… that can make me break down and cry. I don’t have to tell serious music fans that this is the key line from David Bowie’s song, “Young Americans.” This song will not make you break down and cry. It will make you marvel at Bowie’s word play, the stream of images and one-liners that make no sense, but somehow nail a vibe of mid-70s America, bopping along through troubled times. It sounds pretty good, too, never get tired hearing it.
I’ve noted Bowie’s influence on me before. But I’m focusing in on that key line because I often ask myself, what songs can make me break down and cry? And my response is very few. I don’t think any song can reduce me to tears, but there are a select few that get my eyes watering, strike some chord that pulls me into that different emotional place where all shields come down. It’s nice to be reminded that everything can stop on a dime and change, that there are things out there that can penetrate your façade so easily, so why the façade?
Of course, these moments often come when I’m on a bus or subway train, with my ear buds on, and it’s a bit awkward to be sitting there in public, having this deeply emotional moment. I try to keep me head down when this happens, not make eye contact, because I know the feeling will subside in a few moments. These songs are also a nice reminder of how your emotions work with real people, too, people who are gone, their presence will sweep over you at times, beyond your control. Oddly, a lot of these song moments aren’t associated with any particular memory, it’s just some strange convergence of different variables.
So, I’m going to list a few of these songs in no particular order, as it’s a bad idea to quantify your emotions, although I’m sure these days there must be an app for that.
“Perfect Day” by Harry Nilsson. The first time I heard this surely must have been the Bob Fosse movie, All That Jazz, where the song was misused. As I recall, this song played while Roy Scheider’s conniving choreographer character seduced one of his dancers. It didn’t register with me at the time. It’s a flawed song, too. The lyrics lose their way at times (Ride with me, glide with me, etc.), while the song gets a little too glossy, too. But … the choir and background vocals are among the best recorded I’ve ever heard. Particularly the choir in the last minute of the song, the sorrowful moans, the rising flourishes that perfectly match the string section. It’s not easy to record a choir! Whoever did it here nailed it. Gets to me every time.
“Father and Son” by Cat Stevens. Even before Dad passed on, this song would kill me. Not a road song, but a pre-road song. I got to go, leave home. Leave home where I have parents who I know love me, but we’re driving each other a little nuts. Loving someone is always a little nuts, particularly with parents, who are always going to present a mixed bag of emotions, because those people had to break you down and teach you some hard lessons along the way. Cat Stevens gets that in this song. That opening guitar riff, sounds like someone turning around one last time to get a good look.
“The Pretender” by Jackson Browne. I’ll never quite understand the shit Jackson Browne took from critics in the 70s for being “too sensitive.” This was a guy going into his 30s and writing songs that were wise beyond his years, much like Hank Williams Sr. or Bob Dylan in their 20s. Surely not on that level, but good enough for me. “The Pretender” nails that sense of not getting what you want in life, but going on anyway. Which is everybody I know. The ability to accept defeat and move forward is a necessary part of adulthood. We want to bullshit ourselves with sports and money, these artificial win/loss situations that make us feel good when “we” win. But our real lives are not the same. You apply a sports mentality to life as an adult, you’ve got to be an asshole. But people do it all the time! Life isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about living until you die. A song like “The Pretender” acknowledges that life is going to get strange in ways you didn’t see coming, and you’re going to lose your way. So Jackson Browne wasn’t running around in a Ramones t-shirt, getting stoned and insulting everyone in sight. That’s not what you do when your wife OD’s on a bottle of pills and leaves you with an infant son. You duct tape your broken life together, and if you’re lucky, write a song half as good as this.
“It Was You” by Fred Eaglesmith. Time to get away from the 70s. It occurs to me that a lot of songs that blindside me emotionally are from that decade, probably because childhood and teen years are such open times emotionally. But good music is always being made, and I’ve surely heard plenty of songs since then that register. Like “It Was You” – a simple, mournful break-up song by Fred Eaglesmith. Also “Birches” by Bill Morrissey. (More about Morrissey here.) With the Eaglesmith song, it’s someone looking back and mourning a state of innocence that is no longer possible, while the Morrissey song is looking forward and realizing things aren’t going to work. There’s something to be said for an artist simply picking up a guitar and singing. I’m leery of any musician who can’t do this, who needs to stack the deck with production values and over-statement.
“Blue Moon with Heartache” by Roseanne Cash. I can’t stand that easy-listening guitar noodling in the opening riff. It nearly ruins the song for me. But that’s where the disenchantment ends, as everything else about this song is perfect. Her voice is well-suited to the subject matter especially with the line, “What would I give/To be a diamond in your eyes again?” I’d love to hear a stripped-down version of this song, but have yet to find one. Country music is filled with songs like this, which is why I like country music. It allows you to be an adult, to have adult emotions, to age, to lose the urge to get over on people, to not wallow in self pity and anger. Which discounts about 80% of pop music made in the past few decades.
“Houses on the Hill” by Whiskeytown. Ryan Adams, another talented guy who takes a lot of shit for things that have little or nothing to do with his music. A boyfriend rooting around the attic of his girlfriend’s house finds love letters another boyfriend wrote to her mother, decades ago when he was a soldier fighting in World War II. He was killed over there, obviously not the man who went on to be her father. Which explains and links up to this house on the hill, with this older woman, his girlfriend’s mother, who’s had issues with pills. Just brilliant, simple songwriting. He does this, every now and then. Not near enough for me, but enough to let me know he can turn it on when he feels the need.
“I’ll Be Seeing You” by Bing Crosby. There are any number of songs from this era that can hit me unexpectedly, due to Dad’s passing, and knowing that Mom is so much older. She used to play Big Band music on her AM radio in the kitchen while making Sunday dinner. At which time I’d harass her for having such archaic taste in music. I had my head completely up my ass. This song in particular, whoever does it, and countless singers have, kills me. When someone dies on you ... this is the song to remind yourself that you’ll always carry around vestiges of that person.
“Orphan Year” by NOFX. I often wonder how it feels for someone with a bad parent to mourn that parent’s passing. Here it is. I can live without the stupid “punk” vocal affectation. I just want to hear this guy sing the song, defenseless, in his real voice. This isn’t it. But I guess the requirements of his job, being a snide punk rocker, prevent him from doing this, or that role he’s played has become who he is. This underlines my problems with punk music as I age. The affectation. Which makes a lot more sense when you’re 17. But makes no fucking sense when you’re long past that. And trying to be honest. Our youths are a prison of taste, and it’s a good feeling to break free of those constraints. I can hear the constraints in the guy’s voice in this song, which is a shame, but doesn’t negate the fact that he’s written a great song about how awful a parent’s death feels.
“Days” by The Kinks. The Kinks go all the way back for me, back to being a teenager and learning about what came before me. I first heard “Days” on The Kinks Kronikles set that changed my life, and it registered from the first listen. I later learned Ray Davies wrote it about the passing of a friend, but it could just as easily be about a break-up. And the best response is to take what you learned from the person and carry it with grace.
“Pastoral” by Moondog. I don’t know who Moondog was. I don’t think anyone really does. His work was all over the place, as was he. This piece sounds as timeless as any famous classical piece. I gather it was played on some type of harp. The first time I heard it, I had to believe it was his version of some classical piece, but, no, he wrote it, apparently around 1970. A similar piece for me is “Sligo River Blues” by John Fahey, a rolling acoustic piece he wrote in the 1950s that sounds like it could have been recorded at any time. I don’t know what it is about music like this, but it sounds as elemental as the wind or water. I gather it’s not that easy to be so simple, which I take as a mark of genius.
“Annie” by Ronnie Lane & Pete Townshend. I’m not sure what Townshend has to do with this song, other than that he was gracious enough to record Rough Mix, a duet album with Lane, and raise a small fortune to help Lane get back on his feet financially. (Unfortunately, while making this album, he’d feel the first pangs of Multiple Sclerosis that would take his life by 1997 at the age of 51.) Every leaf must fall … that’s it. A song that acknowledges the passing of time, and the dark side of ageing, that everyone must go. Done beautifully.
“Waiting for a Superman / Do You Realize” by The Flaming Lips. Wayne Coyne writing about the passing of his father. “Is it getting heavy?” That’s how you feel when you have no precedent to measure this thing against. You don’t know if someone is just really sick, or days away from passing on. I can tell you now, if everyone around you in a given situation with someone in very ill health can’t seem to come up with a straight answer about the person’s health, get ready. We tend to push ourselves into these gray areas where no one can or wants to admit the truth, that this is the end, like a bad daydream that won’t end. I think “Realize” covers the same ground. I often get annoyed with Coyne for writing such flip/silly lyrics, but there are times when he can and does connect. Unfortunately, haven't felt that way for a few albums!
“Clay Pigeons” by John Prine. Prine has written so many great songs. But he didn’t write this one. Blaze Foley did, and his original just doesn’t seem to carry the same weight. “Sing a song with a friend/Change the shape that I’m in/Get back in the game/And start playing again.” This is a song about someone who knows he’s lost, but also knows he has to stop feeling sorry for himself and find his way again. Which is why he's on the bus with the mother with two or three kids, maybe going nowhere, but at least moving. We’ve all been there. “Lake Marie” is another place and song for John Prine, that doesn’t make my eyes water up, but it is about a guy who links all these stories about that lake with his failing marriage, more of a “what can you do” vibe when life turns against you. He wrote this one, and I’m guessing it’s not fiction!
The more I think of it, I could add about a dozen more songs. But this is enough for now.