Salvation songs, part 1: Michael Bolton.

6 Dec


I bottom out, musically, every couple of years. I sort of look around and think, is this it? Is this the music I’m going to listen to for the rest of my life? (This usually follows some type of mini-existential crisis and period of disaffected self-loathing.) And then, inevitably, some musical meteor will streak across the firmament and save me.

A song written just for me. Transmitted through an invisible stream of auditorial alchemy. As if ordained by God.

A salvation song.

They aren’t always good songs. Sometimes they’re terrible. But they’re the right songs. I’ve been revisiting my musical history, looking to mine some of these out for a new reoccurring set of entries.

Here’s my first.


I was a classic rock guy for most of my youth. My dad listened to oldies in the car. He was a British Invasion kind of guy, opting for the Beatles over the Stones. He liked the Dave Clark Five, The Lovin’ Spoonful. Like most kids, I absorbed his tastes. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was my favorite tape. I listened to it on a constant loop. The White Album was next, and then Abbey Road[1] and The Magical Mystery Tour. My tastes were unequivocally classic rock, but not yet sophisticated. I liked Ricky Nelson and Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and Gary Puckett, Kenny Loggins and Queen. A little Pink Floyd. A little Motown. It was a fuzzy stew of guitar, drum, bass and horn. I couldn’t really hear the difference between good and bad. I liked it all.

Secular music was mostly banned inside the house by my mom. So it was oldies in the car with dad until I got a little black boombox for Christmas. And then it was tapes and tapes, the tinny speakers close to my ears so I could listen without my mom catching me.

This was me at 11 years old.


At 14 it was Jellyfish and the La’s, Live, R.E.M. and college radio, with a soupcon of Mudhoney and Jane’s Addiction, a band I absolutely loved. At 16 I was punk (and power pop) with occasional descents into metal. I shaved my head, went to punk shows and eschewed popular music.

But before punk, before hardcore, before the counterculture, but after the classic rock of my father, I had a brief two-year fling with pop. It happens to everyone. Around 12, pop culture seeps in. Like most new teenagers, I was an incubator and a crucible for the pop strands circulating in the cultural ether. This was in the early nineties, and I absorbed massive doses of sugary confection. I absorbed  the good and the bad[2].

MTV was an enormous presence in my life. It was forbidden in my house, so when I stayed with my buddy Jason we overdosed on it, gazing at hours and hours of Yo MTV Raps and Headbanger’s Ball and videos, videos, videos.

This was at the end of the glam metal decade. Poison’s “Unskinny Bop,” Nelson’s “Love and Affection,” Def Leppard’s “Love Bites,” all vied for my affection.

And, yes, MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Cinderella, Biz Marke, Janet Jackson, The Black Crowes[3], Warrant, Bel Bev Devoe, Boys II Men, Heart, Billy Joel (who was no longer cool)[4].

I have immense affection for this group of songs. Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” still rocks. Aerosmith’s “What It Takes,” has a special place in my heart. And Depeche Mode’s “Break the Silence” makes regular appearances in playlists and mix tapes.

But amidst all this cultural detritus, one song stands out. And an essential feature of a salvation song is you don’t pick the song, the song picks you. So, please, no judgment, or not too much anyway. Drum roll please. The song: “How Can We Be Lovers if We Can’t Be Friends?” by Michael Bolton.


Yes. The Michael Bolton.

Mock me all you want, I don’t care.

I don’t know why this song about a troubled relationship resonated with me, but resonate it did. I trawled the radio dial. I memorized the words. I sang along. I belted the lyrics out with joy. My friends would point at me when it came on, give me the head nod saying, Yep. That’s your song and it’s on right now. I returned the gesture to Jason when “Heaven,” came on. All of my friends identified with one of these songs. Ryan was “Unbelievable.” Britt was “Everybody plays the fool.” I was Michael Bolton.

Bolton’s voice—if you can separate it from his cheesiness—is rich and strong, chesty with a natural reverb. His hair is amazing; he has luxuriant curly locks but is also somehow balding. He’s rocking the fashionable European mullet, years ahead of his time.

His sincere outbursts of raw emotion—you can see the pain ripple across his face; he’s really suffering—and his awesome microphone work, the intense background singers echoing his let’s save the relationship sentiments, the song caught in my thoughts. I loved it, even when I found out the chorus was not “How can we be lovers if we can’t be happy friends,” which I was certain it said.

About two-thirds of the way through, the song reaches a point of emotional transcendence, when Bolton belts out, “We can work it out!” It gave my 13-year-old self shivers.

In retrospect I don’t know why I glommed onto Michael Bolton. I stuck around with him for a few more songs until he released a cover of “When A Man Loves A Woman.” I smelled a rat and moved on.

I never bought the tape. I can say that much. And I used to be embarrassed by these early songs, but now I own my past. I still hold this song it my heart. Watch the video below, and prepare to be saved.

[1] I still don’t quite understand the adoration this record inspires.

[2] Mostly the bad.

[3] “She Talks to Angels” is another song that has made the cut to my adult life.

[4] I knew, even then, that Color Me Badd was pretty lame, although “I want to sex you up,” is a pretty catchy song.

2 Responses to “Salvation songs, part 1: Michael Bolton.”

  1. February 20, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

    Hi there, all is going well here and ofcourse every
    one is sharing facts, that’s in fact good, keep up writing.


  1. Salvation Songs, part 6: Loser. | simoneandthesilversurfer - May 14, 2013

    […] God, and transmitted through an invisible stream of auditorial alchemy. Salvation songs. Read parts 1 and […]

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