The Soundtrack of my Life

My life has been lived to a soundtrack. Growing up in an age of ubiquitous car radios, restaurant juke boxes, record players and later stereos, it seems like the popular songs of the day were always playing in the background, over and over. Music affects us emotionally and can evoke strong feelings of all sorts in the listener. In my case it also became a sort of storage mechanism for a lot of those strong feelings.

Forty years later I can hear a pretty mundane pop song like Tommy Rowe’s “Dizzy”, which I heard constantly when I was in my junior high years and I can be overcome with the feelings of being that young teenage boy with a crush on a girl but afraid to tell her or even talk to her. Those sort of emotional memories stay with you and I believe shape you subconsciously.

A couple days ago I noticed that my son Eric had posted the following on Facebook…

I made a playlist of the fifty songs that had the most impact on my life between the formative years of 2001-2009 (ages 15-23).  They aren’t necessarily my favorite songs (though some are), but rather those which influenced my development the most.  They are ordered chronologically according to when they had the most significant impact… Anyways, I think it’s a cool exercise and would encourage others to undertake something similar and share their results.

Given my relationship with music that I have just shared with you, I was excited to try this exercise as well, and spent a good deal of time compiling this list and writing this extensive post. Like Eric I have identified the name of the song and the artist who performed the version that I remember most, and I have listed them as best I can in the order when they had an impact on me developmentally (though not necessarily when they came out). In some cases it is difficult because I may have heard a song for a while before that impact kicked in.

Unlike Eric, I have taken the additional time to write a sentence of two about what the impact of the particular song had on me. I find it interesting that there are some songs where a particular lyric phrase is burned into my consciousness, like “I was raised on the good book Jesus, ’til I read between the lines”, from Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End”, but the rest of the song not so much. There are other songs that I knew were very significant to me but I really struggled to be able to delineate what made them so in a sentence or two. (Those songs may require an entire blog piece some day!) Some of the developmental themes are very personal while others I share with many other baby-boomers like myself.

I really don’t know how other people’s minds work, but in mine songs are often playing. A song I have not heard for years will suddenly start playing in my head over and over for days before it stops. And then another one will seemingly randomly fire up and get stuck in my head next. Sometimes an obvious event in the present triggers a memory in the past tied to that song, but other times I have no explanation for the triggering of that particular musical memory. I can even have a physical reaction to a song with a lot of emotional meaning for me… I can literally get goose bumps all over my arms!

Given this acoustic world I inhabit, the ideas of Marshall McLuhan continue to resonate with me about how electronic media is creating a more sophisticated acoustic environment for us humans and contributing to what he called “retribalization”. I think I understand that concept, and have been retribalized to a large degree, with all this music that has flowed with me through my life playing a large part of that transition. In McLuhan terms, these voices of the singers and their lyrical message are exhortations, advice and encouragement from my virtual acoustic “tribe” to live my life more fully and more ethically and to keep to the developmental path despite the obstacles life throws in my way.

Anyway… having built the list with a focus on trying to recapture the particular memories, feelings and resulting developmental impact associated with each song, it was not until I had finished that I kind of stepped back and looked at the list as a whole and saw some of the major themes and things the totality of it might say about me at a more macro level.

The most obvious thing I noticed was that I love pop songs, usually those with less cliché lyrics, but occasionally maybe a sappy cliché one as well (like “Dizzy”). They of course are generally the songs I heard a lot on the various radios and juke boxes that seemed always on in the background.

The next thing that came clear is that I have been moved all my life by the type of song they call “anthems”. These are generally mostly up-tempo “we” songs that are encouraging all of us to rise to some ocassion, to keep on keeping on, or whatever. I have always been a person driven by inspiration, and often find even today, when I hear a song (even if I only hear it from memory in my own head), it can energize my whole existence at that moment.

And as to the major themes, certainly the shy kid’s longing for but discomfort with romantic relationships jumps out at me. Though I have only called out a couple Motown songs on the list, the music of “The Motor City” (Detroit) in the 1960s was all about trying to find love under difficult circumstances, a quest that really resonated with me.

Another big theme is my mom and dad’s divorce in 1965 when I was ten years old and the impact it had on me, my mom, my dad and my brother over the the subsequent years. For me it was a lot of struggle, sadness, but also always a looking for inspiration to move beyond.

A third theme is my own budding activism, inspired even by a perhaps sophmoric lyric like “The kids know what the game is, they’re getting run around every day… We’re going to be taking over, you better get out of the way” from MC5’s “High School”. Sounds pretty oppositional I know, but it has been inspiring to me in more of a positive vein.

I think perhaps the most influential song in the bunch for me and maybe my entire generation of male counterparts is Harry Chapin’s haunting cautionary ballad, “Cat’s in the Cradle”, about a dad who avoided spending time with his kid only to have that kid grow into an adult that avoided spending time with him. I suspect that many of the more parentally engaged boomer dads out there today were influenced by this song.

And looking at the list as a whole, and who has been singing to me significantly, I have to acknowledge that it is mainly other white men like myself, certainly with a fair amount of exceptions.

So you may or may not be interested in plowing through these fifty songs I’ve called out and my attempt at a “why” for each. I can say that it was a worthwhile exercise in my case and triggered some new insight on my own development.

Here is my list in chronological order, not based on when the song came out, but when it had its biggest impact on me. I have included links to YouTube in case you want to listen to a rendition of the song in the public domain. I’d like to acknowledge how beautiful YouTube is, getting a version of all this music out there in the public domain…

1. Downtown/Petula Clark – An optimistic anthem that held out the possibility of a better world ahead of me if I could just somehow get through the difficult circumstance of my youth and my parents’ divorce.

2.You Keep Me Hanging On/The Supremes – Somehow this is the hardest of all these songs to explain its significance in my life. It begins with a kind of teletype sort of a sound like some important message is being keyed into the telegraph. “Set me free why don’t ya babe…You don’t really want me, you just keep me hanging on.” Somehow it calls out feelings for me around my parents’ divorce or my own striving to find myself in the tumult of it all.

3. Jimmy Mack/Martha Reeves and the Vandellas – Such a blessing in my youth to have the sweet soul of Motown continually serenading me from the car and other radios

4. Dizzy/Tommy Rowe – Tantalized me with the lure of love and romance that I was way to shy to even dip my toe in my early teenage years.

5. In the Year 2525/Zager and Evans – A haunting dystopian sci-fi time line of humanity’s passivity and overdependence on technology that has been a continuing cautionary tale like Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle”.

6. Somebody to Love/Jefferson Airplane – Grace Slick’s big-voiced hippy-goddess call that when the “truth is found to be lies” that you need to “find somebody to love”, haunted me throughout my teenage while symbolizing that impossible essence of the “flower power” ideal that was still unachievable by a timid youth.

7. Aquarius/The Musical Hair – All the big chart-topping songs from this late 1960s musical remind me of journeying with my mom and my “feminist aunt” and guru Mary Jane and the two women’s entire brood of kids to see this play on stage in Toronto including naked people singing on stage, hooking me on the power and spectacle of theater, which inspired my own brief theatrical experience, which was transformative in my older youth.

8. For Emily Whenever I May Find Her/Simon and Garfunkel – Along with “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall” and “The Dangling Conversation”, this is a very introspective song that from that period in the late 1960s when I was filled with sadness for myself and my other family members all around my parents’ divorce. I still have a huge emotional charge around this song such that sometimes just singing it to myself can bring me to tears.

9. Substitute/The Who – Deconstructing and trying to make peace with ones own developmental angst on a similar theme to Simon and Garfukel’s “Faking it”. Capturing my own at times tentative self-esteem.

10. Midnight Confession/The Grass Roots – Capturing the introspection and longing for a loving relationship of my older youth. “Brings out a need in me no one can here except in my midnight confession.”

11. Stoney End/Laura Nyro – The more well-known version of Nyro’s song was sung by Barbara Streisand. I never fully understood all the lyrics but the one phrase, “I was raised on the good book Jesus, ’til I read between the lines”, captured my imagination at the time and still today and presaged my quest to challenge a lot of the stale conventional wisdom of our culture.

12. Cat’s in the Cradle/Harry Chapin – Possibly the most single influential song in my own life and to my fellow male baby-boomers, this cautionary tale urging us to invest the time being parents and part of our kids’ lives.

13. High School/MC5 – An older youth anthem that inspired me to my first flirtations with activism and radical ideas in my high school years.

14. I’m Eighteen/Alice Cooper – A coming of age anthem that captured my angst as I wrestled with college, my trajectory into adulthood and my divorced mom’s difficult situation.

15. Lucky Man/Emerson Lake and Palmer – A bit of an obvious and perhaps overdone anti-war song but very significant in my older youth as I wrestled with activism and radicalism.

16. Summertime/Ella Fitzgerald – Capturing that sweet ennui of summer and the simple richness and magic of life and inspiring me to live more in the moment and leave behind the chaos around me in my older youth.

17. Baby You Can Drive My Car/The Beatles – Presaging and perhaps preparing me in some ways to see through the phoniness of the Hollywood entertainment factory scene that drew me to Los Angeles as I briefly attempted to make a career in it.

18. Within and Without You/The Beatles – Perhaps my first introduction to Eastern thought and George Harrison’s wisdom captured in one phrase, “life goes on within and without you”.

19. Do You Know the Way to San Jose/Dionne Warwick – Like the Beatles “Baby You Can Drive My Car”, a sophisticated lyric presaging and managing my expectations for my move to Los Angeles in an attempt to make a career in show business.

20. Faking It/Simon and Garfunkel – A challenge to go beyond the superficial and ego-involved approach to life, “I know I’m faking it… Not really making it”.

21. Born to be Wild/Steppenwolf – One of the most compelling “sex, drugs and rock and roll” songs of the 1960s that was perhaps a little raw for my shier sensibilities but still was a siren call to me to walk on the wild side, whatever that meant at the time.

22. Revolution/The Beatles – A call to temper my wannabe radical-chic because “If you going pictures of Chairman Mao… You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow”, and in favor of a deeper evolution.

23. Imagine/John Lennon – This utopian vision, particularly its championing of secularism and atheism, bolstered my own long-time disconnection with the god concept and my ongoing activism.

24. Hold Your Head Up/Argent – One of many anthems that has given me a shot in the arm, this one when I was traveling in Europe on my own, lonely, and contemplating cutting short my odyssey.

25. No More Mister Nice Guy/Alice Cooper – I was inspired by this coming of age anthem encouraging me to speak my mind and call out the things that afflicted me. “I used to be such a sweet sweet thing ’til they got a hold of me!”

26. America/West Side Story – The great musical dialog about the best and worst of this country of immigrants helping inspire my own interest and study of America’s history.

27. Pinball Wizard/The Who – Helping inspire my many year almost erotic embrace of this captivating game, “playing the silver ball”, where you learn to become one with a machine and bring it to some sort of orgasm if you can (with that knock for a free ball or free game confirming).

28. American Pie/Don McLean – Championing introspection for baby-boomers and tying together the threads of personal development within the context of popular culture (particularly rock music) we grew up in.

29. The South’s Gonna Do It Again/Charlie Daniels Band – Going off to college in another city and living in a dorm with kids who had grown up with very different values than I had was eye-opening for me. My country rock loving dorm-mates liked this song in particular and played it constantly. The lyric “Be proud your a rebel ’cause the South’s going to do it again” stuck with me, and continues to haunt me to this day as I’ve read about the history of civil rights and particularly the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the American political landscape and our current blue vs red state divide.

30. I Feel the Earth Move/Carole King – Always recalling for me the 1975 “Year of the Woman” and the power of the awakened female voice.

31. My Old School/Steely Dan – Saw my good friend and her mime troupe choreograph a dance to this anthem-ish number that caught the song’s spirit of challenging the status quo and leaving behind the bad stuff in one’s past, “and I’m never going back to my old school!”

32. Strange Magic/Electric Light Orchestra – Reinforced my grasp for a deeper meaning in my life as I began to help my single-parent mom out by taking my family’s laundry to the laundromat.

33. Dark Side of the Moon/Pink Floyd – The title song of this iconic “concept album” with its perhaps heavy-handed critique of Western culture presaging some of my own critical look later at themes within that culture.

34. Bohemian Rhapsody/Queen – Capturing the theatrical bombast of my days as a hardcore theater geek in my Junior Light Opera theater group in my hometown of Ann Arbor and continues to remind me of that side of myself to this day when I hear it.

35. You Never Give Me Your Money/The Beatles – Paul McCartney’s cobbling together of musical fragments into a sort of mosaic perhaps my first intro to the deeper magical side of life including embracing releasing the familiar and embracing the unknowable future… “Oh that magic feeling…nowhere to go”. The Beatles generally were the soundtrack of my youth.

36. Hang onto Yourself/David Bowie – I have always been inspired by the exuberant unabashed eroticism of this anthem within its context of “sex, drugs and rock and roll”, and Bowie’s compelling androgynous sexuality. “We don’t talk much, we just ball and play, and we move like tigers on vaseline”.

37. Go Your Own Way/Fleetwood Mac – This song and the entire “Rumors” album, though mostly about the ending of intimate relationships, inspired me to finally overcome my shyness and plunge into my first intimate romantic relationship.

38. Women Walk More Determined/Kristen Lems – A feminist anthem that captured the spirit and energy of the circle of mostly young adult women (and some men) that I worked and bonded with in the early 1980s campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment.

39. Brass in Pocket/The Pretenders – An anthem celebrating personal uniqueness and self-esteem that gave me a needed shot in the arm during my very low periods my first years in Los Angeles.

40. Los Angeles/X – My vote for the best punk rock song ever written (full of various expletives and inappropriate words) and capturing and perhaps freeing me somehow from the angst of my first years clinging so tenuously to Los Angeles.

41. I Wanna Be Sedated/The Ramones – When I first saw this band play, I was inspired by the unique unvarnished punk minimalism of their music and faux-angry exuberance of their mostly satirical songs combining kitsch and camp.

42. Different Drum/Linda Ronstadt – Though not a love song, a piece that captured the spirit of self-awareness and the unorthodox approach to life shared by my partner Sally and I, which I still consider “our song”, even though the lyrics speak to the break up of a relationship rather than a union.

43. Walking on Sunshine/Katrina and the Wave – An exuberant song that inspired me through the early 1980s.

44. Dancing in the Moonlight/King Harvest – I continue to be entranced by its sweet childlike opening instrumental leading into an imagining of a collective of evolved people who “don’t bark and they don’t bite… they keep things loose they keep things alight” and the possibility for making that a reality in my own life.

45. Turning Japanese/The Vapors – A frenetic new-wave song about masturbating captured all the irreverent energy that was the best of the 1980s and reminds me to not take life so seriously each time I hear it.

46. Yellow Submarine/The Beatles – A song of adventure linking my own imagination play as a child, inspired by first the movies and later by his books “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Mysterious Island”, with singing to my kids every night when they were little.

47. Orinoco Flow/Enya – Actually Enya’s entire “Watermark” album was generally playing in my earphones as I read the most influential book in my life to date, Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, and created strong feelings of the epic sweep of human history, driving Eisler’s ideas even deeper into my psyche.

48. In the Name of Love/U2 – An anthem that inspired me to continue my activism and speak whatever wisdom I had accumulated in the previous decades of my life.

49. Trail of Broken Hearts/K D Lang – This was the first song I heard on the radio by this unorthodox, unabashedly lesbian, singer songwriter, and my first way into appreciating country music, particularly Lang’s idol Patsy Cline.

50. Stand/REM – An anthem during my early years as a parent inspiring me be fully conscious of the world around me and my place in it and modeling that for my kids.

Well that’s my list (and I’m sticking to it, at least for now). I showed you mine… now show me yours… *grin*.

6 replies on “The Soundtrack of my Life”

  1. Great idea for an exercise in reflection on significant markers of one’s past. We have some of those in common, For Emily Wherever I May Find Her and Different Drum being two of the more distant ones.

  2. Yep! The songs I mentioned were on the radio and record players my freshman year of college, part of a shared pulse of adventure, meaning, and hope.

  3. Coop,

    Pulling fifty song titles from memory is impressive. Linking each of them to the sights, sounds and emotions they evoked (and still do) is, as the kids would say, like wow!


  4. Reuben… It took some work but it feels like an important document of some of the key inspirations from my pop culture “Greek chorus” that was always commenting on mine and other’s lives.

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