The Gift of Music

I have a visceral response when I listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Every note reverberates in my blood and shakes my bones in a fury of old time rock n’ roll. CCR is one of those bands that has always been in my life (thanks to my dad) and when I listen to it now as an adult, I’m hit with a sense that I never fully appreciated it when I was young. Right now, the opening lick to Up Around the Bend, with that massive sliding guitar riff, is searing my eardrums. This entire album sounds huge. Just as huge as anything today, despite being recorded in 1970. It makes me think of being a kid and the things I did while this music played in the background—in one form or another. They’re time travel band for me, but they’re also the key holders to a part of the emotional spectrum that I overlooked years ago.

There are a handful of songs that never seemed to leave the tip of my father’s tongue: Chantilly Lace by the Big Bopper, Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple and Have You Ever Seen the Rain? by CCR were the main three, but the Creedence tune was always the main one. The song that every time without fail, he’d sing along to when it played in the car or in the house. It obviously connected to him in a way that I didn’t understand, because, like it is for me, it’s a song from his childhood. Creedence is a band like Metallica, a firmly rooted institution on which I built my own musical chops and taste, and one that I’d disappear into for days at a time. Without those two bands, I would be a much different musician today—but before a musician, I’d be a much different person. Without us realizing it, music transforms us when we’re kids. It’s something that shapes us and unconsciously supplements our moods in our most formative years.

Someone much wiser than me once said that you’ll never love the music you’re into today as much as you loved the stuff you listened to as a kid. The best example of that I can give to you is how hard a party will rock if the Backstreet Boys comes on. I remember a night, not even two years ago, that my best friend, my wife and I cruised the streets of Edmonton blasting Greatest Hits—Chapter One from the Volkswagen, singing to random people standing on street corners. It was such a blast that their greatest hits have been in my rotation on the regular ever since.

Musically, I was a weird kid. Well, not really weird, just a product of my environment. Gone were the days of hair metal bands, and grunge was long off the radar in 1999, so my first albums were Middle of Nowhere by Hanson and Millennium by the Backstreet Boys. I loved them more than I loved anything at the time. Watching Taylor Hanson play the keys in the Mmmbop video gave me the first thoughts of wanting to be a musician. I’d dress up in my fanciest and shiniest clothes and give concerts on my bed to the stadium full of people in my head while lip syncing Larger than Life after my bed time. (It’s to be noted that I wanted to be Nick Carter, since we both had golden blonde hair, and he was the closest to my own age). As I grew, through the good grace of my older sister discovering Eminem, I drifted down the rap hole and fell in love with the whole Shady/Aftermath family: Dr. Dre, Eminem, 50 Cent, Obie Trice and so on. By the time I bought my first Discman in the eighth grade, I knew my first “real” album would have to be the soundtrack to 8 Mile, you know the Academy Award winning movie from 2002 starring everyone’s favorite Slim Shady (real category)? It was my ticket out of the land of boy bands, where I lived with a pre-pubescent Justin Timberlake and a pre-failed astronaut Lance Bass.

I was in Yellowknife when I bought the 8 Mile OST, and had nothing but a sixteen-hour bus ride on a frozen highway to look forward to, so I loaded up on batteries and gave my self a rudimentary education in hip-hop on the way home. The first few days I owned the album, I had a tough time accepting anything other than the anthem of 2002, Lose Yourself, but eventually I moved into the deeper tracks. The second song, Love Me, was by far the darkest thing I had heard up to that point, and was my introduction to both Obie Trice and 50 Cent, the latter becoming an object of obsession the following year. Through the 8 Mile soundtrack, Eminem shepherded me into the pasture of rap, showing me the giants like Jay-Z, Nas and Rakim and educating me to something I never thought was possible: a song without a hook: the closing track Rabbit Run.

I was an angry kid; I always have been. In sixth grade I was prone to fits of anger against my friends and sisters, and in the years following, I began to turn the anger inward. Something about the beats and cadences from  these guys spoke to me on a primal level and music became my world. Once 50 Cent’s album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ came out, I had my first hipster moment. I was listening to 50 Cent before the rest of my friends, I had been given a gift in the form of an OST months before. But the rage contained in Get Rich was something else, he was rapping about something so far away from my own world I couldn’t even imagine what he had gone through, I just knew I connect to his anger in a primal way. That year, 2003, my father committed suicide, and the anger that was in the songs became more cathartic to me, more real. Life had taken its first shit on me and I’m glad I had a music that I could reign in my emotions with. Eventually though, it wasn’t enough. I kept seeing a band full of old dudes on TV, playing a type of music that I’d never heard before. It was Metallica, promoting the ever-loving piss out of their new album, St. Anger.

Before we go any further, let me just say, I know; I get it. St. Anger is a shitty album. But that’s not the point here. I’m listening to it right now, and I still find parts of it to love for the exact reason I said before: I loved it as a kid. The lyrics, “Fuck it all, and no regrets/I hit the lights on these dark sets/I need a voice to let myself/to let myself go free”, was exactly what I needed at this point in my life. The lyrics to this entire song still resonate with me because I know exactly what I was feeling at that time. I hated a lot of things when I was fourteen, as I think most of us do, and these guys seemed to match my hate.

St. Anger was a gateway drug. For the next year and a half, I listened to nothing but Metallica, eventually realizing that St. Anger wasn’t even close to the best of what they had, and not nearly the angriest. I connected with the pure rage that is …And Justice for All in a cathartic way, and when I learned the story behind it, the loss of a bass player, a friend, and a brother, it all fell into place. Heavy Metal became my home. By the time I emerged from the depths of this world, I had three feet of hair, a bitchin’ leather jacket and a ten-pound chain hanging off my pants—a chain I stole from the metal shop at school. The same school I’d decorate with massive SLAYER graffiti (written in crayon and/or dry erase marker), because as we all know, there is nothing more metal than Slayer.

I went to Catholic school for my entire education, kindergarten to grade twelve. Somewhere in the midst of grade ten I found the magic that is Slayer. Every week I looked forward to a half-hour block of Much Music on Friday nights, they called it “Much Loud”, and it was the one place in 2004 that I could find heavy metal music videos, I got five per week—no more, no less. One time, they played a video with the pyramids, set in the desert to absolutely sinister music being played by scary looking men. Metallica were animated, these guys were not. They were very serious about what they were doing. They kind of sounded like Metallica, but they were faster, more a-tonal, and their lyrics were way cooler. They were more bad ass in every way. I had to find the album, Seasons in the Abyss, and within the week, I did. Along with everything else they had to offer soon after. They were mad at the system that seemed to have taught me everything I knew, and I was down with that.

Emotions deeply ruled the music I would listen to, and living in the heavy metal world I was in, my next natural steps were to Megadeth and Pantera, faster and heavier. Pantera taught me something unexpected, something I never realized until much later, they taught me the art of the groove. This groove teaching led me down a path, led by the trio of Johns that came into my life at this time. The year was 2006 and John Mayer was at the top of his game with Continuum, the Chili Peppers were back, in a huge way, with Stadium Arcadium—their last album to feature guitarist John Frusciante, and my buddy Jules introduced me to an Australian fellow by the name of John Butler, who played in a trio and had released a fantastic album, two years prior called Sunrise Over Sea. The three of these guys redefined my guitar playing, my song writing and my own sense of groove. I had spent my high-school life reckoning with suicidal feelings resonating from my father’s act, raging at the machine and afterwards, I found myself exhausted and on a much more mellow road by the time 2007 came around. I had essentially become a hippie with the way I thought of things and in the way I conducted myself. When I was into metal, I was a very loud, exuberant kid, led through life by the screams of my heroes. But now, I didn’t feel the need to scream, shout or rage, and the soul of the music began to take me under its wing.

I went through college listening to the Johns, and eventually got really into Canadian indie music, three bands in particular: Two Hours Traffic, Matt Mays and El Torpedo and Wintersleep. Two Hours Traffic is a band I discovered at a Wing Wednesday at a bar in Grande Prairie called Better Than Fred’s. I bought their album Little Jabs and found myself enamoured with their simple power pop; the fact they came from Charlottetown, a sleepy city with half the population of Grande Prairie, had a pretty powerful impact on me as well. The two best songs I’ve ever written came to me while I was listening to Little Jabs on repeat.

Late one night, I was playing guitar in my bedroom (which, to my father’s credit, must have been annoying. I played the most between midnight and two a.m., but he never stopped me), when a video caught my eye. It was set on a suburban street with a ton of kids in masks, some with hockey sticks, and some with lights, all while a band played in an empty house. There was a driving acoustic guitar and a constant organ. The band was Wintersleep and the song was Weighty Ghost. This song and band changed my life more than anything, like Metallica and St. Anger, Wintersleep’s album, Welcome to the Night Sky, introduced me to a new level of honesty in music. I went out and bought everything they had: their self titled debut, their untitled second album, and Welcome to the Night Sky. Initially, I was hit by the track that came right before Weighty Ghost, it’s the third track and is called Dead Letter and the Infinite Yes. The lyrics in this song resonate with me on a level so intense that to this day, still brings me to tears, most notably the lines, “And my therapist said/we’ve evolved through a series of accidents/there’s been talk of chemical imbalances/risk a sense of detachment, nausea and/or violence.” I had gone through an intense period of being medicated years before, and when Paul Murphy sings, “we’re alone in this wilderness/left to choke on the pills and to feed on the viruses,” I knew that there was something else to this music. Something real and significant.

I drifted backwards through Wintersleep, their self titled debut being the last of the three I listened to. It sounds like it could only be recorded by a band named Wintersleep, as it’s bleakness on tape. The standout song, and the one that sends me into an unspeakable depression when I hear it is called Orca. It’s angry, and features the only distorted guitars on the album, but in such sparseness, that it’s really something to be experienced in context of the rest of the album. It’s jarring how much seethes underneath this one song. Every time I hear it, I’m right back there, sitting on a back road outside of Grande Prairie, smoking weed behind the wheel of my 1990 Chevy Cavalier with a broken heart, and thinking of the new girl I supposedly loved more than the one I just left after three years of growth. “I’ll be a monster/when I grow up.”

It took Canadian bands to really teach me about truth in art and the sincerity in music, and it’s a listening skill that I’ve come to value above anything. In truth, they taught me about empathy, and feeling what someone who’s expressing their self is feeling. All of this knowledge and growth, prepared me for the coming of the queen, the queen of my musical world. Lady Gaga.

I was always a fan, from her first album it felt different that other synth-pop/top 40 stuff. There was something else to it, the music was cooler that it had been, and the lyrics really were on another level. Granted, I didn’t grow up with Madonna, but there was no one singing about how she wants to take a ride on my disco stick when I was a kid. In 2010 I was into anything with a cool synth driven beat, I had gotten into more electronic type music. It was my buddy J Wong who did it for me; he was an aspiring DJ at the time (who’s now a working DJ), and he was always showing me insane music like Justice and Deadmau5, two artists I would have never heard without him. It was around then that I really started paying attention to Gaga, she had The Fame and The Fame Monster out at the time, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Songs like Alejandro, Bad Romance and Monster blew my mind into another stratosphere, and as much as I resisted falling in love with her, I just couldn’t. She was too good. The production and song writing were spot on for a guy like me, and I love her voice.

And then she released Born This Way. I’m not going to lie and say that I understood it right away, well—I understood what it was, but not what it was for. I saw it at face value: an anthem for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people, but I didn’t know I could relate. Time drags you through life, and eventually, like it did with Wintersleep, her sincerity just clicked one day.

I can’t hear Born This Way without breaking down and feeling accepted. She’s given a gift to the unsung masses, a message that says things are okay no matter who or what you are—none of it matters, because you were born this way, and you are incredible because you are a person. I’m one of probably fifty million people who cries because of the message of this song, and it’s brought me light years closer to accepting myself and the things I feel. She is a gift, and empathy is a hell of a drug.

Because Lady Gaga takes her sweet time between albums, I had been looking for more pop music in the same vein, and thanks to Saturday Night Live, I found a woman named Sia. She preformed with a mime, which, in and of itself blew me away, but the songs she sang, they really sounded like they could be sung by any one of my sisters, or my wife in fact. There’s certain songs by Sia that give me the same type of feeling Born This Way does: Big Girls Cry, Chandelier, and Elastic Heart being the ones that jump out at me right now. Any one of these songs could be sung by just about any woman I know, but it’s Big Girls Cry and Chandelier that really stick with me. The first verse of Chandelier is as follows:

“Party girls don't get hurt/Can't feel anything, when will I learn/I push it down, push it down/I'm the one "for a good time call"/Phone's blowin' up, ringin' my doorbell/I feel the love, feel the love”

She sings like she could be my sisters, my cousins, my wife. So many women I know have lived this life. “For a good time call,” is exactly the woman my wife was when I met her. The music behind these lines, and the timbre of Sia’s voice breaks my heart for the women in my life. She sings of empty years, highlighted by good times. She’s every woman I’ve ever known, and her music transports me into those shoes, those high heels, those flats and those emotions. When I hear Sia sing, I want to hug my entire family. It’s the loneliness of youth and finding yourself as a woman. She’s given me the gift of understanding my wife in a way she could have never told me herself. We’ve had conversations about Big Girls Cry, and afterwards, I feel like I know her deeper than I ever have. I pray for the day another song comes along that can teach me as much as the songs in these past few years, because I’ve never felt more connected to the people in my life.

Empathy should be a part of everyone’s listening kit, because it’s taught me more about the world than you’d ever think music could, and it’s blown me away more than I can even realize. My friend, Bevin Booth, put out an album earlier this year with his metal band Devolver, and as soon as I started the first track I broke into tears. It was a culmination of every metal band he ever showed me back in the day. It made so much sense to me that his album would sound like this, because what the hell else could it be? We are the sum of our parts, and music is the machine that grinds those parts into something that fits.