With a Song in My Heart: E is for…

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” – U2, 1992.

I can kick this post off by reassuring readers that it won’t be quite as heavy as yesterday’s.  Instead we’ll just offer a few paragraphs about one of my favorite bands, one with whom I have savored and at times rued a two-decade-long love/huh? relationship.  (You’ll also note that I appear to be constitutionally prohibited from in-depth appreciation of bands from my own side of the Atlantic.)  U2 first came to my attention in the mid-early-80’s when they were transitioning away raw, angry Irish proto-punk into more mature, textured material that wasn’t all allegorical retellings of the Troubles. I can say that now that my vocabulary has developed substantially; back then it was only a matter of taking the slightest interest in the Unforgettable Fire poster on my cousin Brad’s bedroom wall.  Even when their legendary Joshua Tree album dropped a few years later they didn’t really register for me.  They seemed too serious, too dire, too preachy.  What is interesting to me now, as a devoted fan, is going back and realizing just how many of Bono’s lyrics are intended to be about God, but that like the best pieces of art (or religious texts, as it were), you can interpret them to mean, or be about, whatever or whomever you want.

What do U2’s songs mean to me?  Well, let’s go back and talk a bit about how I finally got into them.

1997 for U2 brought the release of Pop, what is probably their most polarizing album, setting aside the art-for-art’s-sake Passengers misfire.  (Given the aforementioned Christian focus of Bono’s lyrics you could assign a double meaning to the title of this one as well:  Pop – Poppa – Father – God.)  The lead single was “Discotheque,” a foray into 90’s club music, featuring an appropriately cheesy video which had Bono and company donning the garb of the Village People and performing an easily mimicked hip-thrusting dance.  My playlist had grown stale and I was hungering for something fresh, and this fit the bill.  For once, those dour Irish dudes seemed like they were having some fun, and I could get into this.  The trouble was the rest of the album wasn’t so great.  Aside from one beautiful standout (“Gone,” which should have been a single but wasn’t for whatever reason), it remains a hard-to-listen-to mishmash of misbegotten experiments and half-finished ideas.  But no matter, the fish had bitten into the hook and I began to mine their back catalogue.  That’s when I found Achtung Baby.

I’ll happily argue with anyone who doesn’t think it remains their best album by a mile.  Almost like a greatest hits collection, there isn’t a single song on there that can’t stand up to years of replays.  In rock journalist Bill Flanagan’s terrific book U2 At The End of The World, the band talks about how the album took much of its inspiration from Nighttown in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and as such follows a wanderer who, seduced by more hip-thrusting rhythms, descends into an orgiastic abyss,  confronts his soul and winds up spent and wrecked in the damp gutter as the dawn finally begins to break.  Backed at every harrowing step, of course, by some simply marvelous tunes.  Now I don’t remember enough of what I read of Ulysses (i.e. almost nothing) to draw all the connections for you, but listening to Achtung Baby uninterrupted, start to finish, does feel like an odyssey of sorts, and you do find yourself feeling a bit worn as the closing track “Love is Blindness” fades away, but the journey’s been worth it.

So it’s ’97, I’m spinning Achtung Baby and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” nonstop, and driving my friends bonkers by being the worst version of a U2 n00b (U200b?) you can imagine, prattling on as if I’d discovered them.  “Did you guys know that Bono’s real name is Paul Hewson?  Did you guys know that the first time Axl Rose heard ‘One’ it made him cry?  Did you guys know that they used to be called Feedback?  Did you guys know…” and so on and so forth.  Looking back on it even I would have told myself to shut up.  But when you’ve found something that fills a void you weren’t sure was even there, your first instinct is to share the news far and wide, and be incredulous that not everyone else mirrors your admittedly insufferable enthusiasm.

U2 have released six albums and a couple of compilations since Achtung Baby, and what keeps me buying the new ones even though none have lived up to its standard, is the idea that U2 remain seekers and questioners.  They subscribe to the concept that faith unchallenged is not true faith, and are ever reinventing themselves and their sound to pursue the glaringly contradictory aim of a brutally necessary yet realistically unachievable goal:  solving What It’s All About.  However, this approach can test the patience of those fans who only want to hear the old Joshua Tree classics reinterpreted with some new guitar licks (i.e., The Rolling Stones Career Plan, patent pending.)  When you’re trying for that elusive objective as well, your heart is more forgiving of the missteps no matter how awkward or brash – especially since theirs tend to sound much better.  U2 have been called pretentious, phony, egotistical, preachy, hypocritical and even clueless, but they’ve never been accused of being boring.  Their ability to surprise is like that of life itself – built in the DNA.  Though they may never again equal the achievement that is Achtung Baby, their choice to not rest on those laurels is an admirable one.  Go away and dream it all up again, as Bono once said.  What is even better than the real thing?  Knowing that the questions, and the choice to pursue those questions, are sometimes more valuable than the answers.

With a Song in My Heart: D is for…

“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” – Simple Minds, 1985.

Day Four and we’re on to our third of four anthems in the list (though perhaps “Convoy” might be considered an anthem of sorts to truckers, I don’t know any I could ask for confirmation.)  Recorded (but not written) by Brit band Simple Minds for the seminal John Hughes 80’s teen angst film The Breakfast Club, the song sketches for everyone who hears it the broad strokes of a particular generation and their own slice of recent history.  It’s sometimes hard to believe that this song is almost 30 years old.   For me, “30 years old” is doo-wop and Buddy Holly, before I see the swath of gray hair in the mirror in the morning and I remember just how far along the track I’ve come.  In 1995, however, only ten years out from the debut of the athlete, the princess, the brain, the basket case and the criminal, The Breakfast Club soundtrack found itself lodged in the tape deck of my car, with Jim Kerr pleading not to forget about him on repeat as I drove the thirty minutes each day from our house to the hospital where my mother was dying of cancer.

It was a little less than five months between her initial diagnosis and her admission to that cold and sterile room where she would breathe her last on an ironically sunny, warm June evening.  Radiation and chemo and determination to fight did little to slow the progress of the disease; it seemed oftentimes during those months that fate had etched its decision in cement:  this far and no farther.  Mom too acted as though she knew it wasn’t going to be a lengthy battle, even from the ground-shifting instant in January she gathered my sister and I in our pink-carpeted sunroom and told us what she’d learned from her doctor on an otherwise unremarkable afternoon.  She’d never been the same after we lost my dad eight years earlier; a piece of her soul had been carved away, and a lingering sadness that could never be soothed left in its place.  There was a resignation as her voice cracked, as if she’d been waiting for this news ever since.  The first snowfall after an unusually long summer heat wave.  Expected, and inevitable.

When she spoke the three horrendous words, “I have cancer,” I was halfway through my first year of university and had to return two days later to a place where I was already feeling alien, knowing now that I had to be away from her, enduring the daily banalities of the douchebag residents of my dorm as she commenced the litany of appointments and treatments designed to arrest against odds the relentless progress of this tiny, unwelcome malignancy.  And even then I was too focused on how I felt about the situation, in that unique arrogance only teenagers possess.  How could this happen to me, I wondered.  Still, I rebuffed with uncharacteristic brashness every best-intentioned attempt by relatives, friends and counsellors to get me to open up.  I’m not the one with the illness, was my customary response to the tedious question, “How are you doing?”  F—ing peachy, was what I really wanted to say.

Kerr’s “la la la las” would fade out and the tape would rewind automatically to the single, synthesized snare drum shot that introduces the opening chords, and the vocal call to action:  “hey hey hey heyyyyy, ooh ooh ooh ooh-whooaaaa.”  I’d signal and change lanes, looking ahead to the off-ramp and the “H” sign for the hospital.  Sometimes my sister would be with me, sometimes not.  We never really talked to each other about what was happening.  This had merely become the new routine, as normal as breakfast and a shower each morning.  The most selfish part of me even resented having to do it, but in that, my mother and I were in agreement.  More than anything else, she wanted to come home.  But she needed to be there, hooked up to those machines and bags of fluid, though they could do progressively less and less to make her well again.  Would it have been so much to ask, I say now, to let her spend her last week in familiar surroundings, to lie again in the bed she’d once shared with her beloved husband, even if she might be only barely aware of it?  Little, inconsequential things we take entirely for granted until they’re ripped away and dangled out of reach.  Like the presence of a mother in our lives.

The Breakfast Club is about five kids struggling to forge identities in the eyes of parents and authority figures who see them as stereotypes, and discovering in the course of a Saturday detention that they are each far more than who they appear to be.  Its theme song is a lament for the end of a relationship, a request to keep some part of it alive, even in the most fleeting thought.  In the numbness of the hours that followed my mom’s passing, someone else, a family friend probably, drove the car.  The stereo remained silent, but the refrain kept playing in my head as the scenery slid by the windows on this march back to the house that was for the first time entirely without wise parents, the residence now of only a too-young brother and sister with precious little idea of what the hell we were supposed to do next.  Guilt pressed down upon me now, a wave of hundreds of things I should have done for my mother when I had the chance.  Called more often.  Helped out around the house.  Set my own drama aside for one solitary minute to listen to how she was feeling.  To try to comprehend the extent of her loneliness coupled with the sheer depth of her bravery and how she resolved to live and work every day for her two children until life itself was pulled from her.  She did the best she could with the hand she was dealt and any successes my sister or I might enjoy are due entirely to her efforts.  She proved the power and resourcefulness of single moms.  She saved our family.  She saved us.

This was how I wanted to remember her, not as the frail shell my sister and I held onto until the final beat of her heart.  Strength comes in many forms, and while my shy, retiring mother may have been the opposite of my boisterous, larger-than-life father, it was her behind the scenes keeping the operation running smoothly, ensuring that we grew up with values and morals and the kindness that can be so lacking in an increasingly cynical time.  We probably each know someone who is spotlight-averse, who will go forever without the recognition showered freely on those who make spectacles of themselves.  Those are the ones it’s important that we don’t forget about, as we walk on by.  They are the backbone of our world and we are nothing without them.

And I won’t ever forget about you, Mom.

With a Song in My Heart: C is for…

“Convoy,” C.W. McCall, 1975.

Wait, you’re thinking, what???  That goofy one-hit wonder novelty from the birth of the disco era, featuring lingo that is as arcane and indecipherable to our generation as selfie, retweet and search engine optimization would be to theirs?  You’ve lost it, G.  Well hey, I never said they were all going to be great songs, just songs that evoke strong memories.  And this one certainly does – memories of a specific point and place in time, the basement of the first house I lived in.

That warm, reverse-L-shaped retreat with the stone fireplace at the end was as much a product of its era as this song, with the wood paneling and vinyl flooring that has been left mercifully in that long-past time along with puke green appliances and bell-bottomed trousers.  It was also a place of celebrations; birthdays, Christmases, really, any excuse my father could find to have people over for drinks and laughs.  As was common to a lot of finished basements at the time, it had a bar in the corner opposite the fireplace nook, framed in brown faux-leather padding and stocked with treasures:  curious samples of exotic liqueurs retrieved archaeologist-like from shops discovered on overseas jaunts.  And to a five-year-old boy far from the eyes of his parents and looking to impress cute little blond Cathy, as irresistible to open as the Ark of the Covenant.  What flavors!  Rich kirsch, smooth creme de cacao, some other unknowns rather bitter to a palate that shouldn’t be entertaining such tastes for another fifteen years, but no inhibitions are present in that moment.  Another round, Cathy?  (I should postscript this by adding that I have no recollection of events immediately following this incident, aside from never seeing Cathy again, which you can hardly blame her parents for.)

But aside from that one memorable-and-yet-not venture into pediatric alcoholism (oh come on, like you don’t have a similar story), that basement was my retreat, affording opportunities for play not present in the glorified cubbyhole that was my bedroom upstairs.  I could tear up and down the length of the room on tiny legs and tumble harmlessly into the walls, practice golf drives with Swiss-cheese-inspired plastic balls, and most importantly, score any monkeyshines with songs retrieved from my father’s enormous record collection, in particular, a favorite from the ranks of those old K-Tel hits-of-the-year compilations that were popular for parties (to my younger readers, this is what people did before the shuffle option on the iPod).

And so we come to “Convoy.”  The epic tale of truckers who go by the handles of “Rubber Duck” and “Pig Pen” leading a drive to New Jersey while eluding the “bears” trying to shut the enterprise down, it was a song I enjoyed acting out with my collection of toy cars as the record creaked and popped away in the background.  Didn’t really matter that none of the ragtag assortment of Hot Wheels or Tonka trucks resembled anything described in the song (except perhaps the “eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus”), many an occasion would find every plastic wheeled conveyance lined up along the floor from one wood-paneled wall to another, and the stereo blasting out McCall’s monotone narration.

It’s fascinating how as kids we have this capacity for mimicry, that we can latch onto particular things and repeat and recreate them endlessly.  It calls to mind the notion of the tabula rasa, that we are blank slates waiting to be written upon, and that we cannot abide the void, that our hunger to etch something on that big empty space is insatiable.  We latch on to anything we can find, in subconscious hope that enough input will lead to a critical mass and subsequent explosion into a personality that is uniquely ours.  In this case, it isn’t just the song, it’s the place, the year, the recollection of my dad helping me line the dinky cars into place and singing along with the chorus:  “We got a great big convoy, riding through the night.  We got a great big convoy, ain’t it a beautiful sight.”

It was indeed.

With a Song in My Heart: B is for…

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” – The Verve, 1997.

Back when I was still playing around with what kind of blog I was looking to write, and fancying part of myself a frustrated successor to Lester Bangs, I did a pretty comprehensive review of The Verve’s Urban Hymns album, which you can read here.  That of course was a clinical discussion of the music’s technical merits with little space given to personal reflection.  What I didn’t get into was how that album and this song in particular clobbered me out of a fog of complacency like an electric sledgehammer in 1997.

After my mother succumbed to cancer in the early spring of 1995, leaving my sister and I orphaned teenagers, I spent months trying to figure out who I was and what the hell I was going to do now.  A little more on this “lost weekend” period when we get to the “O” song in a few weeks, but suffice to say it was months spent reeling, wallowing, sinking into a mire out of which I had no desire to climb, while faking a smile for the cameras and for the benefit of friends and family I did not want to see me as an inconsolable basket case.  I hid away in my garret of an apartment and wrote screenplays.  They were formless, profanity-heavy treatises of obvious anger and guilt, the only way I knew how to process the turmoil in my brain and the rift in my heart.  From the comfortable perch of twenty years’ distance I can laugh at them as examples of Graham’s Emo Period, to be sequestered forever in the Vault of Bad Ideas, but back then they were my lifeline, as was the non-Internet capable computer I was writing them on.  If nothing else, they helped me become a much faster typist, as my fingers had to learn to keep up with the gushing wellspring of angst.

“Bitter Sweet Symphony,” as Verve fans know, is layered on a sample of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.”  I heard it for the first time while visiting my sister up at her university one weekend.  Having only a few soundtrack CD’s in my collection at the time, relying too much on a shoebox full of old mixtapes and being somewhat phobic of the radio, I wasn’t hearing much that was new, or, at least, non-orchestral.  But like so many others I was arrested instantly by the bold, melancholy string motif that introduces the song in a gentle crescendo, building to the moment Richard Ashcroft opens his mouth and lets the words pour out in a soulful torrent.  His first message isn’t terribly enlightened, or optimistic for that matter:  “Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die.”  Indeed, I’ve read more than one review that has dismissed the lyrics as trite.  But as the strings continue to bow, the drums pound and the song evolves toward its multi-tracked vocal coda, something clicks.  As does the now-infamous music video, featuring the sullen Ashcroft walking a London street, so single-minded of purpose and destination he bumps into everyone he passes and ignores the young woman he flattens.

Being “a million different people from one day to the next” is rather what is expected of us in what can often be a bittersweet life, isn’t it.  Be the husband, the father, the best friend, the professional, the stranger, the lover, the fighter, the poet, the misanthrope, the shoulder, the cold shoulder.  Somewhere in that mass of contradictions, the cacophonous throng of a million different people, we find the truth of who we are, and it shifts like sand beneath our feet blown by the west wind.  In 1997, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was proclaimed an anthem, and for me, it still is.  I could recognize that although the place I was in was dark, it was not eternal, and that at some point the skies would lighten and the dawn would break, because there is that next day, and the opportunity to be another of the million different people – a better one.

With a Song in My Heart: A is for…

“All You Need is Love,” The Beatles, 1967.

So we begin this 30-day, 26-song collection with what might seem a fairly obvious choice; indeed, an immensely popular, zeitgeist-entrenched piece of music that means pretty much the same thing to millions of people all over the world.  But rather than attempt some lurching, musical-snob faux-hipster, high-falutin’ rationale of why “All You Need is Love” is more significant to me than it is to the rest of you posers who only got into the Beatles after they became popular, I can merely set the scene and leave the judgment to my dear readers.

What is the meaning of “All You Need Is Love”?  Is it a tremendous oversimplification, cynical pablum for the forlorn masses, or is it a justifiable mantra, a truth keyed into by four Scouse musicians and shared, prophet-like, in the Our World broadcast of 1967 – in a performance where author John Lennon can be seen nonchalantly chewing gum, conveying perhaps his true opinion of its significance (or maybe just trying to soothe a dry mouth)?  No matter; once the sound flies from the amplifiers it no longer belongs to its creators, but to the world.  We puzzle over the strains of “La Marseillaise” leading into that undanceable 7/4 time introduction, and Lennon’s litany of pronouncements.  “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.”  Reminds us a little of the opening of Waiting for Godot:  “Nothing to be done.”  But what’s he really saying?  That there are no horizons left to conquer, or that there is nothing beyond accomplishment?  Does it matter?  It’s still a killer tune no matter how you interpret it.

But there’s one line that gets me.  “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.”  It’s not the easiest of ideas to hear, let alone believe, particularly in the moments when the excrement is weighing us down to the point we can barely lift our legs to take the next step.  You have to come to accept the notion that the worst of experiences are essentially mid-terms for the soul.  However, the news isn’t all bad, because where you’re meant to be applies equally to the best of times.  On a warm summer day, roundabouts five in the afternoon, sandwiched between a bocce tournament and a family picnic, beneath blue sky and upon green grass I looked out over the faces of sixty-four treasured family and friends, clutched the gentle hand of the woman I’d just pledged myself to and heard this song play.  The first song I heard as a married man.  The first song for the next step.

And it was exactly where I was meant to be.