There is a time in each of our lives when we finally realize there is good music beyond the tastes of our parents. Or that our parents’ taste in music isn’t much to our liking.
I was twelve when the musical world expanded for me. It came during a day at a friend’s house that involved destroying cans with a BB gun, riding a bike into a tree, and listening to music I’d never heard before on three tapes:
1. Dr. Demento’s 20th Anniversary Collection – It was absurd and stupid and crazy and exactly what a 12-year-old boy would enjoy. Some of it I’d heard before, Weird Al’s “Eat It”, Steve Martin’s “King Tut”, but songs/skits like “Star Trekkin'” and “Ti Kwan Leap/Boot To The Head” (now “Nah nahhhh” is ringing in my head) were brilliant comedy to a young Jason.
2. They Might Be Giants Flood – I mean, c’mon. This song was written for the young and the young at heart. By this time TMBG weren’t entirely new to me – the Tiny Tunes Music Television episode featuring “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” had aired earlier that year – but to hear the entire album, start to finish, was an eye opening experience. Flood continues to be one of my top 20 albums and is something I’m excited to play for my boys.
3. REM Out Of Time – It’s not REM’s best album, but at the time and in my world it was their only album and it was amazing. “Losing My Religion” was a song Casey Casem talked about every weekend as it worked its way around the Top 40 but wasn’t something I’d given a serious listen to before being able to hear it again and again. This was my first favorite song independent of the tastes of my mom or my brothers. This was when I fully realized there was a whole world of music out there beyond light hits of the 70s and 80s and Michael Jackson.
The thing about “Losing My Religion” is the song didn’t have much meaning for me for many years. The music video was to me a work of art full of religious iconography. Michael Stipe’s jerky motions were about how I imagine I looked dancing (to this day). The song was sad. And not in a George Jones country music kinda sad, but in a way that didn’t directly tell a story that a 12 year old fully got. But I knew it was sad.
It was one of the first songs I tried learning on the guitar when I first picked one up at 16 (that and Oasis’s “Wonderwall” which has always been one of my go-tos when playing the guitar but now it’s an “Anyway, here’s Wonderwall” meme that makes me feel like a chump, thank you very much, internet). Simple but building and still sad but I was 16 and naive and hadn’t really experienced anything to make it click.
And then, nearly a decade later, I had my heart truly broken and it clicked.
The title phrase of “Losing My Religion,” a song about romantic expression, Mr. Stipe said, is a common Southern expression that means being at the end of one’s rope.
The Pop Life – New York Times March, 1991
Of course 12-year-old Jason didn’t get it. 16-year-old Jason wasn’t nearly as deep as he believed he was (like all teenagers) and while he’d fallen for girls he hadn’t really been hurt by any. Not yet.
The emotion in the song rings most true when you can put yourself there, when you feel that pain, that loss, that wit’s end leading into anger and a jumble of feelings.
Where you say too much, but you haven’t said enough.
Where all these fantasies come flailing around.
I think I thought I saw you try.
But that was just a dream.
Just a dream.
But it’s a song that’s stuck with me and evolved over the last twenty seven years. A song like this couldn’t Top 40 these days (though a song like this wasn’t likely to Top 40 those days either). It’s an art form that’s been kinda lost lately, a song that takes on a meaning far beyond its literal lyrics and can stand the test of time and evoke emotions decades later.
It’s still among my favorites, still something I’ll play a bit on the guitar when I’ve got the time, something I’ll share with my boys when they’re a bit older but not too old to think their dad’s musical tastes are lame. Hpefully they’ll never truly feel the meaning behind the song the way their dad did, though I know they probably will. And it’ll click.