shoulder like a hunting rifle. He was cool without being cool — that hair, those jeans. I would have liked to be a fly on the wall the first time he met Springsteen, the sizing up one of the other. That would have been awesome to witness because the Bryan Adams of the late ’80s and early ’90s wouldn’t have taken anything from anyone. He was coolness personified, and life was good.

And sure, it’s been a couple decades since Bryan Adams was truly cool, even in Canada. And yeah, it’s been a little bit since he’s graced a soundtrack of any significance. But he’s on tour again, and I’m committed to getting tickets and to finally seeing the man who made me wish I had been around for the summer of ’69. I hear he’s still as raspy as ever, that he still plays a mean guitar, and that his crowds have gotten mellower over the years.

It’s about time I get to check that off my shallow pail list. You wanna come?

Sam

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b08c7fd762a65b5292d08721e70f1c16“Paddy, will you carry me? I think I’ve lost my way. I’m already five years older. I’m already in my grave. I’m already…” ~The Hearts Filthy Lesson, David Bowie

I met David Bowie in late 1995, at a time when I was a young adult trying to find my way in the world. That’s when many people met him, maybe not in 1995, but perhaps in 1972, or 1983, or 2002, or whenever, but they needed guidance just like I did. And David Bowie was there for me, for them, for US, just like he always had been, just like I knew he always would be. While I didn’t shake his hand, or look into his eyes, or even have a chance to ask for his autograph, I did hear his voice for the first time, and I cried.

Late 1995 was a time of change for me. I had just started college the year before, but I was floundering. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing right then, or with my life, or what was going to become of me in the future. All I knew was that music was my life, that lyrics made up the complicated fabric of my emotions at the time. I knew that there was so much out there that I didn’t know. Instead of looking to those around me for support I went inward. I went to my favorite place to meditate on the music. It was always the music.

David Bowie snuck up on me back then. I was into darker stuff at the time, having just discovered KMFDM, Nine Inch Nails, and Portishead. So it was a bit ironic that my introduction to the Thin White Duke took place because of Trent Reznor and his influence on “The Hearts Filthy Lesson.” I first heard the song over the speaker system at one of my favorite hole-in-the-wall record shops, the same place where I had listened to the entire The Downward Spiral album some few weeks before, purchasing it on the spot. When I walked in that time the song was blaring loudly and petulantly, and I liked it at once.

If you have never heard “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” then you’re missing out on a masterpiece. It is the perfect marriage of industrial, drum-machine throbbing bass, and the voice of an angel, with a bit of grunge thrown in for good measure. If there was ever anything to be said about David Bowie, it was that he was a chameleon, changing his music to suit his mood, to suit the place he had gotten to by that time. I didn’t know it then. Right then all I knew was that that one song was dynamic, that I had to hear more, so I bought the Outside album without hearing anything else. It wasn’t until later, on my bed, with my headphones on, that I was introduced to a concept album.

It was trippy. Something about Bowie’s voice grabbed me and made me want to pay attention. Something in his tone and in the words he used filled a void in me that I didn’t even know existed. I absolutely loved the album from start to finish, even the strange disembodied vocal tracks that weren’t even traditional music. I felt like a ghost in the machine, hearing the inner workings of the form without missing a beat. In fact, every single time I have listened to that record since I’ve felt the exact same way. I was hooked.

So I worked my way backward. I knew at once that I wanted to have more, that I needed another hit of that drug that was David Bowie. But the record store where I had purchased Outside wasn’t the place to go. It was the only album they had of his, focusing as they did on the industrial music that was so popular at the time. I went instead to a small place downtown that sold Boyz II Men, The Beatles, and Mark Knopfler. In their B section I found a virtual goldmine of Bowie records, and I realized for the first time the breadth of the man’s work to that point. That first trip to the store I picked up Space Oddity and loved it from the start.

In bits and pieces I began to build my collection with those first two CDs as cornerstones for what was to come. Every other payday I would head back downtown, to that little shop, and pick up another David Bowie album. Until, a few months later, I looked inside the crate where I kept my albums and I noticed that there were more Bowie records there than I even knew. I had built a collection of 12 albums in a matter of a few months, and by and large I loved what I heard, from the “Moonage Daydream,” to “The Memory of a Free Festival,” to “Ziggy Stardust,” to even “I’m Afraid of Americans” (from an album — Earthling — that was released while I was busy collecting).

I was in love. It was such a rush to get each new record, to put on my headphones, and to immerse myself in what was to me new music. I would listen to each album over and over again on a constant loop until I knew every single word, every note, every beat even, until it became part of my very marrow. I kept buying album after album in this fashion until I had every single one of the 20+ in my collection, and I have to admit that it felt a little odd when there were no more to buy. It was as if I was an addict, and my dealer was out of the drug. So I did what I did later with Harry Potter books. I kept going back to the well and experiencing each of the volumes again, as if for the first time.

Eventually, though, as with most things, other music came in to take over some of the real estate in those crates in my room. I began listening to Bowie less than I had before, but it didn’t mean he had lessened in my eyes. It only meant that music shifts and changes, and Bowie continued to change along with it. Every time he released a new album I was there at that moment, buying it and listening to it like I had in late 1995 when I first unexpectedly found Outside.

And I have to admit that he fell off my radar between those new albums, probably because the time he took to release them grew ever larger over the years. I was excited a couple of years ago when The Next Day came out, and I knew he was releasing another one this year, so I was excited, anticipating another brilliant record from one of my favorite artists. Then I woke up this morning, turned on the television, and received an absolute shock. David Bowie was dead. I thought my eyes had blurred, that I hadn’t read the screen correctly, but the anchor was saying it again, and I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t pretend it was happening to someone else.

20 years after I discovered the man, the myth, and the legend, he was gone. And the music remains. But it’s not the same. Just knowing he was out there, that any time now he could be releasing another album, that I could curl up on my bed again with my headphones, it soothed my soul. Now my soul is in chaos. For the first time since I’ve been alive, David Bowie is not, and I have to make my peace with that. But first I need to pick up a copy of his new album — his last album — and immerse myself in him one more time. For the first time.

Sam

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1I like to listen to my music loud. You know, bass thumping, mind numbing, so loud I’m always waiting for my iPod to scold me for forcing it to vibrate so much. I’m that guy you stop next to at a red light and there’s a haze coming from my car it’s being shaken to extremes by the internal noise. I worry if sometime in the not too far off future maybe I’ll have some hearing problems from it. No, no I don’t. It’s too much fun.

We all have things that are just like that for us. We know they can’t possibly be good for us but we do them anyway. We tell ourselves we can’t help it, but we can. At least I know I can. When others are in the car with me I put my volume at a low level, so that I can hardly hear it, and I motor along as if that’s just fine with me. It’s not, but I suffer for the people I love, and for others who happen to ride with me on occasion.

It all began for me back in the early ’90s, right around the time Nirvana released a little album calledĀ Nevermind. There was just something about that record that was so much louder than everything else in my collection. I had to put on my headphones and slide that volume control to HIGH. It reminded me of that scene inĀ Back to the Future when Marty blasts himself off his feet with a wall of sound. That’s how real, how tangible it felt to me back then.

And it still feels that way. I slam the wheel with my hand in time with the beat of the music, with the pounding bass that doesn’t only exist in my head. It makes me feel like I did at that Metallica concert in ’97, when I was pressed up against the biggest speaker I think I’ve ever seen in my life for most of the show. I couldn’t hear for a few days afterward, but it was a small price to pay for being so close to that much pounding sound.

Yes, I’ve gotten older, and I guess I’m supposed to have mellowed, but one way I haven’t changed is the way I like listening to my music. I don’t do it nearly as much as I used to because of time spent around others, but when I’m alone, when I’m by myself and no one else is near, I crank it up, and I take no prisoners. It’s soothing in a way that quiet has never been and never will be for me.

When it’s quiet, when the music is soft and lilting I don’t know what to do with myself. It’s not that I don’t like some soft music, but even when it’s soft I like to crank up the volume on it. You haven’t listened to Enya until you’ve heard her at 100 decibels. Seriously. So if you see a large black man with headphones on stopped at an intersection, waiting to cross, with a smile on his face, and the song obvious to everyone because you can hear it three blocks away — that’s me.

And I won’t hear you if you swear at me for disturbing the peace. That is my peace.

Sam

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