Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 4

Sweating Bullets - Megadeth

We just went through a rather cohesive set of grunge influences, where's this Megadeth thing coming from? It's certainly true that I never ended up a metal-head, but it's not as if I wasn't exposed to these things. We're entering a period here where there's a lot of divergent influences coming in from my brother and my brother's friends. I remember this song specifically. Something about the hardcore music combined with the funny voice just stuck with me. That and "Symphony of Destruction".

Nuthin' But A 'G' Thang - Dr. Dre

I'm guessing when most people hear this song they don’t think of stop motion LEGO movies. Yeah, didn't think so. Well my brother, his friend Justin, and I made a movie that had something to do with… time travel? I think. Damn I wish I could get a copy of that. It had an awesome driving sequence set to this song, with special effects that make seeing the strings seem professional. And then there were stop motion LEGO-men walking sequences. And then live action sequences of our awesomely awkward selves.  Seriously, anyone have a copy of this?  I need to see it again.

Take Five - Dave Brubeck

This is what adolescence looks like. From metal to rap to jazz; all of the sudden I'm absorbing all these extremely different things at the same time.

This one in particular is associated with making chili with my dad. It was a company picnic, and there was a chili cook-off. We made an entry and somehow won. I think it's mostly because people took some extremely creative interpretations on what chili is and I just stuck to tradition. I remember one of the chili competitors having fruit in it, for example. Anyway, winning made me feel kind of weird, because I was the bosses son. I mean, the voting was anonymous, but it still felt odd.

The chili was cooked entirely while listening to jazz on the public radio station, and as a result "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck still sticks out in my head as a song for cooking chili.

Fluffhead/Fluff's Travels - Phish

In 7th grade I made a new friend named Kevin who conveniently lived just down the road from me. He introduced me to this band named Phish.

As you can see from everything leading up to this moment, this came at a time when I was sorting through a lot of varied influences and trying to find my own tastes. Phish was obscure and weird enough to give me that much needed middle school individualism that we all seemed to crave. The song I remember clicking for me first was "Fluffhead".

I remember the moment I first heard it pretty clearly, actually. Well, I think I do - I might be collapsing two evenings into one in my head. Details. It was a sleepover at Kevin's with me, him, and this guy Zach who also rode our bus. Kevin said he wanted to try smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. I thought he was joking; it turns out he wasn't. He was the only one to partake, and the evening ended with Kevin falling asleep and Zach vandalizing him with some aerosol cheese. It was not cool, and Kevin and I stopped hanging out with Zach after that.

The point, however, is that Kevin had a Phish tape on during the evening, and it was interesting and different. I followed up later and bought the album, Junta, which ended up being the first album I bought for myself. I proceeded to follow through their discography as money allowed and eventually catch up with current day, which at the time was Hoist.

I have fond memories, but I can't listen to Phish now like I could then. But they represent a couple things to me. One, as I said, was individuality. I was listening to something completely different from what everyone else was.  Sometimes even at the cost of quality.

Phish's music was as much about the process as the end product, which appealed to me as someone who was diving into playing the guitar. But mostly it was about the moments. Their songs ramble and at times edge on dissonance, but sometimes the band just comes together in a magical way that wouldn't be as good without the parts that came before.  They really rode out the whole musical journey, embracing contrast tones and free exploration.  Mixed results, sure, but it sure provided an interesting range.

But I think the most important thing is that Phish will forever be associated with my first real friend, Kevin.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 3

I'm a child of the Seattle area, so even though I was too young and thoroughly uncool I was exposed to grunge music in real time. Of course at this age all music was essentially new to me so it's not as if I was aware that this particular sub-genre was of the local variety. But this next block of influential songs should show some not-so-subtle commonality. Welcome to the 90's.

Come As You Are - Nirvana

I didn't discuss it in my guitar story, but the first song I ever learned how to play was "Come As You Are" by Nirvana. Which was followed shortly by "Lithium". The odd thing is that I learned these songs on that nylon string classic acoustic guitar - not exactly ideal for playing a genre renowned for heavy distortion. I didn't really notice - I was still just struggling to actually get the thing in tune.

Alive - Pearl Jam

This song is tied in my head to one Michael Lee, and the experience of the two of us playing guitar together. I remember learning the first couple bars of the guitar solo and quickly getting horribly lost after that. But I pretended to keep up anyway.

Hearing that solo takes me back to the sleepover at that friend's house where we learned the song. That night (or at least a similar one) we were somehow allowed watched Silence of the Lambs, but I was thankfully still too young to be disturbed by it. It's funny that this was also the kid whose mom wouldn't let him play Dungeons & Dragons because of fear of devil worship or something. The timelines match up - 2nd edition of AD&D was where TSR pulled any sort of really controversial imagery from the game, which came out right around Pearl Jam's Ten. I'm sure most people don't have that sort of correlation in their head - that's just how it worked out for me.

These were good times. Later, I would suspect that this particular group of friends had become too cool for me. In retrospect now I think this was partially just in my head, but not completely. I probably made it worse on myself in some sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. However at this moment, for this song, I was happy. Middle school hadn't sunk its teeth in yet and I wasn't yet questioning my friendships.

Big Empty - Stone Temple Pilots

Someone gave me this album for my birthday, and I remember being disappointed because I had wanted some other album (not that I can remember which one now). Because of that I resisted and didn't appreciate the gems on the album at the time, and shortly thereafter I traded it for something else (which I also can't remember).

In that short superficially dissatisfied time it still managed to plant some seeds that matured later when I no longer had access to the album. As in all of the sudden I'm singing along to "Interstate Love Song" off the car radio and totally loving it. I think there's something about STP that doesn't work when your voice is still cracking.

My Wave - Soundgarden

We're on a family boat trip. For some reason my brother and I are able to split off in his Whaler to go… somewhere. I think we're somewhere near McNeil island, but I never paid the charts any attention so who knows. Anyway, we're in this little boat, racing along with a boom box in the back. And on comes "My Wave". I remember saying that I would never get sick of that sound. Of course the song turned out to be terribly repetitive. But whatever, in that moment, with the sound of the engine roaring and the water slapping the bottom of the boat, it was awesome.

I didn't go explore Soundgarden properly until a year or so later, when I found songs like "Fell On Black Days" that hold up much better for me. This seems to be a recurring pattern - parting from the raw initial loves and returning a the more constrained sound.

Elderly Woman Behind a Counter... - Pearl Jam

As hinted above, some combination of voice changing and lack of affinity for lyrics prevented me from really connecting to vocal-heavy songs. Some songs transcend that problem; this is one of them. Even in the throws of adolescence this song demanded I sing along. I know this not because I remember singing to it, but because I actually know the words.

My brain processes vocals as just another instrument, so I rarely know the words to songs. But we're entering a period where album ownership was a new thing to me. I became completely fascinated with liner notes. I remember pouring all over the quirky details, and I think that's how I actually walked away knowing the words to songs like this and "Daughter".

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 2

Here we continue on my musical autobiography.  At this point in the story I’ve now entered school and am starting to be exposed to movies and other pieces of pop culture that will influence my listening tastes.  Which, let’s be clear, are still far from my own.  Let’s continue…

Thriller - Michael Jackson

I did the bulk of my growing up in one house, but that house was actually my third. I have no memories of the first, but I have some scattered flashes of the second. And one of those is of me and my brother upstairs dancing to “Thriller". Of course the music video is legendary (I'll go as far as to say "best ever"), but at the time I knew nothing of such things. Zombie dance not required for enjoyment.

It's funny, because one of the other memories I have of that house is a reoccurring nightmare of my 1st grade teacher turning into a lion and chasing me around the house. I think that dream only stopped once I developed the ability to fly (just in the dream, not in real life, sadly). Anyway, it seems like that nightmare could maybe be related to Michael turning into a wolfman, except I know that I didn't see the music video until years later.


So, Ghostbusters is an awesome movie. This is fact. But apparently the theme song developed magical powers over me.

Here's the story. I'm at a roller rink birthday party. It's my first time on skates, so naturally I'm terrified. After much effort I make it into the rink itself. I slowly circle via the edges with a death grip on whatever rail-substitute is available. This is not going well. And then the Ghostbusters theme starts to play. I instantly find the courage to let go of the rails. I ain't afraid of no ghost! In just a few moments I'm transformed from skating invalid to booty shaking pro. The song passes but the inspiration stays and I'm good to go for the rest of the party.

Apparently my source of mojo did not go by unnoticed. Fast forward many years and I'm in middle school. I have this friend who's also a girl (scandalous, I know). We hang out semi regularly, but of course at this age I'm at the mercy of adults for transportation. So the two of us are getting a ride from my mom when she starts relating the story of my Ghostbuster triumph. Naturally, I'm mortified; she's embarrassing me in front of a girl! Of course now it's all adorable, but at the time... well, you remember what it was like to be that age, but as a rule mothers are incapable of adolescent empathy. It's okay, I got over it.

Hangin' Tough – New Kids On The Block

I'm pretty sure Nickelodeon introduced me to this boy band. I tried to track down which show they would have been on, but I just couldn't bear to wade through that crap on YouTube. Let's just say that kids that age are defenseless against packaged pop music, and I was no different.

I had a breakthrough revelation related to this song. I had a copy of the track on cassette tape, right? At some point I realized that I could copy the song multiple times in a row so that I didn't have to hit rewind to hear it again. Oh yes, that happened. I had a tape that was all "Hangin' Tough."

A lot of the dates before this are hard to place, because fundamentally I wasn't processing contemporary music. Even if it was something close, I was still lagging behind. "Thriller" came out in 1982 I was one year old, so I'm pretty sure that memory comes well after its release. Likewise, Ghostbusters came out in 1984 when I was three, so I know I didn't see that in the theater. It's far more likely that I saw "Ghostbusters" some time a lead up to seeing "Ghostbusters II" in 1989, which I believe I did see in the theater. But New Kids on the Block is such a precise slice of time that I know this memory is from 1988 or at most 1989. Step very far on either side of that line and NKOTB is totally irrelevant (sorry, Tricia).

Along with placing these memories in time comes other weird details. Like I remember making that infinite "Hangin' Tough" tape in the room that had become my brother's bedroom but still had the bunk bed. So I guess around seven or eight years old is where I first got my own bedroom.


At some point around 1987 I got a Nintendo for my birthday. I don't think my parents knew what they were getting into. My brain previously hadn't really wrapped itself around this whole video game thing. But when I had Mario at home... holy crap it dug deep.

I didn't really start to think about video games as a musical influence until around 15 years later. I'll talk more about that reconnection when the time comes later in this series, but this time right here is when the seeds were planted.

There are many games with excellent chip tunes that stand the test of time, but Mega Man is one of the best. In 1988 Mega Man 2 hit the scene and the music was really good. Not at all familiar, but still truly excellent. I'm placing this in the timeline according to Mega Man 2, but of course this was an influence that took place over many years from many sources.

You'll notice I haven't linked to a track here. It's hard to get a public use copy of any old video game music, and I'm not going to ask you to run an emulator. The best I can do is list some stuff that approximates and some roundabout ways to get the originals.
  • The Megaman Network has the entire catalog of classic Megaman tracks, but only available as a bulk download. The track I wanted to choose for this entry is "Metalman" from Rockman 2, but "Bubbleman" and "Dr. Wily Stage 1" are also excellent. From Rockman 1 you can also try "Bombman" and "Cutman".
  • There are lots of modern bands that do covers of video game music. You can listen to the Minibosses do an entire medley of Megaman 2 here, although they take it to a metal place which might not connect with you unless you're overwhelmed with nostalgia for the originals. Here also is a reinterpretation of the Bubbleman theme by Entertainment System
  • Here is a straight up recreation of the original Metroid theme that I can link directly through Zune. Not Mega Man, but still good classic video game music.
  • I'm also feeling the need to put "Another Winter" by Anamanaguchi from the Scott Pilgrim game soundtrack here. It's crazy how a track from 2010 invokes 20 year old nostalgia.
Chip tunes have some severe limitations that in the right hands can be turned into something incredible. The inability to simulate real instruments is an obvious aspect of it, but there are many less obvious considerations. For example these old systems couldn't really do proper chords, so the musicians worked around this with arpeggios of those some chord patterns, often creating a completely different perspective on established genres of music. There are few things as wonderful as creativity working under constraint, and that's what chip tune music is all about. At the time these were just beeps and bloops to me, but the sophistication behind some of those compositions influenced me in ways that it would take years to understand.

No Woman, No Cry - Bob Marley & The Wailers

I have fond memories of listening to Bob Marley and reading Dragonlance. That probably sounds strange. It's not so much that they went well together; It's just that these were things I was experiencing at the same time, some sometimes they overlapped.

I liked "No Woman, No Cry" enough to put it on repeat in our fancy new CD player (yes, we're moving beyond cassettes now). I remember reading right up until the point where the family was leaving for a brunch thing. I flipped off the stereo, closed my book, and we headed out. Later that day when the family came back someone flipped on the stereo to have it still playing "No Woman, No Cry".

Special mention to “Jammin’”, which I definitely got down to. But it isn’t the poignant memory that “No Woman, No Cry” is; it’s just a good song that I enjoyed now and then.

I think this was the end of listening to the same song on repeat. Legend was a hard album to process in sequence; it's kind of all over the place, with pockets of stuff I flat out didn't like. This made it easier to skip around and burrow in to the songs that I did like. Soon I would have access to my own music and start appreciating the power of the album.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Music Made Me – Part 1

A note about logistics: the only thing that has kept me from moving forward and posting this project is a complete inability to figure out how to best link the music for your consumption. There's no one universal solution that's going to work for everyone. I could go round up the links to iTunes, Amazon, Zune, Rhapsody, and whatever else, but that's a lot of work for me and there's still no guarantee it'd meet everyone's needs. So instead I'm going to trust that if you care to listen along you'll figure out how to get the music on your own (and if possible get more than a 30 second sample). I'll be providing Zune links because that's what I use, and if you’ve got the app and a Zune Pass this should be a smooth experience. If you do the leg work for another service and want to share in the comments, please feel free to.

Okay, with that out of the way we can get started.

Well, almost.  I feel like these the first years demand a little more explanation. Towards the beginning of this timeline the entries will lean more towards memory than music. Like many, my young music tastes were undeveloped and mostly at the mercy of what people around me were listening to. But I'm going to focus on a lot of these early songs because young memories are somewhat of a novelty to me.

I have a terrible memory in general. But there are things that I remember better than others. I forget the details of movies, but I easily remember the intricacies of video games. Clearly there are some things that my brain stores better than others. As I go through this playlist exercise I'm realizing that music is one of the things that I remember well. As I walk back through my musical history I find myself remembering details I hadn't thought about in a long time. Maybe if I can put together my playlist it will help me remember my life better?

It should be made clear that this isn't a list of favorites. This is a list of impactful music, some of which I can't listen to now like I did back then. In a way those are the most interesting pieces - because clearly they represent an older version of me that isn't compatible with the me of today. That means I've changed, and that's probably good. I have a feeling that this exercise will get less interesting yet easier to listen to as we progress forward in time. We'll see.

But look, here I am layering on more disclaimers and we’re not even to the depths of adolescence. Enough stalling, let's talk about some music!
Blueberry Hill - Fats Domino

We begin at the stretches of memory. This is a song that I recognize instantly, but couldn't place unaided. From what I've gathered it's highly likely that the photo you see here could be from a family jam session to this song. Air guitar be damned; real aspiring musicians use a broom. Never mind the fact that the song barely has any guitar in it at all...

Johnny B. Goode - Chuck Berry

Like many of my generation, it was Marty McFly that introduced me to this song. I have a memory of asking my dad to request it on the radio and eagerly waiting for it to come on. And when it did... dance party.

Much later in life, by which I mean last year, I had the opportunity to play "Power of Love" for Rock Band 3 with some friends and it produced a similar moment of pure glee. That’s some impressive lasting impact for a 25 year span.  Oh nostalgia…

Make Me Smile - Chicago

My dad loved his "Chicago Silver" record, aka Chicago II. My mom didn't so much like it, so in general I think he had to enjoy it in private, but I still managed to get a whiff from time to time.

I like Chicago, but I don't think I realized how well they align with some of my future musical trajectories until I went back to pick a song for this list. This is an album that's meant to be listened as an album, where one song blends into the next, and I'm the sort of the person that wants to sit down and listen to a planned musical journey. I've long been mourning the atrophy of this standard as a la carte track purchasing has become the norm.  It's also the case that Chicago is often less lyrical and more instrumental. They sing a bit, and then they jam. As someone with a terrible head for lyrics, this has always fit well with me.  And then of course there are the horns. I'm such a sucker for a horn section.  Take a good song, tactically add some horns, and it becomes a great song.

I picked "Make Me Smile" because it filled that nostalgic criteria. I've probably heard "25 or 6 to 4" more over the years, but "Smile" leaps out to me with that older, deeper connection. It's the more human song to me. I'm also particularly fond of "Saturday in the Park" but it's not on this album, so it doesn't fit the criteria.

Barbara Ann - The Beach Boys

I'd be remiss if I omitted the Beach Boys from the list of early influences. My dad played blues, jazz, and stuff like Chicago; my mom played the Beach Boys.

When I hear the Beach Boys I think of family road trips. I have this fuzzy memory of us getting a series of cassette tapes they were selling at a gas station chain. It was probably the equivalent of the modern day "Now That's What I Call Music 13". But it made stopping to fill up the tank fun because we could get a new tape with new music. I find it hard to imagine my mom not owning her own copy, but those tapes are what I think of.

I had a devil of a time picking a Beach Boys song for this list. I know at that age I enjoyed the fun poppy lyrics. But now, well, not so much. So I went with a song that I remember having that car singing vibe.

Still Around - Robert Cray

On weekends we'd occasionally have a family drive for breakfast or other activities. I'm not sure how long my dad had this album in the car's cassette player, but it left a lasting impression on me. He's always had a deep love for blues, which is something I happily adopted.

This song in particular seemed to stick out in my memory. In my head it had more of a storytelling angle, like it was some spooky mystery or something. It's not, it's a break up song of sorts, but that was way beyond me. Other songs like "Nothing But a Woman" are more up beat, but "Still Around" crawled its way deeper into some memory pocket as I wondered why the singer could be so upset that this other person was still around.  These are the things that would haunt me on the way to swim lessons.