I didn’t grow up in a particularly musical household or environment whatsoever. I have no dearth of gratitude to my parents for a multitude of other critical provisions of childhood, but this is something I’m determined to correct with my own offspring, whenever that happens. This means that I came to music almost entirely on my own. The only recorded music that I remember existing in my house were disco cassettes like the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and a little later some musicals, particularly Andrew Lloyd Webber and Miss Saigon. But the soundtrack that I actually heard the most was what we heard in the car driving around, which was usually either public radio or soft rock stations. Ironically enough, I far preferred the latter; well into my early adulthood I actually had such associations with boredom and exhaustion from running errands that the sound of an NPR commentator’s voice would make me feel nauseated. Now of course most soft rock is saccharine, awful stuff; but it was the first music I knew, it was song, and I was moved by it. If I had grown up in a colorless world, the first shade of baby-shit yellow might have struck me as very pretty. My first two CDs I ever owned were Bryan Adams’ So Far So Good and Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits I and II. While I don’t write music quite like this myself, I must confess a certain affinity for the sentimental that I can’t and probably don’t want to shake.
As I entered middle school and gained more musical autonomy (i.e. a Walkman and a boombox in my room), I branched out to the music of my peers: in South St. Louis, this was R&B and alt-rock radio. Not gonna lie, the former took first–my first concert was Boyz II Men, TLC and Montell Jordan–as it probably related most directly to what I was accustomed to hearing in my mom’s Acura, but by seventh grade I was firmly steeped in alternative rock radio. This was 1995. I feel like I missed the birth of grunge and only came to appreciate it more a little later. I knew that I was falling in love with music, and that despite not having any money I needed to be acquiring the CDs of a thousand different artists. I also knew that as a lover of music I had to have a favorite artist. After one comical misstep here–special prize if you can guess which 90s artist got this mantle undeservedly for a short while–I found my first favorite band, Counting Crows.
Let me say a few words about Counting Crows. Even years before the advent of uber-snobby hipster culture (in which I admit to participating sometimes), I knew that being a Crows fan was not getting me any points for coolness. But I was utterly taken with Adam Duritz’s lyrics; it was the first time I had heard songs where each line was thoughtfully and poetically composed, and each line required and deserved attention. I learned all the words to August and Everything After, and I was practically salivating when Recovering The Satellites came out three years later. I learned for the first time that a band could change–they had added a guitar player, dialed down the 90s folk-pop, cranked up the country–and that once you adjusted you would love them even more for their range.
I’ll get back to my own narrative in a moment, but let me just submit this into the record: Counting Crows’ first three studio albums, the two mentioned above and This Desert Life, are all A plus material, and any songwriter (any music lover, really, but especially songwriters) who avoids them because they’re not cool enough is a damned fool. The live albums are fantastic as well for hearing how the songs evolve even after they’ve been rendered in the studio. The two most recent studio albums, Hard Candy and Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings are spotty, but still contain some gems. And yes, songs like “Accidentally in Love” or their Joni Mitchell cover do make me want to poop, cry and throw up all over myself.
This is getting quite long, so let me just cut to the critical moment: the moment I decided I wanted to play music for the rest of my life. The birth of the dream.
Summer after eighth grade, my two best friends and I (one of whom was Adam R-H., whom I’ve referenced here before) went to see Counting Crows at Riverport Amphitheater. You know the kind of venue; huge lawn, reeks of shitty weed and Budweiser. It was amazing. Having no other national act on the bill, they played a three-hour set, with many of the songs expanded, updated, improvised upon. And they played my favorite song, “Anna Begins”. Adam Duritz was soaked through with sweat–this was August–and maybe it was also sweat dripping down his face but on the Jumbotron monitor it also looked like it could have been tears. I was profoundly moved by what the song meant to me, even as a middle-schooler I had found a way to relate to the story, but there was another feeling there too. A feeling that said, “That, what he’s doing up there, I need to do that. Not for glory, not because it seems fun, but I need to make other people feel the way that I’m feeling now. More specifically, I need to put my pain into song and then share it with other people so that they know that they’re not alone.”
And that was it. There’s more about my musical coming-of-age, but this concludes my Book of Genesis. This is where my story began.
I can’t imagine having grown up in an environment devoid of good music, so I appreciate your perspective on that. It’s also interesting to learn that you fell heavily into music right around the same time that I met you. Not to sound like a broken record (pun intended), but the way you feel about songwriters’ avoidance of Counting Crows is the same way I feel about their avoidance of the Beatles. I used to know a guy who refused to listen to Nirvana so that he could claim to be above their influence, which always struck me as profoundly elitist and ultimately self-defeating. Opening oneself up to any and all music (even that which one considers “bad” or too popular) can only improve one’s songwriting skills. It also allows for a wider perspective on music as a whole and breaks down genre classifications, which are all illusory anyway.
Addendum: I didn’t mean to peg you as being elitist or self-defeating by association, and I know I didn’t say anything you didn’t already know. Anyway, great post. Billy Joel never gets enough credit.