The Songs That Made Me

You know I can’t let a good music meme pass me by, right?

As quoted from Nancy at Midlife Mixtape:

This week’s Rolling Stone has a cover story called “The Songs That Made Me” in which artists share six or eight songs that had outsize influence in their lives. They’re not always what you’d expect – Marilyn Manson with “Cry Me A River” by Justin Timberlake? I loved the little window into the artist’s soul, and as a writing prompt you can’t ask for much better. So here are the Songs That Made Me.

I’m quite certain I’ve done this at one point or another on my LiveJournal over the years, so some of you are not going to be the least bit surprised at some of these.

1. The Church, “Under the Milky Way”.

OH HEY BIG SURPRISE THERE.  Heh.  I’ve contemplated as to why this is my all-time favorite song, and I realize it’s because it was one of those songs that hit me right at the perfect moment, at the perfect time.  Spring 1988, when my closest high school friends, nearly all of whom were a year ahead of me, were graduating that next month.  I was torn between excitement that I too would be leaving my small town (albeit a year down the road), frustration that my closest circle of friends was vanishing way too quickly, and determination that I’d try to spend as much time as I could with them before they left.  This song fit the mood perfectly: a sadness for things ending, a wishful thinking for things yet started, and the stasis of waiting in between.

2. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, “All I Ask of Myself Is That I Hold Together”.

Note: This song must be listened to as loud as possible.  Summer 1995, in which I’ve got a day off from my job at the multiplex up on Somerville. Earlier that year I decide that, despite my lingering emotional and financial depression, I’m going to kick my own ass and get this writing thing started already.  I’m switching between WFNX and WBCN on the radio dial during those summer afternoons, windows open, while I hammer away on my girlfriend’s low-end PC (running on Windows 3.1!).  A lot of transcription of old work, but also many words on completely new projects as well.  A consistent writing habit is formed.

3. Led Zeppelin, “How Many More Times”.

Late 1987, In which I hear this song and realize I need to buy myself a bass.  I soon find a very cheap Arbor Stiletto for $50 at the local music store, which stays with me until I finally retire it in early 2012.  I teach myself how to play it by listening to Led Zeppellin’s first album, and expanding to Cocteau Twins, Wire, New Order and Joy Division, and going on from there.

4. Takako Shirai & Crazy Boys, “Cosmic Child”.

The ending theme for the anime OAV Gall Force 2: Destruction.  Late 1993, watching anime because I’m too broke to do anything else.  The anime that changed my writing from feeble attempts at straight fiction to science fiction and fantasy, and the series that partly inspired the Mendaihu Universe in the first place.  I later use the lead singer’s name for a pivotal character as a gesture of thanks. [The video here is a great rip, but I really dislike the English dub. I started it a little before the song to set the scene. Unfortunately the subtitles aren’t coming up…the lyrics to the song are basically a ‘thank you for giving us (spiritual) life’.]

5. Semisonic, “She’s Got My Number”.

Sometime in 2004, in which I get hints from various people that a certain someone might be interested in me.  That certain someone later informs me that one of her favorite bands is Semisonic, and puts this particular song on a mixtape (ok, a mix cd) for me.  Ten happily married years later and I’m pretty sure she was trying to tell me something there.  She knows me better than I know myself sometimes.

6. Gerry Rafferty, “Baker Street”.

Considering I was a little kid in the 70s, that decade is a bit of a jumbled mess for me in terms of music and memory.  However, I distinctly remember hearing this song on the scratchy AM radio during our family roadtrips.  If we had a bag of Bugles in the car, my sisters and I would grab a few and imitate the sax solos.  Decades later in 2014, and I’m winding my way down Baker Street in London, this song firmly stuck in my head.

7. Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show theme song, “This Is It”.

Yeah, I was totally a diehard Looney Tunes fan as a kid.  I’ve finally warmed to Disney to some degree, but I’m still a dedicated WB fan.  To this day, whenever A. and I head to the opera or the symphony, my recognition of the pieces will still often be “Oh, that piece.  The one where Elmer and Bugs…”

8. The Beatles, “Hey Jude”.

It was hard to pin down exactly which Beatles song to put here, but I chose this one.  My mom introduced me to this song when I was first getting into the band.  This is the video I shot while in the middle of the crowd — and let me tell you, turning around and watching a football stadium-sized crowd sing along to the last half was pretty damn epic.

9. Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight”.

Okay, I’ll totally cop to stealing Michael Mann’s ‘music video treatment’ method for Miami Vice when I first started writing seriously in my teens.  My first complete novel (aka the Infamous War Novel) was outlined using a specific playlist, each chapter inspired by music, including this track.  The IWN is rather painful to read now, but on the other hand I’d like to think it was a successful exercise in long-form storytelling for me.

10.  Pretty much any given new release date.

It’s probably no coincidence that I didn’t see this meme until today…New Release Tuesday.  I used to passively follow release dates until late 1996 when I started working at HMV…and I’ve been faithfully keeping track (and purchasing on or near drop date) ever since.  For the record, today’s purchases included the new albums from Hot Chip, Tanlines, The Helio Sequence, Faith No More, and Brandon Flowers!

It’s got nothing to do with your ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ yer know

I have to admit I love the new Blur album, The Magic Whip, which just dropped yesterday.  It’s the first new album since 2003’s Think Tank (and the first with all four members since 1999’s 13!)…and I agree with most of the reviews, it sounds as if they hadn’t missed a beat since those last releases.

I’ve been a Blur fan for years, really.  In the early 90’s I’d pretty much ignored most of the angry grunge that WFNX and WBCN were playing, as I was already enamored of the poppy quirkiness of Madchester and Britpop.  The UK always had a leg up on music for me…they always seemed to write better, catchier, more inventive songs than their American counterparts, always seemed to be a few months ahead of the game musically.  I thought “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an interesting reinterpretation of American punk, but I’d already been sold on the herky-jerky bliss of “There’s No Other Way”.

Blur was definitely there for me in the 90s, during all the ups and downs of that period.  When I found myself broke and directionless post-college, “Chemical World” and “For Tomorrow” and the rest of Modern Life is Rubbish fueled my frustration.  When things got a little better and I was out in Allston writing again, the lively Parklife and “Girls & Boys” popped up.  [There’s also the fact that, whenever I heard “Parklife” in Boston, I immediately started singing “Alewife” instead.  Because I’m a dork.]  And in the early days of my job at HMV Records, I was greeted by the newly rocking version of the band with their self-titled 1997 album — I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Song 2″ blaring and some stranger “woohoo!”-ing along to it.

They disappeared in 2003 after Think Tank, with most of the members working on their various solo projects (and Damon having a brilliant run with Gorillaz), but I’d still pop one of their albums every now and again.  And yes, I did in fact buy the big box set when it came out in 2012.  And that reunion song, “Under the Westway”?  Damn, that’s a fine single.  Only Blur could capture the sound of post-Britpop malaise as beautifully as they could.

Sure, Blur could be written off as upper-class yobs who couldn’t lift a finger to Oasis (don’t get me started on that manufactured ridiculousness).  They shed their ‘Britpop’ label while all the other bands were still basking in it when the scene began its decline.  But they’ve always written and played incredibly catchy tunes that were always just that slight bit off-kilter.  The Magic Whip is definitely a welcome return, and worth the wait.

Bedroom Band

Today marks the twenty-seventh anniversary of the first meeting and jam session of the Flying Bohemians.  Who is this band, you ask?  It was/is a trio of myself and my high school buddies Chris and Nathane.

The idea to start a band came to me in early 1988, most likely late February.  I’d bought my first bass a few months earlier, a headstock-less Arbor Stiletto (the tuning pegs were at the other end), and after teaching myself the basics, I was itching to get something started.  I floated the idea to some high school friends, and Chris and Nathane were the two that responded.  We decided to meet up after April vacation and test out what we had.  Names were bandied about, and we settled on Chris’ suggestion, as it seemed to fit our nerdy misfit style.

The three of us had been close friends for at least a year or so at that point, having been a part of a larger circle of friends, so I already knew we’d get along just fine.  Our abilities were wildly varying — I had the theory and a bit of the knowledge, but not much of the practice, Chris had a decent knowledge of guitar playing, and Nathane was the virtuoso, complete with the best amp and effects.  All three of us were writers, though, so we were on the same page as far as songwriting went.

The first session was very much like any initial jam session I’ve been in — it’s less about kicking out a solid song from the beginning, and more about testing each other out, listening to see what the other person can bring to the table.  My keyboard work was pathetic, but my bass playing was infinitely better.  Nathane was prone to throwing a few metal screeches in there, but he also came up with some pretty neat melodies as well.  Chris was a natural at picking up counter-melodies and coming up with lyrics on the fly.  There was a lot of noise, but by the end of that Friday afternoon, we had two complete songs committed to tape: a simple round-like track called “The Mellow Song”, and the ridiculous “Green Coffee!!!”.

The cover of our first 'greatest hits' collection, influenced by the early Cure album covers.

The cassette cover of our first ‘greatest hits’ collection, influenced by the early Cure album covers.

We met up when we could over the next year and a half, in between school and jobs and laid out at least twenty or so solid songs we were proud of.  As Chris and Nathane were a year ahead of me and heading off to post-high school life, all told we probably met up maybe about fifteen times between that initial jam and the last original trio meeting in November of 1989.  Nearly all the jams were committed to tape using the trusty Jonzbox, although sadly many of those have now gone missing.  On the other hand I was able to retain the complete and solid songs we recorded, and they are now safely on mp3.  Chris and I would meet up a few more times in the early 90s and record more songs, but by 1994 it had pretty much become my solo project.

I call TFB a ‘bedroom band’ rather than a garage band, as our jams mostly took place in someone’s bedroom after school or on the weekend.  We weren’t a loud band, but that was more due to the fact that we didn’t boost the volume all that high when we played…we were as lo-fi as you could get, and we had to ensure we weren’t blasting our families away either.  But we were okay with that, as it lent to our unique sound.  We did jam in my parents’ garage a few times, though that was always an issue if it got cold, or if the crickets decided to come out and join in.  There’s a solid version of Chris’ song “Temptation” out there that I’m quite proud of, except that there’s a cricket-chirp throughout the entire recording.

Drop 021614

‘Drop’ was recorded 1990-91 by Chris and I. The sound is more acoustic and pastoral than previous songs we’d done.

There’s also the fact that the three of us were heavily influenced by college radio, and you can definitely hear it in our songs.  We gravitated to many of our favorite bands of the time: The Cure, Love and Rockets, the Smiths, REM, Cocteau Twins, Joy Division, and The Sisters of Mercy.  A few of our songs, like “Night Pt 1″, are loud and pulsing (and most likely inspired by “This Corrosion”), while others like “Epitaph” and “Look at the Blank Sunlight” are soft, ambient instrumentals that would fit nicely on late 80s college radio.

I recorded a few solo sessions between 1993 and 1995, the last done on a rainy day off while I was living in Allston MA; it’s all instrumental and varies in style, but it’s mostly experimental and meandering.  The last Bohemian recording was a joke song Chris and I did at his house after a gaming night called “(I Can Do) Math in My Head” in early 2001.  By that time I was jamming with a few buddies from my Yankee Candle job under the name of jeb! (Jon Eric Bruce), and our sound was less ‘college rock’ and more ‘modern rock’.  Those sessions would also be taped and ripped to mp3 for posterity as well.

I chose to finally retire the TFB moniker last year to start a new music venture, Drunken Owl.  [Thank my wife for that moniker!]  Now that my schedule has opened up again, I plan on recording future songs and snippets — this time straight to my PC — and see what comes of it.  I’ve got more guitars and a lot more years of practice under my belt, so this is going to be a new sound for me.  I’m curious as to how it’ll come out.

Still…I’m still thankful that, twenty-seven years ago, I was able to kickstart this whole music playing thing as part of my life.

Life Soundtracks

Last week on the KSCU radio show The 80s Underground (podcast here), the DJ decided to play songs from the Top 25 albums of 1988 per a readers’ poll at the great college rock-themed blog Slicing Up Eyeballs.  And you know me, I couldn’t resist.  I just had to listen in.

Interestingly enough, hearing my favorite college rock year outside of the normal context (read: my ridiculously large mp3 collection) kind of put things in a different perspective.  I purposely didn’t look up the poll they’d done a year or so ago (which I of course took part in), so I was pleasantly entertained by not exactly knowing which song would come next.  It was a little jump back in time to my years listening to WAMH.

Back then, I used to have a lot of life soundtracks.  Certain albums or compilation tapes I’d listen to during certain times of the day, or certain radio stations and shows.  I often do the same thing while I’m writing; lately I’ve been listening to Beck’s Sea Change and Morning Phase during my Spare Oom couch sessions.

Thing is, I don’t have nearly as many of these as I once did, and I suppose in a way that’s a good thing.  I always have the radio or some music going during the work day, but I’ve long past grown out of attempting to forge a mood from the music being played.  I now listen to KSCU (a college station) as much as I listen to Radio BDC (an internet station) or KFOG and Live 105 (terrestrial stations).

Do I miss those days, giving myself a soundtrack as if I were the living embodiment of a Miami Vice or a Grey’s Anatomy episode?  Well, not really.  I just grew out of attempting to find the perfect sound to complement whatever I was doing.  It had gotten to the point where I was forcing the mood, and that’s no fun.  I’m still an active listener, mind you–certain songs will hit me just the right way and I’ll pounce all over them, like I did with that TV On the Radio track a few months back.

Life soundtracks are more of a passive thing now.  I let them pop up organically, by serendipity.  Just like life itself–sometimes it’s more fun to see what life (or in this case, a radio station) throws at you rather than trying to pigeonhole it into something it’s not.

Fly-By: Still Here, Just Busy

Hey there!

Sorry I haven’t been able to update at all this week…I’ve had an extremely busy few weeks with Day Jobbery stuff — training, office visits, and whatnot — which has put a bit of a strain on my writing schedule.  You probably know already that I hate it when that happens, but it is what it is.  The plus side is that the remaining time I do have for writing is not being wasted–I’m getting a lot of new fiction done longhand!  Woohoo!

That said–I’ll also be on a mini-vacation at the beginning of April, so I won’t be able to update then either.  SO!  This means that you will most likely be seeing the next update from me around 7 April or thereafter.

In the meantime, y’all play nice until I return!

Any Day is Record Store Day


John Cusack in ‘High Fidelity’


As you’ve probably figured out (or remembered from last year’s LJ missive), I’ve decided to give Record Store Day a pass from here on in, as it’s pretty much become the antithesis of what I feel about record stores.  I bring this up because it’s about that time of year, and the online music blogs are starting to talk about it again.

Back in the late 00’s, RSD was conceived as a way to celebrate the then-struggling record industry, a day for everyone to head over to their local shop, peruse the aisles and come home with some nifty deals and some sweet music.  I was on board for that, considering my own spending habits.  [Hell, just recently I was going through some old bank paperwork and found my checkbook register from 2003-4 — the number of times I hit Newbury Comics during that time was astounding.]  You can still find my 2008 comment in the Public Quotes section of the website (I’m the third quote down here).

Nowadays, I feel this celebration is less about remembering how cool record stores are, and more about that really cool collector’s edition 7″ (only 1000 printed!) of songs I have already but DUDE IT’S RED VINYL.  Really, I’m not kidding — check out the ‘special releases’ for this year.  And that’s just the US listing…other participating countries have even more, sometimes bigger lists.  Not to mention that it’s no secret that many of these end up on eBay at inflated prices before the sun goes down.

Now, I really hate to be cynical about this, I really do.  But last year when I went over to Amoeba to enjoy perusing the bins like I always do, I realized there was no way in hell I’d be able to do so.  The reason was that many of the outer aisles were blocked by an insanely long line of about four hundred people, arms full to bursting with the same collector’s edition purchases and not a single item from the bins. Others not in line were blocking the inner aisles, chatting away and comparing collector’s edition finds and other rarities they’d found over the years.  I gave it about twenty minutes before I walked out of the store, pissed off and emptyhanded.

I never do that.  Not at a record store.  I’ll at least have one or two items in hand when I leave.

SO.  I submit this:  Any day can be Record Store Day if you want it.

Heading to the local shop shouldn’t just be about getting the collector’s edition…not that I’m dismissing those, but I’m of the mind that music shopping isn’t just about getting that rare item.  It’s about finding that cd in the dollar bin that you’d completely forgotten about for a decade or so, with all the memories of that release flooding back to you from out of nowhere.  It’s about seeing what’s hot and what’s not.  It’s about putting those beat-up headphones over your ears to sample a few songs before you buy.  It’s about finding a nifty present for your sister or your husband or your mom or whoever.  It’s even about buying that tee-shirt of that band you’ve just fallen in love with.

And you can do that any time.  Hell, even if you don’t have a local record store you can get to (which, in all honesty needs to be rectified STAT!), head to the band’s or the label’s website and order the cd direct.  Donate to a PledgeMusic or a Kickstarter or a Patreon event, watch the band in the process of recording that album, and get a copy in your hands when it’s all done.  Check out some of the great no-label indie releases on BandCamp.  There’s a shitload of great sounds out there, if you’re willing to search for them.

Because really–it’s about the bands, when you get down to it.  The record store is where they sell their wares.  It’s where you’ll find what you want and need.  And you can do that any day of the week.