Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sounds Bad

Last year, I was going back and forth to Minneapolis for what felt like several weeks on end. (On paper, it was actually three weeks.) In the rental car that I had there, I threw in a CD that I dedicated for my trip. After my work during the day, I'd drive around greater Minneapolis listening to this CD. The music was by a fast guitarist named Sergei Alexeev. He's one of those musicians who play at the train station (I bought the CD from him at South Station). The music had the effect of reminding me of home in an unique way. No words; just a great wash of electric guitar playing.

On the flip side, I didn't listen to Sergei's music when I got back to Boston. In my car, I made sure the CD was cued up to my "welcome back song" at the time: Sounds Bad, by T-Pain. The song's opening piano notes, giving way to some good "mmm, mmms", then T-Pain's Auto-Tuned voice properly drained the travel strain out of me. By the time the car gets rolling towards home, I'm singing to the chorus, parts of which are delivered in an attractive staccato: "I know it sound like, I wanna die, And I know I'm so miserable, But this just so happens to be the best day of my life."

The song is about some guy trying to cope with his life. No food in his fridge. House running on a generator. Late for work. And yet even though things sound bad, it's still the best day of his life. The "self-medication" may have something to do with it. I loved listening to this song after the four hour travel from Minneapolis.

Note: This month, I will be writing about songs.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Song Remains the Same

When I was in high school back in the 1980s, a bunch of us went into New York City to see the laser light show at the Hayden Planetarium. Gosh, who was there? I know James went. Maybe Arnel? Did Ramsey come? Noel? Anyway, it was a night out.

The audience in the planetarium buzzed with excitement. The house lights went dim. The dome darkened. In complete simulated night, the music began with a sonic bang: The Song Remains the Same, by Led Zeppelin. The song was an electric guitar assault that had me asking "What is this? I want to hear it again!" I don't remember too much else from that show, but that song stayed with me.

In the weeks or months that followed, I learned that this song was "hard rock," so I wasn't going to be hearing it on my usual Top Forty/Casey Kasem approved pop-music station. I had to listen to WPLJ. I hung by the radio until the song came on (this is how we dealt with music back in the day!) and when it came on again, I committed to memory the band and the song once more. Led Zeppelin. The Song Remains the Same.

Maybe within the next year I dished out a whole bunch of money for the double-album "The Song Remains the Same". I didn't realize at the time that a) this was a soundtrack album off their ill-received concert movie, and b) the song was on their fifth album, "Houses of the Holy." I probably only played that one song off that double record, but it was worth it.

The song is a layered guitar masterpiece, with accompanying drums and bass to match. Jimmy Page's guitar rocks with a fierce but exciting and invigorating sound that drives upwards and upwards until it reaches a quieter section, the upper atmosphere of psychedelic rock. Robert Plant wails. Page jams a solo, then ratchets up the song again, upwards through some power chords, to a thrilling finish. Think of the theme to Rocky or Star Wars, but faster, and with guitars blazing.

The song was released in 1973. At this point, the band was at the height of their powers. I was only five years old then, but the fact that this song rocked me in high school, and can still rock me today is a testament to Led Zeppelin's unquestioned musicality, and their legacy in rock music. Fans of today's music would do themselves a favor by checking out Led Zeppelin's rich catalog of songs. They can start with "The Song Remains the Same."

Note: This month, I will be writing about songs.

Friday, July 18, 2008

San Diego Serenade

In my last year of college, I was a DJ for my college radio station. One evening, a DJ was complaining to me that she had the next day's morning shift. "No one listens to WRPI in the morning," she said. I believed her. It was early summer, and most of the students had fled for vacation. I told her I'd get up and tune in to her show.

The next morning, I got up and put on the radio. This could have been a Saturday morning, this could have been before 8AM, I no longer remember the details. But I did remember her cheery voice saying "Rick? You up? You should get down the station because there are all these dogs at the door, and they look like they want to have breakfast. Enjoy this one."

The next song she played was Tom Waits' "San Diego Serenade". The words washed over me like a gentle shower. The lyrics were sentimental and plaintive. "Never saw the morning until I stayed up all night. Never saw the sunshine until you turned out the light. Never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long. Never heard the melody until I needed the song." With those words, Waits launches into a list of laments, each making sense, each seemingly profound though simple.

People get attached to songs, as if the songs speak to them specifically. When I heard San Diego Serenade that bright morning, it crystallized my feelings going into that odd summer. It's a song about getting older, and about the circle of life. It's a song about taking the good with the bad. It's about love and heartbreak. I was 22 when I first heard it, and the song made me think about being an adult. It still tugs at my heart almost twenty years later.

Note: This month, I will be writing about songs.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Luka was one of those stellar songs from the 1980s, 1987 to be specific. I'm a child of the 1980s, and specifically I was raised on 1980s pop music. When Luka hit the charts, it was just one of those superbly "catchy" songs, with a seemingly important message. I gave it no further thought beyond that. In 1987, I was in college, where I was discovering Eric Clapton and Tom Waits.

A few weeks ago, the NY Times published a blog by the songwriter Suzanne Vega, who wrote Luka. In her post, she describes the genesis of the song, and how the ear-catching sound for her song was produced. She also talked about the lyrics of the song, and how warily they were received in her early performances.

I gave the song a listen again, and I was blown away. I was amazed at the power of those lyrics, hearing them seemingly for the very first time. It brought a lump in my throat, tears to my eyes. The music was the same from 1987, but now the words were hitting me with their full force, and I was swept up in the emotion of the song.

Suzanne wrote about how the song eventually became overplayed, drowning out the words and its message. I guess like it did with me. Thankfully, distance and time allow all things to seem new again. I'm glad they did their work for this wondrous song.

Note: This month, I will be writing about songs.