3 Albums that changed me

My brother was older than me. By 9 years. That’s a long time when you’re a kid. He was an adult before I entered high school. Now I know what you’re saying, “It must have been great having a brother that much older”. Yeah, not so much. It wasn’t horrible but it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Like I’ve said in a previous post we shared a room. I had my side and he had his. My side of the room was comparatively small. Just my bed, a small desk and half the Ikea book shelf with my toys on it. His was dominated by his large desk, bed, half the shelf, stereo, and giant posters of Corey Hart (who incidentally bought a house down the road from us at one point, that was an exciting summer). Besides all that were his milk crates of records and wall of cassettes. This is back when vinyl was the main mode of delivery for music not just for hipsters. 

He played a lot of music. Very loudly. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if I wasn’t trying to go to sleep at 7 pm. See this was another problem being the youngest by a pretty wide margin. I had to go to bed much earlier. Sharing a room with my brother meant that I was going to bed around 7 while he had the light on and blaring music while he did his homework. However I managed to do it though. This produced 2 results. 1) I’m able to fall asleep almost anywhere and under any condition and 2) I had music subconsciously fed to me. The volume at which he played his music was such that it drowned out almost every other noise in the house. Not surprising since the walls were paper thin. It also meant that there was a lot of options for me to begin my education in popular music. The vinyl records for the most part I was not allowed to lay my grubby little paws on. But the tapes were free game, most of them being dubbed recordings anyway. See kids, in those days we used to have dual cassette decks. You’d put the master copy of what you wanted to record in one deck and the blank tape in the other and hit play and record. It was the physical version of Napster, except Metallica didn’t sue us.  And so I delved into this cornucopia of music. I’ll be honest a lot of it held no interest to me. There was a lot of 80s pop that I couldn’t connect with. I was probably 9 or 10 at this point so I really couldn’t identify with any of it. But there were a few albums that grabbed me and began to form my musical tastes for years to come. The first was…

 Beastie Boy – Licensed to Ill

My brother had a dubbed copy of this album from 1986. The other side of it was The police’s Synchronicity. Something grabbed me from that first record scratch on the lead song “Rhymin & Stealin”. The drums and scratches combined with the distorted guitar was something I had never experienced before. It had samples from The Clash, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, 3 bands I probably hadn’t heard before and my first exposure to were from this trio of former punk rockers from New York. When I did finally hear the original versions these samples came from the reaction was “Hey this is from the Beastie Boys!” There was humour and a playfulness to this album that sounded different than anything else my brother had been playing. Today it seems tame by comparison to what’s out there, but at the time it was original, new and amazing. My amazement continued through songs like “Paul Revere”, “No Sleep ’till Brooklyn”, and “Fight For You Right”. They used words I hadn’t heard before or had learned I shouldn’t say, they mixed rock, metal and rap (genres I had been mostly uninitiated to). In an era neon clothing, big hair and flashy videos this stuck out as something fresh and orginal. Even listening to it today it still sounds that way. It still has that feeling of not being in the norm of what’s expected from popular music. As I listen to Posse in Effect I can picture myself sitting on the floor of my bedroom with the little dual cassette and listening to this album over and over, wishing that the volume knob went higher, that I could push more thumping bass out of the small speakers. This album began a life long love affair with Beastie Boys for me. Every subsequent album I ate up and listened to repeatedly, trying to memorize the twisting lyrics and clever references. The call and response verses of Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA created in me a sense of what rap should sound like, especially after the commercial popularity of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice at that point.  Of course now decades later that sense has changed, but to me they are still the standard to achieve.The next album had an impact on not just my musical taste but on my sense of humour.

Weird Al Yankovic – Even Worse

If you’ve never heard of Weird Al then you’ve clearly been living under a rock, or have no sense of humour. Besides the sheer talent it takes to make original and hilarious parodies of popular songs, to be able to do so consistently for over 30 years is astounding. Weird Al had albums before I heard this seminal work parodying Michael Jackson’s Bad but I had never heard them. I had never heard most of the originals of the songs he was lovingly poking fun at on this album. But I remember laughing to each one. Even if I didn’t completely understand all the jokes. 

The album opens with “Fat” a genius take on Jackson’s “Bad”. The music played by his band is spot on and even Yankovic’s use of Jackson’s signature vocal sounds are close enough to make one think it’s actually Michael Jackson. He turns these sounds from Shamon to Ham on, ending it with “on whole wheat”. It takes a special kind of mad genius to come up with these ridiculous lyrics. A virtual smorgasbord of food references.  My love for Weird Al has continued to this day unabated. I clamored to rent the video of UHF when his movie came out (a film which had surprising pre-fame appearances from Fran Drescher and Michael Richards). I play his music for my kids. My son regularly requests that I play “the Anakin song” for him (this is what he calls “The Saga Begins”, Yankovic’s rendition of American Pie telling the story of Star Wars the Phantom Menace).

I regularly break into my own rendition of (This Song’s Just) Six Word’s Long, a song about how he couldn’t come up with any lyrics. Much to the chagrin of my son and daughter who contest that I am not in fact a musical genius on par with Kanye despite my claims to the contrary.

Another favorite of mine on this album is “You Make Me” a love song about all the bizarre things he wants to do to himself because of the person he’s singing about. The opening lyric is “You make me wanna slam my head against the wall” followed by other equally strange urges like hiding a weasel in his shorts. Also because this was in the 80s and I was exposed to a lot of music through my brother some of it actually stuck. So when I heard the opening of “Mony Mony” coming through the speakers I knew it instantly. He would play Billy Idol all the time. Only this time it was “Alimony”, I had no idea what alimony was back then, but it didn’t matter, I recognized the music and that was enough of a connection for me. I began singing “alimony!” whenever the Billy Idol version came on the radio and still do sometimes. 

Next is the defining moment in my musical education. An education that continues to this day as I discover new bands and music on Spotify. I think for most kids in the 90s this album was a milestone moment for them…

Nirvana – Nevermind

I know. This is on every list of greatest rock albums, every list of bands that changed the music industry. But in 1991 when I was at my friend’s birthday party, running around being a typical 11-year- old and causing havoc a song came on that totally changed my taste in music and affected me in a way no music had before. 

My friend’s brother had gotten a copy of Nevermind and put it on their family’s stereo during the party. I remember distinctly running through the living room when Kurt Cobain began strumming the now iconic opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I stopped in my tracks and stared at the stereo. What was this? I hadn’t heard anything like it, it was catchy, and raw. Dave Grohl’s drums pounded and Krist Novoselic’s base picked up the opening line as the clean strumming turned into a murky distorted crunch. Then back to the harmonics of the verse. Even in the quiet of the verse it was hard to understand Cobain’s lyrics and then the chorus was almost incomprehensible. I stood and listened, entranced with what I hearing . And then “In Bloom”, “Come as you Are” each song that followed pulled me deeper. We played “Teen Spirit” over and over that day. Each of us mesmerized by this band that had created something wholly different than what we heard on commercial radio. 

This album along with Nirvana’s other two studio albums (Bleach and In Utero), their collection of B-Sides (Incesticide) and Unplugged in New York were the soundtrack to my early teenage years. It was a constant. Yes I listened to a wide range of other music but always came back to Nirvana at some point. Grunge was very much a part of my identity between the ages of 11 and 15. I wore the plaid shirts around my waist, had the ripped jeans and converse shoes held together with duct tape. Nirvana’s influence is what first inspired me to pick up a guitar, and of course “Smells like Teen Spirit”was among the first songs I learned to play.

And just like that as quickly as I had fallen in love with Nirvana, had found the music that really truly spoke to me, Cobain was gone. Three short years later I was sitting in the TV room watching MuchMusic (we had gotten cable by then) and heard the words “Kurt Cobain has died from a self inflicted gunshot wound.” I lost my breath, this had to be a joke. A late, sick April Fool’s prank. But no, the day was dominated by the news. I saw images of vigils outside his Seattle home, footage of the police at his house getting as close to the room above the garage where the electrician found his body as they could. I called my friends asking if they had heard the tragic news. I sat and watched and felt the emptiness that my musical hero had left behind. I listened to the music, trying to find some reason behind it. But we all knew the reasons. They were there in front of us the whole time. But we wanted to believe it was just his personality, just a character he played. Surely he couldn’t be that open about wanting to kill himself and be serious about it. But he was, and he was gone. Eventually I stopped listening to the albums, it took a long time for me to get past the anger I felt. This was a man I never knew, never met but I was angry at him for killing himself. It was like I felt he owed it to me to stick around and keep entertaining me. And that was exactly what the problem was. We made a deity of a reluctant rock star. It took a while before I could listen to Nirvana again and enjoy it for what it was, just music that happened while I was alive and around to experience the culture that went with it. 

Luckily the rest of the band continued to make music of their own. Foo Fighters is now probably my favorite band, maybe it’s because I’m old, maybe it’s because I believe that this is what Nirvana would have eventually become. But after seeing them in concert twice and listening to all their albums and enjoying everything they do they are easily among my favorite all time bands. I danced to their song “Walking After You” at my wedding. I’m able to listen to this and not connect it to Nirvana, it isn’t Nirvana. That would be disingenuous. It would be unfair to Dave Grohl’s own talent as a songwriter and performer to compare them and look for nods to his former band. But whenever I see that he and Krist and Pat Smear have joined up with someone else to perform a set of Nirvana songs. I must listen. And smile.

Members of Nirvana reunite at Cal-Jam ’18 with Joan Jett. Photo credit: Cambria Harkey

It’s impossible to really list all the albums or songs or artists that have inspired me but these 3 definitely had effect. They changed my perception of what music was or was supposed to be. Each showed me something different about myself and about music. Music has always been a big part of my life. My dad and sister playing piano in our house, my brother blaring his stereo, me picking up a guitar for the first time, learning to play and getting onstage with my high school band and now playing my favorite music from my youth for my kids and sharing that experience with them, and my son sharing his favorite music with me and me not understanding what he likes about it. When that happens, I begin to understand what my parents thought when I played Nirvana or Guns n’ Roses for them. That look of “What. The. Hell. Is. This.” But I’ll never tell him he shouldn’t like what he likes, that’s the freedom art gives us. It’s presented to us and we can like it or leave it, but either way it’s there.

Let me know what albums changed you in the comments section.

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