Chapter 5 - Like a Ton of Bricks (Songs, Albums & Artists That Hit You Where It Hurts)

Lesson: A song or an album can bring you down or lift you up OR… it can do both at the same time, a reflection of the rollercoaster ride of life.

My college experience was something I’ll always cherish because of the great friendships that were established, the personal growth that I experienced, and most importantly, the understanding that I attained about my place in the world. That self-discovery was something that would not have been possible without all of the people who were part of that experience. And for that I am eternally grateful.

I did well in high school, graduating as salutatorian, and did well enough on my SAT to be admitted to every university to which I applied (eight in all). Stanford was not even first on my list. That spot was reserved for the University of Texas since my plan all along was to attend college with my older sister. Once I was admitted to Stanford and several Ivy League schools on the East Coast, I had my teachers and counselors lobbying hard for anything but U.T. I thank everyone who expressed an opinion about it to me because it helped me to realize just how unique of a position I’d found myself in, especially since every university but U.T. offered, ostensibly, a full scholarship.

At Stanford, I lived in Casa Zapata, one of the University’s ethnic dorms named for the Mexican revolutionary hero, Emiliano Zapata. So, I was a Zapatista starting in 1985, before the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (the Zapatista National Liberation Army) declared its war on NAFTA and neo-liberalism in 1994. Casa Zapata was a true blessing for me. I met Chicanos from all over the Southwestern United States with one even hailing from Wyoming. Only 50% of the residents at the ethnic dorms could be of the ethnicity that was the dorm’s theme, so I met people of all backgrounds from all over the country. I felt at home in a community that was only 50% Hispanic, not 99% Hispanic as I was accustomed to in my hometown. I’m sure the transition would have been much more difficult if I’d been in a dorm where I wouldn’t have seen as many people who looked like me and reminded me of my experience.

I learned more about my history and culture at Casa Zapata than I did living at home on the Texas-Mexico border immersed in my culture. Tony & Cecilia Burciaga, our Resident Fellows at Casa Zapata, were great people with Cecilia serving as a high ranking administrator at Stanford and Tony being a Chicano muralist, writer and comedian (as part of the comedy trio, Culture Clash). May they both rest in peace. Tony was very knowledgeable, talented and, above all, funny. The dorm was covered in murals and every year Tony would add a new mural or add to an ongoing project. If you ever visit Stanford, be sure to visit Casa Zapata to see the artwork. Tony was connected to all of the famous Chicano artists and he would have them come to Casa Zapata for cultural events, called “Floricanto,” which were amazing to be a part of, even just as a spectator.

Dorm food was the hardest thing to get used to in my transition to college life. Everything was so bland, white rice especially. Keep in mind that the only kind of rice I had ever had to this point was Mexican rice. I couldn’t believe people actually ate white rice. No measure of butter, salt, pepper or tabasco would make it go down easily. Breakfast was the only meal where I knew I would be satisfied, so I made the most of it. My first Thanksgiving in college was the worst on record. Those of us who couldn’t go home figured we’d just eat out on Thanksgiving Day, not realizing that all restaurants would be closed. In the end, cruising around Palo Alto in our bicycles, we found refuge and a holiday meal at Jack in the Box. It sounds pretty sad but an Ultimate Cheeseburger and curly fries are nothing to scoff at when you are starving from all of the bike riding.

Living in the Bay Area was pretty special. Although I didn’t take full advantage of all of the opportunities like some of my friends, I did have a chance to take trips to the City (San Francisco), the Monterrey Bay, Yosemite National Park, Reno (gambling) and Lake Tahoe (skiing). People were a little confused by me when I went on the gambling trip to Reno and the ski trip to Lake Tahoe because I didn’t end up gambling much or skiing at all. They didn’t realize that I’d (a) never been to a casino and (b) never seen snow. The ski trip was the best. While everyone woke up at the crack of dawn to go skiing all day, I was in the lodge with all the food and alcohol. I would occasionally step out for some hiking and sledding in the snow and then quickly return to the warm lodge and all of its comforts. My Sony Walkman was always enough companionship for me.

I played sports in high school and so when I was at Stanford I enjoyed intramural sports and spent a few years on the Ultimate Frisbee Club Team. Our dorm, Casa Zapata (aka Los Bandidos) won the co-ed softball intramural crown twice in three years and was runner up in co-ed ultimate frisbee at least once. Our Ultimate Frisbee Club Team was nationally ranked, and I was only on the travel squad my last year. We traveled all over California, Oregon and even Hawaii playing ultimate frisbee, which is a grueling sport but really one of the most exciting and demanding sports you could ever play.

My greatest sports moment ever was when we played in an ultimate frisbee tournament game in the soccer fields at the foot of the Diamondhead volcano in Honolulu in the rain and mud. I was covering this player who must have been at least 6 ft. 5 in. compared to my 5 ft. 10 in. The disc was thrown deep for him to catch in the goal area. The disc hung up in the air for what seemed like an eternity. Everyone on the benches seemed to be holding their breath. I blocked out my opponent (drawing on my basketball defensive skills), out jumped him and batted the disc away with a deep groan as if I was spiking a volleyball. The loud cheers from my teammates made it seem like a spectacular feat. The sound of those cheers will forever be etched in my memory. The ultimate crew was a special bunch.

My College Buddies & Music

I wanted to share these fond memories of my college years, because this is what I think of when people ask me about my college experience. My academic experience was brutal, but the overall experience was incredibly rich and rewarding. The academic demands were intense, creating a feeling of inferiority and a sense that failing was not out of the question. Subdued as my emotions were and reticent as I was to share any personal details about myself with anyone, the feelings were unbeknownst to those around me. As I’ve come to discover, to a great degree, my own emotions were not apparent even to ME.

Without further explanation you might think that I was a very social and gregarious college student. I’ve always been more of an introvert, comfortable within familiar social circles and very uncomfortable amongst strangers. To imagine me at Stanford, picture the guy who has an earring, long hair, wears concert t-shirts and has his headphones on much of the time. I certainly was not the norm as far as style went at Stanford. And wearing headphones was not nearly as common back then. Now that I don’t use headphones (aka ear buds), they are used universally.

Even in my own social circles, I would stand out quite a bit in terms of style. I felt different than other people at Stanford. I suppose that, subconsciously, I may have been trying to demonstrate my feeling of being different in my physical appearance instead of having to explain it to people. My appearance may have also had the added benefit of discouraging people from engaging me in social interactions. That was definitely a plus! However, it appears that the social and cultural differences and the lack of academic preparedness took more of a toll on me than I realized.

Because the last chapter led me to a list of songs that did not adequately represent my college years (since more than 75% of the songs were penned and recorded post-college), I felt it was important to highlight something musically significant about this period. There is a power in the featured songs, albums, and artists that I am glad I have a chance to highlight. The songs, albums, and bands featured are actually what helped me to identify the four step (restorative) process I outlined in the previous chapter. Although these songs/albums did not make my list of favorites from the last chapter, considering these songs, albums and artists for this list is what allowed me to discover the restorative process itself and, ultimately, the emotional coping mechanism that I developed. So, this chapter is essential because it gives credit where credit is due.

When I went back to listen to my favorite artists, I experienced a very intense emotional reaction. I was hard pressed to understand why these songs would elicit that reaction, but these were the artists that helped sustain me through some of the most trying years of my life. I used music to overcome the academic, social and cultural challenges I was experiencing while in college. Music helped me to persevere. But I guess that in re-experiencing this music, I also re-experienced the challenges. So, songs with a theme of overcoming challenges caused me to cry uncontrollably. Most certainly, this is not an expected reaction to songs that you love.

Before I delve into the healing part of the story, I’ll share a recent song that seems to encapsulate what I must have been feeling during college and, many times since then: “Unsteady” by X Ambassadors. The songs in this chapter get at this sentiment. “Unsteady” struck a chord with me because I was hearing it on the radio at the same time that I was processing feelings of unsteadiness from my past. Although no one who knows me, other than maybe my wife, Theresa, might associate the song or the word with me, the tone of the song appears to be one of the primary emotions I’ve been blocking for all of these years.

Hold on…hold on to me…’cuz I’m a little unsteady.

Unsteady (X-Ambassadors)

But the song, “Unsteady,” is not about being abandoned in a relationship, it’s about the feeling of not having anyone to depend on (to hold on to) when you are fighting for survival.

Daddy I feel alone…because this house don’t feel like home.

But the feeling I was having was not due to a lack of support, but because I didn’t want to admit weakness or need, which is not considered a desirable masculine trait in our society.

I know you are trying … to fight when you feel like flying.

In fact, college was the only time that I came close to quitting, but thankfully my advisor, Professor Sutton, talked me off the ledge. I’ve approached all other challenges since surviving Stanford in the same fashion, even though this underlying unsteadiness has always been there. When I ran for public office, when I served as an elected official, and when I facilitated community dialogues/forums, I felt unsure of my ability to handle the situation at hand. But, I possessed the ability to bury the emotions. Many times I did want to just fly away but was able to fight the urge. I did learn that through perseverance much can be accomplished, and I am blessed in that I have been able to meet many of my personal and professional goals.

I highlight the song, “Unsteady,” because this feeling appears to be an omni-present feeling in my life even to this day. I will note that this is a sentiment that exists in the periphery and adds a certain paleness to my everyday experience. I became good at ignoring or suppressing emotions—and then I started writing this book and starting going to therapy for help with my way of coping (or not coping) with emotion. That was when I realized that the feelings that had piled up for over 50 years had not disappeared and were now ready to be released.

Although I was “unsteady” and have been since, music provided the steadiness I needed. Two other relatively new songs also demonstrate how I would move from unsteady to steady using music: “Don’t Wanna Fight No More” by Alabama Shakes and “Mountain at My Gates” by Foals. These three songs received a lot of airplay during the time I was writing this section, and the emotional impact that they provided was significant enough that I could identify them as the kind of songs that could bring comfort to an unsteady soul.

The educated guess that I’ll make about how these songs could heal the unhealthy feeling(s) I was having, is through both the highs and lows in the vocals, the lyrics and the music. And here is where my optimism bias helps me find a positive inclination in the songs and not solely a negative inclination. In the despair inherent in the songs, there is a request for help from a loved one or simply the Creator. When the songs end, the high notes have left an imprint on our subconscious so that we don’t need to dwell solely on the low notes. Our subconscious knows that there are always high notes in the song and in life.

My reflections on the music of my college days led me to notice similar patterns in the three songs noted above. The rest of the songs and albums that I mention in this chapter invariably have a knack for not solely acknowledging personal shortcomings and/or life challenges but offering encouragement and support so as not to allow the knowledge of these shortcomings to inhibit movement towards a state where the shortcomings cease to exist or to be shortcomings at all.

Songs for the Journey of Life

“Life is a journey” is a trite saying but a fitting description of the experience that we call life. A journey is not a short term endeavor. In the totality of the journey, there will be trials and tribulations, triumphs and failures, sorrows & joys. The longer the journey, the more likely that you will experience loss or calamity. For me, it’s common sense that we go through trying periods since we know all is not good for everyone in the world. And if all is not good for everyone in the world, then it is only logical to assume that we all may take a turn at experiencing the challenges inherent in life. It is not only fair, but, really, it is inevitable. The fact that we are mortal beings necessitates that we all experience loss. That we are surprised when loss happens is what’s confounding.

When we reflect upon our lives, we think fondly of the high points and often wish to forget the low points. But it’s the low points that test our mettle, that make us who we are. If you do not experience struggle, then you are not living. Life is struggle! I’m sure that someone wiser than me should be credited with that quote, but it’s an idea that I’ve come to embrace. If you are comfortable, then you are not experiencing life to the fullest. You must first identify and then test life’s boundaries. And when you live on the edge, anything can happen, and it may not all be good. Thus, care is of the essence as one explores the boundaries of our existence. I believe life rewards us with an enhanced potential for greatness when we challenge ourselves. Failing to do so limits our options for the future.

This chapter of my life begins with my arrival on the Stanford University campus in 1985 and ends immediately after having earned my Masters degree from the University of Texas at Austin. The individual songs I have chosen tend to elicit a multitude of emotions through changes in the composition and lyrics. I begin with this magnificent song by U2 because it seems to simultaneously convey both sadness and hopefulness.

Because of the song title, “Drowning Man,” one immediately thinks about literally drowning. The song, while musically creating a sense of melancholy, begins with a message of hope:

Take my hand. You know I’ll be there. If you can, I’ll cross the sky for your love.

Drowning Man (U2)

I underline the “you” and the “I” in order to point out that there are two actors: the person who is drowning and the Creator. The songwriters don’t even need to describe what events actually led to the “drowning.” We, ourselves, can fill in the blanks with the very situations that cause us to feel the way we do. What U2 provides is reassurance that we are not alone. Often, having someone remind us of that fact that we are not alone is all that we need to shake the feeling of loneliness and isolation.

I was feeling lonely and isolated at Stanford because I felt different in terms of appearance and ability. The next two songs on this song list, John Mellencamp’s “Danger List” and Triumph’s “Ordinary Man,” deal with these feelings of inadequacy. Both of these bands date back to my high school days so their music is pretty much part of my DNA.

The two songs put us through rollercoaster rides that differ quite dramatically. “Danger List” has a great electric guitar intro but immediately takes on a somber mood when the vocals begin. In each verse, a concern is outlined but the chorus brings the mood back up where the main character adopts an attitude not of despair but of hope.

I ain’t looking for affection. I guess I need myself a shove.
Give me someone I can look up to. Give me someone I can love.

Danger List (John Cougar Mellencamp)

So, no matter if girls don’t give you the time of day, if people make you feel insecure, if the Creator is judging you, the song helps you feel like help may be around the corner. The most powerful part of this song is when the main character asks the Creator to “fly him up to heaven.” After this lyric, all goes silent, musically, for eight counts except for the drumsticks tapping on a muted cymbal. The person in the story is waiting and waiting and waiting for an answer from above, and, from my perspective, the prayer is answered in the form of an electric guitar. The guitar kicks in with a forward driving rhythm (for 32 counts) and then the chorus brings it on home: “I ain’t looking for affection…” It’s a spectacular musical experience which is strengthening from an emotional and psychological point of view.

The Canadian rock trio, Triumph, was my favorite band when I got to Stanford and while “Ordinary Man” was not one of their hits that could be heard on the radio, it takes us on an emotional journey. It begins with a couple of verses featuring just acoustic guitar and vocals. The theme of self-doubt and confusion about the world dominates. In verse three, the song starts rockin’ and evolves into expression of disgust, not despair, about the state of affairs in the world and challenges the listener to take a stand. But, with that challenge and subsequent realization that we may need to take action in order to change society, the song returns to the more somber mood in the following verse:

Once I thought the truth was gonna set me free
But now I feel the chains of its responsibility
I will not be a puppet I cannot play it safe
I'll give myself away with a blind and simple faith
I'm just the same as you, I just do the best I can
That's the only answer...for an ordinary man.

Ordinary Man (Triumph)

Now, in the song by Boston. I’m kind of intrigued about the fact that Boston’s song, “Don’t Look Back,” is not in the top ten downloads on iTunes for this band. For me it competes strongly with “More than a Feeling” for the top spot of my Boston favorites. It may be because “Don’t Look Back” has a musical interlude that totally halts that hard driving rhythm. These days, it seems like people want what they want and any deviation from what they expect is not acceptable. This attitude does not allow for nuance and complexity in the songwriting and album making process. Ironically, it is the musical interlude of this song that led me to include it in this song list.

The lyrics that precede the musical interlude set the stage for what is an emotional spaceship ride instead of a rollercoaster ride.

I finally see the dawn arrivin'
I see beyond the road I'm drivin'
Far away and left behind…left behind

Don’t Look Back (Boston)

I reference a “spaceship ride,” instead of rollercoaster ride, because spaceships are common images in the album covers used by the band. I always imagined the guitar sound produced by Boston guitarist, Tom Scholz, to be powerful enough to power a spaceship. This idea of propelling a spaceship is what comes to my mind in the musical interlude of the song. After the lyrics quoted above, the song almost comes to a complete halt. The spaceship is in cruise control. The guitar solo begins slowly and methodically. When the singers says, “Awwh…the sun is shining and I’m on that road,” then the engine is ignited, the rocket boosters are fired-up, and then lift-off occurs. Once the launch is initiated, there’s no looking back. You are overcome and overwhelmed by the power and the intensity of the launch, and the next leg of your life’s journey begins. At this point, there’s no looking back, no time for second guessing. You’ve committed to this path and it may be a while before the path affords you the time for a visit home.

The musical interlude is the only part of the song that acknowledges that leaving the past behind is easier said than done. The hard-driving nature of the song tries to give us the encouragement and inspiration needed to leave the past behind but via the guitar solo the song incorporates that last final look-back before launching into the unknown.

The song, “Master of Puppets,” by Metallica takes you on a similar ride as “Don’t Look Back,” except in this case the lyrics in no way provide an escape route. I always considered “Master of Puppets” to be an anti-war song not so much because of the lyrics but because of the album cover. The album is also entitled Master of Puppets and shows a puppeteer with strings leading to what appear to be the white crosses at Arlington National Cemetery. Most others who comment on the lyric suggest that the “master” in the song refers to the control drugs exact over the user. Whatever your interpretation, in this song, it is the guitar solo that provides motivation to persevere and rebel, not the lyrics. At 3:33, the song turns from a speed metal tempo to a much slower and somber guitar solo, a mood that may set in when one realizes the existence of a difficult predicament. You’d like to just ball up into the fetal position. This mood holds for a minute and 14 seconds (until 4:47) and then the guitar kicks in to show you the way out. The guitars’ and drums’ intensity increase as you find the strength to lift yourself up, broaden your shoulders, flex your muscles and prepare to fight your way out of the situation. When the song resumes its speed metal tempo, the antagonist attempts to exert its power over you, but now its claims and threats ring hollow. You stand toe to toe with it and demonstrate who holds the true power (…you do)!

I wrestled with myself on the last single for this section from The Doors. The song, “When the Music’s Over,” won out in the end. I had originally picked “L.A. Woman.” I really like Morrison’s question to the City in “L.A. Woman:” “Are you of the night or of the light?” Either way, Morrison and The Doors love this lady, and it is o.k. to love something imperfect for we are all imperfect. That is a powerful thing to recognize. I chose “When the Music’s Over” instead of “L.A. Woman” because of the complex arrangements, layered meanings and the classic lyrics, especially: “music is your only friend, until the end.” This line by itself should be enough said about this song for what I am trying to convey in this book, but I’ll say a tad more about the song.

This song, like the others songs in the current song-list and like many other tunes by The Doors, have a trance inducing effect. The thing about “When the Music is Over” is that the trance that is induced is of much longer duration. The lyrics are so thought provoking and the song so lengthy that you can ponder a lyric as the song continues to unfold and feel like you are not being left behind. Other great lines in the song worth mentioning are:

Before I sink into the big sleep, I want to hear the scream of the butterfly
Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection, send my credential to the House of Detention
We want the world and we want it …NOW!

Music is everything to Jim Morrison, and he would rather not continue in this life if what music means to him ceases to exist. He even alludes to the fact that if he can’t take music with him to the next life then he would rather be sent elsewhere. The last lyric quoted above seems to me to refer to those who seek to destroy or limit access to everything of beauty in this earth. We cannot allow the destruction or limitations on authentic beauty!

Inseparable Songs

I label these songs as “inseparable” because they are songs that are forever entangled in my head when I think of the particular albums from which they derive. It is almost as if I cannot listen to one without listening to all of them or else I feel that I will miss out on what the musicians accomplished via the recording. The Jane’s Addiction and REM song sequences represent a rollercoaster ride of thoughts and emotions that very much follow the restorative process that I outlined in the previous chapter.

The Jane’s Addiction mini-song list is from the album, Nothing’s Shocking, the group’s first album. The album is shocking not only in the image on the cover but in the ground that the album covers musically. These songs are representative of the flavor of the entire album, but these songs are killer as standalone tunes as well as in this specific sequence. The mood in “Summertime Rolls,” the first song in the series, is ethereal. It sends you to the place where dreams are made. This is one of two songs, of all of the songs mentioned in this book, that electrify my entire brain when I hear it (especially when I listen with headphones). It literally feels like every synapse in my brain is firing.

“Summertime Rolls” helps you dream in order to forget about this cruel world, then “Mountain Song” blows you away with its defiance of what this cruel world does to people, and “Idiots Rule” makes fun of the cruel ones because they “ain’t nothing but idiots.” This song always made me think that if idiots can rule then why couldn’t I? “Idiots Rule” is a funk inspired rock song with a funk-a-fied stunning interplay of guitars, horns, bass and vocals. Years later, I’ve come to think of “Idiot’s Rule” as a very Austin-sounding song (stylistically).

The REM series of songs is from the album, Green. An interesting thing about the albums highlighted in this section, is that none of them are my favorite albums from those bands. For REM, I would say Document is my favorite and for Jane’s Addiction I would say it is the album Ritual de lo Habitual. I didn’t even get around to buying Green for a long time because I couldn’t stand the song “Stand,” no pun intended. I felt betrayed by the band in some way because of that one song that got played over and over again. When I finally bought and listened to the entire album, I learned to appreciate the song (at least a little more) in the context of the album as a whole.

Green is an interesting name for the album for a few reasons. First of all, the album cover is orange and not green which is the first indication that the band is trying to make a statement. Not being “green” seems to be the point of the album. If people think you are “green” then that doesn’t make it so. If people think you are idealistic, then so what. The album is defiant in its affirmation of standing by what you believe in and taking action in accordance with your beliefs. The album also stands for being respectful and humane in our expression of our beliefs.

The four-song sequence from Green is intense. On any given day that I listen to this song sequence any of the songs can cause the tears to start flowing. “The Wrong Child” refers to a child who is alienated and isolated (in some ways literally and in some ways figuratively), and who, for some reason, can’t relate to the other kids that he/she sees and interacts with.

I’m not supposed to be like this. But it’s Okaaaaaay!

The Wrong Child (REM)

That lyric was always a stinging one for me, not because I felt that I was the kid in the song but because of the cruelty of which people are capable. Now that I’ve reflected on my feelings from adolescence, I can totally see myself being that kid. The statement “I’m not supposed to be like this…” rings so close to home now because of the discovery of my own unique relationship with emotions. It’s not supposed to be like this. But, its okaaaaaay? You will note that I pose “its okaaaaay” as a question. I want it to be o.k. for me to be different, but I’m not sure that it is. And I’m not o.k. with a society that makes you feel like being different is bad/strange and not just a plain old fact of life. Every single person is different in some way. I should not have to feel conflicted because people may find out my particular way of being different.

“The Wrong Child” gives way to the defiance in “Orange Crush.” In a way, the vulnerability of the first song opens up the heart/spirit and allows for the driving music and message of “Orange Crush” to strengthen these aspects of the self. The typical way that I would use a song like “Orange Crush” is to strengthen my spirit by wishing that the injustice be crushed (and my personal vulnerability along with it). But the message in “Orange Crush” does not allow you to think of dealing a crushing blow to the “man,” at least not in the physical sense. It challenges us to deal the crushing blow to the war machine by making decisions based on what our conscience tells us and not what society or the mass media tell us. The next song, “Turn You Inside Out,” is another hard driving song that does not let you off the hook.

I could turn you inside out, but I choose not to

Turn You Inside Out (REM)

The cruelty in the world (“The Wrong Child”) and the great loss of life due to the short-sightedness and narrow-mindedness of war (“Orange Crush”) creates this feeling of hatred toward the people and systems that permit this type of behavior. The musical drive of “Orange Crush” and “Turn You Inside Out” feed the feeling of anger and frustration at this reality, but the lyrics don’t allow you to crush those societal elements or the related emotions we harbor within ourselves. Instead the songs remind us that we are individuals with free will that do not have to stoop to that level. The song suggests that “it’s what you do” that matters. If that is true, then I can choose not to “turn you inside out” even though I could.

The series ends with one of the most beautiful of REM songs, “Hairshirt.” The song builds on the sentiment in “Turn You Inside Out,” that because we have the power to affect other people (with our words and actions) then we should use that power wisely and responsibly. In “Hairshirt,” the band further challenges us to stop making ourselves out to be victims in our relationships and acknowledge that we play a more pivotal role in our own happiness than other people do. But, we often blame other people for our unhappiness. By hanging up the hairshirt, we can stop the self-inflicted pain and start enjoying this beautiful life once again.

The Importance of Perspective

Certain albums speak to us without articulating the message outright. I don’t know that the albums on this list are considered “concept albums,” but they most certainly appear to be organized around a central theme. I chose seven albums that speak to me about topics that I have constantly revisited throughout my life. The albums by Pink Floyd and Rush address quite directly my reason for writing this book. When you observe human behavior, it just doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense. The album covers of both records almost tell the whole story. The prism image in Dark Side of the Moon suggests that something that has a simple appearance (like a beam of light) might actually be much more complex if you study it: like time, money, death and human behavior/motivations. The album cover in Permanent Waves echoes this sentiment. The scene on the cover of this classic Rush album is an apocalyptic one with the exception of an attractive woman who is smiling and a guy across the street waving at her, both apparently oblivious to the devastation that surrounds them. Thankfully, the themes in Permanent Waves describe not only the devastating consequences of our current behavior but also suggest a better way of being.

The first album that I will explore in depth is the Iron Maiden album, Piece of Mind. The album really does appear to be focused on things that human beings at different points in our evolution thought would bring “peace of mind” (e.g., defeating those who threaten our freedom, taming/controlling fire, taming/controlling the land, mastering the power of flight, etc.). The album is great from a musical composition standpoint. The album grows even larger in stature when you consider the linkage of the lyrical content to the overarching theme that I suggest (i.e., “peace of mind” versus “piece of mind”). I will end this discussion of Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind with the opening lines of the song Revelation, credited in the album liner notes to a hymnal by G.K. Chesterton. The revelation in this case is that each individual has the potential to achieve peace of mind through the attainment of spiritual enlightenment. Fortunately, spiritual enlightenment is something we can choose to pursue. But will we?

O God of Earth and Altar
Bow down and hear our cry
Our earthly rulers falter
Our people drift and die
The walls of gold entomb us
The swords of scorn divide
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.

Revelation (Iron Maiden)

Like the album Piece of Mind, Led Zeppelin also pulls a slight of hand on us with its title for the album Physical Graffiti. While the album title suggests a physical mark on the body, such as a tattoo or scar, the subject matter of the songs on the album leaves more of an emotional or psychological mark. Most of the songs dwell on memorable experiences regarding sex, drugs, love won, love lost, etc. as well as how one responds to those experiences. My two favorite songs on the album, “In My Time of Dying” and “In the Light,” convey perspectives on death and spirituality. Interestingly, these two songs not only consider what happens to the main character but also what happens to the secondary characters mentioned in the songs. The main character in one song does not want their death mourned by others (because peace has finally come), and the main character in the second song seeks to share “the light” with another character. In a way, these two songs seek to shield the ones we love from life’s pain, a sentiment to which I can most certainly relate. Finally, three songs on Physical Graffiti (i.e., “Kashmir,” “Bron-yr-ar,” and “Down by the Seaside”) speak to the strong connections that may be formed with physical places. Whether it’s our home town, weekend home or a foreign/vacation destination that we’ve visited, these places create powerful memories of significant life events and remind us that there is much to appreciate in life: past, present and future.

Nirvana’s album, In Utero, is definitely my go-to Nirvana album. Once I got hooked on that album, I could hardly bring myself to listen to the others. In Utero take things a step further than Dark Side of the Moon and Permanent Waves by not pondering the question about how misguided or misinformed we are as a species, but by asking whether we are programmed to be this way as human beings or individually, before we are even born. It appears that we have no idea regarding the right way to act like human beings, so we act more like apes than humans. It appears that we value people of means and status more than people who have not. In “Serve the Servants,” Cobain suggests that we should turn this system on its head and have the masters “serve the servants,” and see what that does to our perspective. The bottom line is that we are all of the same species, and all of our diapers smell when we are babes. So why do we figuratively (and at times literally) “rape” and “milk” each other. Why do we try to put people in “heart-shaped boxes” that are of our creation? No matter the shape of the box, it is still a box! The bottom line is that most of us make excuses (i.e., apologies) to permit this treatment to continue because we benefit from it. In the end, Nirvana warns us that “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge” (i.e., those who have been wronged will be avenged).

We turn to the related topics of fear, anger and rage by considering the Black Album by Metallica and the self-titled debut by Rage Against the Machine. These two albums were just stunning to me the first time I heard them. The powerful rhythms, guitar riffs, and song writing were difficult to comprehend. The music makes you feel alive, cutting through the B.S. of life and speaking a truth that makes the world humans have manufactured look as plastic as it really is. When I want to remind myself that the B.S. of life means so little, I turn to Rage albums 1, 2 & 3, Metallica albums: Master of Puppets, And Justice for All, and St. Anger, or to anything by Jimi Hendrix. To be fair to other bands whose work I find transcendent of life’s B.S., I’ll add the first three albums of the bands, Primus and Santana, to the list of albums that give me the feeling of being able to see fakeness for what it really is.

We move from Pink Floyd and Rush asking “why are we the way we are” in a thought-provoking way, to Metallica’s anger towards human tendencies that make no sense and that impact our ability to evolve individually and collectively. It goes without saying that anger is a typical theme in rock music, particularly in the heavy metal genre. I picked Metallica’s Black Album for this album list not only because it is a musical tour de force but also because it provides a good overview of the topic of anger. If you had any doubt about Metallica’s commitment to the subject of anger, I would point to the album entitled St. Anger. Now, if canonizing a saint in honor of this emotion does not represent commitment, then I don’t know what does.

I would argue that hypocrisy is one of the things that most irks this iconic band. The “code of rock-n-roll” that I previously outlined includes a call for being authentic (i.e., to despise all things that are fake, Principle 9),” but Metallica calls out those who quite unabashedly profess one thing but whose actions betray their public claims. Christians and politicians who profess their Christianity and fail to act Christ-like are probably the ones who most effectively provoke the ire of Metallica and those who abhor hypocrisy. Now, the challenge with rock stars pointing out things that may be morally questionable (no matter how self-evident or apparent) is that these observations are coming from rock stars who tend to live (or at one point in their lives to have lived) very hedonistic life styles. It is easy for Christians who are challenged by those who are prone to debauchery to discount the charges leveled against them. But if the claim is true then does it really matter who is making the claim? Both sides feel they are right, and, thus, the cultural divide persists. As a society and a species, our evolution remains frozen in time and place.

In the song, “Holier Than Thou,” the chorus contends that if you think that you are holier than others then almost by definition you are NOT holy and “you know not” what it even means or takes to be holy. The other songs that I want to highlight from Black Album run in the same vein: parents who physically, emotionally or psychologically abuse their kids, know not (or care not about) the obstacles they create for them as their lives unfold; those who seek to limit the freedom of others, know not what it means for liberty to be an unalienable right; and those who think they can control what happens to humanity on this earth, know not the vastness in power and scale of the universe. These types of hypocrisy have terrible consequences for society. The beliefs and behavior of others/society cause us to lead lives that are characterized by misery and fear instead of being characterized by joy and love as they should be. Surrounded by such enormous inconsistencies, is it any wonder that there is a struggle that rages within us, a point the final song on Black Album drives home.

The importance of anger cannot be downplayed as we transition to the featured album by Rage Against the Machine, especially since the last song on the album, “Freedom,” includes the refrain: “anger is a gift.” In the case of Rage Against the Machine, “anger is a gift” because it plays a very important a purpose. The anger and frustration that we feel in response to what we see happening is our intellect’s way of telling us that “something ain’t right” with how things operate. We have a right to those feelings of anger and frustration. Unfortunately, we sometimes blame ourselves for having fallen short of standards that have been set by others for purposes that may not be advantageous to us but may be advantageous to the elite. While I could write volumes about each and every Rage Against the Machine song, I will focus on three songs from this incomparable debut album: “Settle for Nothing,” “Know Your Enemy,” and “Township Rebellion.”

I chose these songs because one, “Settle for Nothing,” focuses on the attitude that is necessary for overcoming our individual circumstances and the other, “Township Rebellion,” focuses on the attitude that is necessary for achieving the social change that is needed in our country. The final one, “Know Your Enemy,” clearly outlines what we should be raging against. The context for the analysis of “Settle for Nothing” cannot be laid out any clearer than by sharing the lyrics themselves:

A world of violent rage
But its one that I can recognize
Having never seen the color of my father’s eyes
Yes, I dwell I hell, but it’s a hell that I can grip
I tried to grip my family, but I slipped

Read my writing on the wall
No one’s here to catch me when I fall
Caught between my culture and the system
Genocide

Settle for Nothing (Rage Against the Machine)

The words themselves have a piercing effect on us, even if we don’t have a direct connection with the situations described. We are all subject to the constant assault of media images of violence, but what affect does violence have on you as a kid when the violence is literally happening in your neighborhood? It would be hard enough to process if you had your family to lean on, but how much harder does it get when you don’t have that kind of support? Wouldn’t it kind of piss you off if you found out that your situation is drastically different from that of other families and communities, that life outcomes (i.e., health, income, education, etc.) can be predicted based on your skin color and zip code? I would venture to say that anger and rage is a natural reaction to the revelation of such disparity in the land of opportunity.

Rage Against the Machine not only validates the feelings of anger and frustration that people in these situations may harbor, they also offer a suggestion for a way out. The way may not be easy, but the fact that an exit exists may at least provide a sense of possibility. In this song, the way out is conveyed as an urgent plea in the chorus:

If we don’t take action now, we’ll settle for nothing later.
If we settle for nothing now, then we’ll settle for nothing later.

Settle for Nothing (Rage Against the Machine)

The outcomes won’t change for our families, our neighborhoods, our cities, our country and our world if we keep behaving in the same way. The systems and institutions that are in place magnify existing barriers and inequities. So, if we have nothing now and settle for that, there is no hope that we’ll have more than nothing in the future. We must first work to supersede the barriers that we confront, but we should not stop there. For every individual success story, there are ten times as many people (or likely more) who don’t make it. If we navigate the systems and institutions to achieve our individual success, the systems and institutions remain in place. If we settle for no change now, then we’ll have no change later.

The main message from “Township Rebellion” is “speak out and don’t conform” which builds upon what is conveyed in “Settle for Nothing” and echoes messages from other songs on this album. The question Rage Against the Machine poses is: “why stand on a silent platform, fight the war, f@ck the norm.” We can’t stand on the sidelines and expect change to happen. Through their in-your-face style, Rage Against the Machine is trying to make us take note that “our people still dwell in hell, locked in a cell.” This is a powerful message which is made even more powerful by the rest of the album where each song conveys a different element of their plan for societal change. I’ll end the section with a quote from “Know Your Enemy” which does a good job of defining the enemy:

Yes, I know my enemy:
Compromise
Conformity
Assimilation
Submission
Ignorance
Hypocrisy
Brutality
The elite

Know Your Enemy (Rage Against the Machine)

Few artists have the guts to speak so honestly and forcefully. Although they point the finger at “the machine,” they do so only to help us understand that the machine exists. You can get off the conveyor belt, but you first have to decide to jump off.

A Relentless Focus on a Theme

I’ll end by re-invoking the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose song was featured on a song list from the last chapter, and Jane’s Addiction who have a three-song pairing of inseparable songs featured earlier in this chapter. For RHCP, the songs referenced range from 1999 to 2016 (a 17 year period) and for Jane’s Addiction the albums referenced range from 1988 to 2011 (a 23 year period). The range for RHCP would have been longer if I also would have included their first two albums as a reference (which are the reason I liked them as a band), but the music from Californication onward affects me in a much different way, and I felt I needed to convey that in some way. For Jane’s Addiction, I include all four studio albums not because they only have four studio albums but because there’s a pattern that I noticed across the four albums that I thought was worth highlighting.

I picked these two groups because the music they continue to put out continues to speak to me today as it did when I was a teenager. I really feel they are trying to tell us something important that they’ve learned about life through their experiences. I could feel what they were conveying but not always grasp it exactly. This is my attempt to grasp the message as my way of honoring the effort they made to share something real and thus something of great value to those who choose to listen.

Songs of Healing (Red Hot Chili Peppers)

“Otherside” (Californication - 1999)

“Dark Necessities” (The Getaway – 2016)

“Can’t Stop” (By the Way - 2002)

“Did I Let You Know” (I’m With You - 2011)

I am not going to do an extensive analysis of songs from RHCP and Jane’s Addiction that deal with the theme of addiction. Instead I will pick four songs from each that follow the restorative process I outlined in the last chapter and mentioned again in this chapter. The restorative process may begin with the acknowledgment of the addiction, but it ends with songs that show how we might change our thinking to overcome those addictions. This is the process I’ve used to address issues that come up in my life, so the examples outline the mechanics I have used. I would note that the pursuit of this process was subconscious when I was in high school and college, but it is intentional in the way that I use it now. The intentionality of the approach magnifies its therapeutic effect.

The first two songs in my four song combination from RHCP are “Otherside” (1999) and “Dark Necessities” (2016). I almost didn’t include “Otherside” on the list because it is so honest about how it feels to be addicted to drugs, including the futility that comes along with believing that one can overcome this kind of obstacle. While the message relating to drug addiction in “Dark Necessities” is not that much more positive than the message in “Otherside,” the beat is much more inspirational which suggests that they are trying to communicate something different. The main character’s claim that “Dark Necessities” are ingrained in him is not coming from a place of futility but from a place of self-awareness. In the song it appears that the main character’s reaction to the judgment (or perceived judgment) of others is to say, “you don’t know my situation so don’t judge.” But we all judge others, as if we had no issues of our own. Implicit in the song’s message is: “I know that the solution lies in my willingness to change and to make different decisions going forward. That’s what matters. What YOU think of me is not an important part of the equation for achieving MY recovery goals.” RHCP adds another point for working to overcome addiction, and that is that the joy that comes from pursing fame and fortune (including addictions of all sorts) is a cheap “imitation” of the joy that comes from other more meaningful outlets.

The song, “Can’t Stop,” builds on the themes of perseverance and understanding conveyed in, “Dark Necessities,” and then begins the turn towards defiance. The main character fears death but does not want to end up like others who have overdosed, so he keeps trying to get clean. There are battles with inner demons and inner voices steering him towards relapse that he tries to wage using different tools like meditation, spirituality, music (of all types) and song writing, the outlet that seems to work best. The main character appears to rely on the principle in our “code of rock-n-roll” that despises things that are fake. He appears to be telling himself that if he is a true rocker, he must despise the place to which drugs take him (i.e., “a life of imitation). To truly live life is to learn about the greatness and vastness of Creation and to be an active participant in Creation, exemplified in the final line: “this life is more than just a read through.”

We round our RHCP rock therapy song list with the understanding and defiance of “Did I Let You Know.” The infectious beat transports you to a more hopeful place that is fueled by love. There is a reference to the love of the beautiful music that humans can make as well as the power that music has to help you connect with Creation and with each other in a deep way. The following phrase delivers the knock-out blow: “this I know…we’re not alone…take me home.” Connections with others is key to our well-being so we must seek out and embrace these opportunities and not give in to the tendencies that cause us to want to isolate ourselves from others.

I won’t be doing a song-by-song analysis of what Jane’s Addiction has imparted over their career on the subject of addiction since we covered a lot of ground in the RHCP part of this section, but I want to hone in on what became a peculiar observation about the four studio albums recorded by Jane’s Addition. The first album, Nothing’s Shocking, delves into the actual sensation of feeling high in “Mountain Song” and the consequences of drug use in “Jane Says,” with this song being pivotal to the group given its connection to the band/s name. Other songs in Nothing’s Shocking also delve into the question of what may have led to the need to seek out drug use in the first place (i.e., “Had a Dad,” “Standing in the Shower Thinking”).

The titles of the next three albums also appear to be sending a message: Ritual de lo Habitual, Strays, and The Great Escape Artist. Ritual de lo Habitual starts with the unapologetic “Stop!” which suggests that they do drugs and have no plans on stopping. The most famous song on Ritual de lo Habitual (and maybe the most famous of all of Jane’s Addiction songs), “Been Caught Stealing,” assumes a similar stance but with regard to the need to steal and not the need to get high. So really, it appears that Nothing’s Shocking represents an initial delving into the topic of addiction and Ritual de lo Habitual doubles down on this choice of subject matter for the band.

Thirteen years elapsed between Ritual de lo Habitual and the next two albums, Strays and The Great Escape Artist. Strays suggests a feeling of being lost, perhaps because of their addiction to drugs and possibly because of their addiction to being famous. The final album, The Great Escape Artist, which comes eight years after Strays and twenty-three years after their first album, appears to send the message that they have survived their addictions. The album title, The Great Escape Artist, may allude to the fact that they have “lived to tell about it.”

I have developed about 15 song groupings that I refer to as my rock therapy regimen, and three of the song groupings involve songs by Jane’s Addiction. Of course, the song list from the RHCP that I just shared is one of those 15 groupings. Earlier in this chapter, I shared a list of what I consider to be “inseparable songs,” and the one that involved Jane’s Addiction constitutes three out of the four songs of one grouping. A second Jane’s Addiction song group comes from Ritual de lo Habitual, and the third set comes from The Great Escape Artist. I will share the rock therapy song list from The Great Escape Artist because one of the songs from that song group was on my list of songs of strength and inspiration from the previous chapter, specifically “Twisted Tales.” Here is the list in its entirety:

Songs of Healing (Jane’s Addiction)

“Underground”

“Irresistible Force”

“Splash a Little Water on It”

“Twisted Tales”

The first song introduces the main character who is someone who has had to hustle to survive. Initially, he survived by navigating an underground scene. Ultimately, he found success in the world that exists above ground, but feels more comfortable in the underground because “there ain’t enough [love] to go around” up there. He has come to mourn the loss of a fellow hustler from the underground and to help lay this comrade to rest. He says he’ll never give up the underground, but it appears that he is straddling the line between both worlds. One thing that he appears to be trying to convey is “once a hustler, always a hustler.”

The song, “Irresistible Force,” enters the scene here and appears to introduce some kind of conflict. It isn’t clear what the conflict is, exactly, but the conflict is unexpected. I take it to mean that the band is in the fake world of rock stardom and their innate nature (as hustlers) clashes with what they are asked to “be” and how they are asked to behave. The clash is that of an “irresistible force meeting the immovable object.” The situation is maddening which creates a lot of tension and drives band members to search for avenues of escape. The typical forms of escape for a rock star, of course, bring with them a great amount of risk and a second set of conflicting forces (the quest to stay clean vs the urge to use).

When I experience this song, I do not experience the story that unfolds in the song because it in no way mirrors my life. I experience a violent clash, but the feeling that is manifesting comes from deep within my brain. What I suspect I am experiencing is that the decade upon decade of suppressed feelings are trying to battle their way out of the emotional vault that is tucked away in my brain. The clash that is occurring is between those emotions that seek to be freed and the survival mechanisms that also exist in my brain that doesn’t want to feel those things. When the chorus in the song says “banging and banging and banging,” I am literally feeling an intense pressure in my head. It took me over year to gain an understanding of what two forces were at odds. This explanation seems to bring comfort to my brain, so I think I may be on to something.

The song, “Splash a Little Water on It,” outlines another challenge for rock stars, that of having meaningful relationships. The scene outlined is of a couple that really is into each other but with each having different needs. Those of us who are not rock stars would have trouble keeping up with a rock star who has a high tolerance for alcohol and other mood/mind altering substances plus the ability to go without sleep for long periods of time. It appears that in this story the female character continues to try to keep up the pace but is severely hampered in a physical and emotional sense. The male rock star “splashes a little water” on her (figuratively speaking) from time to time to see if she's still alive and kicking. He knows she cannot take much more, so he lets her rest. This doesn’t mean that he stays home to tend to her needs. He’s got his rock star way of doing things and feels compelled to maintain the balance established (assuming there is a balance that exists). Where does that leave her? Where does that leave them? There is no easy answer. I can argue for the behavior of the rock star given what I’ve read of other rock stars who feel this pressure to clean up their act, but I can just as easily argue against the behavior and for a more humane treatment of the woman involved here.

The feelings evoked in me by this song are very difficult ones. I definitely don’t relate to the rock star figure even though I may have achieved some level of notoriety. As I have alluded to before, I am more of an introvert than an extrovert but I had to play the part of an extrovert to get elected to public office and to appear to behave like a politician. It is not a difficult act to replicate, because the character type is pretty well defined. In a way, I am like the female character in the song and truly feel at times that I am so out of sorts in having to still play the character I created when I ran for public office. I could try to be my more authentic self, but I probably would not have been hired in my current and previous jobs if I was not “the character” everyone considers me to be. Sometimes I figuratively splash water on myself to see if maybe I don’t have any life left in me. Inevitably, I come to the realization that I am still kicking. As long as I have a breath in me, I will continue to fight for my family and my community. It’s all I know to do, and it’s got me this far.

The final song in this rock therapy song group, “Twisted Tales,” is one I discussed in depth in the previous chapter. What I’ll call attention to from that analysis is how the story that is being told ends. Essentially, the character in the song I perceive to be a fighter (i.e., someone that fights in a boxing ring). This fighter is like a bulldog, relentless. He may go down, but he’ll never stay down. He never quits. He just keeps getting back up and fighting. This song list and the album The Great Escape Artist are outlining the survival skills that are needed in life: you have to be a hustler and you have to be fighter. If you take this tact, then you can be a survivor and a “great escape artist.” Those are the sentiments that the song evokes in me, and I’ve clung to those feeling all of my life. Since I always lived to fight another day by looking inward and not outward (for help from others), I developed the view that “I don’t need anything from anyone.” I don’t recommend adopting this view. For me, it was a survival mechanism. It is exhausting physically, emotionally and psychologically, and it is not sustainable. It is a miracle I made it to this ripe old age, and I have a few theories about how and why it is that I did survive this long. For some reason, it seems appropriate to quote radio personality, Paul Harvey (RIP) at this time: “and now … the rest of the story.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.