Sunday, November 15, 2015

My Life in Three Songs

     Most days I get downtown through the miracle of Metra which, despite its bad press, is comfortable, generally, on-time, usually, and pleasant, almost always.
      But occasionally I drive, if I have an event at night and don't want to hang around afterward waiting for a milk train that stops at places like Grayland and Mayfair. Such a day was Tuesday, and traffic was slow enough that I had a protracted opportunity to listen to WBEZ. Tony Sarabia had put together  a particularly fascinating morning program, between Jonathan Sachs, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, talking about why religious violence is such a betrayal of faith, and my former Sun-Times colleague Jim DeRogatis, offering up his "My Life in Three Songs."
    It's an ongoing series lately on WBEZ where various Chicagoans are asked to summarize their existence in three tunes. At first I thought it an impossible task—lives are complicated, or should be, and not something that can be outlined in 10 minutes of music, or even 100.  The notion seemed to slight both life and music, which has too many great songs to pick just three of anything.  Picking three top Ani DiFranco songs would be an impoverishment of reality.
    But DeRogatis had some interesting selections, and I learned a lot hearing him talk about them, from the fact that he once played in a rock group, opening for the cult band Wire, to the words to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," one of his picks.
     Maybe, I thought, the exercise is like Haiku—a limited form whose constraints forces you to focus in such a way that bends toward revelation. 
     Besides, I enjoy music too much not to try. It sounds like fun. Though actually trying is harder than it seems.
     DeRogatis said it took him 20 seconds to pick his three songs. My process took a couple of days. First, I had to form an idea what my life was about.  That wasn't too hard. Something about work, certainly. Something about love, and family, and probably sobriety too.  
      The first few songs I considered I almost immediately discarded. It turned out that the degree I liked a song or its quality weren't of primary importance, for this purpose. I don't think I liked a song with the immediate fervor that I liked the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" when I first heard it in 1978—I can still see my hand snaking out to turn it up on the radio in my parents' silver Dodge Dart 1975 Special Edition while driving down Front Street in Berea, Ohio. It certainly captures the sense of longing I had and have toward absent loved ones.
    But a 1970s Stones song just wasn't right. It turned out that none of the songs I loved the most were really that representative of my life. Some could capture a year—Bob Dylan's "If You See Her, Say Hello," was good for high school. But not much more. Warren Zevon has a dozen songs that are wonderful. But I couldn't describe a third of my life with "Studebaker" or "Genius" or "Disorder in the House." I thought of songs that literally described aspect of life's routine—Elvis Costello's "Every Day I Write the Book." Not a very good song, and too specific. Cheap Trick performing "I Want You To Want Me" live at Budokan? Certainly a rocking song, and an anthem for a newspaper columnist ("I need you to need me") if ever there were.
     Then I thought of the Call's "I Still Believe." It's an anthem, with that sense of holding on to something with your fingertips that every professional journalist has to relate to. The generally sense of plugging away at a lost cause but not giving up. The opening stanza: 

                                         I've been in a cave,
                                         Forty days 

                                        With only a spark
                                         to light my way 
                                         I want to give out
                                         I want to give in 
                                        This is our crime 
                                        This is our sin 
                                        But I still believe....

     That sounds right. Song One down. What's next? I felt I needed something about my wife— such a huge part of my life — and only two songs could be candidates there. The first was "Bela Lugosi's Dead," by Bauhaus. A clicking, dripping, sensuous early 1980s rock number, from "The Hunger," that became our song when we danced to it on our third date at 950 Lucky Number club in 1983. I tried to get a 12-piece swing band to play it at our wedding, to no avail. But it's a creepy song about vampires (refrain: "I'm dead, I'm dead, I'm dead.")
     Too creepy. No vampires.
     Better the other song, one that, one morning shortly after that third date, came on the radio of my Volvo P1800 early, as I drove ruminatively home: Tom Waits "Ole 55:"               

                                           Well my time went so quickly 
                                           I went lickety-splitly 
                                           down to my old '55. 
                                           As I pulled away slowly. 
                                           Feeling so holy. 
                                           God knows, I was feeling alive.

     Yeah. Maybe you had to be there. Tom Waits is an acquired taste. But he's one of my favorite performers, with poetic words and creative, bang-a-femur-on-a-garbage-can music (though, if you haven't noticed already, with pop songs, its always words first, music second, though in opera it's the other way around). 
   "Ol' 55" it is, for Song Two. And while it isn't my favorite Tom Waits song — that would be "Hold On" or "Train Song" or "Mr. Siegel" — I think "Ol' 55" does it for its buoyant sense of the world being in my pocket. I feel that a lot, particular in regards to my wife, and so that's probably a better choice than, say, John Cale's version of "Hallelujah," which was also a contender. 
      And the third song? I'd be tempted to go with "Fallen" by Sarah McLachlan. No, too Lilith Fair. "Lust for Life" by Iggy Pop? More danceable, certainly apt. "I'm through with slipping on the sidewalk..."  But Iggy's, well, he's odd and scary and rolled around on broken glass onstage. I never liked him much. Lou Reed was more my style, his pinging "Satellite of Love."
     Then it came to me. Certainly not a great song, in the great song sense. But one that I always loved, on a WXRT live compilation (one of the many songs fantastic live and flat in the studio), one my older son loved, as a toddler. Barely old enough to walk, he would rush into my office and demand it, and I would scoop him up and we'd dance. So there was that, plus a lot of philosophy, an attitude that twines together all the important aspects of my life, family, work, sobriety. And you can dance to it. It's by a local group, Poi Dog Pondering, a big, sprawling, multi-racial funtime band. So "Complicated" is Song Three, for its lyrics by Frank Orrall,  who, as an added bonus, was kind enough to permit me to reprint these lines in my next book, where they fit perfectly:

                                            Sorrow is an angel
                                            That comes to you in blue light
                                            And shows you what is wrong
                                            Just to see if you'll set it right
                                            And I've fucked up so many times in my life
                                            That I want to get it right this time.

    So those are the three songs that limn my life, such as it is. What are yours, and why? 

    I will be on WBEZ, talking about this with Tony Sarabia, the day after Thanksgiving, Friday, Nov. 27, shortly after 9 a.m. 


  1. I'm Eighteen, Alice Cooper. They say your maturity freezes at the age you start getting wasted. Looking back through the clarity of 3.5 years sober I agree but it's not completely a bad thing.
    Better off without a wife(live) Tom Waits. Twenty four years in, I'm the poster child for not picking a mate while under the influence.
    Just one Victory, Todd Rundgren. Always been a favorite. No matter how bleak today is, just one victory and we're on our way. No moping allowed. I've always been quick to recover and maintain a sense of humor.

    1. I forgot about "Just One Victory." I did think about Rundgren's "Healing." He's sort of fallen off the map, hasn't he? Unjustly. "Couldn't I Just Tell You the Way I Feel" wouldn't have been bad, for me. Alice Cooper also gets the short shrift. He could write good ballads -- "Only Women Bleed."

    2. Neil - Just One Victory would be at the top of my list - it gives me chills every time I hear it. Rundgren certainly isn't in the public eye given how the music business has morphed in recent years, but he is still making remarkable music. I saw him play a wonderful concert a couple of years ago with the Rockford Symphony Orchestra, another playing the entire Wizard a True Star, and just recently saw him perform an electronic music concert with just a DJ and dancers that was of the moment as it is possible to be. Rundgren, alone among his peers from the 60's, continues to make engaging, timely, vibrant music. I believe he is doing a concert in Chicago in January at the Park West. I hope to make it.

    3. Just One Victory is a song that always brings me right back to my teen years. I was a huge fan - I saw him several times every year. JOV was always his closer. Great lyrics - We may be losing now but we can't stop trying, so hold that line, baby hold that line

    4. "Back to the Bars" is a great album. Though "Hermit of Mink Hollow" and "Healing" are sui generis genius. I think he created the first all by himself, in his basement. Though if I had to pick one Todd song, it would be "Couldn't I Just Tell You." Just so raw.

  2. Never realized Ol' 55 was a Tom Waits song; I've only ever heard the Eagles version, which apparently he's not overfond of.

    1. He gets covered by a lot of people. Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart. I forgot the Eagles had a version.

  3. The first one's a breeze. Here Comes a Regular by The Replacements. Killer lyrics, a first take delivery in the studio. "I used to live at home and now I just stay at the house". Westerberg nailed it.

    The second one has to be Bloom by Radiohead. NOT for the lyrics. The lyrics are uninteresting; they only serve to carry the melody. And that's kind of the point. The music is impossibly intricate and complicated, the melody on top is gorgeous. It's like a wild painting of disparate ideas that all somehow meshes into a beautiful whole.

    The third one is tough. I want to say one of the many flavor of the month songs I go through, the guilty pleasure songs that are usually pretty bad but catch my ear and I listen to them for a couple of months non-stop. That describes a lot of how I relate to people. Intense close friendships for a short period of time and then distance. I'll pick one of those songs for number 3. Clean Getaway by Maria Taylor. Again, the theme of intense loneliness and distance. I'm not sure what the song's about, but to me she's singing about making a break from her old life and finding her new life to look right but be totally off. "It was just like love/but with no fear of losing and it wasn't tough". Her delivery sells it. So sensitive it seems like it would all come down at any moment.

  4. I like The Godfather's "Birth, School, Work, Death" It certainly simplifies the arc of existence. Second is Jame Taylor "How Sweet It Is ( To Be Loved By You)" This was our first dance song at our wedding 30+ years ago and will remain meaningful for the next 30. Finally, Sonia Dada's "Sail Away" provides a perfect coda if for only the lyric "The idea was to laugh more than you cried."

  5. "Is This Love" by Bob Marley was the first song at our wedding. "Imagine" by John Lennon reflects my philosophy towards life and how to treat others, and people do say I'm a dreamer. "Ripple" by The Dead is the best one, it sums everything up in a folk tune. A bit of the lyrics and the chorus is a haiku:

    If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
    And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
    Would you hear my voice come through the music
    Would you hold it near as it were your own?

    It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
    Perhaps they're better left unsung
    I don't know, don't really care
    Let there be songs to fill the air

    Ripple in still water
    When there is no pebble tossed
    Nor wind to blow

  6. Two came to me pretty quickly, "This Must Be The Place" by the Talking Heads and "Be Prepared" by Shellac. To me the Heads song suggest having gone through a lot and coming out of it more comfortable in your own skin, and the last lines of each verse of the Shellac song, "don't be ashamed you were born unadorned be prepared," strike a pretty similar chord to not be afraid to be be yourself. For #3 "Save The Last Dance For Me" would be the song for my wife. I want her to stay her own person yet when all is said and done we're there for each other no matter what.
    A lot of the other titles up there are really good too, check with me tomorrow and it could be three totally different songs.

  7. I just gave a listen to the Shellac song, which I was not familiar with. I like what they do with tempo, particularly at the beginning.

  8. Nice piece Neil. My three songs would likely change on a daily basis but this might work for me as some sort of daily meditation.However, as a denizen of the Grayland Metra stop, all I can say is we some day aspire to milk train stop status. Our shelter (thankfully now being rebuilt) has for years been little more than a urinal for the homeless.

  9. That I recognize none of these songs makes me realize what a creature from another age I am. My fault, but for some reason I stopped paying attention to popular music shortly after the reign of the Beetles, whom I admired for their slyly witty lyrics ("Will you still need me? Will you still feed me? When I'm 64.")

    Realizing that songs I fancy were born before many of your readers, but in a golden time when lyric writers were gifted minor poets, I do have some citations. There are too many really to pick three favorites, but I would put in the first rank Jerome Kern's "Bill," for the narrative unfolding of the P.G. Woodhouse lyric :

    "I used to dream that I would discover
    The perfect lover some day.
    I always used to fancy then
    He'd be one of the God-like kind of men
    But along came Bill

    And for the many elegant ladies who have sung it over the years.

    Also I admire "When they ask me I could write a book" from Pal Joey. For Lorenz Hart's perfect, plainspoken lyric. Worthy of Herrick.

    "When they ask me I could write a book
    About the way you walk and whisper, and look.
    I could write a preface on how we met
    That the world would never forget."

    I like it that a couple of Jewish guys from New York wrote the best song about London, my favorite city. And that it contains perhaps the wittiest line in the canon:

    "I viewed the morning with alarm
    The British museum had lost its charm."

    The second wittiest? Almost everything Cole Porter wrote.

    I thought to ask my wife about "our song," but given our differing tastes in such matters realized it would be unavailing.

    Like Andrew my selections might change on a different day. But maybe not. And I agree it was a nice piece. A sunny change of pace after the recent weighty meditations on comparatively somber subjects.

    Tom Evans

    1. The London song is "A Foggy Day," yes? Judy Garland sings it, wonderfully, on her "Live at Carnegie Hall" double album. I thought of citing, "Come Rain, Come Shine," as one, but didn't want to seem too much out of the swim.

    2. A number of fine performers have made a meal of "A Foggy Day." Fred Astaire, who introduced it on Broadway. Ella. Frank. Oddly enough my favorite rendition is by Catherine Bott, an English lady known most for her classical work, who included it in an amusing program of songs about London that was recorded under the title "London Pride."

  10. I really don't have any favorite songs, but my wife does. Unfortunately, she spoils her own enjoyment of them by disparaging the efforts of today's singers to attain the perfection of long dead old timers.


  11. Bleh. I've never had any use for Jim DeRogatis. He has always struck me as the epitome of an obnoxious music snob. One of my biggest moments of schadenfreude was when he dissed his then-employer, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, to another publication, and then found that Wenner would no longer be signing his paychecks.

  12. Nice idea today. I didn't have to think about it too long and I might change one of the songs tomorrow, but here's my three:
    "Like a Rolling Stone" by Dylan- "How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rollin stone?" My answer has always been it feels pretty f-in good.
    "Let it Be" by the Beatles - The opening line brings me peace when I'm in a jam: "When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, Let it Be"
    Lastly, for my wife - "Into the Mystic" by Van Morrison. "I want to rock your gypsy soul, just like in the days of old, and magnificently we will flow, into the mystic" We've been together for over 40 years, but in my mind's eye, we're still in our twenties, indestructible and looking for the next adventure.
    As I go over these, I realize that my picks were from about the time that Tom Evans stopped paying attention to popular music. I do enjoy his picks as well.

  13. Good topic and interesting choices NS. It was hard to narrow it down to three. Growing up, my mother would listen to her Mario Lanza albums (gasp) on the hi-fi, but thankfully I had my own radio so could sneak off and listen to the usual pop songs. In the mid to late 70s I started listening to Neil Young, and his After the Gold Rush album remains a favorite, especially the like-named single with the French Horn solo. I've been a fan of his since then, but more so his earlier years. Song #2 might be The Eagles with Joe Walsh doing "Life's Been Good to Me So Far", my concert-going days in the 80s, loving all that Eagles, Fleetwood Mac type of vibe. Good times. Finally, my favorite would probably be a 10,000 Maniacs song performed by Natalie Merchant, "These Are the Days", which I make sure to keep on my often-listened-to music queue, because of the beautiful lyrics, music, and well, I love Natalie Merchant. It soothes the soul.

  14. Love that you (Neil) had Poi Dog Complicated, because that has one of my top lyrics of all time in it. To wit, "I'm not afraid of dying, I'm afraid of going through this thing twice." That could also be a column. Favorite song lyrics. I'll start. Pink Floyd. Animals. "You radiate cold shafts of broken glass."

  15. This took me a day of thinking:

    1. "Life During Wartime" by Talking Heads, first as a metaphor for living a life seriously pursuing a vocation in the arts, but now its all too literal.

    2. Saw someone above mention Todd Rundgren, so as antidote to my first is "Bang the Drum All Day." "I take my sticks and go out to the shed and I pound on that drum like it was the boss' head!"

    Finally, 3. Zep's "Nobody's Fault But Mine." Title says it all.

  16. Yes! How could I not include Ani DiFranco and all the times I felt like she was singing directly to me, using the words I felt at that moment but couldn't expresss. "You Had Time" from her "Out of Range" album is one of my favorites.

    1. A link to "You Had Time".

    2. "What If No One's Watching" is my favorite of hers and would have been included if it was My Life in Four Songs.

  17. Also: my favorite live version of "Satellite of Love;" lean & mean:

  18. At Seventeen - Janis Ian
    Here - Alessia Cara
    Jane Says - Jane's Addiction

  19. No Life in Three Songs from me, but...

    Pink Flag is one of the great rock albums of all time.


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