I'm talking the best of the best: music that transforms you, like Major Tom in orbit. The songs I'm talking about are ones you've heard hundreds of times in your life, and yet the power still radiates. You are yanked out of yourself and float in a most peculiar way. Below I'll list five that spring to mind. You tell me yours.
First let me explain how I thought of this. I'm working hard on finishing my novel, and last week I realized I needed to get back into top physical shape to take it on, like David against Goliath. I'm back on the treadmill daily. It's boring as hell, so I'm repowering my iPod that I hadn't used for a year. I'm listening to music again. And then I came across one of those songs.
I've never been a musician, nor a maestro, nor a music critic. The Who's Tommy--in fact, the very first track, the overture--is what propelled me to buy my first stereo as a teenager after I heard the album on a friend's system. I then became the a guy who saved up his $5.98 and bought records on vinyl to spin on my Philips electronic turntable.
I didn't understand music. It seemed as mysterious as phlogiston, the mystical element within combustion. In those days, there was no God, but there was music.
And so today, on the treadmill I was reminded of that feeling. Here are five songs that do it to me:
Today I heard a cover version of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." Every time I hear the song, I feel like I did in sixth grade when I was home with the flu, feeling awful, and my mother was there to help me. Some of the lines lead me there:
When I was a child, I had a fever
My hands felt like two balloons
Still, the tone of the song, the rhythm, the harmony, gives me a sense of all of us together on this crazy ship, not knowing where we're going, having hopes, having desires with some dreams dying. Yet we persevere. And there's the sense we're interconnected. Pink Floyd's other music often took me to a similar space, twenty minute songs that built and left me feeling like I could blast on.
The first time I heard this Leonard Cohen tune, I was in my car, and an amazing male voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar had strange lines such as
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
And then he'd chant "Hallelujah," which broke through some sort of emotional dam for me, and when he held a note near the end, I could hardly breath. I had to pull off the road. I found the singer was the late Jeff Buckley, who died tragically while swimming. Somehow that fit the song. The versions by k.d. lang, Rufus Wainwright, and most recently by Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris in the "Hope for Haiti" concert, all do it to me, too. I see the singer as saying yeah, life's hard, but there are these great moments if you just keep your eyes open.
My girlfriend Ann loved the song so much, too, that seven years ago we hired two jazz musicians to play it in our wedding ceremony. The magic worked. I love living with Ann.
With Bruce Springsteen being a touchstone for me, I could name a dozen of his songs that fit this category, yet one song, "You're Missing," demonstrates why great songs are not just from the lyrics. The yearning guitar, the lone violin, and the slow piano give a certain tone that goes beyond the words. The clipped words lead to "But you're not there," which certainly bring the listener to any lost love. The person didn't have to die in 9/11, though that adds to the poignancy.
The lyrics in this song can look plain, especially the refrain:
Everything is everything
But you're missing
What does he mean "everything is everything?" You feel it after a while. The build-up of imagery in the song gives one the sense of the taken-for-granted things of daily life: a coffee cup standing, a newspaper on the front porch, dust on a pair of shoes. It's all different when someone is missing. I use this song when I teach the poetry section of my Introduction to Literature class.
Nothing Compares 2 U
I love Sinead O'Connor's voice. I love her passion. Sure, she got carried away by ripping the Pope's picture in half on Saturday Night Live long ago, but religion hadn't been good to her. Sinead O'Connor singing this Prince song reminds me of singing along with it years ago with my then-eight-year-old son as we were driving to Montana.
The Only Living Boy in New York
I didn't know this was one of those songs until I was bush-wacked with this Simon and Garfunkel piece in the movie Garden State. I found I knew most of the words, and my heart simply lifted.
I can gather all the news I need on the weather report.
Hey, I've got nothing to do today but smile.
It came in a great part of the movie, and when I bought the soundtrack, it's a favorite part of the soundtrack. "Here I am," it ends, and I leave feeling perfect.
Life would suck without music. Do you have such songs?
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