Music can lift us up in this dark time
Certain songs I listen to are my “pick-me-up” songs. One of them is “Rip It Up” performed by Little Richard, who died this month at age 87. In his appreciation for The New York Times, writer Wesley Morris called Little Richard, “equal parts church, filth, lust, androgyny, comedy, passion. And eventually anger.”
We’re all a little angry now — also frustrated, bummed out, sad. We could all use some pick-me-up songs. Music that feeds the soul, lifts the spirit, offers hope, and transports us someplace other than our couch.
Studies show that the songs we listen to as teenagers set our musical taste as adults. They create a deep and lasting impression that causes us to believe no songs written after “our songs” will ever be as good. As a kid, I was lucky enough to have been exposed to many different kinds of music. Rock, reggae, classical, jazz, folk, soul. Even though I am a child of the 1980’s, one who bought Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” album at Tower Records and danced around my friend Diana’s living room to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” pop music was an addition to rather than the foundation of my musical taste.
If you ask my husband, he’ll say I’m tough when it comes to music. He can’t just put on any song. I’m way too sensitive. He’d also say I can be dismissive, even snobby. I wouldn’t go as far snobby. But I do have strong opinions. For example, you will never in a million millennia convince me that Cardi B. or Billy Eilish could ever hope to play ball in the same arena as Tina Turner or Stevie Nicks, but I remain open to the new, to the possibility and joy of hearing a song I’ve never heard before that makes me sit up and take notice, that moves me, shakes me, maybe even blows my mind.
My mother always had records playing when I was a kid. Vinyl on a turntable. And not just any vinyl. I have vivid memories of the albums lined up on her shelf, packed so tight it took real effort to extract one from the bunch. The range was wide — from Vivaldi to The Talking Heads. The album covers were exciting, mysterious, provocative. The Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls,” Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” Steely Dan’s “Aja.”
By the time I was nine, I knew the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “Stiletto,” The Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Refugee,” and The Who’s “You Better You Bet”. I’d weep (still do) whenever I’d hear Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” There were particular voices I loved (still do), like Michael McDonald, Don Henley, John Fogerty, Peter Gabriel, Pat Benatar, and the Wilson sisters from Heart. I recognized Led Zeppelin licks from I and II and III and IV, but could never (still can’t) remember the names of all their songs.
My mother also introduced me to the idea of a “perfect album,” meaning one that has no bad songs. It’s a masterpiece, complete and untouchable. Two on my personal list are Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and Kanye West’s “The College Dropout.”
If my mother gave me rock, my father gave me reggae. I’m still not sure how my über-preppy, Brooks Brothers-, Izod-, tortoise shell glasses-wearing attorney of a dad landed among the rastas, but thank goodness he did. How’s this for an image: A white BMW 2002 with a radio that played cassettes. Two adults up front, four kids in the back (two of them babies in car seats) and possibly (I can’t remember) two cats in carriers on the floor. We’re going from New York City to Westport, Connecticut, of all places, and just jammin’ to Bob, singing it loud and proud: Excuse me while I light my spliff. Good God I gotta take a lift. From reality I just can’t drift. That’s why I’m staying with this riff.
I came to know and love Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, Gregory Issacs, Black Uhuru, and Toots and the Maytals. And their musical brothers The English Beat and UB40, and so many more.
While this was my musical base going into high school, don’t get me wrong — I also listened to plenty of pop: Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds, Yaz. Also, De La Soul, The Clash, Run-DMC. I was obsessed with The Police and had a huge poster of Sting on my wall that I used to look at for hours the way girls once looked at posters of Elvis or The Fab Four, and wish harder than I’d ever wished for anything that I could meet him one day because I loved him so much and I’d just die if I didn’t.
This was also the time Stevie Wonder came into my consciousness. There was something about my high school and Stevie. “Songs in the Key of Life” was just in the air. I recall one of the senior boys we all worshipped singing “Ebony Eyes” for a talent show and sending everyone into full-on delirium. And then there was Prince. Prince. There are no words.
In 11th grade, I started getting a ride to school from my friend Jeff. He’d pick a bunch of us up in the city for the short drive to school, including his best friend, Jamie, who happens to be the nephew of Carly Simon, and had the best taste in and knowledge of music of any teenager I’ve ever known.
Jamie made “car tapes” that we’d listen to on our rides. These were mix tapes, the kind that every kid in the 80’s made, but instead of the typical R.E.M. or U2, they had Dr. John, Cream, Little Feat, Dire Straits, The Doobie Brothers, Joe Cocker, Traffic. Talk about getting your mind blown.
The music on those tapes built on what I’d heard in my mother’s house, and found their way into my soul where, along with the reggae masters, it remains to this day. But I also must give props to some other bands that live there as well, ones that may not get the acclaim they deserve. Here’s to you Guns N’ Roses, Bon Jovi, and Def Leppard. Respect.
I also have a fair amount of jazz in my collection —John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles — but I’m about as far from a jazz expert as you can get. I do know the piano players are my favorite. I listen to Bill Evans when I’m working. I made sure the trio at my wedding played Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy,” but I have so much more to learn and explore.
Soul music speaks to me more than jazz does , the way The Rollings Stones speak to me more than the Beatles. I like a little edge, a little raunch, a little danger. I like how soul can make you swoon and ache and long. Grow wistful and thoughtful and furious, sometimes all at the same time. Try listening to Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” or Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and see for yourself.
Finally, I must give a shout out to my brother Charles, who has been a huge source of new musical discoveries for me. He turned me onto bands I never would have found on my own, like The Meters. (Fun fact: Charles a.k.a. Chazzy G-Funk was the lead singer of the band “Waple.” Their one and only album, which includes the incomparable “Waffle Iron,” cannot be found on iTunes, but I happen to know at least one cassette exists and it is impressive.)
I’m not sure he remembers, but Charles and I once had an epic fight over music. He was around 12-years-old. I was around 22. It was 1994 and Green Day’s “Dookie” had just come out. He was adamant that Green Day was the best band of all-time and he’d love them forever. I thought they were overrated and in five years’ time he’d forget all about them.
There was definitely some yelling, probably some eye-rolling and finger-pointing, too. I think Charles would now have to admit that Green Day is not the best band of all-time. And I’d have to admit they did have more staying-power and talent than I’d originally thought. A couple of years ago, I heard them doing a soundcheck of “American Idiot” for a concert in Central Park, and it was damn good.
These days, I bounce around to all different kinds of music depending on what I’m doing. Going running music is different from cleaning the house music is different from I need to have a good cry music. But, as I said, I think what’s needed now more than anything is pick-me-up music. There are countless songs I could put on that list. But for the moment, I will offer a dozen that you can seek out wherever you find your tunes. Here’s hoping they put a smile on your face and a groove in your thang. And if you have young kids, make them get off Houseparty and listen. Good Golly, they’ll thank you one day.
1. Little Richard — “Rip It Up”
2. Marvin Gaye — “Got to Give it Up”
3. Paul Simon — “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard”
4. Stevie Wonder — “Sir Duke”
5. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — “Anything that’s Rock ’n’ Roll”
6. The Rolling Stones — “Not Fade Away”
7. The Who — “I Can’t Explain”
8. Tina Turner — “Nutbush City Limits”
9. Bob Marley — “Positive Vibration”
10. Prince — “Seven”
11. Three Dog Night — “Shambala”
12. Ziggy Marley — “Love is My Religion”