It comes down to five songs.
Music is a salve, a celebration, an occasion, a companion, and an inspiration, It has been a large part of my life since I was young: from a memory of my father listening to a Beethoven LP while sipping a brandy; to a teenager trying to learn guitar to impress girls; to an adult playing bass and making friends in the Maplewood/South Orange community.
During the pandemic when I was working from home, I had the opportunity to reflect on many things, and here are five songs that sparked a memory of when they opened my eyes to “other music.”
A common denominator is that they were all obtainable. I could never be in a Genesis-like band or do harmonies like CSNY or be a polymath band like Rush. But I could actually play a Billy Bragg or R.E.M. song and have some fun, learn some things, and maybe meet some cool like-minded folk.
In elementary and middle school, my brother and I had a bicycle paper route that gave bonuses for good performance and whatnot. Among the payoffs were LPs (“long-playing” vinyl records). Our choices were Loverboy, Styx, Triumph, Foreigner, and the like.
And then I was with a group of friends, circling the mall in a father’s borrowed Pontiac, when someone slapped in Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” from his debut album (1977) – and it just blew my mind.
You mean keyboards don’t have to be synthy leading instruments, but can be piano fill augmentation? And the song has the greatest Hammond B3 hook ever. Or was it a Wurlitzer? I dunno, but I saved my paperboy money and bought a Casio keyboard to try to figure it out.
Months later, a friend slipped me a cassette of R.E.M.’s Reckoning in high school photography lab and knowingly said “Listen to this tonight” – as if passing some illicit drugs along to me.
The first song – “Harborcoat” – just blew me away. “Wait, what are these lyrics about? Can I even hear them? What is this janky guitar? Where are those other ghostly background voices coming from? This sounds as though it were recorded in my basement. But, it is perfect!” I could actually do this, too.
Later in high school, I was on a bus with about two dozen classmates on a school field trip to historic Williamsburg, VA. It was ostensibly an “Honors History” field trip, but much more a coming-of-age “let’s give the kids an adventure” excursion. Someone who had a hipper older brother slapped a cassette of the Violent Femmes into a boom box as we barreled down the highway. Their song “Kiss Off” came on.
My first listening reaction was revulsion: “This is horrible – this guy can’t sing – this is so sloppy.”
On the second listening, my reaction was: “This is the greatest thing ever that I have never heard anything like it oh my God I have to relisten to all this again who is this band where are they from what is happening are there only three people doing this....If they can do this, I can do this.”
A few years later, I was in my college dorm room listening to the college radio station and a song came on that was just a voice and electric guitar – with tremendous dynamics. And Kitchen Sink lyrics – for which I am a sucker. (Give me Lyndsay Anderson, Shelagh Delaney, Richard Harris any day of the week.) This song was classic Billy Bragg, and shortly thereafter a friend sent me a cassette of Billy’s songs (yes, we used to trade mixtapes on cassette via the US Postal Service).
I never heard anything like it before, and I thought again, “That’s actually attainable.”
Just a week or two later that same college radio station played a lush song with pseudo jazz chords married to morose lyrics (again, Kitchen Sink!) and a theatrical presentation that stabbed a dagger into a longing heart.
It was The Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.”
Now, your mileage may vary. Perhaps the songs that originally turned you on were songs from Dylan, Iron Maiden, Steely Dan, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, etc. It really doesn’t matter who those artists were. What matters is that they lit a spark in your mind.
Jim Robertson is a 25-plus year resident of South Orange, who loves music, film, friends, and football (the European kind).