For me, music…song…has been more than a solace. These songs are magic spells, able to bring back dead days and friends and afternoons and the eyes of that one you loved, and lost, and the heat of a summer on the back of your neck on a beach you’ll never see again. They are incantations that invoke not only the bitter sweetness of nostalgia, but hopes that the crazy days, the whisky-stained and heartsick riotous days, might come again, and that somewhere in the routine beating you down, the drums are pounding, the bass is thumping alongside your heart and, man, that guitar don’t weep, it screams.
Today by the Smashing Pumpkins
That riff takes me back twenty years to the dust and cigarette butts littering the long, long sun broken streets of Whitby in high summer. To a bunch of kids sitting in torn jeans and patchwork shirts stinking of joss sticks and menthols, looking out into the blue afternoon at a future that would be the greatest thing they could ever imagine. The trembling guitar, Billy Corgan’s petulant adolescent whine, that silver ring of guitar against a cloud of distortion captures perfectly the idle, ignorant beauty of a teenaged dream.
Stolen Car by Bruce Springsteen
It’s dark in that little house out on the edge of town; the chords are picked out with a heavy, relentless futility echoing the voice of the song, a lament for a love that faded like car headlights into a night you never thought would come, but which always was, just the same. Springsteen captures with such haunting simplicity the lives of ordinary men and women as they veer off the highway, into nothingness, and he never did it better than here.
Copper head Road by Steve Earle
Nobody evokes the stink of diesel, smoke and steel quite like Steve Earle. From the opening chords to the hammer slam of the beat beneath his voice, you’re transported not just to that world of moonshiners, drug runners and fractured war vets, but into it. You feel the sweat and grime on the steering wheel as you run from the D.E.A. chopper; you smell that whisky burning up on the road and taste the bitterness of applejack, nicotine and blood. One of the greatest songs ever that does more in its few minutes than most novels are able in 500 something pages.
The Devil’s Waitin’ by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
This song was a revelation; to use that phrase of Eliot’s, it communicates before it’s understood. We have war, definitely, prison, Jesus, the devil and judgement and it’s a potent brew. A singsong melody over an open tuned acoustic that could belong to any time, it’s man’s soul as a civil war that never ends. You taste gunpowder, hear the iron rattle of chains and just hope that drunken preacher in the next cell’s right with all that forgiveness talk.
Dead Man’s Hands by Jerry Sword
If it hadn’t been for a B-movie of dubious quality, I would never have discovered this, a song that has meant more to me than perhaps any other. I found it stuck in the middle of the soundtrack, like gold in a handful of ash. For a long time I couldn’t find it and had to put the movie in, queue up the specific scene, just to listen. It’s genuinely haunting, with a sliding country riff moving between a shadow and the sun while the song’s narrator sings “I don’t know if there’s a heaven, but I’ll do everything I can….” It’s an amazingly beautiful song, filled with regret, longing, the dust-blown blue eyes of lost love, but with hope too…that maybe things you’ve lost don’t stay lost forever.
Round Here by Counting Crows
I heard this song first 21 years ago and saying that so bluntly, yeah, it makes me feel antique, but I still remember the thrill of recognition in the song’s wistful longing. Its catalogue of souls grown desolate in the machinery of the world, still cling to the hope there is somebody out there who will understand, something we all hope at some point or another. I hear the guitar ring out, and it’s that afternoon again, walking in the black dust beside the rail lines and a river rainbow-stained with petrol, where I first heard it.
Ruby’s Arms by Tom Waits
Possibly the saddest song ever written; a man’s leaving his love, because he knows he’ll always let her down; he climbs out into the rain and is so emotionally broken he can only concentrate on the tactile physical details of his world. Then, with the rain falling down on him he finally allows himself to feel “Jesus Christ, this goddamn rain, I’ll never kiss your lips again, or break your heart.” Perfect.
It’s the end of the world as we know it by R.E.M.
It’s the combination of Michael Stipe’s scattershot zeitgeist capturing poetry and that pounding rhythm; it really could be the end of the world and we wouldn’t care. There’s a real anxiety here, but a hope too, the hope that you only find after an absolute resignation.
Radioactive by Kings of Leon
Kings of Leon are one of those bands, when they’re off, they’re really off, but when they hit that golden driving power all great music has, there’s nobody better in the world. This is one of those songs, filled with the woodsmoke and beer stained beauty of the rural south; a song of some kind of redemption at the end of a red dust trail. Nobody does that better than these guys.
My favourite song; a song of yearning for a home that might never have been but which you still feel the longing for; as old as the battlefield of Shiloh and as young as whatever’s topping the charts right now, a truly beautiful and timeless work, and like the best ballads, anonymous. The greatest art grows out of the conscience of a whole time, from somewhere deep and everlasting in the hearts and hopes of ordinary people toiling in the fading sunlight of history, and that’s what I hear whenever those first notes start; the longing for something we’ve lost.
Gareth Spark writes dark fiction from and about the moors and rustbelts of the North East where grudges are savoured, shotguns are cheap and people get by in the economic meltdown any way they can. His work has appeared at Near 2 The Knuckle, Out Of The Gutter, Deep Water Literary Journal and Shotgun Honey.
Plenty of good stuff there, Tom Waits and Steve earl especially.