Thursday, August 11, 2011

Six Song Six-Pack - Growin' Up

Childhood is perhaps the most important part of our lives. It structures our expectations and way of seeing the world. They're called formative years for a reason. I mean people don't pay therapists good money to either recapture or escape from those early years for nothing.

Science has also shown that, after smell/taste, sound, specifically music, is the most evocative stimulus for our brains. So it's no wonder that pop music is littered with reminiscences and tales pleasant, painful and sometimes frightening from musicians' salad days. This week we've got six songs for you that manage to give you lovable nostalgia without the treacle, enjoy!

1. Sliver – Nirvana Buy it.
It's human nature to remember the good times and block the bad memories, but Kurt Cobain was never one for doing things the easy way. Nirvana first released "Sliver" as a single in 1990 when they were still on Sub Pop but it wasn't until it wound up on 1992's B-Sides and Rarities collection Incesticide and DCG decided to re-release it that it really took off. It's a raw, primal scream-esque account of a young child's night left in an unfamiliar home with his grandparents. Cobain screams the tale over a few brutally distorted chords, perfectly capturing the utter dependence, confusion and disassociation of being six and without one's parents. It's a testament both to Cobain and bandmates David Grohl and Krist Novoselic that they could make lyrics this naked and vulnerable into a song this propulsive and anthemic. Never before could the worlds "Grandma take me hoooooome!" have been a rallying cry.

2. Every Ghetto, Every City – Lauryn Hill Buy it.
Lauryn Hill has her fair share of anger as well, but in "Every Ghetto, Every City" she's nothing but sunshine and memories from back in the day. This is a simple love song to her childhood in suburbs of South Orange, New Jersey. Over a funky bassline she recalls universal American childhood pleasures from popsicles to fireworks to Saturday morning cartoons and kung-fu. There's also more specific references of the sort that actually make the song more universal whether it's the geography of Carter Park and Martin Stadium or the musical nods to the days of Biz Markie and "when Doug Fresh and Slick Rick was together". Hill calls her childhood "the days of New Jerusalem" and she does manage to capture the unique mixture of innocence and excitement about the ever-exapnding world around you in a way that makes growing up seem like the promised land.

When Gordon Gano first founded his band, it was on the assumption that it would play on the confusion, frustration and hormones that is the adolescent experience. Even the group's name just adds "violent" to a common insult hurled at uncool middle schoolers in Gano's childhood. Nowhere is the Femmes' viscerally empathetic understanding of the male adolescent experience more plainly seen than in "Gimme The Car". There's good reason for this, as the song was apparently penned during study hall. It's sung as a demand that the boy's father loan him wheels for a date. Gano lays out, in detail over a menacing electric guitar, his lurid hopes for the evening, hormones dripping all the while. Several times he skirts obscenity before covering up unprintable rhymes with a guitar blast or skipped syllable at the last minute. It's no wonder that this song nearly caused a riot and got Gano kicked out of school after perfomring it at an assembly. It may not be pc, but just like the Femmes' self-titled debut, this is music for the geeky, the sexually frustrated and the usually silent. In other words, teenagers.

4. Growin' Up - Bruce Springsteen Buy it.
I still remember the day when my father decided to do some post-Christmas errands and dragged me to Calumet City to return some electronic equipment and buy me a copy of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. It was my introduction to The Boss and it lived up to my father's hyperbole. "Growin' Up" is, perhaps the quintessential song of youth. Springsteen perfectly melds his love of Dylanesque imagery and blue collar slice-of-life storytelling to craft a nasal, awkward anthem for everyone in high school. He hits all the right notes, starting with the opening line "I stood stone-like at midnight / suspended in my masquerade" and going on to imagine strafing his old high school and making best friends with a girl who "can't sail but sure [can] sing". He ends every verse with by answering to the demands of his peers with snotty kiss-offs starting with "when they said 'sit down', I stood up" and ending with "when they said 'come down', I threw up". What teenage boy could resist that? Ooooh, growin' up indeed.

5. My Time Outside The Womb – Titus Andronicus Buy it.
You will always be a loser
New Jerseyians Titus Andronicus have based a great deal of their fuck-all ethos on a rejection of the rejection that so many social oddballs feel in high school. Their most recent single, "No Future, Part 3" even features a rousing chorus that reminds you that "you will always be a loser / and that's ok". The second song off their first album, "My Time Outside The Womb" is their first manifestation of this approach, as it briefly recalls lead singer Patrick Stickles' life. "The first thing you see is the light" he moans as "they take you away from everything you know about life". Stickles grows up quick in Glen Rock, NJ "where everyone calls a spade a spade". But salvation comes when he finds a friend in the school library who warns him  "there ain't nothing in the place that's elementary". The two don't ever seem to get a comfortable grasp on life, let alone the acceptance of their peers but they gain wisdom together, which seems to be enough, for the time being.

6. Thirteen – Big Star Buy it.
Big Star is one of the prototypical cult bands. It was two middle American kids penning mash notes to the Beatles, Kinks and Stones that ended up being just as affecting as those works by their idols. It's a shame though, because Big Star is not a difficult band to love. In fact, they made some of just about the most relatable pop music of the '70s. "Thirteen" is an achy ballad that absolutely nails the emotional experience of that age. Over a simple acoustic guitar and light strings, Alex Chilton pours his heart out to his crush asking her in that armorless, adolescent way if he can, maybe walk her home, play her some songs and, if it's not too much trouble, take her to the dance. By the time he naïvely asks her if she'll "be an outlaw for my love", he's damn well got your heart. It's American standard that deserves to be on every classic rock station but is all the better for avoiding such a fate.


  1. This is a good time of year to cover this topic--still summer, but close enough to back-to-school time to make those who aren't going back to school contemplate past autumns. Hell, I'm returning to work at a school and coursework in grad school and I STILL contemplate the summer/fall transition.

    And if this was my list, I think I'd start with "Dance Music" by the Mountain Goats.

  2. I was actually considering, in Craig Finn's words "song number three on John's last cd", ie.