The music of my life and my life in music

15 Aug


With music—as well as movies, books, clothes, jobs and relationships, too—you’re either moving forward or you’re dying.

At 12, I was a classic rock man. I listened to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones. Before this I listened to kids’ praise and oldies radio. I did not dance. Favorite tape: “Sgt. Pepper’s.”

At 13, I listened to power pop and hair metal: Warrant, Def Leppard, Skid Row, AC DC and Metallica. I did not dance, but I sang a lot. Favorite tape: “Skid Row.”

At 13 ½, I moved into progressive rock: U2, REM, the Las, Jellyfish. I did not dance, but I believed in the basic decency of other people. Favorite tape: “War.”

At 14, I glommed onto the slacker rock/alternative stuff. I listened to Pavement and Dinosaur Jr., Jane’s Addiction and the Lemonheads, before I was steamrolled like everyone else by Grunge: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains and for the cognoscenti, Mother Love Bone (the band members of Pearl Jam with a different lead singer, who overdosed on heroin and died). I did not dance, but I wore baggy pants and wondered about narcotics. Favorite tape: “Ritual de lo Habitual” and “Slanted and Enchanted.”

At 15, a meteor struck; I got into punk. Skate punk first—NOFX and Lagwagon and Pennywise—and then Christian punk and pop punk, with some fun time excursions into Ska and Rock Steady. And then punk punk: Minor Threat and Bad Brains and the Clash. Favorite tape: “Minor Threat.”

Punk had energy. Punk had ratatat speed. Punk had guts, spit, anger, rebellion. Punk was distaste. Punk was revolution. Punk was the antithesis of gentility and kindness. It was untamed, primal energy. I loved it. I moshed. I became aware of politics. I shaved my head. I didn’t draw big black Xs on my hands, but I considered it.

And, I danced. A lot.


People didn’t dance at shows. They collided. They smashed. They sublimated. It was violent but not mean-spirited. If you fell, people helped you back up.

I was attached to the scene but never part of it. I saw most of the shows at the Nite Owl, a rundown place on Fairfield. The black box of a building rested at the edge of an enormous parking lot. The lot was usually covered in broken beer bottles and gnarly teenagers smoking cheap cigarettes. I didn’t fit in. Neither did my punk friends. Like hipsters, no one save for a few gutter punk kids seemed punk enough. We all wore shirts of our favorite bands, knew the lead singer of the Descendents was smart and the lead singer of Face to Face was strong.

I went to dozens and dozens of shows. It became a habit. The shows were a big part of my social life. The anti-establishment ethos of punk became a big part of my point of view. I didn’t want to vote for the corrupt politicians, didn’t want to wear clothes with labels, didn’t want to own nice things. I wanted to repudiate the nice, genteel lie of middle class suburbia.

Punk inculcates a basic need to destroy. In this way, punk caused and causes its own end.

Punk is bleak. Punk is empty. Punk is self-destructive. Punk is not beautiful. Punk is negation.

Like a virus, tribe or deity, punk hates non-punk. Punk drives out non-punk.

By 20, I hated music. All music. Hated it. Despised it. The only bands I liked were Hot Water Music and the Clash, and these I listened to once every few months. I was angry, confused, introverted, and once again, I did not dance.

I then rediscovered Soul music. Soul is fresh. Soul is sexy. Soul is harmony. Soul is the ghost wail of Wilson Pickett, the heartbreak of Otis Redding, the ear popping splendor of Aretha Franklin.


The greatest of the soul singers, Otis Redding.


It was a movie, strangely, that brought soul back into my life. I was 22 years old on a chartered bus in Chicago, and the driver clicked on The Temptations movie. The movie is fantastic, the music better. I went out and bought up David Ruffin, as well as half a dozen Temptations cds.

The music of my childhood was reborn.

Soul returned me to humanity. Through it I rediscovered the pleasures I had denied myself through the harsh asceticism of punk rock: electronica, dance, pop, even some country. It was a kaleidoscope of color, where I had previously viewed everything in black and white. Favorite cd: “Sam Cooke Live at Harlem Square.”

Soul brought me Doo Wop and girl groups. Soul brought me Rhythm and Blues, too. Soul brought me Screaming Jay Hawkins, Mary Wells, James Brown and, well, dancing, too.



Perhaps it was the instability of my professional life—trying to make a living as a writer takes fortitude, luck and talent, and I was only in abundant possession of just one of these—or the chaos of the larger world, but my mid-twenties brought me to lighter fare, New Wave music and its progeny: The Cure, the Smiths, The Church, the Talking Heads (technically post-punk, but . . .), The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, Beirut and the Postal Service. The emphasis was on good writing and harmony. The music was catchy. The songs were not heavy, but they weren’t slow, either. They drifted along currents of bohemian ennui and underemployed malaise.

Favorite album: a compilation of the Smiths’ greatest hits I put it together i-tunes.

Morissey, the haunting voice of a generation.


A record player revitalized my appreciation for classic rock. I inherited records from Beth’s cousin, her parents, and my parents, and I started re-listening to Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel and so on. I was twelve years old again.

I started listening to new music again, but also reggae and jazz and funk.

Reggae is finding beauty in too much sun. Reggae is punching through the malaise. Reggae is harmonized vocal slang. Desmond Dekker, Ken Boothe, Toots Maytal, and back to the Specials. Favorite record: “More Best of the Specials.”

Jazz is cocaine nights and tawdry red glare. Jazz is the naked city. Jazz is polished brass horns. Jazz is following your ex-lover in the dreary rain. Favorite album: “After Midnight.”

Funk is fun. Funk is Funk is thick, staggering swagger. Funk is sexy. Funk is a radioactive backbeat. Favorite record: “Florida Funk.”

Funk brought me Fela Kuti who brought me afro-beat. Favorite album: “Coffin for Head of State.”

From funk to afro-beat to Country. Rabbit Fur Coat was the hinge.

Country is hard living on the fringe of things. Country is broken hearts and petrochemical horizons. Country is not the end of happiness; country is the acceptance that happiness was always impossible. The Jayhawks, Justin Townes Earle, the Watson Twins. Favorite record: “Fire Songs.”


The inimitable Fela Kuti.


And that’s the story of my musical life: Pop to rock to grunge to punk to soul to new wave to rock to jazz to funk to afro-beat to country to a bit of everything.


There’s one more chapter.

When Beth got pregnant, I began listening to orchestral music. It was a need—I hungered for beauty, order, serenity, connection to the past. I prefer the chamber music of Mozart and Bach to the stentorian thunder of Brahms or Beethoven. I dug around for minor composers. Vivaldi and Schubert and Sibelius are my favorites. Orchestral music gives me peace. Strangely, while listening I always imagine troops in the crumbling Hapsburg empire, smoking cigarettes with felt gloves. Listening to the music of men who lived hundreds of years before me attached me to the human comedy in a way that I had—partially because of the ethics of punk rock—avoided.

Favorite movement: Sibelius’s violin concerto.

When Simone was one day old, she listened to her first songs. “Sweet Loraine,” from Nat King Cole and “For Emily,” by Bon Iver. I felt like crying. I listened to music most of the day as friends stopped by, and we wrapped her in cloth blankets, marveling at the munchkin-faced little person sleeping in the bouncy red seat, and the euphoria lasted until midnight, when we had to rush Simone to the hospital.


Simone makes listening to music hard. She’s difficult to please. She turns off the receiver, opens the cd player, and switches the input to radio. She dances baby waltzes to orchestral music, and a two-step jitterbug to dance music.

It’s adorable. But with a baby there’s less time for everything. Outside of family concerns, work takes precedence, then writing, then movies, then graduate school, then comics, and finally music.

My interest in new music has atrophied. The desire isn’t dead, but it’s dying. Perhaps it’s inevitable.

By a wide margin, Simone’s favorite songs are the ringtones from her grandfather’s cell phone and the battery-powered ditties from foreign-made toys.


2 Responses to “The music of my life and my life in music”

  1. Kathryn August 16, 2011 at 1:57 am #

    I get most of my music in my relatively short car rides each day. Ella likes classical and asks for violins sometimes, it helps chill out a bad mood on occasion. I’m trying to broaden her tastes so I talk about the music and the other day she surprised me and asked for the ‘almond friends cd’ which is apparently he allman bros. Still haven’t broadened her tastes too much yet… Anything to prevent having to listen to kids tunes like ‘wheels on the bus’

  2. DoubleM August 25, 2011 at 5:40 am #

    Love your commentary here, Ben. Music is a wild ride for those interested in letting it all soak in. I feel a certain emptiness and unease when there isn’t music playing. Don’t know why. But life is definitely more interesting when played with a soundtrack.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: