The Songs That Made Me
1. Summer of ‘69 (Bryan Adams). I wasn’t around for the summer of ’69 (was Bryan Adams?), but its hokey reminiscence of the “best days of my life” became my theme song after spending two months traveling around Australia and New Zealand one summer in high school. Among other misadventures during that trip was inexplicably attending a black tie event with a couple of punks (literally, with Mohawks) I'd somehow befriended and eating the decorative flowers placed on our table (they weren't intended as edibles). It was also on this trip that I learned from a New Zealander the proper way to hold a beer bottle – with your pinkie under the bottom to steady it and prevent spillage in case somebody accidentally knocks into you (which apparently happens a lot in New Zealand bars). With apologies to my wife and son, those two months were unequivocally the best days of my life.
2. Stayin’ Alive (Bee Gees). In middle school, my best friend Alex and I were way too cool for this song or for the Bee Gees generally. We were into alternative music: R.E.M., the Replacements, the Clash. “Stayin Alive” offended us. So one rainy day, with apparently some time on our hands, we took his copy of Saturday Night Fever (query why he had one?) rubbed both sides of the vinyl against the exposed red brick wall of his bedroom until it was scratched to oblivion, then smashed it to pieces with a hammer and buried it in his driveway. It was a defining moment for us. We felt like we'd accomplished something for the greater good. To the extent I have an altruistic streak as an adult, I attribute it to that afternoon.
3. Brokedown Palace (Grateful Dead). My first act as a father was to sing to my son. After absorbing the un-reality of his existence at the hospital, after learning to hold him that first time like a football, after bringing him home, the first thing I did was sing to him to help him fall asleep. The song I chose for the task was “Brokedown Palace.” I don’t recall giving the choice much thought. It flowed out of me as natural as a breath. He turned ten today and I still sing “Brokedown Palace” to him nearly every night. “I love you more than words can tell,” is still my parting refrain to him as I turn out his bedroom light.
4. Cruise (Florida-Georgia Line). I've never liked country music. Never. Just couldn’t get my head around its twangy goodness, finely buffed edges and overt religiosity. And then one day – one glorious day — I heard this track. At first, I rolled my eyes. I mean, really: “This brand new Chevy with a lift kit/Would look a hell of a lot better with you up in it.” Are you serious? But man, I couldn’t stop listening to the rest of that first Florida Georgia Line record Here’s To The Good Times. It made me want to rent a convertible and drive top-down to SEC country for a football tailgate. Any music that makes you feel that way is worth listening to even if it inadvertently raises existential questions about who you are. Florida Georgia Line expanded my musical horizons at a time in my life (mid 40s) when I was feeling stagnant. So here’s to them – and “to the ice you float your beer in.”
5. Sweet Jane (The Velvet Underground). It'll take years of therapy for me to understand why I so identify with this song, why I feel like it defines who I am. Heck, when my son asked me the other day what the song was about, I drew a blank. Not really sure. But it's my favorite song for so many reasons: It was the song my high school friends and I danced to in my room to psych ourselves up before heading out to party. It was the first song I learned by ear on guitar; I played it at a school talent show and thought I nailed it until my science teacher told me afterwards that one of the chords was a minor chord. But it didn’t matter – I still felt like a rock star. It was the song my brother and I sang one beer-fueled night with the house band at the old Nightingale Bar on 13th Street and Second Avenue in New York City – the band finally acceded to our song request on the condition that we sing it. I think they were shocked that we took the bait. It was the song I strummed for hours immediately after my father’s funeral. And since moving to California, it's the song whose first note immediately transports me back to my adolescence in New York City.