Here is a full playlist of all the songs mentioned in this blog. Or, if you’d prefer, you can pick your own to listen to as they’ve been individually linked, as well. For some time now, I’ve wanted to jot out a kind of musically history of sorts – the bands I loved, why I came to love them, and the songs that stuck.
It was December in my senior year of high school. And it was in the Hardees parking lot in the south of town where I refused to go inside with my parents. I just waited in the car while they ate. I don’t remember now what I was upset about. I just remember feeling very incredibly alone.
Growing up, the car was somehow always tuned to the same radio station, 103.1 FM, which always hearkened back to the days of the Wonder Years, and images of Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper walking down a dark street at night pushing their bicycles slowly could have easily been my Mom and Dad. By high school, my sister had taken to listening to Green Day’s “Dookie” album or Smashing Pumpkins or a series of women singers who, at the time, I thought all wanted to kill themselves. I’d never taken to Beth’s style of music. I saw it as rebellious like her, but I had to be the “good” kid, which meant I was stuck with the Mamas and the Papas, or worse, the Carpenters.
But here I was sitting in the car by myself, upset for God-only-knows what reasons, still tuned to “Kool 103,” and for once, instead of playing something from 1955, “I am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel came on instead. I soaked in the lyrics: “I have no need for friendship; friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.” That made me smile. Someone else out there understood exactly how I felt.
I guess that was the first time that I realized music was more than just something to sing along to for fun, the first time I saw it as art or realized it could touch the inner psyche and move us to the core of ourselves.
Strangely enough, I never bought a Simon and Garfunkel album. For my birthday, instead, someone bought me John Lennon’s “Greatest Hits,” which I put on repeat, and over the course of the next few years, I rebelled from 50s music by obsessing with music from the 60s instead. Some rebel, huh?
I started buying every Beatles album I could get my hands on until I had it all, and the only other music I was willing to listen to was anything that John Williams had performed. I made it my mission to own every soundtrack he’d ever composed from Jaws to E.T. to Jurassic Park to Star Wars to Born on the Fourth of July to, well, you name it, and I probably own it.
One summer morning sleeping in, I remember waking up and shoving Revolver into my CD player and blasting as loud as I could “I’m Only Sleeping.” It was summer, and no one could tell me what to do. I could sleep forever. Lay in bed all day. But then, my Mom walked in crying, I turned the music down, and she told me that my grandmother had unexpectedly died during the night. Sometimes, there are songs that carve their way into us because of the words they say or they way they move us and speak to us within. Sometimes, a song sticks with us just because it’s what we were listening to when something significant happened. Granny was sleeping now. And that’s all that song would ever mean to me.
I hated high school, and going off to college became an escape to a level of freedom and independence I had yearned for. By the time I started packing, I wasn’t listening to Beatles anymore. I’d stolen old CDs from my sister – particularly one of the Smashing Pumpkins albums, and as I packed, I listened constantly to their “Greatest Hits,” especially Drown. Somewhere in there, that became my official “pack-and-go” music, and to this day, if I’m getting ready to leave to go somewhere, you’ll hear me listening to the Pumpkins.
College was for me what I think it is for everyone – a time of musical exploration and sharing. My first year of college, I stumbled onto John Mayer (who I stopped listening to after my then-girlfriend confessed she asked him to sign her breasts at his concert) and Emitt Rhodes and Jack Johnson. At other times, movies or even commercials became a way to familiarize myself with new music. There was an old Volkswagen Cabrio commercial where a group of people were driving to a party, but then when they arrived at the party, they decided they just wanted to keep driving instead. Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” was the backdrop to that. After watching the Royal Tenenbaums that year with one of my fraternity brothers, I stumbled onto another sad little man named Elliott Smith, a singer-songwriter who was heavy metal unplugged.
I remember one of my fraternity brothers walking into my room one night while I was studying and listening to Elliott, and he exclaimed, “Bolton! [my name in college] Why do you always listen to such sad music? I get depressed whenever I walk in here. It’s God-awful.” That made me smile. By my sophomore year, Elliott had stabbed himself in his heart – twice (pulling out and going back in) – lending some credence to my fraternity brother’s concerns.
There were happier songs, too. I found Ben Harper at camp in conversation with my friend Zach and used a lot of his music in worship as a camp director there. There were other songs that I played whenever I thought of a certain girl or two. And breakup songs in their wake.
But all of that was background noise to my life. The lyrics were a kind of commentary to what was happening. Rarely did the song itself poke at me.
But then, the Beatles made a comeback when I traveled abroad with a friend to Scotland, and on our way up, we stayed a night in Liverpool. I took a long walk looking for the famous Strawberry Field, and when I got there, I discovered that the song was actually named for an orphanage where John Lennon played when he was a kid. Those words “no one I think is in my tree” were words about family that I could deeply connect with as someone who had been adopted. I felt a kindred spirit with Lennon – whether I should have or not. Other songs of his, like “Yer Blues,” where he sings, “My mother was of the sky, my father was of the earth, but I am of the universe, and you know what it’s worth,” became a mantra of sorts for me. And that semester abroad became an exploration of music, home, and family – and what all that meant. I turned those two songs over in my head for a long time.
And then I graduated college from the Athens of Indiana and moved to Nashville, music city and the Athens of the South. I’d been born in Nashville and fell in love with it with its one tower too tall, its Bat poet on cable, and the Americana music that you could find any night somewhere in the city.
More to come in part two.