A childhood in which I was raised to “find my own path” (read: wander blindly through life’s shadowy forests without a tour guide or even a working flashlight) left me with very few tools for suffering the worst trials and shouldering the heaviest burdens, too many of which I brought on myself. By age thirty a series of improbable coincidences and extensive rethinking sessions had led me at long last to an illuminated trail that’s taken me toward much more reliable means and sources of support and encouragement than I ever had during my extended, two-time college-dropout phase.
Before I walked that way, all I had was music.
Of all the hundreds of songs that have caught my attention throughout my life, five in particular stand out as rare instances in which I was moved by music, moments of lyrical lucidity and emotional truth that resonated deep down in that mushy core whose existence the common guy denies, moments I returned to again and again for comfort, advice, consolation, deep thoughts, and/or a boost of spirit. These were five solid shots struck at the foundation of the oddly designed structure that passes for my life.
Soul Asylum, “Easy Street”. When a friend hits rock bottom and cries for help, and you’re not a licensed counselor, how do you handle that? The narrator’s humble best guess at advice — acknowledging that life is hard, but insisting it’s worth seeing through to its natural conclusion — eschews maudlin balladry in favor of a brisk alt-rock backdrop that conveys a sort of energetic urgency to counteract the hard-knock-life blues.
(The incongruous video follows the band as they have fun playing with now-obsolete blue-screen effects. It’s cheesy and poorly aging, but the camaraderie between the band’s original members circa 1990 is unmistakeable evidence of them walking the walk side-by-side, so to speak.)
Oingo Boingo, “Out of Control”. Before Danny Elfman’s enduring career as a movie composer, his large, horn-loving band straddled the line between alt-rock and novelty music. In a rare digression from more famous singles such as “Weird Science” and “Dead Man’s Party”, this near-forgotten gem knows you’ve heard all the happy clichés about how life is precious and it’s not ours to take, but tries asking delicately if maybe it’s not that you’re looking for a sudden conclusion to the crappy series that your life’s become, so much as you just wish someone would help you with rewrites. Elfman’s vocals are haunting and soothing at the same time, while the layered, melodious background percussion typifies the kind of little beauties in our lives that are too easily overlooked. The conclusion doesn’t trick you into thinking everything’s solved (“I wish that I could tell you it’ll only be a dream”), but isn’t ready to let you go, either.
The Rollins Band, “Low Self-Opinion”. Henry Rollins is an angry Scared Straight instructor screaming in your face that you don’t suck and you better not let anyone tell you otherwise. Whereas most bands turn into bitterness enablers when they crank the guitars to 11, Rollins and his jazz-metal conspirators can’t help noticing that you don’t deserve the garbage that everyone else is dumping on you, and suggests that perhaps you shouldn’t let them. In case you’re slow to realize this, maybe you’ll wake up if he bellows like a drill instructor directly into your eardrum. Let’s face it: if corporate prefab Top-40 pablum doesn’t move us to action, sometimes we really do need a wake-up call that harsh to shake us out of our self-piteous reverie.
(Note for completists: the official video deletes a full minute of guitar-jamming. While I’m not a Deadhead who relishes twenty-minute solos, I’ve listened to the song so many times that it sounds completely wrong to hear that many measures get skipped. Full-length album version is located here.)
John Wesley Harding, “The Devil in Me”. Not all my most influential tunes are keyed to my former woe-is-me side. While still in his own early 20 the British folk-rocker merged pop-culture whimsy, a country-fried hook, and a horn section into a first-person global confession of our collective sins as a species. Before future rockers and comedians dedicated entire careers to being paid to tell us how horrible everyone is, Harding got into the action earlier with greater flair, subtler wit, and a more penitent heart.
(Listening link is here for the original video at VH1.com, which proved uncooperative with WordPress’ embedding capabilities.)
Social Distortion, “Ball and Chain”. The greatest country song in my life was written and performed by certified punks. When I first saw Mike Ness’ SoCal crew on MTV, I was reminded of the Fonz. Then I shut up and stopped making dumb visual comparisons once I found myself relating to Ness’ bittersweet memories, lasting regrets, and mournful wishes for freedom from his life’s accumulation of overpowering baggage and self-inflicted wounds. It’s a cathartic release for anyone whose search for redemption and forgiveness took longer and was much more draining than they’d hoped.
(Another note for completists: the full album version is available separately, as this official video again dispenses with too many passionate guitar passages.)
Fortunately I’m feeling much better now. These songs stick with me nonetheless as reminders of where I’ve been and what’s gotten better since those days of misery that I frequently brought on myself. After reviewing these together as a sort of playlist, I’m also now yearning for that golden age when new music connected with me in any meaningful way.
(I’m not yearning for a return of the misery they alleviated, mind you. I don’t miss that at all. Three cheers for reduced stupidity in mid-adulthood.)