This chapter of my musical memoirs begins with me leaving my home state of Michigan and literally hitting the highway on a road trip to Vancouver, where I still reside today. For 5 days in late August 1998, my friend Brandon Moses and I drove across America, and literally began our descent onto that first freeway ramp with the opening notes to Movin' Right Along off The Muppet Movie Soundtrack. Along the way we would listen to practically every album and mix tape we each brought with us, including much of the music I've mentioned in my previous two chapters of this series. In some ways, it was like a musical flashback of my life thus far following me along the road into the next phase of the journey.
While in Vancouver studying at VanArts, one of the other students introduced me to the Rhythm of the Pride Lands album, which was a collection of songs inspired by The Lion King. Mostly produced and performed by the artist Lebo M, I found the songs and arrangements to be incredibly inspiring. I've always loved African music, and in particular the music from Lion King, so songs like He Lives in You, One by One, It's Time, and The Lion Sleeps Tonight were fantastic pieces to lose yourself in. During my study break I went for a drive from Vancouver down to San Francisco, experiencing the Oregon Coast and the California Redwoods for the first time on a little soul-searching adventure. This album, along with so many others, provided a wonderful soundtrack to this little trip, and many other moments beyond. Many years later when my daughter Ariel was born, we ended up using the song He Lives in You, accompanied with a dance by our friend Kara, for her child dedication in church. In addition to the power of the song which grabbed us, we connected it to the fact that Ariel in Hebrew means "Lion of God" and that the lyrics had a great spiritual significance to them. But I'm jumping a bit ahead of myself here, chronologically speaking....
If there was a musical experience which "changed my life" in the most literal sense, the most dramatic would be the ones which my wife Janet (or Jay, as she is more affectionately known) brought me into. Our first rambling conversations when we first met actually revolved around music...the first one being her expressing disdain from being ridiculed over the Dammit Janet song from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Later we bonded over discussing 80s music and songs we grew up with, including Fleetwood Mac, Roxette, Murray Head's One Night in Bangkok, Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper, and anything by Weird Al Yankovic. Naturally we began making each other mix tapes as a true sign of courtship, and I got to introduce Jay to quirky stuff like Oingo Boingo, while she introduced me to more quirky stuff like Aqua. Eventually, these conversations & musical revelries as friends turned into conversations as more-than-friends, which led to conversations about what we believed in spiritually. As Jay shared her faith with me, a huge part of that conversation introduced me to the debut album by Jars of Clay. I didn't really consider myself a Christian at the time, nor was I ever drawn to much contemporary Christian music. But Jars of Clay was different...their lyrics spoke poetically and longingly of a mystery I had never considered in this manner. There was an honesty in their lyrics which didn't preach a false sense of righteousness or shallow croonings of praise...they praised their Creator while questioning Him at the same time, and simply marveling over how He could possibly extend such undeserved grace to us. Their song entitled Boy on a String....well, that was me, on a string dangling above a mystery which would shake the foundations of what I thought life was all about. The song which resonated the most was Art in Me, a poetic ballad which puts words into God's mouth pleading for people to see His creativity. It was one of the most beautiful songs I'd ever heard. Before too long, the beauty in these songs (and the beauty of this girl I liked) won we over and led me to surrender my life to a living God who had been speaking to me all along in much of the music I had always been drawn to. Jars of Clay was among the first albums which would open my eyes to the idea of what that inkling was pointing to, without making it any less mysterious or beautiful (but rather more so).
To this day, I still don't listen to a huge number of "Christian" bands, nor do I often revel much in the typical radio fare of happy-clappy worship music. Of the bands I do enjoy, some of the others alongside Jars of Clay I've been particularly drawn to have been the likes of Switchfoot, Josh Garrels, Gungor, and The Grey Havens. What I like about these bands & artists is not only their musical styles but their profound lyrics which probe questions of faith more often than shallow all-too-simple answers. When aligning these songs alongside so-called "secular" music (which it's not really) in my playlist shuffle, I find the questions they ask are not all that different.
Another one of the various bands Jay introduced me to was Great Big Sea, the great Canadian folk-rock band from Newfoundland. Growing up in the States, I had never heard them before, but was captivated by their sound, their energy, and the grand storytelling in their music. It's likely the Irish blood in me had something to do with it too. In the wake of their previous albums which Jay played for me, their new album from 2002, Sea of No Cares, became a frequently-played collection of songs for our various road trips. I fondly remember listening to them as we drove the highways of Arizona visiting my Grandpa, and also saw them in concert when they toured into Vancouver. It's great feel-good music, ranging from quiet ballads to rowdy, fun songs about love, life, the wide open sea...and drinking.
Probably the most recent discovery I've made musically is The Decemberists from Portland, OR. My brother Dan actually gave me some of their earlier albums many years ago, and eventually led me to The Hazards of Love and The Crane Wife. Finally, as it all sank in, the sounds behind their haunting folk-tale rock operas won me over. The images brought to light by their melodies, lyrics and full instrumentations are like classic Pacific Northwest forests, swamps and mysterious secrets, all done with alternating movements from loud to quiet, and everything in between. The Decemberists provide a fantastically creative departure from standard popular musical fare, blending different styles & sounds into a new form of storytelling, all at once beautiful and tragic. As a full album of individual songs & stories, everything that is good about their previous works comes to full fruition in The King is Dead, which has become a frequently-played experience belting out from today's playlists, along with their entire discography. I am continuing to find new layers of inspiration in their music and the solo efforts of their lead singer Colin Meloy, who is quite easily my favorite artist right now.
In addition to various playlists of rock, folk and pop music that I enjoy on my travels and accompanying my work, the other musical world which I obsess over is that of film scores & movie soundtracks. Every now and then, it's great to take a break from lyrics, guitars & keyboards and get lost in other instruments which describe the cinematic images they were created for, while at the same time being extremely moving as musical pieces in themselves. Through most of my life I've collected movie soundtracks and reveled particularly in the scores by John Williams for films like Star Wars, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark and many more. Of more recent films, one of the soundtracks I've become very excited about is for The Secret of Kells, by Bruno Coulais (who also composed the score for Coraline, another personal favorite). Seeing the Kells film for the first time, I fell in love instantly with the soundtrack just as much as with the visuals and story behind the film itself. The blend of Celtic compositions by Kila along with the orchestral and percussive movements is purely inspiring, and it's wonderfully beautiful music to mellow out to...until the Vikings attack; that wakes you up!
Of the soundtracks from movies I first fell in love with in my childhood, I still find a great deal of inspiration in the scores for The Dark Crystal, The Secret of NIMH, The NeverEnding Story, The Goonies, and in particular one of my absolute favorites, The Last Starfighter. Composed by Craig Safan, there is something about the music in this film which strikes a chord I can barely explain. The opening fanfare, in a similar vein to the Star Wars theme, has a great presence, and the way it is played in quieter moments, as a leitmotif for the dreams of our hero Alex Rogan, is equally inspiring. The sweeping and layering of melodies in the scene where Centauri flies into Rylos, and the triumphant building of crescendoes into Alex's theme in the film's final scene....it's all amazing. The '80s brought us a fantastic era of so many films which combined their story, visual ingenuity, and music together in so many ways which still hold up and resonate so many years later.
There is so much music in this world, and so much more I could gush over and unpack how it has enhanced and enriched my life in different ways, different chapters, and for different reasons. Some have faded in and out, some have been re-visited, and others have become more recent discoveries. Of the bands and artists I haven't gone into much detail in this entire 3-part series, I should not neglect to at least mention....the quirky humor and whimsy of They Might Be Giants, the soul-stirring haunting melodies of Mumford & Sons, The Police and Gotye, the mysterious melancholy of Porcupine Tree, Bon Iver, and Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes, the feel-good rock anthems of Boston, the dark, geekish science-fiction sagas of Coheed & Cambria, the cries in the darkness from the musical film Rent, the origins of '50s/'60s pop & soul from the Cruisin' record series and the American Graffiti Soundtrack, and so many other one-hit wonders, musical moments, and snippets of story & song. I can only expect that as the journey continues, there will be more musical adventures to be had, which will open up new worlds and new revelations.
And if you listen very hard,
The tune will come to you at last,
When all is one and one is all,
To be a rock and not to roll.
-Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven