52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TWO

Week: Two

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

“Release”
Pearl Jam
Album: Ten
1991
Epic Records

I am a child of the grunge generation; if that’s the label we’re sticking with twenty years later. While music enthusiasts will argue about the true pioneers of the alternative rock wave–for the record looking back on the progression of music at the time, it’s hard not to side with the “Pixies were the true forefathers of the movement” argument, over the more universally recognized credit to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana–my gateway to the genre was through Pearl Jam.

I was too young to fully appreciate The Pixies during its heyday (though my dad’s friend’s offering to me of Doolittle at the tender age of eight always intrigued me, what with lead singer Black Francis’ screeching vocals and obscure choice of terrifying lyrics). While I wish I could say I discovered Nirvana’s Nevermind instantly upon its release along with the masses, it was Pearl Jam’s debut Ten that was my first real musical obsession.

I remember one summer in particular listening to the song’s on Ten over and over again through a pitch black Sony boombox by day, and through a matching black Sony Walkman from a audio cassette ripped from said boombox by night–those were the days, weren’t they? The liner notes on my original CD copy of the album have been unfolded and refolded countless times (those in the loop will remember the notes unfolding to form a poster of the band members standing in a circle, hands raised high and joined in a badass high-five of sorts). And I can clearly remember looping the opening moments of “Porch,” since it was one of the few songs with cool sounding curse words–the opening line verbatim, “What the fuck is this world”–that I had managed to slip by my somewhat censoring parents.

Pearl Jam is one of the few groups from the era that has survived and is still relevant in modern times (hell, its latest album Backspacer was a breath of fresh air in the band’s canon). Part of its success is based on its loyal fans like me who were mesmerized by Ten.

The album remains the band’s masterpiece. It’s a flawless execution of a budding sound that was, with all respect to the band members, all due to Eddie Vedder’s soaring vocals, which somehow meld gritty and epic into a style that remains unrivaled.

It’s also one of the few albums out there with a flawless flow that begins and ends on two perfect notes. Even for this project entry I was torn between going with the album’s slow-burning opener, “Once,” a completely unassailable way to kick off the album, or its more restrained, dare I say beautiful closer, “Release.” Ultimately I had to go with the latter.

I don’t know how many mix tapes and CDs I’ve capped off with this song. It’s an epic. Like “Once” it takes it time to build, allowing Vedder to test his deep vocal tones in front of a wall of rising guitar crescendos. Of all the songs on Ten this is where Vedder really shows he’s a musical force to be reckoned with.

His vocal range alone is enough to send chills down the spine especially towards the song’s magnificent closing moments when he carries the line, “release me” through an onslaught of distortion and commanding use of the ride cymbal from drummer Dave Krusen.

Even the song’s instrumental outro that is linked to the song (a continuation of the intro to “Once”) is worth the time on the record, adding an eerie finish to the already perfect closer.

Lyrically this song is very much akin to John Lennon’s shockingly personal, “Mother” off Plastic Ono Band LP. Both songs are heartbreaking laments about a lack of strong or loving parental figures. In the case of Vedder, it refers to the two father figures during his childhood and coming to the grips with the passing of his true father. He was apparently raised by a cruel stepfather and never got to know his real dad on a personal level before his passing. He realizes that he carries a piece of his real father but he’ll never know how or which part of his makeup. It’s this realization that makes the songs truly heartbreaking.

Oh, dear dad, can you see me now
I am myself, like you somehow

Casual interpretations of the song can be linked to the lines,

I’ll ride the wave
Where it takes me
I’ll hold the pain
Release me

which could reference escapism through drugs or simply, the release of stress in life. Letting go and living how you want to live is very much the unofficial manifesto of the grungers (it’s also the message I take away from the song since it’s difficult for me to relate to Vedder’s personal story). Hell, even surfers could relate to this song since the lyrics remain intriguing in their simplicity no matter how you perceive them. When matched with the song’s grandiose music, it’s also easy to just focus on the elevating line, “release me.”

Mention must be made of the rumor that this song was written during the studio time in about 20-minutes while the band was doodling through possible riffs. If this legend holds true, then this backs the theory that some songs are just meant to be written and can arise in an almost spooky fashion. Artists have often commented on moments of brilliance coming out of nowhere during unexpected moments.

“Release” is a song that I can remember falling asleep to as a child and as an adult, one that I remember imagining in my head during daydreams. It’s a staple cut from a one of the greatest debut records out there and one that instantly made me a lifelong devoted fan of Pearl Jam. During the 2003 tour for Pearl Jam’s Riot Act the band opened its masterful set at Chicago’s United Center with “Release,” catching most of the audience off guard and cementing the song’s importance for me as I was carried away by its strength.

It will always be a headphone song, or the kind of tune that must be played through a car stereo at full blast while driving alone, preferably at night, with the windows closed to create the perfect sonic environment to ride the wave.

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52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK ONE

Week: One

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

“Graceland”
Paul Simon
Album: Graceland
1986
Warner Bros. Records

Graceland was released two years after I was born but was a critical part of my musical upbringing. Early memories of car trips through Northern Michigan are filled with the lyrics and sounds of this eclectic record. A full comprehension of the album’s cultural importance during Apartheid-plagued South Africa would come later, of course, not to mention its feat at bridging the gap between mainstream pop and what was perplexingly called, “world music,”–a truly Westernized label that ignores the obvious fact that all music is worldly since the language of music is universal.

The music of Graceland is diverse in its instrumentation, with Simon drawing from influences from all over the globe, but for a boy at four or five years old, it simply sounded great. As kids I can distinctly remember joining my sister and cousins in trading vintage-style tennis rackets, which we fashioned in our minds as the funky guitars and the slap bass that we heard blaring through the stereo speakers. There were countless hours of dancing to “You Can Call Me Al,” the album’s breakaway hit, and the soothing A cappella words from Ladysmith Black Mambazo was enough to lay our tired heads to rest after a long day of innocent play.

My naïve age made the lyrics of Graceland hard to comprehend. Lines like, “the bomb in the baby carriage,” “the automatic earth,” or “staccato signals of constant information” off the album’s triumphant opener, “The Boy in the Bubble” meant nothing to me in a social manner but were nevertheless intriguing sounding. The manner in which Simon delivered words like staccato, or combinations like cinematographer’s party curled off my tongue with ease that first summer and for many years to follow.

If I had to pick one song off Graceland that truly sums up what this album means to me in turns how I appreciate and listen to music today it would be the record’s title track. I knew that “Graceland” was referencing Elvis, who was an artist who, even if I wasn’t entirely familiar with, I understood was important, much like how I understood the importance of The Beatles long before I ever seriously listened to its music.

There is a level of sadness to “Graceland” that even the youngest of minds can pick up on. Sure lines like, “there is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline,” sounded silly to a boy with a primitive understanding of vocabulary and wordplay, but the way Simon sings on “Graceland” is full of sorrow.

Listening to the song then I can recall thinking that Graceland was this mysterious and foreign place, almost biblical. “Pilgrims with families / and we are going to Graceland” is a line that particularly stood out.

Many years later I often come back to Graceland. I make it a habit of listening to it at least once a month in its entirety. During my sophomore year of high school one of my favorite history teachers, Owen Hein, would start each day off with a song from his collection of music from around the world (he also introduced me to the french duo, Deep Forest). On one particular morning he launched into his lesson with Graceland. I remember feeling proud that I knew all the words by heart and instantly gained a new appreciation for the record when we discussed South Africa’s rocky past.

A single listening of Gracelenad is usually followed by several repeats of its title track. It’s probably the album’s most restrained and atmospheric sounding offering. With its ghost like echoes of background singers, tender electric guitar riffs and thunderous percussion and drum interludes, there is soul to the sound. “Graceland” is also easily one of Simon’s greatest songwriting achievements and clearly one of his most personal explorations of love and loss thereafter. It’s a song that will undoubtedly stay with me for the rest of my life. It’s a heart song, a song to take to a desert island, one that can comfort a soul and also make a soul weary of the highs and lows of true love. It’s a masterpiece in every definition of the word.

And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart,
Everybody sees you’re blown apart,
Everybody feels the wind blow