A Year Set To Music

I listened to a lot of music in 2014, like anyone else, but I noticed something interesting about a handful of the songs I listened to most this year. A song I had in heavy rotation last winter detailed the ending of a relationship that shared walls; one from spring was about moving into a new apartment after living with a significant other. One from summer was about drifting, but still optimistically hinted at getting better; one from this fall, and now, is about finally moving on from a past relationship after nearly a year away. Not all of these are new to 2014, but all are by female musicians and spoke to me during a quarter of this year of my life.

It felt like an interesting arc.

Winter: “Both Hands,” Ani DiFranco (lyrics)

Spring: “Brighter Discontent,” The Submarines (lyrics)

Summer: “Last Year,” Best Coast (lyrics)

Fall: “Clean,” Taylor Swift

No video available, so here are the lyrics:

The drought was the very worst
When the flowers that we’d grown together died of thirst
It was months, and months of back and forth
You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore
Hung my head, as I lost the war, and the sky turned black like a perfect storm

Rain came pouring down when I was drowning
That’s when I could finally breathe
And by morning, gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean

There was nothing left to do
When the butterflies turned to dust, they covered my whole room
So I punched a hole in the roof
Let the flood carry away all my pictures of you
The water filled my lungs, I screamed so loud but no one heard a thing

Rain came pouring down when I was drowning
That’s when I could finally breathe
And by morning, gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean
I think I am finally clean
Said, I think I am finally clean

Ten months sober, I must admit
Just because you’re clean don’t mean you don’t miss it
Ten months older I won’t give in
Now that I’m clean I’m never gonna risk it

The drought was the very worst
When the flowers that we’d grown together died of thirst

Rain came pouring down when I was drowning
That’s when I could finally breathe
And by morning, gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean
Rain came pouring down when I was drowning
That’s when I could finally breathe
And by morning, gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean
Finally clean, think I’m finally clean
Think I’m finally clean

One of Us

This is an essay I wrote for a live lit event. The theme was “musical guilty pleasures.”

Cover of Joan Osborne's "Relish"

Joan Osborne’s “Relish” (image via)

It is 1996. I am in the 5th grade, and so is my best friend Nicole. Nicole lives up the road from me and rides my school bus, and we have almost nothing in common. Even at age 11, she has much more of a rebellious streak than I do, and her mom isn’t around much. I, however, am the daughter of two librarians who always know where I am, and my idea of a rebellion at this point in life is trading a whole grain natural peanut butter and sugar-free jelly sandwich at lunch for a Little Debby Zebra Cake — if anyone would have been willing to make such a trade at my school.

It’s almost the end of the school year, and we are beyond excited. It’s been announced that there’s going to be a talent show at the elementary school’s spring fling, and we are going to perform. Neither of us can sing, but we love singing anyway, and we’re pretty sure we have just the right amount of heart to pull this thing off. We believe whole-heartedly in Disney movie endings.

Nicole and I are very different people, but we both know what we’re going to perform: We are completely enthralled and obsessed with Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” a song whose artist will later be known as a strange one-hit wonder. But we don’t know that yet. All we know now, at age 11, is that this song speaks to us, on a deeply profound and important level.

We listen to it all the time. We try to record it off the radio with a tape deck, because it’s the mid-90s and that’s how we listen to our favorite songs. Neither of our moms wants to waste money on more band’s cassette tapes we will inevitably play on loop until they want to tear their hair out. This does pose the immediate problem of having a copy of the song for us to play at the talent show. I find what I see at the time as a creative solution, after many failed attempts at taping it from the radio at the very beginning.

We live in rural, southeastern Ohio, and my family’s house is just up the hill from one of several country bars along State Route 564. Weirdly, I’m allowed to go down there by myself on Saturday mornings to play video games and buy candy bars, armed with a coin purse full of quarters. This morning, however, those quarters are otherwise spoken for. I bring down my portable cassette player and park myself in front of the bar’s juke box, which contains a copy of Joan Osborne’s 1995 album, “Relish.” I play “One of Us” on the machine and hit record. I do this at least three or four times at 10 a.m. in this empty dive, where the woman behind the bar must surely wonder what the hell I am doing. She does not ask.

Satisfied, I back walk up the hill to my house.

I listen to this song over and over and over. I can’t then put into words what draws me into it so much, but as an adult I can supply a theory: This song asks some big questions and is pretty much a highly-diluted version of Christianity. It makes God a person. I mean, what if God WAS just a stranger on the bus, you guys? Just think about that.

I live and breathe this song. I play the lyrics out in my mind like a movie, and think about deceased grandparents and wonder where they are now. I hold the tape player close to me and find myself trying to picture God’s face. I don’t know yet that my life will later be filled with lots of bigger questions and conflicting feelings about organized religion and the meaning of faith. I don’t yet know that my mom will get cancer and die and that I will be really unhappy with God over that. “Good” and “evil” are still black and white to me at age 11, and God personified is a comforting thought.

We memorize the words and get ready for the talent show. We decide Joan Osborn’s vocal range is just in line with each of ours, and we wonder why we are not famous musicians yet. We practice and practice and make up a dance to go with the song even though we both know ultimately we will never perform it in public. But we feel ready.

It’s the big night of the talent show. We see our peers perform before us and we judge them silently to distract ourselves from our nerves. A girl who is a perfectionist and source of constant irritation for me in my classes sings a beautiful rendition of Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me.” I seethe at her success and also feel pangs of envy over the fact that I didn’t think of doing that song first. We watch two boys in our class cover a Green Day song and years later I will have crushes on both of them because my type of man will be partially defined by this performance.

Finally it’s our turn.

At this point I need to mention that “One of Us” is a five-minute song. Years later I will come to know that any halfway-decent karaoke stand-by should not surpass the four-minute mark, with the exception of certain 80s classics and even then, only with a very forgiving audience. But we are 11, and we are not thinking of how long those five minutes are going to feel for us or for anyone watching.

We get on stage, and stand too far away from the mics because we are terrified. The AV person hits play, and a static-y, second-hand recording of “One of Us” begins to play. It is now dawning on me that we probably should have told at least one of our parents about this talent show because someone would have likely stepped in and told us that using a recording of a recording was a bad idea. But it’s too late for that now. We both very quietly sing, “What if God was one of us…?” and look out at our peers in our half-full school cafeteria.

The song seems to go on forever but mercifully, it ends. We stand in silence as the final notes fade out, and the audience stares at us. We stare back, and then someone politely claps. The rest of the audience kicks in, and we jolt back into action and scurry off stage.

It is awful, but somehow we are running high from our achievement, or from our own daring. We hug each other and laugh backstage.

To this day I am unclear as to why none of our parents were there, or at the very least my mom, but it doesn’t matter. We got through it, and we shared our message with the world. Tonight I leave you with that same message:

What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, just trying to make his way home?

Think about that.

To Boston and Ohio: From Chicago, with Love

All of the bands for Meryl

All of the bands for Meryl

Months ago, I bought expensive tickets I had no business buying, for the Boston Calling music festival. My friend Margaret lives in Boston, and I’ve never been there, and the line-up consisted of every band I’ve ever wanted to see, ever: Death Cab, Modest Mouse, Tegan and Sara, JENNY LEWIS. It was insane. It was a fate.

It was a terrible idea.

I bought weekend passes for me and Margaret in February for the Memorial Day weekend event, back when it was possible, but not certain, I’d have a new job soon. Things were in flux, as they would be for weeks, but I took a chance regardless.

It felt good to make a choice, reckless or no. I was deciding my own future, in one of few ways that I could.

Fast-forward to early April. I’d just started my new job and been told I wouldn’t have vacation time until July. Airfare to Boston and back was at a minimum cost of $400 for Memorial Day weekend, and it would mean flying in LATE on Friday and leaving early Monday, missing Margaret’s friends’ cookout and having little-to-no post-festival recovery time.

I didn’t have $400+ for airfare, and I didn’t have a way to take additional time off. I told Margaret I’d have to pass on the weekend getaway. She understood, and found me someone to buy my ticket, which was super nice of her.

By late-April, I’d accepted my fate, and decided to surprise my friends in Ohio instead.

At some point this winter, my best friend Brittany had called me and told me she’d be throwing her husband Adam a 30th birthday party Memorial Day weekend. I’d been sad to tell her that, despite that weekend being literally months away, I already had plans. She was disappointed, and I felt terrible.

So I decided I’d surprise her and her husband.

I got her mom and her friend Stacey on board, and they filled me in on the party details. My family was excited I was coming home for the first time since Christmas. Boston wasn’t looking so lost to me after all.

On Wednesday morning this week, I woke up with a sore throat and a nasty cough.

I stifled it. I denied its existence. I went to work.

On Thursday morning I woke up coughing, a deep rattle in my throat. I swallowed and took some ibuprofen and drove to the ‘burbs.

By Thursday night I thought I might die. I crawled up the stairs to my apartment after being stuck in traffic for over an hour. I emailed my brother and my dad and said I couldn’t come. I sat on my bed and cried for 15 minutes and ignored my brother’s phone call.

Then I called him back and cried some more on the phone, and fell asleep in a pathetic heap.

Now it’s Saturday night, and I’m dog-sitting for my neighbor because I don’t have out-of-town plans like everyone else. I still have a deep, disgusting cough, but I can walk around the neighborhood without feeling exhausted.

All I wanted to do was get out of this city and out of the muck I’ve dragged into my life all winter, but I can’t even make that happen. And I won’t have another opportunity until July, when my 90 days at work is up and I can finally take a day or two off to go home. I’m glad I was able to see Eileen and Tim in February, because I’m sure stuck here for now.

Maybe I didn’t need to see Jenny Lewis – maybe – but I did need to see some friendly faces. I miss my family, and I miss Brittany and Adam and everyone in my hometown. I guess I should be glad I’m not out $400 in airfare and however much in a weekend concert pass, and that I didn’t need to find some way to rush Margaret’s ticket to her in my sickly absence.

But man. I really could have used a break.

Today was a low-key, wallowing Saturday, but by God, tomorrow I will be sitting in the sun and relaxing, and Monday THERE WILL BE BRATS. Because this is AMERICA and it’s MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND and no one but horrible germs can get in my way and I’ve had enough of those.

There will be no plans, only beer and sunshine. Assuming I’m well enough to drink beer by then.

Happy Memorial Day, you guys. Enjoy this time with people you love, or at least people you like a whole bunch.

“You Remind Me of Home,” Ben Gibbard

You remind me of home;
The paint cracks when the water leaks from the rusty pipes that are just beneath my feet
You remind me of home;
The heater’s warm but fills the room with a potpourri of dust and gas fumes

You remind me of home;
A broken bed with dirty sheets that creaks when I am shifting in my sleep
You remind me of home;
In a suburban town with nothing to do, patiently waiting for something to happen

But the foundation is crumbling
And becoming one with the ground
While you lay there in slumber
You’re wasting your life,
Wasting your life.
You’re wasting your life,
Wasting your life.
You remind me of home;
Sitting on a thrift store couch, I’m trying to get this all down.

Guster, “Come Downstairs and Say Hello”

I’ve posted this song before, but now at the beginning of a new year, which I hope will be My Year, it bears repeating.”I look straight at what’s coming ahead and soon it’s gonna change in a new direction.”

Dorothy moves to click her ruby shoes
Right in tune with dark side of the moon
Someone, someone could tell me
Where I belong
Be calm, be brave, it’ll be okay
No more messing around and living underground
And new year’s resolutions
By this time next year I won’t be here
I turn on MTV, the volume’s down
Lips move, they say
It’ll be okay
To tell you the truth, I’ve said it before
Tomorrow I start in a new direction
One last time these words from me
I’m never saying them again
and I shut the light
and listen as my watch unwinds
To tell you the truth, I’ve said it before
Tomorrow I start in a new direction
I know I’ve been half-asleep
I’m never doing that again
I look straight at what’s coming ahead
and soon its going to change in a new direction
Every night as I’m falling asleep
These words repeating in my head
Voices calling from a yellow road
To come downstairs and say hello
Don’t be shy, just say hello
To tell you the truth, I’ve said it before
Tomorrow I start in a new direction
I know I’ve been half-asleep
I’m never doing that again
I look straight at what’s coming ahead
and soon its going to change in a new direction
Every night as I’m falling asleep
These words repeated in my head

“You,” by Atmosphere

Working in retail is different enough from my old job that I can appreciate some things while still hating others. My store job is easier in some ways, but it’s also at times stressful and painful. After all, you don’t cut your hands on small appliance boxes when you’re behind a desk all day. At work I am on my feet for hours on end, which fortunately I got used to, but it’s still kind of exhausting. I work hard, I have to focus on what I am doing the whole time and I certainly don’t have my own office. I know there are people with far worse jobs that are much more miserable and hard to do, but I have to say I really feel like a hard working person with this physically demanding job. Much more so than I did in PR. That said, I feel like I am going to seriously appreciate whatever job I end up with after this and not take it for granted as much. Bring on the suffering!

Also, it helps me relate to awesome songs like this one:

“You,” by Atmosphere

You love the people that love you.
You hear the music they move to.
You give your ode to the fall through.
But you don’t know you don’t know you don’t know you don’t know.

You just got off work, huh?
Another night feeling like the worst one.
You didn’t even count your tips yet,
But you can tell that it ain’t no big step.
I don’t see why you so nice to customers
They’re all fucks and low lives.
But don’t fight, just keep the lip stiff
And get that money it’s the weekend shift.
But why they all gotta be freaks.
Wish they would just eat and leave.
And keep they eyes to theyselves, already insecure, don’t need any help.
But you can blame the pride that makes you hold your anger inside,
But deep down you wanna curse them all.
Fuck off, asshole jerk off, dirt ball.

You love the people that love you.
You hear the music they move to.
You give your ode to the fall through.
But you don’t know you don’t know you don’t know you don’t know you.

Now attitude check,
Still show up? You haven’t quit yet?
And even when you’re meek and sweet,
They still treat you like a piece of meat. Huh.
Outrageous, each day this clock tick tock and you still a waitress.
Trying to pay them student loans
And the lights and the phone and the food and the home.
And you ain’t quite broke but you couldn’t afford that place on your own.
Gotta roommate, to split the rent with
Now you never feel independent.
And everything seems so hallow
Cause after work, where’d that smile go?
Better bring it back tomorrow.
Now, pick up the pace and you might make bar close.
Perfect, last call then some.
Flirtin’, sexual tension.
Surfin’, through them men
Cause they all searching for that bent one.
But just one to bend, and you look like you could be my friend.
With a smile like that, I gotta flirt.
Girl, you just look like you got off work.

You love the people that love you.
You hear the music they move to.
You give your ode to the fall through.
But you don’t know you don’t know you don’t know you don’t know you.

The Bestest Mix

Readers may remember that before I left for Chicago, I made a request of my friends that they burn me a mix CD to listen to on my drive from Ohio to my new home. This resulted in over 15 hours of music personally chosen for me by people I like a lot.

My best friend Brittany didn’t get a CD burned in time for me to leave, but she said she still intended to make me one because she had a lot of ideas for it. She wasn’t kidding; when I was home this past week, she surprised me with a 7-disc anthology of music chronicaling our now 20-year-old friendship.

The CDs lasted almost exactly as long as my drive home, and for the most part, I loved every second of it (I still hate that “Discovery Channel” song). She found these random 90s songs I hadn’t heard in 15 years, but it’s so much more than that; we have these shared memories and experiences tied to these songs we remember listening to together in grade school, singing, discussing. Also, the CDs range from pop to 70s classic rock to 90s industrial metal to oldies to R&B and much more. It’s titled the Bestest Mix for a reason. We listened to everything when we were in school, and always together. I laughed and cried all the way home, which means there was never a dull moment.

Some highlights:

  • The very first song is “Here Comes The Sun,” by the Beatles.
  • “Mouth,” by Merril Bainbridge, a kind of dirty song I had no idea was dirty was when I was little and loved it.
  • “Glycerin,” by Bush — possibly my most-listened-to song in 1994, a good year for music. And movies.
  • “I’ll Be There For You,” the Rembrants, Britt’s nod to my young lifelong obsession with “Friends”.
  • “Bitch,” by Meredith Brooks;
  • “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” by Deep Blue Something;
  • “The Joker,” Steve Miller Band;
  • “My Immortal,” Evanescence (yeahhh, remember that band?);
  • “Stay,” Lisa Loeb;
  • “Graduation,” by Vitamin C;
  • “Runaway Train,” by Soul Asylum;
  • “Hey Ya!” by Outkast, which came out our senior year of high school. I remember watching the video for it while getting ready for school at her house.
  • Random Green Day songs. She owned “Nimrod,” and between my brother and me we had the rest of the decade.
  • “You Make Me Wanna,” by Usher. She had that CD, and we listened to the crap out of it. Other CDs in this category include Mariah Carey’s Greatest Hits (also very much represented), the first-ever volume of “Now That’s What I Call Music,” and more. Other CDs I remember listening to all the time at her place were the Spice Girls and, oddly, the Best of Billy Joel, but those didn’t make the mix.
  • Modest Mouse and Death Cab songs; I didn’t realize until now, but Brittany must have picked up on my obsessions with both these indie bands. Understanding this was very touching. She also happened to pick “So Much Beauty In Dirt,” my ultimate MM song.
  • The very last song was “Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred.

When I was little I used to record songs I liked off the radio. So I basically had a crap ton of tapes with Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home,” Jewel’s “You Were Meant For Me,” whatever the current Alanis Morisette song was at the time (the ultimate voice of a woman scorned) and “Slide” by the Goo Goo Dolls, all in a loop. This CD collection is those tapes and more, in digital format, and I couldn’t be more pumped. Thank you to Brittany, the bestest friend a girl could ask for!

And now, the song that will always make me think of her and that I knew I would find on this CD, even though I hadn’t heard it in more than a decade:

The “Broke My Own Heart Again” Mix

“Breakin’ Up,” Rilo Kiley
“So What,” Ani DiFranco
“Title and Registration,” Death Cab
“Swingset Chain,” Loquat
“I Hear Noises,” Tegan & Sara
“These Days,” Nico
“How’s It Going To Be,” Third Eye Blind
“Gotta Have You,” The Weepies
“Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” Velvet Underground
“Rest of my Life,” Rilo Kiley
“Your Ex-Lover Is Dead,” Stars
“Hurt,” Nine Inch Nails
“When I Come Around,” Green Day
“Romeo and Juliet,” Dire Straights

“Your Next Bold Move,” Ani DiFranco

“So you just sit on your hands an quietly contemplate your next bold move; the next thing you’re gonna have to prove to yourself.”

coming of age during the plague
of reagan and bush
watching capitalism gun down democracy
it had this funny effect on me
i guess

i am cancer
i am HIV
and i’m down at the blue jesus
blue cross hospital
just lookin’ up from my pillow
feeling blessed

and the mighty multinationals
have monopolized the oxygen
so it’s as easy as breathing
for us all to participate

yes they’re buying and selling
off shares of air
and you know it’s all around you
but it’s hard to point and say “there”
so you just sit on your hands
and quietly contemplate

your next bold move
the next thing you’re gonna need to prove
to yourself

what a waste of thumbs that are opposable
to make machines that are disposable
and sell them to seagulls flying in circles
around one big right wing

yes, the left wing was broken long ago
by the slingshot of cointelpro
and now it’s so hard to have faith in
anything

especially your next bold move
or the next thing you’re gonna need to prove
to yourself

you want to track each trickle
back to its source
and then scream up the faucet
’til your face is hoarse
cuz you’re surrounded by a world’s worth
of things you just can’t excuse

but you’ve got the hard cough of a chain smoker
and you’re at the arctic circle playing strip poker
and it’s getting colder and colder
everytime you lose

so go ahead
make your next bold move
tell us
what’s the next thing you’re gonna need to prove
to yourself

Maria Taylor, “Clean Getaway”

I made my place by the door.
I didn’t know what I was waiting for.
Felt just like home.
Except no grass, no yard, no pictures on the wall.

I could see across to the park.
And there were friends, they were laughing hard.
They looked just like my own.
With no face, no name, no voice I’d know.

I finally made it.
I made a clean getaway.
I finally made it.
I made a clean getaway.

I met someone at the bar.
He had a great smile and a great heart.
He felt just like love.
Except no fear of losing, and it wasn’t tough.

I finally made it.
I made a clean getaway.
I finally made it.
I made a clean getaway.
And I miss you,
I miss you every single day.