In light of the difficult news about Gord Downie’s diagnosis, I started thinking about music. The artists I love, the ones that are staples not just in my life but in the musical world, the people like Gord Downie who have produced generations of solidly important songs are records which are so incredibly important to so many people for so many different reasons. I wanted to point out a few of mine from different time periods of my life that have affected me the way artists surely long to affect and make meaningful memories, words of advice, gifts and caring voices for others.
The Beatles – The White Album
When I was in high school, I was bullied for listening to my parents’ music (a trend which, of course, now everyone in their late teens and early twenties has come to embrace… of course). The Beatles with this record showed me what it meant to truly be talented and have a gift of music. It was more than just that awe-striking talent though. It was this wavering emotional power, the capturing a time of change and revolution not just lyrically but melodically too; it was Paul McCartney’s voice both crooning on “Martha My Dear” one disc, and yelling out “I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!” on the next. The Beatles changed everything for me. Suddenly I realized I belonged in another generation, and nothing from my generation could ever be good enough again.
Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker
Recently re-released, Ryan Adams said in a recent interview that this record was a reflection of stress and uncertainty in his twenties where he was destitute, post-breakp depressed, and wondering what was next in life. When I came upon this record, my place in life was similarly stark and I was constantly searching for meaning. From the moment I heard “To Be Young (is to be Sad, is to be High)” I knew I had found it, at least in part. I cry with this record, laugh with some of it, but mostly just use it to help me reflect and get through the grim times. “Heartbreaker” is everything. It is my biography written by someone else. It is ‘heartbreak’.
Wilco – A Ghost is Born
I first heard Wilco back in 2004. I was in a drama class and this guy I liked introduced me to that lengthy noisy portion of the song “Less Than You Think” that he used for his final presentation for drama class. Later on, I purchased “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” to try and cultivate this undergrad college radio hipster that I badly wanted to be back then. To be honest, I didn’t like the record. It was noisy. It was vibrant. I didn’t quite get the melodies, production, or Tweedy’s voice. I had no idea what songs like “Pot Kettle Black” really meant. It wasn’t until later in life I truly understood the stunningly amazing and powerful raw experimental energy of this band that has come to be one of my all-time favourites. “Ghost” is a more piano and synth-driven collection of songs. It is softer, sadder, less kinetic and electrifying than “Yankee” and I think that’s what I needed at the time I developed an obsession with this record. Wilco often writes songs I don’t ‘get’ and can’t fully relate to. They don’t necessarily speak to where I am in life, or where I long to be. What they do so well though is write melodies that etch themselves into the paper of my life and bring me back to times when all I needed was to put on a record like this and lay on the floor, drifting away.
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
There is something lighthearted and summertime-y about this record. And yet, the dark undertones of alcoholism, death and heartbreak retain this record’s intensity beneath the string-laden, rising-and-falling surface. “Astral Weeks” is like a pulse. When you feel it, you know you’re alive. When I coasted through years of settling for less than what I wanted out of life, this record was always there reminding me not to; that everything is more beautiful, more important, more grave, than it seemed. I just had to dig deeper.
Joni Mitchell – Blue
One time, I had a conversation with a now former friend about a recent (but not recent enough for this to actually be a justified comment) breakup and I said, “I just don’t know how I am ever going to push through this.” I was in love. Disgustingly, sickeningly, annoyingly hopelessly in love. And it was unreasonable, unrealistic and ridiculous. Suddenly, I was leaden inside. And then I became addicted to this record. I remember listening to Joni Mitchell say “All good dreamers pass this way some day/Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes” for the first time and thinking, ‘this is my life right now.’ Songs are like tattoos.