I just participated in an extremely fun little gift exchange. The idea was to make a mix CD using a maximum of one song from every year of your life. The song could be what you were listening to that year, something that you are listening to now that was released that year, or a song from any time that represents that year of your life.
It was actually really fun, and we had to make liner notes, so here are the ones that I wrote:
1. Beautiful Boy – John Lennon
This is the only song that I’m aware of that has my name in it and it’s about a father giving advice to his newborn child, so this will serve as my “1982”. John Lennon in particular held a lot of importance to me and I often listened to this song imagining him as a surrogate father (I was also undoubtedly influenced by an interview I read with Kurt Cobain where he said that he considered John Lennon to be a surrogate father — so that would make us surrogate brothers!). I’ve always thought this song was incredibly sad. I’ve always paired this song with “Julia” which was John’s song to the mother he never knew because she died young. In this song John is finally ready to be a good father and I imagine him singing to a gurgling, smiling baby, laying out all the things that they are going to share together and reassuring him that life may be hard but dad is going to be there to help — and things are getting better and better. Of course John would die before he could actually watch his son grow up — just as his own mother did. In both songs there is the sound of the ocean and that makes the symmetry even more acute.
I never had the kind of relationship with my own father described in this song (you know, the kind where we talk). When I was in India, in the house my father grew up in, he told me that he never made eye contact with his dad because it just wasn’t done, you were afraid to even stand in a father’s presence, let alone look at him. I realized that even though it seemed like our own relationship didn’t extend beyond his scolding me to study, my dad had made leaps and bounds in how he performed the role of a father when his only experience with a father was one in which he not only couldn’t talk, but couldn’t even LOOK. I can’t really imagine what it would have been like to not only try to figure out how to be a father with that as a template, but how to be a father in a totally new cultural environment. My dad was obviously not the communicative, compassionate father that Lennon portrays in this song, but, in retrospect, he came a long way.
2. Proud To Be An American – Lee Greenwood
I dimly remember in first grade the entire school was corralled into a major show at C.Y. Stephens at ISU. We spent about a month making puppets in art class and it would all culminate in us performing this song with our creations. It’s strange to think that all of us were required to participate in this crazy, heavy-handed, nationalistic anthem.
None of us really took the patriotic message to heart at all, we were just worked into a nervous, agitated frenzy to get every movement right. I remember that feeling of being very important — backstage, after school, all dressed up in black pants and black shirts (turtleneck for me!) and the heightened sense of awareness that comes from in the moments before a performance.
Even in the liberal enclave of Ames, Iowa these moments of coerced patriotism were not uncommon. My friend Bogdan lived in the rich subdivision, Northridge, and every Fourth of July a local realtor would put mini American Flags on everyone’s lawns and his parents pointedly removed them and were shocked that someone would be so brazen. They were Serbians and this incident occurred during the U.S. action in Bosnia Herzegovina. They weren’t genocide apologists, but the bombings were indiscriminate (as I assume most bombings are) and affected a lot of civilians, some of them were their family and friends. At the time I thought it was just his parents being “weird.”
3. Father Figure – George Michael
My family would make the seven hour trip to Milwaukee in our Pontiac Station Wagon quite frequently when I was younger to visit my mom’s sister and my cousins. My cousin Tony gave us a George Michael tape, which was the only tape we owned, and we listened to it over, and over, and over again. My brother and I would sit in the flattened out back portion of the station wagon, laying on pillows and blankets my parents had laid out and fighting nausea as we watched the road recede endlessly behind us. It was on one of these trips that I must have spent hours plotting my plan to give this song to my second grade teacher, Mrs. Grummer. I had an enormous crush on her, I was convinced that we shared a connection that was very special because she would always make insightful comments in my daily writing journal, complimenting me on my trenchant commentary and my penmanship. I felt that the sexual tension had reached a breaking point and something had to be done. This song would say everything that I needed to say. George Michael said, “I won’t be your teacher” and I thought I could very effectively repurpose this to clearly tell my teacher, “This is no longer a student-teacher relationship. You know and I know there is something more here. From now on, we are boyfriend-girlfriend.” On the trip I listened to this song over and over again, not understanding what George Michael was actually saying but reinterpreting snatches of the lyrics in my mind to directly explain our relationship.
Before I could go through with my plan, Mrs. Grummer announced to the class that she was pregnant. I felt betrayed. I suppose I had a vague awareness that she was married, but somehow this revelation changed things forever. In my daily writing journal that fateful morn I didn’t hold back. I wrote, “Great. Now my teacher is going to be really fat.” I hoped that she would see this for what it was: the window of opportunity for a life with me shutting. I knew it was mean, but I was so mad, I wanted it to sting. She made some glib comment about her “eating for two,” failing to comprehend her cavalier casting off of possibly the only true love she could have ever known. Oh Mrs. Grummer, sometimes I feel you’ll never … understand me (understand me).
4. Rebel Without a Pause – Public Enemy
Every year my parents would look through the Iowa State directory of grad students, searching for possibly Malayalee sounding names. They would cold call these students and invite them over for a home cooked meal and this was their social network. As a result, I saw many films that were far beyond my depth and probably completely inappropriate. The one that sticks out in my mind the most is “Do the Right Thing.” In the film, a character, Radio Rahim, plays Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” on his boombox too loud, the cops get called, he gets shot, and then there’s a race riot. I remember everyone animatedly discussing the implications of the movie, but I don’t remember the content. The only thing I could hold onto was the song. I think that this was right around the time that the film “Malcom X” was coming out and I recognized the director being interviewed on TV as Mookie, and I saw that Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan (the two most important people in my life at the time) were wearing those “X” hats. Then, at my cousin’s house I heard this album and recognized it as the same one from Do The Right Thing. I connected all the dots, and felt as if I had solved a puzzle and been granted temporary entry into an adult world where adult things were discussed.
5. Where I’m From – Digable Planets
On one of our many Christmas trips to Milwaukee I remember watching the cartoon “A Coo’ Like Dat Christmas.” My cousins — who were ten years older than me, thought this very amusing because the song that was playing throughout this cartoon was “Cool Like That” by the bohemian, hyper-literate hip-hop group, the Digable Planets. I took the CD from them and listened to it because it reminded me of the Christmas special. Since then it’s been one of those CDs in my collection that I rediscover every couple years. I love the romanticized vision of a friendly, engaged, and intellectual neighborhood that’s presented in this song.
6. I Will Follow Him – Cast of Sister Act
The last thing that I can remember my entire family agreeing on was Sister Act. My mother is deeply religious, but loves filthy jokes. She also identified VERY strongly with Whoopi Goldberg’s sassiness. Before this her favorite movie was the Sound of Music. But what if Julie Andrews told dirty jokes? And what if she was brown? Really, this was inevitable — all the pieces were there to make this THE MOVIE for my mom. We got the soundtrack and my brother and I would often sing along. This never failed to make my mom laugh.
7. Shoop – Salt N Pepa
In sixth grade my friend Richie gave Sarah, the cool girl everyone had a crush on, the cassingle of “Shoop” for her birthday.
This amazed me, totally, utterly.
It was sixth grade, so we were a few years past the point when there were co-ed birthday parties and as far as I knew, since that time we had all cultivated a deep, deep fear of girls that would only grow in the coming years. This fear caused me to avert my eyes from people who were close friends or neighbors only a few years before. When we square danced in P.E. I atempted to calculate who I would be matched up with in the girls line and I’m not sure what I was even hoping for because no matter what I felt like I was going to die, my vision blurred, I couldn’t speak, my body jerked involuntarily at every touch, it was awful.
Which is why Richie’s gift was epochal. When the boys tried to make fun of him (“So is she your guuuuuurrrrrl frrrrreeeeeeeeeyyyyynnnnd?”) he just said really coolly, “She’s my friend, and it was her birthday, so I got her a present.” I remember immediately assuming that he must have been left back a few years or something. How else was he so mature? This flawed logic was based on my gross overestimation my own future progression; I thought, “I’ll probably be like that next year … or maybe the year after.” Yeah, try 10 years later. This wasn’t like, “All of you will grow at different rates, so don’t feel bad now,” this was Doogie Howser M.D. all of a sudden coming to your 9th grade social studies class and performing open-heart surgery. This person looked like a peer, but he was clearly a genius of some kind, walking among mere mortals and performing miracles, the likes of which we barely had the capacity to recognize, let alone understand.
Richie was the new kid in school so he wasn’t bound by the entrenched patterns of shame that the rest of us had cultivated with each other and his freedom actually opened up the possibility of a co-ed friend group. I remember being in sixth grade and feeling incredibly mature because at recess instead of climbing on the playground equipment a group of about five of us — boys and girls! — would go to a patch of trees and just talk. Oftentimes we would sing this song, word for word, together. This filthy, filthy song. This song that no sixth grader should sing. The boys in the group felt no qualms singing lines like “Brother, wanna thank your mother for a butt like that.”
8. Lithium – Nirvana
Of course everything changed in middle school. When all the elementary schools were pooled into one windowless holding cell, all previous allegiances were broken and we entered into a sharply defined hierarchy. I was very near the bottom of this new pecking order — only slightly above the kid with the cleft palette. Like everyone else, my interest in Nirvana was piqued by the non-stop coverage of Kurt Cobain’s death, but when I actually started listening to his music I felt like he was the only person who understood how I felt — angry, alone, and sad.
9. The New Style – Beastie Boys
The problem with Nirvana and Kurt Cobain for me as a wounded middle schooler was that I saw everything in stark terms: you were either with us or against us. Kurt Cobain stood against pop music, so I stood against pop music. I only listened to “serious” music, “real” music … like Soundgarden or Filter or whatever “grunge” group of the week was on 107.1, Iowa’s New Rock Alternative. The one exception was Bush because I couldn’t forgive Gavin Rossdale for dating Courtney Love so soon after Kurt Cobain’s death, and I viewed anyone that went to the concert my eighth grade year as a Judas (Bush with No Doubt — the tour where the Stefani/Rossdale romance blossomed!). While the popular kids listened to rap, social exclusion had rendered me staunchly “alternative.”
The one source of overlap — for WHATEVER reason — was the Beastie Boys. During my 8th grade year “Ill Communication” came out and The Beastie Boys were the Outkast of their day: a group that we could all agree on. In retrospect, I have no idea why. I have five Beastie Boys CDs that I cannot listen to today.
10. Puttin’ it Down – Beck
The corrective to the attitude of exclusivity was Beck. When Odelay came out, I not only listened to the album CONSTANTLY, I also read every single article and interview I could. At the time I had just started working at the Ames Public Library and I would read every Spin, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Interview — ANYTHING — with an article on Beck. And that year there were a lot of articles — it seemed like every single magazine would eventually name it the album of the year. What was great about Beck for me was that he was so open to every genre, and for the uninitiated — like me — he was incredibly generous with his knowledge. Almost every interview he gave he listed off influences and they were wide-ranging, important, and uniformly great. I never, NEVER thought I would like country music, but Beck consistently listed Hank Williams as one of his favorite artists, so i checked him out from the Library — and I loved it. I thought that I was not a rap person, but Beck loved Afrika Bambataa, and I found out, so did I. Each of these different artists I probably would have never sought out, but Beck pointed me in their direction and I could not dismiss them because I heard so much in common with pieces and portions of Beck’s music, which I loved. If I liked “Sissyneck,” I had to like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” if I liked “Hi-5” I had to like “Soul Sonic Force”. Beck opened up my previously narrow musical palette to an amazing range of great artists.
Beck was my guide through popular music. I got to Mississippi John Hurt, Captain Beefheart, Neil Young, and much, much more through Beck. When I watched the Simpsons as a child, I distinctly remember thinking, “Someday I will understand every joke in this episode,” and I actually watched movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and A Streetcar Named Desire for the express purpose of understanding jokes in Simpsons episodes. The meta-narrative, the story cobbled from references to other stories, of the Simpsons led me to experiencing great art. In the same way, Beck’s meta-music, songs collaged from all these different influences, led me to expose myself to so much great music. At one point later in high school after I had gone on a burning spree through the Ames Public Library, I laid out all my music on the ground and tried to connect it to one another — grouping Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, etc. The pattern that emerged was rays coming out from the center, where I put my Beck CDs.
11. Til The End of the Day – The Kinks
I’m sure that everyone has this, but this is just MY kind of music. If I’m not careful, I can find myself ONLY listening to this kind of music for weeks or even months. If I could play an instrument, if I could sing, I would have long hair, wear a three piece suit, harmonize, play fucking loud, and break my instruments after I was done.
12. I Will – The Beatles
I went through a huge Beatles phase, to the point when someone would say that they weren’t really into the Beatles I would accuse them of lying. I would actually say, “You don’t honestly believe that. You’re just trying to be controversial.”
Our junior year we were all required to take a health class. I wanted the free period, and since we learned about sex during the class, I tried to opt out for “religious reasons.” I typed up a letter, had my mom sign it, and gave it to my guidance counselor. Can you believe she straight up didn’t believe me!? I had a signed note and she was like, “Shawn, you go to St. Cecilia. Everyone else from St. Cecilia is taking this class,” and I responded weakly, “but I have a note?”
Anyway, I got shamed into taking this ridiculous awful class. One of the assignments was to choose a love song — not a sex song! — a love song. Of course “love” as defined by our teacher (we were going to get graded). Our teacher warned us, “Don’t try any funny stuff. I know if something is secretly a sex song. One year a student tried to submit Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” but she didn’t know that I have a black friend” (pause for emphasis. Oooh, you didn’t see that coming, did you kids? Well it’s true, let that sink in for a moment) “and my BLACK FRIEND” (Believe it or not, I befriended a real, live black person) “told me that in the BLACK community” (my black friend is a conduit that runs from the pool of the black collective consciousness DIRECTLY INTO MY BRAIN) “‘Respect’ is a euphemism for sex. So no songs about ‘respect’ because I know what those songs are really about” (because of the secret negro knowledge my BLACK FRIEND imparted to me).
I used this song, thinking that the emphasis on loving forever and forever and waiting a lonely lifetime would satisfy the romantic parameters this woman — who had previously put a condom around her fist and stretched it to cover the entirety of her forearm down to the elbow (“If he says he’s too big ladies, tell him that’s bull honky. Check this out!”) — had set.
I got points docked because the love described in the song was a hypothetical future love and not a description of a healthy relationship.
13. Motion Pictures – Neil Young
Bob Dylan always impressed me as a genius, but Neil Young has always been someone that I feel like I know. He writes songs about watching movies, being drunk and stealing tunes from other artists, being scared, and he’s just so raw and emotional. There’s the classic story of someone shouting at one of his concerts “All your songs sound the same!” and Young replying, “It’s all the same song.” I have found that I can listen to endless amounts of Neil Young and I never get tired of it, it’s like talking to an old friend — familiar but always interesting. My best friend through middle school and high school and I primarily bonded over our shared sense of humor and as music — and the emotions that music carries — became more important to me, our differing tastes became indicative of the process of growing apart. Neil Young was a specific flashpoint. While I was listening to an album, my friend complained about his voice, he said that he sounded like a wounded animal. I found that I couldn’t explain that that was precisely why I liked him.
14. Run For the Roses – Jerry Garcia
So this is the kindest I could possibly be to myself with respect to my freshman year foray into the world of jam band music. I think that my jam band phase is symbolic of my main problem my freshman year, and the lesson I did not know at the time was: Limitations are a good thing. If you put together six people who are very good at their instruments and a crowd of stoned people who will love whatever they do and then tell them to do whatever they want … well, it took me a while to realize that it wasn’t for me. I went to a Phish concert, a moe concert, and a String Cheese Incident concert — and why? It was largely a social thing, I was trying everything — no limitations! — and going with the flow, just “open to experience.” However, without a strong critical consciousness the experiences I was opening myself to were ones that I couldn’t find much value in later.
I have to say though, that the Grateful Dead are very, very different and I actually think they’re a great band even today. And this concert is different. Jerry Garcia is playing solo acoustic guitar to a group of prisoners at Oregon State Penitentiary. The limitations imposed make for — in my opinion — much, MUCH better songs, and I assume that the prisoners wouldn’t have the same tolerance for self-indulgence that Garcia’s normal audiences would have.
15. Lost Highway – Hank Williams
This song meant a lot to me in college. It’s such a simple, powerful statement about regret. As I smoked cigarettes in the Foxhead I could close my eyes and hear Hank’s voice warning me to change my ways from the back of the white Cadillac he died in, and I would pre-emptively regret the things that I knew I would be doing in the coming years.
16. Deceptacon – Le Tigre
This song played at every party we threw in college.
17. I’m Set Free – The Velvet Underground
Leaving Iowa City before I went to India, I played this on the jukebox at Gabe’s very deliberately because it captured how I felt at the time — about to leave Iowa City and the U.S. for an indefinite period of time.
18. Kal Kya Hoga – R. D. Burman
Living and working in India was disorienting, frantic, and generally insane, like this song.
19. Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace – Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln
I wasn’t particularly aware of race before I went to India, and then IN India I became hyper-aware of my otherness and privilege as an American. But when I came back I became very aware of my situation as the only minority in most social situations. I was surrounded by white liberals who would never, EVER consider themselves racist in anyway, and were far too savvy to do something as uncouth as saying anything overtly racist — but I suddenly became sensitive to all the subtle, unnameable moments of subtext and inadvertent innuendo I observed as a non-white person in a society controlled by white privilege. I didn’t know how to express these feelings or even to bring them up in a productive way. If I encounter overt racism, it’s actually easy to know what to do because all the scripts for righteous indignation are prepared … but trying to address these much more common, ambiguous situations was something I didn’t know how to do and as a result I became extremely frustrated, with the situation and myself.
This is from a concept album on the civil rights movement. The first song is kind of like a chain gang song about slavery, the next one is about emancipation, and then there’s this one, full of inarticulate anger.
20. Don’t Worry About the Government – Talking Heads
After moving around for years (In India I typically travelled two weeks out of every month, then I moved back to IC, then I moved to LA) I really appreciate how this song stitches together all the mundane details of a settled life into something that is so happy — but also shaded with darkness. The Talking Heads is one of my favorite bands and this is such an indicative song — almost like a mission statement for them. In fact, their next album would be self-deprecatingly titled “More Songs About Buildings and Food”. The almost autistic attention to detail and celebrating the things that people NEVER write songs about is what I love about the perspective of the Talking Heads. And I think so much richness comes from this seemingly simplistic approach … we start with nature, the clouds moving across the sky, and then we see how people — through technology and force of will — have reshaped the world to meet our needs. The pine trees are next to the highway and the highway serves the purpose of getting people to the building and this seemingly matter-of-fact catalog of the systems that enable middle-class comfort somehow takes on great emotional weight.
And there are so many ways to look at the song. On the one hand its about the simple pleasure that you can derive from things that we take for granted. I don’t have to live outside! I live in a building! And I see my loved ones because they can come from their building to my building on a highway! And I get all of this! This is great! I often have moments like this where I wax rhapsodic about something mundane like indoor plumbing (“Do you know how insane it is that if I turn a knob I can get drinking water, RIGHT HERE? ON the fourth floor of a building? Think about that. Other people have to walk to a body of water, gather water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing, and then do the same thing again the next day, but us, we get to have water whenever we want! And we even get to decide if its hot or cold! And we live in a fucking desert!).
But then you think about the character in the song, who has his life so regimented and how everything in society is designed for efficiency, designed not necessarily so we can enjoy our lives more, but so we can work more — and shoehorn in moments of time for our loved ones as an interruption from our “working, working”. The main character is precisely the kind of person the government doesn’t have to worry about (it’s almost as if he’s pleading with an interrogator when he says “Don’t you Worry About MEEEE!), an ideal citizen: someone who is appreciative of his comforts, whose life is consumed with work, but allows himself small indulgences that enhance his efficiency.
But of course the title is “Don’t Worry About the Government” so its like, “Look at all the good things the government makes possible for you! Buildings! Highways! The government makes life easier!” and all the simple comforts the narrator describes so movingly actually help to lull him into a state of complacency where questioning the government seems ungrateful. In short, “Don’t Worry About the Government.” The song itself is so sweet and jaunty, but then the title makes you think about all the wonder of the narrator through a different lens.