.journal 2001.12.08
The power of music.

Now listening to: Recoil, Liquid
Now reading: Bill O'Reilly, The No-Spin Zone
Now playing: Pokémon Puzzle League (Nintendo 64)

For the first few years of my life I don't have solidified memories. Glimpses of past events flicker across my mind, like the late 70's colours of a hotel the family stayed at when I was just a toddler, when we all went up to Dearborn, Michigan for a classic auto show. The old archway at the front of the house that was later closed off and moved further back. (And will now be an archway again once the house is rebuilt.) The yellow my bedroom was once painted. The dilapidated houses about a mile from our house where presently stands an auto service shop. Centre grocery store, before it was bought out by Food Town, who abadoned the store completely when a Meijer opened nearby. I can see all these things in my mind, still, but for very few of these things do I have memories of events.

As I go further into my life, I can remember events more clearly. My mother accidentally getting a thorn in her eye when she was working on the roses in the front of our house. The day I tried roller skating and took all of ten seconds to break my right arm. The night I tried climbing the chain link fence between my yard and a neighbour's and gouging my right calf. Most of my early memories have to do with me and my family, but I do remember some world events, like the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.

My maternal grandmother screwed her back up recently, so my mother has been up at her house even more than usual recently to help tend to her needs and keep her company, but she had just come back home one night. I was getting around the next morning to go to college and had been online to check my e-mail, but I'd also gone on Yahoo! to look at news and the like. I called my mother before I left because I needed to see if she wanted to go grocery shopping that afternoon, but near the end of the phone call I just felt compelled to ask her about something I'd read on Yahoo!:

"Did you hear that George Harrison's dead?"

A beat. "No ..." There was a tone in my mother's voice that resembled astonishment. She wasn't about to cry, but it was clear she had been brought to that point where you're past tears somehow. I had to finish getting around for school, but I figured that she would tell my father the news and that the two of them could talk to each other about it.

Right as I was finishing getting around, my sister woke up. As she came out of the bathroom and went to the sink to make some instant coffee, I shouted from my little loft up here, "Heather, George Harrison passed away." I could hear the mettalic thud of a tablespoon being dropped in the sink downstairs, and my sister was moved to tears. A couple of minutes later as I came downstairs, I held my sister as she told me that she knew this day was coming from what she'd heard about Harrison recently, but it didn't make things any easier to deal with.

Later on that evening, I was sitting up here thinking about Harrison, and my memory went back to that night in 1980 when John Lennon was shot to death. I was standing in the front hallway when my mother, tears down her face, announced the news to my sister upstairs. My sister cried then too. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this news; I knew of the Beatles, certainly, but I couldn't name any of their songs off the top of my head, and I couldn't make any connection between this news and the emotional state of my mother and my sister. Over twenty years later, another Beatle dies, and it elicits nearly the same reaction from everyone.

Thinking back, I can now remember the tape deck at my paternal grandparents' cottage and the tapes that were there, and how I enjoyed listening to "Here Comes the Sun." I didn't identify it as a Beatles song until much later in my life, nor did I identify "When I'm 64," the song from my parents' collection I played over and over again on their tape deck in our house. The only recording artist I was really aware of at that point was Meat Loaf; I knew a lot of other songs, but not who performed them. It wasn't until we got MTV that I really started attaching names, and faces, to songs on a regular basis.

Looking back, I definitely had an eclectic range of music to listen to when I was younger. I had my mother to thank for knowing about Meat Loaf, as well as the local classic/"hard" rock station. That was balanced by her piano playing, though, which was mostly Bach. Mostly when I was around my father he was listening to the local classical radio station, but he did have a decent collection of Santana that he kept at his office. My sister was a card-carrying member of the Kiss Army. As for me ... well, I remember "Stayin' Alive" when I was younger. I had a cassette player of my own, but I mostly used it to listen to Peanuts stories.

Like I said, when we got MTV, that's when I really started identifying artists to a greater extent. Although she was definitely an acquired taste, I really got into Cyndi Lauper when I was younger, as well as Michael Jackson. One wall of our living room used to be mirrored, and I can remember "performing" the songs in front of the mirror. Embarrassing, yes, but come on, I was a kid then. As I grew up I got into the rap scene of the late 80's, amassing quite a collection of audio tapes that thankfully were not destroyed in the fire. There was a lot of crap in that collection, but a lot of stuff -- Eric B. and Rakim. Boogie Down Productions, Slick Rick -- that still holds up today. I was still embarrassing myself on a regular basis, but it did help me to avoid the Debbie Gibson/Tiffany/New Kids on the Block phase that everyone around me was going through.

I got into Madonna in my adolescence, thanks in part to my eldest cousin's attraction to her. I also got into new age music, thanks in part to the songwriting I was doing at the time. Again, though, it goes back to MTV, as one day I was watching and caught Björk's "Human Behaviour". I didn't buy Debut for months, and it didn't really sink in at first, but as I read more about Björk I felt a kinship with her, and that she could open my eyes both to music and to life. As much as I hate the private school I went to, it was there that I was first exposed to Sarah McLachlan. And then the summer before I went to Antioch I heard Tori Amos for the first time.

Going back to the private school, though, I can remember one spring break day when I turned on the television in my room to MTV and they were playing Nirvana's "The Man who Sold the World" from their MTV Unplugged session. I certainly liked Nirvana, and liked this song, but I had tuned in during MTV's top videos of the week show, and "The Man who Sold the World" had been out of that show for months. I stuck around for a bit, then the video faded out to Scott Norris, who repeated for probably about the two hundredth time on the air at that point that earlier in the day Kurt Cobain's body had been found in one of his homes in Seattle, the apparent victim of a suicide.

I vaguely knew that Cobain had his share of personal problems, but I figured that pretty much went with the territory, especially in the alternative music scene. The news still came as a surprise to me, but it didn't really affect me all that deeply; I liked Nirvana, but I wasn't wholly enamoured with them or something like that. As the weekend rolled in, though, I kept watching MTV's coverage of everything that occurred in the wake of Cobain's suicide. The second time they aired Courtney Love's pre-recorded message to the vigil in Seattle, I cried, as she finally voiced the grief I saw on the television in words that I could understand.

Looking back, I don't think anyone can deny that Nirvana played a vital role in the music scene of the early 1990's. Maybe they aren't as important as a Jimi Hendrix or a Janis Joplin or a Jim Morrison, but they've cemented a place in musical history. I can remember a rock group that played at school talent shows that would cover "Lithium" and it was always the highlight of the show. (Yes, even more than my piano playing.) And for a group whose lyrics were supposedly incomprehensible, every time I saw tapes of Nirvana in concert, Cobain sure seemed to have the whole crowd singing with him during "Lithium," didn't he?

I kind of dig those little sing-alongs some artists can get with their audience. The classic ones in the kind of music I listen to are Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine" and Sarah McLachlan's "Ice Cream," but I'm sure there are plenty of others. I'm surprised Tori doesn't get it for "Mr. Zebra." Of course, there are plenty of us who simply have every song memorized and could sing along with every one if we wanted, but as a matter of courtesy to those of us sitting nearby we usually just mouth along with the words.

Those sing-alongs speak to the power that the artist has over its audience, and that's something that's always appealed to me. Perhaps a better, more recent example would be Björk's tour this year in support of Vespertine. The show never got close enough to Toledo for me to see it, but of course belonging to a Björk mailing list I got plenty of reports from other shows. On a lot of the shows she would have the orchestra play the Overture from Dancer in the Dark early in either half of her set, and it would get half the audience crying. From an instrumental song, and a fairly simple one at that.

It's clear to me now that the Beatles have that power over the rest of my family, although it's not really something that I see that often. My parents' vinyl collection was destroyed in the fire, and I don't think they ever bothered moving any of their Beatles albums to CD. I have a copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but I thought there was a law passed that everyone has to have a copy of it. But the Beatles just seem to be something taken for granted in our house. I certainly can go for several days in a row without thinking about the Beatles. Yet when George Harrison passed away, it was a profound loss for all of us.

Once I really got into songwriting when I was a pre-adolescent, even if it took me a while to write something good, I knew it was what I was meant to do with my life. I've always known I've had a message to get out to the rest of the world, and that is in part due to the incredible power music has. For most of the people out there in a diabetic coma from the sugar-crap that is modern pop and rock this point seems lost, but when I hear about the spontaneous crying that erupts at a Björk concert, or when I myself am moved by some of the music in my own collection, I know that there are still people out there who know this power that they have as musicians, and are making the best use of it.

I guess I just hope some day that my music can inspire such feelings in people. Perhaps I'm setting the bar too high for myself, but I think I can do it. That's my goal. And when I feel that power myself, or I see how other musicians have this power over people, it reminds me of what I'm trying to do with my life. It hasn't been easy songwriting recently what with going back to college and everything else that's happened since the fire, but hopefully I can get back to my work soon. I don't want to pass away before I get my word out there, before what I know what it is like to wield that power.

Everyone take care and be well. I'll see you all soon.

-- Sean