I recently had several of my loved ones throw a small celebration in honor of my 30th birthday. It’s the first significant occasion I’ve had take place in a world now altered by COVID-19 and the subsequent quarantine, and one that occurred (safely online) despite those circumstances.
Since the festivities and the official start to my 30’s, I’ve found myself in the mood to reminisce and glance back at the road I’ve traveled so far. Particularly after the many difficult events that have occurred in just the first few months of 2020.
Specifically, I’ve found myself focusing on the relationship between the life miles I’ve traveled and the music that’s been there with its thumb in the wind waiting for me, eager to hitch a ride on the trek. And where better to start, as most stories do, than with the beginning?
I remember so many different bands and artists being played around my house when I was growing up.
Billy Joel (that “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” piano solo!), Neil Young, Ray Charles, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles (so much good Beatles), James Taylor (the first musician I saw live in concert) and Dave Matthews Band. There was also plenty of support from the likes of Nirvana, The Eagles, Alanis Morissette, Nanci Griffith, Collective Soul, Oasis, Tracy Chapman (whose work still haunts me in the most beautiful way), the Crash Test Dummies, Soul Asylum… it was a feast fit to keep many a cassette and CD player well-fed.
It was also just the sort of early flavor palate any music hobbyist aspires to begin learning on. After all, every healthy garden has to start with just a few strong seeds, and the gene pool I developed from had plenty to share.
Eventually, that initial versatility led to my own musical choices, which included some lasting hits (U2, the Bee Gees), as well as a few that didn’t make the long-term cut (the boy band years for instance). However, regardless of their ultimate status, each artistic contribution remains important because much like the flap of a butterfly’s wings causing a hurricane, the smallest change might mean I’d be a different person today.
And that’s not something I’d be willing to compromise on or accept, virus or no virus.
I like to say Warren Zevon was the jumping on point where listening to music became more than just a passing habit of mine. The now-sadly-deceased singer-songwriter was a master of macabre wit, wistful heartbreak, and a trademark, slicked back Mr. Bad Example personality. For me, Zevon was like finding the Holy Grail in another run-of-the-mill junk sale, and nothing would again be the same.
(Knowing you could use the word “brucellosis” in a song… game-changer).
As gifted as he was, Zevon’s talent was held back by varying factors, including a lack of commercial success, subsequently being mislabeled as a one hit wonder with 1978’s “Werewolves of London”, and many years of erratic battles with personal demons. Still, I’ve never heard his kind before or since, and the initial discovery gave my ears their first taste of just how wide and variable the world of melody could truly be outside my small-town knowledge.
I just needed the patience to mine for it.
From there, I was drawn into further revelations later on via the likes of Wilco’s folk-rock experimentalism, Ryan Adams’ sad bastard songwriting sensibility, and Ben Folds’ proficiency for mouthy piano-slinging. Almost like relationships, each connection for better or for worse has paved the way for more progress in my musical paint set the older I’ve become.
Progress though… can be a tough word to reckon with when it comes to the double-edged sword that is the steady forward march of age.
On one hand, the expansion of my horizons in this medium have without question been some of the greatest blessings of my existence. The teenage version of myself holding his first iPod classic would never have been able to imagine the artists I’ve heard and loved up to now, the friends I’ve made through music, and the way its made me a better version of myself.
Yet… I feel an almost imperceptible sense of the blues standing here now, officially 30 years old. Songs like Joni’s “The Circle Game” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” used to make me suffocatingly sad as a kid knowing that those innocent moments I was in when I heard these tracks couldn’t last. That eventually, time comes between the fun and games to take us off to the tasks of adulthood. And at this stage of my days (and in these current times), I can confirm to my youthful past that innocence doesn’t last, and there is a part of me wishing I’d used all that early time for something more than I did.
But that’s part of growing up (and learning to be well-versed in the art of 20/20 hindsight). The good and bad things in this existence are about as adept at escaping their connection as we are at dodging inevitable time or age or death. What matters more is coming to terms with and accepting the ups and downs, and still making the most of them. It’s not easy, but we only get so long to learn and grow and do, and I for one plan to waste no time in carving more musical stories into my next decade.
I just hope to get to take you all on the trip.