By Ben Beard
Driving Chuck to the hospital where his mom works, I blare Sebadoh’s “Gimme Indie Rock” off a mixtape. “Hell, Ben,” Chuck says, putting his hand on the volume knob. “This is the hood, man. Turn that shit down.” I’m 16. Chuck is black, I’m not, we’re friends, and this is the first time I notice that there might be cultural differences between us. I was just driving along; he was worried we’d get shot.
Watching the Shawshank Redemption when the Puccini song shocks the faces of the heartbroken and lonely prisoners, hearing beautiful music for the first time in years, and hearing the music through their deprivations, and it’s stunningly beautiful to me, too. I’m 15, in love with movies, but not yet possessing discernment or taste. I don’t notice that film has no women in it at all, save for Tim Robbins’s wife who is killed without any dialogue. I was too young to perceive movies as clusters of more than just story and acting, but also power dynamics and cultural signifiers. I know a little about opera now. It sounds like Maria Callas.
Listening to Beck’s “Loser” with Chad, driving back from a party out in the country, and we didn’t fit in, the party of hunters and redneck types not quite hostile to us but we weren’t really welcome, and we drove back on the country roads and listened to Beck’s bizarre elocutions over and over, the tar-black outlines of trees crowding out the slate-gray sky. Hearing this song at different ages, belted out by drunks and children, hearing something new each time. Hating “Devil’s Haircut” when it first appeared and now kind of loving it. I always hear Beck with fresh ears. I’m 16. I love Chad and his coterie of oddball friends, these stoner-artists, but our friendships won’t last. They rarely do.
Jamming to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band on my Walkman, absorbing the feel, the music, on the way to summer camp in North Carolina, loving it, while my mom and aunt can’t hear anything but the lyrics whenever the Beatles are played in public. Not sure of “Mr. Kite” then or now. Something druggy and askew in that song. Something hateable. I’m 12, convinced the Beatles are the defining statement on rock n’ roll, the greatest band in the world, with Aerosmith as a close second. Nowadays I despise Aerosmith, and the only Beatles album I can tolerate is Rubber Soul.
Being unable to stop dancing to “Gold Digger” every time I hear it, despite the weird misogyny of its lyrics; the same feeling I get with “Billie Jean,” “Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger,” “American Boy,” and “Shook Me All Night Long.” Not proud of this list, but the feet want what the feet want. The Greeks called dancing “Dionysus arriving,” a manifestation of the frenzied god. I’m every age past 22, when I got over my fears of the god of wine, the god of ecstasy. If there’s redemption to be found in the world, it will be found through dance and merriment.
Feeling a deep soul healing—after years of pining heartbreak—listening to Cher’s “Believe” while playing floor hockey in an Alabama mall. The whole scene a crystallized tableau in my mind, the music speaking to me as I struggled through the exact issues the song immortalizes. I’m 21. I know the song is almost unbearably cheesy but it works; I can feel my soul opening. I’ll always love Cher for this. Four years later, I end up in an elevator with her, she looks amazing, wearing thigh-high lace-up boots with enormous heels, and I want to thank her for the song but I chicken out and just half-smile instead. I’m certain she doesn’t even know I’m there.
Driving Joe to college with his dad and girlfriend, the landscape of West Virginia stunning but strange, with industrial-scarred mountains dotted with trailer parks and busted out old mill towns. We listen to the tape of the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof of all the fucking things, once on our way there and multiple times on our way back. And Joe’s dad says to me, as the trees and hills and land settles back into my Florida expectations of vast swaths of pine trees and hilly land, that “Sunrise, Sunset” is the truest song he’s ever heard, and that it means more to him now than ever before. We listen to it again in silence. I’m 19, slightly embarrassed by his fatherly kindness but touched too, thinking of my own father who loves the movie, and how we watch it together all the time.
Cruising with my first boss, Suzanne, in the backroads of Alabama, listening to Cat Stevens, and she breaks up a little with “Father and Son.” We play it two or three times on our way to a poetry book-signing, the author in the backseat, and Suzanne is transfixed by the music, the song is speaking to her in a spell, and the author says, “Can you turn it down? It’s really loud.” I’m 23. Suzanne is near tears, and later tells me, “It goes too fast. All of it. Just too fast.”
Balancing on the ledge of Pike’s Peak with my cousin Keith, maneuvering the car along the treacherous edge of the road, and Keith plays Hot Water Music’s “Arms Can’t Stretch,” while I film the canyons and distant mountains. We had aspirations then, we just couldn’t name them. I’m 19 or 20. Enough time has passed that I can’t quite remember. A year later in his dorm room, it’s near two in the morning, and he puts the same song on, it’s too loud for the time of night, but he waves this off and we absorb its lyrics, happy.
Listening to Sebadoh’s “Together or Alone” with Robert in Jenny’s house, looking at the photos on the front, agreeing that it’s one of the saddest and truest songs ever written, only we didn’t talk like that, not then or now. Sebadoh always being hit or miss for me, songs I love and songs I hate. Sebadoh and Pavement and The Silver Jews and the Beach Boys, too, a band I see at the local Pensacola music festival, and they’re aged and ridiculous in their Hawaiian shirts, and they’re hawking “Kokomo,” that treacly bullshit song that is also a treacherous ear worm, some kind of black magic there. I’m 17, inebriated, and so is Robert, and for years when I think of Jenny or her house or any of my other high school friends it’s this song that I hear in my head. A decade later I realize the Beach Boys are kind of a marvel, with Pet Sounds a highlight of its era. I never listen to Sebadoh anymore.
Chanting “Don’t Know Much” at Aaron Neville with Mike, both of us semi-delirious on grape Mad Dog, and Aaron Neville never sings the song, but he does deliver his version of “Everybody Plays the Fool,” and it’s passable, pleasant, and safe. I’m 18, we’re at the Pensacola music festival again, all of us soon heading off to college, and our unwieldy group splinters into tiny factions, and Mike and I are swaying alone. (And here’s a funny anecdote about Mike. We would play Sim City in the computer lab during our senior year. We discovered it on one of the computers, and we’d sneak in during study hall. We both had cities, it was this fun thing we did together, and then one day mine was destroyed. Mike told me it was a fellow student, and I felt animus and anger towards this other person, it kind of ruined our semi-friendship. I later learn that it was Mike all along, he had destroyed my project and blamed it on someone else. I despise him for this minor subterfuge. Time passes, he comes down with terminal brain cancer, and transforms into a remarkable human, brave and generous. I track his battle with the disease on Facebook, and send him a short message saying I think he’s incredibly brave, and that I’m glad we’re friends. He writes me back an even shorter message, saying I’m a great writer, and it’s so generous of him, this little message, as if he knew I was in a constant struggle with self-doubt.)
And here I am, distracted by my own memories, setting out to write a short piece about music and instead I’m writing about something else. Loss? Death? Aging? Euphoria? Is all music about memory?
Bingeing on Five Iron Frenzy, a kickass Christian ska band, with Chris and Jeff as we drive to St. Petersburg to see our friend Christine. Chris plays it over and over, a band I introduced him to, and by trip’s end, I despise their music. Our second night in St. Petersburg, we sleep in the lounge of Christine’s dorm. She says it’s okay but it isn’t. Jeff drinks too much and runs through the hallways in his boxers, doing high knees and a Joker’s laugh. We settle in to sleep way after midnight, and the campus police roust us around two in the morning, telling us we have to be gone by sunlight. Jeff spends the early morning hours hungover and rushing to the door every time he hears footsteps. We leave at seven, drive a few hours with Five Iron Frenzy in our ears, and get a flat tire. Napping, Chris jumps up and rushes out of the car. “Okay, pop the hood!” he says. Jeff and I laugh and laugh. We change the tire in no time and, grateful to be out of the blistering interstate heat, end up back in Pensacola by early evening. I’m 20, more comfortable in my own skin, learning to leave loneliness and despair behind me.
Moshing with upturned elbows to dozens of punk bands, my heart pounding with truculent liberation, dance-fighting to The Descendents’ “I’m the one.” It’s all fuck-yous and get-fucked and anarchy and socialism and I don’t know a goddamn thing about any of it. It was pure feeling. I don’t quite fit in with the burnouts and tattooed malcontents, but I kind of do. It’s Swingin’ Utters and NOFX and Strung Out and Face to Face and Less than Jake, a cross-section of pop punk, skate punk, and ska. I buy into the style up to a point, shaving my head and wearing Vans. I even get into the bruising asceticism, but only in small bursts. I’m 17, saturated with end of history suburban ennui, filled with voiceless anger. I drift in and out of the scene.
Focusing on the lyrics of “Voices that Care” while the American military destroys the Iraqi military infrastructure. The video is absurd, filled with celebrities like Sally Field and Kevin Costner and Fred Savage. The remake of “Give Peace a Chance” appears at the same time. I prefer the sound of the latter, but my beliefs are simpatico with the former. I don’t realize it, but one of the defining conflicts of my life is forming: my aesthetics and my morals are out of whack. Wilson Phillips releases their monster hit, “Hold on,” this same summer, and all three songs drift out of my boom box while I work on my second novel, Power and Glory, sitting at my tiny little desk in my childhood room. I’m 13 or 14. The novel is terrible. I’m young for my age. I still believe in America’s purities, that war is good, and that God is always on our side.
Driving to Pensacola Beach with Snoop Dogg blasting through the speakers in Robert’s GMC Jimmy. Snoop is the first rapper I identify with, something piercing yet puckish about his eyes, his rail-thin frame and his half-kidding demeanor. He’s part of the new wave of gangster rap hitting Pensacola, including Tupac and Dre and Body Count, Ice T’s metal band that we all love but half to hide from our parents, and Robert’s Dad caught his tape, and pulled Robert out of school to yell at him about it. Snoop Doggisms sneak into our daily speech, especially endo, gin and juice, and most memorably, “Eat a dick,” the “i” in “dick” dragged out for three syllables. I’m 15, often sunburned, sometimes happy, my heart is still innocent, so I’m still not cursing. Still, I guffaw every time Robert says it. “Eat a diiiick.” “Eat a diiiiaaack.”
Regretting my Rage Against the Machine phase, my misunderstanding of the band’s message, the sonic damage to my ears. It’s of a piece with my metal phase. I love Metallica and Pantera but draw the line at Megadeath. Guns N’ Roses still rattle around in there somewhere, but they’re diminishing. Zack de la Rocha’s first band, Inside Out, has one of my favorite songs, “No Spiritual Surrender.” It is a lodestar to my teen years, misguided and misapplied to right-wing political beliefs and the gloomy Old Testament god of fire, until I loosened up and allowed the wilder gods of Pan, Athena, Dionysus, and the rest into my life. I’m 15, on the cusp of a new direction.
Missing the bulk of the “alternative” craze, much of it manufactured by MTV, selling a mish mash of styles and genres—Hansen is a buzz clip—as a movement. Punk was the great displacement. I still like Weezer, though, and I’m happy when hair metal comes on the radio, especially Def Leppard, Warrant, and those Ozzy Osbourne ’80s songs. “If I close my eyes forever,” remains a soul-withering song, as haunting a piece of music I can think of. Hating “Semi-Charmed Kind of Life” when it first appears but kind of loving it now, hearing a distillation of the entire plasticine era, the ’90s. Mocking the Toadies but now entranced by the darkness in their songs, the violent obsessions. Trashing SpaceHog both then and now. Dismissing Portishead but finding hard truths in “Invisible Stars,” a precognitive madness, a song that saw the America that was coming, and our inability to stop it.
Holding back tears while blaring Lagwagon in my Corsica, late at night, slightly drunk, bewildered by college, heartsick, vulnerable, feeling desperate and alone, the halogen glow of the street lamps in the parking lot casting the very air around me in sickly magic. I can’t yet discern anger from heartbreak, one of my abiding weaknesses, and the music no longer angry anyway but aching, forlorn, empty, diseased with grievance. Lagwagon at the time my favorite band. The songs are harming me in unseen ways. “Angry Days” playing another day, I hear it with a friend in the same car and he looks me over and says, “You’re still in them, aren’t you?” “What?” I say. “You’re still living in those angry days.” I’m 18, on the cusp of a new self, still trapped in the self-defeating cycle of perpetual behaviors, ricocheting back and forth from hedonism to asceticism, god-haunted and weary, unsure of everything.