The Music that Changed my Life, Part 1

Music is one of the major obsessions in my life (right next to puppets, movies and books), and often I find myself pondering over just how much certain albums and songs have stuck with me and never left, to the point where they have seeped into my DNA. In our modern age of one-hit wonders, iPod shuffles and selecting tracks from iTunes rather than holding a physical "album", it's also important to remember the significance that albums can have as a unified, solid piece of work...something of a rarity these days.  Today most of my music listening happens while working on freelance animation projects, or on my daily commute to work or the occasional car trip.  My iPod shuffles through various playlists of favorites, both old and new, and I allow myself to get lost in the random selections of new discoveries mixed in with classics which have become as much a part of me now as they were when I first heard them.  At the outset of the first notes, I am transported back to different places, sitting alongside people from other times and chapters of my life, and I am able to bring the magic of those moments into wherever I am now.  Listening to certain albums and songs, I am as much 5-years-old, or 8, or 14, or 23 as much as I am    insert current age here   .

Such is the timeless power of music which I can barely express in words, but in a feeble attempt to do so, I feel compelled to review and muse over the albums and songs which have enriched or changed my life in one way or particular, the ones which have stayed in my playlist and never left. Some songs and albums may have been important once upon a time, as passing fads tend to be, but as nostalgia sifts the good from the bad, time tends to bring to light and determine which ones will age like a fine wine, bringing out new flavors & fragrances. Like friends and acquaintances, some of them come and go, some are re-visited after years of separation, and some become consistent influences who either change you or become part of you. With each new listen to a song or album, new meanings are revealed and continue to unfold, and the universal language of the sonic vibrations "pour forth new speech", as my perceptions and experiences grow along with me. It's also fascinating to look back and see how the reasons why certain albums "spoke to me" ended up revealing themselves in later chapters of my life, as if they were dropping clues for things to come.

This Part 1 of my life's soundtrack starts at the beginning, and unpacks the albums and songs of my early childhood which I still listen to, including a few honorable mentions.

The Muppet Movie - Original Soundtrack
I start with this one because it's probably the earliest album I can remember listening to, after receiving it on vinyl for Christmas when I was 4-years-old. I've already elaborated quite extensively on the significance behind this record in my other story, Something That I'm Supposed to Be: A Response (which you can read later if you want), so I won't repeat that much detail here.  Simply put, the songs on this album, and the movie they come from, are still as much a part of me now as they were then....I would venture to say even more so.  Even better is the fact that I've already shared this with my kids and they love it too. My daughter Ariel can sing along to Rainbow Connection with the same amount of love that I have for it myself, and that means more to me than I can fathom.  The meaning and power behind Paul Williams' lyrics to these songs, not only Rainbow Connection but particularly Can You Picture That, I'm Going to Go Back There Someday, and The Magic Store, continue to reveal new layers to me and I keep finding endless ways to make reference to them again and again. They speak of a deep spiritual longing for who we are, where we come from, and where we belong (and you thought it was only a kids movie with wiggling dolls....)

John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together
While on the subject of the Muppets however, I should mention another album which enriched my childhood, and although it may not grace my playlist all year long, it does still get played every Christmas. The feeling invoked by this record at Christmastime has carried over through the years and keeps the magic alive. In many ways I feel it's one of the best achievements of the Muppets, and the mix of songs really captures the essence of who they are.  The music of the Muppets was very intentional in preserving and re-inventing classic songs of eras gone by, from vaudeville standards to jazz and old show tunes.  Their Christmas album is no exception, as it brought to light traditional carols and gave them their own unique spin. Their version of Silent Night even includes a monologue by John Denver which explains the history of how the song was written, and then sings it with sacred grace and reverence to its original source. While specifically religious themes were a rarity in most Muppet holiday specials, this Christmas album does bring a few others to light. Another monologue by John in his original tale Alfie the Christmas Tree makes specific reference to the Son of God and puts it in the context of a plea to remember the trees and creatures of the natural world (a subject which was close to the heart of both John Denver and Jim Henson). The "Savior King" is also referenced in the beautiful song A Baby Just Like You.  All of this tradition mixes with the typical Muppet comedy, silliness, and banter in songs like Christmas is Coming, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and even the Electric Mayhem's cover of Little Saint Nick. The highlight of beauty and mystery in the album culminates in When the River Meets the Sea, a Paul Williams song also used in the TV special Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas, whose lyrics invoke images of nature, life, death, re-birth and a childlike faith.

Fleetwood Mac - Rumours
Outside of the Muppet records I had on vinyl and listened to mostly in the living room, most of the earliest albums I became obsessed with were played in my parents' red 1970s Caprice Classic car, on 8 track (!), driving to and from church, the store, grandparents' houses, the endless 5-hour drive to our summer cottage, and everywhere else. Such was the case with Rumours.  All it takes is for me to hear those first drum beats and bass line of bum, BUM....and no matter what, suddenly I'm about 4 or 5-years-old sitting on that dusty maroon upholstery, stuffing Wrigley's Spearmint gum wrappers into the ashtray, and playing with the locks on the doors. The same can be said of Go Your Own Way, You Make Loving Fun, Don't Stop, and Oh Daddy, which must have been grouped together on the 8-track version, as they are the songs I remember most from those childhood car trips. As I got older I kept listening to this album and eventually paid more attention to the other songs as well, and kept falling in love with them over and over again. They all have such a great feeling to the instruments and how they blended together to create such a unique sound, weaving in and out of the haunting harmonies in the vocal arrangements. There is something about the way Rumours sounds, and looking at the album cover, that feels like those songs are speaking through that image.  The album looks and feels rustic, like a musty cottage in the woods full of secrets, pain and mystery...even more fascinating when you consider the turmoil of the band at that time. If there was ever a testament to the idea that music can turn struggle and heartache into beauty, Rumours is it. Of course, as a child I wasn't thinking about any of this, I was simply getting lost in the poetry of how it sounded.  Many years later, when I met my wife Janet and we started connecting, it turned out Fleetwood Mac and Rumours was one of the favorite bands & albums we both grew up listening to, so its resonance would ultimately serve another future purpose.

Billy Joel - Glass Houses & Live from Long Island
As fate would have it, another album which Janet and I both grew up listening to, in our unknowing separate childhoods, was Glass Houses by Billy Joel.  For me, this was another 8-track which was played incessantly on car trips. It's another album of which hearing the songs today makes me feel like I'm in that car again, at about 5 or 6-years-old. From the opening sound of the glass breaking on the first track You May Be Right, this is still one of my favorites. I have vivid memories of singing these songs in the car along with my younger brother Jonathan, who translated the lyrics for Sometimes (It's Just) a Fantasy into "It's Just a Magazine." (In his wisdom, these were probably more appropriate lyrics for young children.) C'etait Toi (You Were the One) was also the first pop song I would ever hear that was partially sung in French, which I found interesting. Overall, this is the only Billy Joel album I fully embraced as a whole. I also enjoyed random singles from the rest of his career, but as an actual "album" this is the one which I found didn't have a single bad song in the mix.  There is something about the way it sounds which is also unique.  It's not a "loud" album, in that the way it's mixed doesn't have much full resonance in the drums or almost sounds like all the songs are being played from far off in the distance. There is a paradoxical feeling of power and silence in the way they sound...almost as if they are played from inside a "glass house."

The other Billy Joel "album" which was often played in the car (a few years later) was not officially released as one, to my knowledge. When we first got HBO and cable TV around 1982/83, Billy Joel: Live from Long Island was broadcast as a video concert special.  My Dad had a tape deck hooked up to the stereo which could record directly from the cable TV, so he recorded the audio from this special onto a cassette tape.  This tape would then be played in his new white Dodge hatchback which had a tape deck rather than an 8-track player. The concert special was released on video and has shown up on YouTube, but I still have the cassette tape that initially drew me into it. Musically, there are few live concert recordings I have heard which are as tight, energetic, powerful and brilliantly played as this. It's Billy Joel in his prime and at his absolute best. The live versions of his songs from this concert are worlds better than the studio versions, in particular The Stranger and Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. It's absolutely amazing and continues to move me even today.

Simon and Garfunkel: Concert in Central Park
Rewinding back a year or so, in-between the two Billy Joel tapes was another concert album, once again played always in the car, on cassette tape, around the time I was transitioning from first to second grade. Simon and Garfunkel's Central Park concert was performed and recorded in September 1981 and the album released in February 1982.  This was my official introduction to their songs, and to this day I am more familiar with these live versions than their studio recordings. I fell in love with these songs, their lyrics and the way they a kid sitting there in the car I especially loved the faster, more energetic ones and would sometimes whine through most of the slow ones at first. But eventually the beauty of slow, quiet ballads like Scarborough Fair, Homeward Bound, America and April Come She Will won me over. The live band from this album was amazing and used a really interesting warbling keyboard sound, which blended well with the brass and acoustic guitars. I think for the time, it was a way of giving a contemporary feel to their 60s/70s classics and updating the arrangements, but with no basis for comparison it worked for me. I still listen to tracks from this album in my playlist rotations often, and each time I feel like I could have been there in the crisp autumn air when the songs were played. My mind boggles over the mere concept that those two hours of space and time, and this music which played live one solitary evening in New York, can be captured, packaged, copied onto a roll of magnetic tape in a little plastic box, and played back over and over again in a car driving around Michigan...then years later I can listen to those same moments of time on my iPhone today here in BC.

The Beatles - Reel Music
Another frequently-played cassette tape in the car from this same time period was not an official "album" per se, but it was a Beatles' compilation of songs which had been featured in their films, called Reel Music. It was this cassette tape of my Dad's which played a big part in introducing me to their music for the first time. In particular, the songs I Should Have Known Better, Hard Days Night, And I Love Her, Magical Mystery Tour and I Am the Walrus stood out for me as favorites, and when I listen to these songs today, once again they make me feel like I'm a kid in my Dad's car.  For some reason these songs invoke memories of driving at night, and I can almost smell the combination of the upholstery, the air vent and Dad's cigarettes. Based on my interest in these songs, I have vague re-collections of Dad introducing me to songs from The White Album around this time. Overall, as I got older I would re-discover more of the Beatles songs in different contexts and at different times, but I think it all started with this cassette.

The other earliest source of learning Beatles songs for me came from The Beagles, an animatronic-tribute band of dogs which was part of the original Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre, back when the restaurant franchise first started. In Michigan we also had another pizza restaurant with animatronic characters called Major Magic's, which is where I first heard the song When I'm 64, as it was sung by the robot animals on stage. (My love for these extinct pizza parlors is another subject entirely, but all the same, here's a picture from 1982.  Check out my E.T. shirt!)
These earliest albums and musical artists were, for the most part, primarily ones that my parents listened to and introduced me to by default. But eventually I moved to discovering and selecting my own musical tastes, sometimes to the chagrin of my parents, sometimes not. Following this early time period and segueing into circa 1983-87 or so, there were not as many full "albums" which really grabbed me to the point where I can still listen to them in their entirety today. I began spending my allowance money on 45 rpm records and bringing them home to listen to in the house. Music in the car was simply the same songs, introduced to me through Top 40 radio (including weird stuff like Newcleus' Jam On It, one of the world's first rap songs with strange squeaky back-up singers saying all kinds of things that made no sense at all. Brilliant.)

During this time I became rather obsessed with virtually all the popular music of the 80s Mtv era, which lent itself more to one-hit wonders and individual singles for me to obsess over.  Like my classmates and friends who shared in our collective pop culture, I was confused by the fact that Boy George looked like a girl, tried to figure out how to moonwalk like Michael Jackson and had the living crap scared out of me by the Thriller video. (I still can't watch it...seriously.)  Nevertheless, to this day I have a soft spot for this era and the blend of new wave, pop and metal that emerged from it, including some of the artsy, messed-up and incredibly traumatizing imagery (stuff like the music video for Greg Kihn Band's Jeopardy, which is scary, sick and wrong on so many levels, but oh-so-captivating like a train wreck).  While there is much from 80s Mtv which was better for its time (yet time has not been kind to it), there are still a few random songs which still show up in my playlists. A few honorable mentions and guilty pleasures include Madness' Our House, Van Halen's Jump, Human League's Don't You Want Me, Simple Minds' Don't You Forget About Me, Men Without Hats' Safety Dance, Men at Work's Down Under, GenesisLand of Confusion (which had the best music video ever made) and particularly Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams Are Made of This (an amazing song which also had a brilliantly-disturbing music video).  Music from this time period was just fun...sometimes scary, but still fun.

Toto- Africa
From this particular mid-80s season, if I had to pick one song which gives me warm fuzzies and percolates in my bloodstream just for the mere sound of it, it would be Toto's Africa. It's one of those songs I never skip over if it happens to come on in my playlist shuffle. From the moment I hear those opening drum beats, I feel a sense of home creeping in, and by the time that repetitive, hypnotic keyboard riff hits, I'm a goner. It invokes memories of childhood and my summer cottage where I first heard it, but extends beyond that as well. Overall it just makes me feel cozy....and human.  The lyrics are mysterious and strange, not really pointing to anything specific that I can easily tell, but they seem to invoke a fairy tale of extreme sadness and beauty at the same they are telling the last act of a longer story.  It's one of those songs that has a sense of weighty melancholy, and the instrumentation has a heavy, humid feel to it. (I'm not sure if these words and metaphors are making sense...but I'm making a struggling attempt to express an indescribable sense that certain songs can be "felt" and "seen" in a way that is more mental than visual.)

Love and Rockets - Express
Around the time I segued from elementary school into middle school, I began hanging out with a circle of friends who would become my regular weekend 'gang' who did everything together, particularly listening to comedy albums by Cheech & Chong, Bill Cosby and Monty Python, watching horror movies and listening to music. One of these gang members, my close friend Doug Brown, introduced me to bands such as AC/DC and Def Leppard, of whom I became a rampant fan and led to my close following of the late-80s metal era, while it lasted. But there was another album which Doug introduced me to which still graces my current playlists, Love and Rockets' Express.  To this day, when I listen to the bridge of It Could Be Sunshine, it often makes me think of Doug singing along to it the first time he played it for me, with a passion that was contagious. Out of all the friends I've had in my life, Doug is one who really showed me just how much someone can really love music. If there was a song he liked, he didn't just "like it"...he practically lived in it, and you felt it along with him. This taught me to enter into songs in a way that I still find myself doing today, if I feel so compelled. These Love and Rockets songs, in particular Kundalini Express, Ball of Confusion, and Yin & Yang the FlowerPot Man, have a feeling that is FULL of energy, mystery, and a weirdness that really encompassed a wonderful cosmic blend of new wave and rock with notes that soar and rhythms that make you feel like exploding. It's a lost treasure of its time.

Night on Bald Mountain / Danse Macabre
Lest you think I'm only a total pop music junkie, I should also mention, in closing this chapter on my childhood, that my musical passions were additionally ingrained with some classical pieces, making me a bit more well-rounded and "cultured." Although, ironically the pieces I was introduced to that I loved the most were done so mostly through animated films. Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, brought to life in Fantasia, enthralled me as a kid and still fills me with awe and wonder today, not only for the imagery but I fell in love with the music as well.  The thematic changes, the different movements, and especially those booming notes which signal the unfolding of Chernobog's all gives me chills. Such power, beauty and grace....and then I love how the piece moves into the church bells and the final movement. Because of my attraction to Night on Bald Mountain, my mother in her musical wisdom also introduced me to Saint Saens' Danse Macabre, a similarly spooky classical piece based on the story of ghosts and ghouls dancing at midnight, with a chilling violin melody that I loved to listen to.

Peter and the Wolf
The other classical piece I have always loved is Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, initially introduced to me via the Disney cartoon and its accompanying read-along book & record, but I also appreciated it for the fact that it introduced me to the different musical instruments and how they sounded.  I loved the different themes, relishing in the contrasts in the sounds, and how the melodies felt like the animals and characters they portrayed. Hearing the theme for the wolf also made me obsess over wanting to learn the french horn for many years (however I ended up learning the trumpet instead).

The significance of pieces like Peter and the Wolf, and the other musical creations mentioned here, bring to light a discovery that I've pondered as I write about my favorite music. A common theme which appears in much of the music that stays in my playlists is that of storytelling. Many of these songs or compositions, whether it be through a single piece or a combination of several songs into an album, tell a story, either directly or indirectly. If a full story isn't necessarily told through the song, it still has the feeling of having a back-story behind it, underneath it or before it. Even if I can't understand the lyrics, or if the lyrics are non-existent, the music feels like a story being told. You are left with a sense that you have been taken on a journey, or given a piece of someone's experience that your mind must fill in the gaps to ponder what could have happened. Perhaps there is a larger story being told which causes music to resonate past the ears and into deeper realms.

Continued in Part 2, where my musical journey takes me into the fury and turbulent discoveries of my adolescence and beyond....

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