Personal, Stories Told

Paul McCartney kind of saved my life once; he has no idea of course

After two recent high-profile suicides in the news, I am reminded of this piece I wrote in 2011. If you ever stand on that edge, wait, because it always gets better.

I was away at my first year of engineering school working harder than ever before — or since, for that matter. My full class load delivered six to ten hours of homework every day. To keep up, I worked each night into the wee hours. My life consisted of meals, class, homework, and too little sleep.

As my fatigue mounted, my health began to suffer. Worse, I became isolated and I lost hope. I fell into a deep funk. I began thinking a lot about how I might be better off no longer walking around on the face of the Earth.

That’s when I came across this record.

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This is Paul McCartney’s first solo album after the Beatles broke up. He released it in 1970, but I first heard it 15 years later in my dorm room at the center of my despair. The music sounded spare; many mixes were rough and some songs seemed unfinished. The songs gave a strong sense of a man shut away in a room, playing alone, trying to get his head together. Indeed, Paul produced and engineered the album himself. Except for an occasional backing vocal from his wife Linda, he played and sang every note.

McCartney’s signature musical move has always been to find a bright side even when the going is rough. This song, which closed side 1, is a perfect example. It led me to consider that after the Beatles ended, he released (at that time) more than a dozen albums and had given concerts all over the world. It had been impossible to listen to the radio and not hear his music! He’d done quite all right in the intervening years. I could see that perhaps so could I, and so perhaps I should push through.

I did, and now I’m fine all the while.

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Stories Told

The sounds of Christmas

This Christmas memory was originally posted in 2009.

The Christmas season begins for my family when we put up our tree shortly after Thanksgiving. But it’s really not trimming the tree itself that does it – it’s that as we string the lights and hang the bulbs, we listen to the traditional Grey family holiday CDs for the first time. So it’s really the music that ushers in the season for us.

And so it was when I was a child. Mom would drag out the big “portable” record player and her short stack of Christmas records and twist the volume knob up high enough that you could hear the music in the front yard. The whole neighborhood knew Christmas had arrived!

Mom favored Christmas music in pop, standards, and jazz styles, and her record stack reflected that. One of her records, Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas, has been part of the family tradition since it was issued in 1945. My mother’s parents bought it as an album of 78-RPM discs, one song per side. Mom had it as a vinyl Lp, and I of course have it as a CD. You can own it today, too, as it is the best-selling Christmas album of all time, even though a few years ago the knuckleheads at the record company renamed it White Christmas.

But of all of Mom’s Christmas records, I liked those by Johnny Mathis the best. Johnny really gets Christmas, from hopeless sinner to joyful child. I just can’t help but sing along! When the boys and I decorate the tree, I play Johnny Mathis first.

Johnny has recorded many Christmas albums over the years but his first two are the best. His first one, also named Merry Christmas, was released in 1958. It featured lush arrangements by Percy Faith and his orchestra. But Johnny’s 1963 Sounds of Christmas is, for me, the benchmark against which I measure all other Christmas music. Johnny moves seamlessly between bright, bouncy numbers that capture the happiness to which we all aspire during this season, and traditional songs that show the full power of his voice.

Sadly, you haven’t been able to buy this album in its entirety since the 1960s. Capitol Records reissued it in the early 1970s on one of its budget labels, deleting two songs in the process, and only that abridged collection has survived. You can buy it on CD today as Christmas with Johnny Mathis. It is better than nothing.

Yet I yearned for the two deleted songs. When I discovered many years ago that Mom still had her heavily worn 1963 pressing, I recorded it on cassette. Then a couple years ago I digitized those songs into my computer, ripped Christmas with Johnny Mathis in as well, arranged the songs in the original order, and burned my own custom Sounds of Christmas CD. I made a copy for Mom, too.

If you have wished for those missing songs, then I offer them to you here in glorious mono, with all the scratches, pops, and distortion you expect from a record that was played until it was almost worn out. First is what I consider to be the definitive version of The Little Drummer Boy.

By far the best track on the album is Have Reindeer Will Travel. As my mom says, it just isn’t Christmas without the doop-doopee-doos! You’ll know what I mean when you hear the song.

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Music

Driving and Singing: Paul McCartney, “Too Much Rain”

Friday mornings of late I’ve been sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. I love to sing! But as every song ends, so does this series, today. 

2005 might well have been the hardest year of my life. My wife was divorcing me, I got to see my sons only occasionally, I had white-knuckled grip on addiction recovery, and I lived in a one-room apartment in a bad neighborhood while still paying the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again.

I even lost my dog. I’d say I was living in a country song, except that I didn’t own a truck.

It’s easy to make light of it now because I’ve recovered and my life is on a good path. In every way, those days made me a much better man, and I’m grateful for that. But it really was an awful, crushing time. I sought every lifeline and clung desperately to each one.

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One lifeline came from out of nowhere, thanks to Paul McCartney. I’ve written before of another time his music kept me from going over the edge, and a song he released that year did it again. The CD it is from, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, could well be that committed optimist’s most introspective and brooding work. And I was absolutely in an introspective and brooding place then, so it worked for me. But then there was the song “Too Much Rain,” which stood in counterpoint:

Laugh when your eyes are burning
Smile when your heart is filled with pain
Sigh as you brush away your sorrow
Make a vow, that it’s not gonna happen again

It’s not right, in one life
Too much rain

I’m not an optimist. But once again McCartney’s optimism reminded me that there’s a path out of every dark time. And so I looked for reasons to laugh, smile, and sigh, even though my life was a painful mess. It wasn’t easy. But soon I found myself on that path toward happier days.

Click Play to hear Paul McCartney sing “Too Much Rain.”

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Music

Driving and singing: Heart, “My Crazy Head”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

Kristen was my first girlfriend. We’d been friends since we were six and eight, but in middle school we tried our hands at what passed for dating for two so young. Our first date was to a lunch counter at a five and dime; she made me ask her father before she’d consent.

But mostly, we hung out together and talked on the phone. My favorite Kristen memory is riding along while her dad ran some errands one day. He drove a two-door Volvo, strange and exotic in the staunchly drive-American Midwest. At every stop, Kristen and I stayed in the car listening to the radio and talking. At one stop, Heart’s early hit “Magic Man” came on, and Kristen started singing it out loud. I was surprised by her voice, lush and smoky, as it resonated within the cabin. She could sing! I couldn’t help but join in even though I didn’t know the lyrics very well. It was a few moments of real joy, and a memory I’ll always keep.

The album that song came from was released 40 years ago this week, and it put Heart firmly on my radar. Later I started buying their old albums. For a kid who mostly listened to the Beatles and the Carpenters, Heart’s music was my first real step into rock.

The 80s were a rough time for rock music. Crossover country, syrupy love ballads, dance, and new wave all pushed rock out of the spotlight. What sold in the 70s just wasn’t working anymore, at least not on the same scale of popularity.

Heart definitely felt it — their new albums just weren’t selling as well and their singles weren’t charting as high. So they shifted with the times, making albums full of radio-friendly pop power ballads. And where they had always written all of their own songs, they started recording songs by other writers.

I still listened, still bought their albums, at first. Self-titled Heart was a serious departure from their earlier material, but it was well made. Next came Bad Animals, which moved even more toward power pop. I didn’t enjoy it as much, but when I got my chance to see them play live in support of this album, I didn’t hesitate. We got nosebleed seats; I couldn’t see the band’s faces even if I squinted. But I couldn’t miss the giant set they played on and the elaborate costumes they wore to go with their new pop image. They came out playing all of their recent hits. But once that was out of the way, they gave an all-out rock show, vigorously playing all of their ’70s hits. They came back for an encore that included a couple Led Zeppelin songs. What a great show!

And then Heart released Brigade and led with the single “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You,” a syrupy little heartstring tugger that turned me right off. Seriously disappointed, I decided I was done following Heart, and that I would just enjoy their ’70s albums and move on.

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In the early ’90s I worked part time for a rock radio station. I went in for my shift one day to find that a brand new Heart song was in rotation and on my playlist. It was a surprise, as they’d released nothing new since Brigade four years earlier. And when I played it — oh my gawwwwwwd it was rock!Back on Black II” was the song’s odd title but make no mistake, it was a return to form. I snagged a copy of their new CD, Desire Walks On, from the closet where we kept our giveaway CDs and popped it into the car and kept it on repeat for weeks. Heart was back! Back! Back to writing their own songs and back to rocking out.

Another fabulous benefit of working at the radio station was free concert tickets, top shows and great seats. The station sent me to see Heart in Indianapolis at Clowes Hall, a wonderful theater at Butler University. I had a commanding view from my seat in a box just above stage right. Heart did a stripped-down show, no costumes, no elaborate sets, no nonsense. They played songs from the new album, a ton of songs from the 70s,  and only a couple songs from the 80s. And there I fell in love with Heart all over again.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Heart is how I can sing almost all of their songs. Vocalist Ann Wilson is famous for a five-octave range, way more than I could ever hope to reach. But she seldom stretches that far in one song, and their songs are almost always in keys that allow me to sing without stretching beyond my vocal range. And Ann loves to belt out a tune. Belting is my favorite way to sing!

One of my favorite songs from this album is a light rocker called “My Crazy Head.” There’s something about how I have to wrap my vocal cords around Ann’s notes that makes my whole body resonate. But while I love to sing along to it, I feel kind of silly doing it. The song tells a woman’s experience of being loved. A lot of Heart’s songs do. Obviously, those are feelings I can’t reach! But I ignore what the lyrics mean and just sing out, because it feels so good.

Click Play to listen to Heart sing “My Crazy Head.”

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Music

Driving and singing: Paul Simon, “Peace Like a River”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

When I was a boy, even a teen, Paul Simon was my hero. I didn’t know anything of him personally, and except for one appearance on late-night TV — was it Saturday Night Live? I can’t remember — I’d never seen or heard anything of him but the songs he recorded. But his songs so often went straight to the heart, to things that mattered, and I loved him for being able to write so truthfully and articulately about relationships and the inner life.

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My college years coincided with the introduction of the compact disc. Lots of people were selling their records to buy CDs, and like a gleaner in the fields I followed along behind them hoovering up great records on the cheap. I bought the entire Paul Simon catalog that way, including his self-titled solo debut, fresh from the breakup from Art Garfunkel. Unlike the lush, highly produced work the duo produced toward the end of their career, this album sounded spare and a little unfinished, from songwriting to instrumentation to production. Still, it produced the hits “Mother and Child Renuion” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.”

But my favorite song from this record is “Peace Like a River.” I don’t know why this song resonates with me and I can’t even figure out what this song is about. But I love how the beat and guitar work create a dark mood, and I love the raw emotion I hear when he sings “I’ve seen the glorious day.” It brings tears to my eyes. And I sing aiee-e-e-e right along with him right out loud, sometimes shredding my vocal cords if they’re not warmed up.

I would die to hear Paul play this live. The closest I’ve come was a few years ago when Paul did a concert in Bloomington. I don’t remember why I couldn’t go. But local radio station WTTS broadcast the show live and I listened to it all. Unbelievably, he played this song. I just cried. I couldn’t believe it. Such an obscure old thing, but a song that has always moved me for reasons I can’t reach.

Click Play to hear Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River.”

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Driving and Singing: Megadeth, “Addicted to Chaos”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

I was a metalhead in the 80s. Even looked the part, with the long hair and the black concert T-shirts and the worn-out jeans. I looked way meaner than I was.

But apparently I looked too mean for a professional job. So I cut the hair and dressed business casual, and my career promptly took off. But I was still metal inside, or at least I felt that way in 1994 when one of my favorite metal bands, Megadeth, released their sixth CD, Youthanasia, full of punch and power and melody. It was in heavy rotation on my car’s CD player for years.

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And that’s all I thought about it until after my wife divorced me. Long story short, during my divorce all my records and CDs were lost. As I rebuilt my life, I bought my favorite CDs again one by one. Soon enough I came to this disc. And when I really listened this time to the second song, “Addicted to Chaos,” I was flattened. Poked right between the eyes. Pierced through the heart. Because through the crunchy guitar and the growling, wailing vocals, I heard my own experience.

Megadeth’s founder Dave Mustaine was famous in the day for abusing alcohol and drugs in stupefying quantities — and for raging and fighting with anyone within reach while drunk or high. He did rehab something like 15 times, even lay briefly dead of an overdose and was somehow revived at the hospital. At some point, he got himself clean. He even found God and says he’s a Christian now.

I know what it’s like to be addicted — I had my own monkey on my back in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Those chaotic, destructive days contributed directly to my marriage failing. It is impossible to have a healthy relationship with an addicted partner.

My marriage a shambles, headed for divorce, unable to stop using and hating myself for it, I finally hit rock bottom. I found a 12-step meeting and kept going back, and slowly got clean. It not only restored my life to sanity, but let me finally truly come to not only know God, but see that he has my back. Recovery is where my faith in God began. I never want to go back to those awful days, but I’ll always be grateful for the blessing they led to.

Recovery was hard work, and never a straight line — and I played it out against turmoil and anxiety as my marriage finally ended in a bitter, protracted divorce. It was in the midst of those crushingly stressful days when I picked up my new copy of this CD. And then I heard Mustaine sing:

Monkey on my back, aching in my bones
I forgot you said “One day you’ll walk alone”
I said I need you, does that make me wrong?
Am I a weak man? Are you feeling strong?
My heart was blackened, it’s bloody red
A hole in my heart, a hole in my head

I felt like I’d been slugged in the jaw. My emotions went right back to the addicted days, overpowered and outmaneuvered, lost and trapped, weak and shamed. I could feel it: the “you” of which Mustaine sang was the addiction. I always knew mine was going to turn on me and do me in.

But in the second verse, Mustaine sang of having turned the corner.

Light shined on my path, turned bad days into good
Turned breakdowns into blocks, smashed them ’cause I could
My brain was labored, my head would spin
Don’t let me down, don’t give up, don’t give in
The rain comes down, the cold wind blows
The plans we made are back up on the road
Turn up my collar, welcome the unknown
Remember that you said, “one day you’ll walk alone”

Turn up my collar, welcome the unknown. Maybe you have to have been through this to understand, but for me that line is the center of the song. I had tried to salve my fears of life and ended up addicted. But thanks to recovery, I need fear nothing. Life? Bring it on. No need to hide! Such a joy and blessing recovery gave me.

And then it turns out I wasn’t interpreting the song right at all. Mustaine explained it in several interviews; here’s what he said in one of them:

…The subject of it is my drug counselor who got me sober. When he said that I would walk alone, it was after counseling me for a period of time, and he said “You know I’m gonna have to cut you loose some day.” The finality of it was two puncture wounds in his arm and an overdose on heroin. My drug counselor died.

No matter. I still hear my own experience in Mustaine’s words. And today, going on thirteen years sober, singing this song out loud does two things: it tears up my voice, as I can’t keep up with Mustaine’s growling and wailing vocal — and it makes me cry.

Click Play to listen to “Addicted to Chaos.”

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