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CARPE LIBRUM: Charmed by life-changing songs

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Gwenyfar Rohler can’t resist Bob Boilen’s stories that share the songs that changed the lives of 35 different musicians.

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Your Song

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and sometimes with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Your Song Changed My Life

by Bob Boilen

Harper Collins, 2016, pgs. 259

Usually I dissect two books in conversation or relation with each other for Carpe Librum. But this week I am taking a departure. Bob Boilen, of NPR’s famed “All Songs Considered,” released a book this month that asks 35 musicians to recount the song and the moment accompanying it that changed their lives. With 35 different stories, it seems well-nigh impossible to compare the book to anything else. Readers just want to savor each story, talk about it, share, and then devour the next. With such legends as Jimmy Page, Smokey Robinson, Michael Stipe, Trey Anastasio, Lucinda Williams, and more, it’s hard to resist this book.

I have long been charmed by this scenario: an artist looks back at his or her career and decides to record a tribute album in homage to the artists who inspired them. Their fans are horrified to discover the music that their idols listen to and revere does not fit into the neat little box they have created around their image. Bob Boilen illustrates this beautifully with his shock and pain at discovering how Michael Stipe of R.E.M. fame adored “bubble gum” music of the late 1960s, like the Banana Splits and the Archies. Though Stipe does admit it was Patti Smith’s “Horses” album that shook and ultimately shaped the direction of his young life. Also, he defends the bubble-gum jingles of joy with verve.

Several themes emerge while reading the collection. The first, which really surprised me, was the number of different musicians who cited “West Side Story” as a pivotal moment in their lives. The musical, scored by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, modernizes “Romeo and Juliet” to two rival street gangs in New York City. Perhaps the best description of the power of the score comes from Trey Anastasio of Phish, describing the end of the show as Maria holds the dead body of Tony in her arms: “there’s a ’-do, do, do, do –somewhere’ boom. . . . And it’s like a minor third . . . eventually I’d have to go back and sit at the piano but like a triton away from the bass. And it feels completely unhinged and unsatisfying and the play ends. And it is heart wrenching.”

The homage to Bernstein and what he was doing with popular music in the genre at the time seems perfectly positioned for the experimental nature of the generation that came up listening to their parent’s recordings.

Also emerging from the page is the attainability of the guitar as an instrument: “Hey, we only need three chords!” to play a song like “Twist n’ Shout” or “La Bamba.”  Once that sense of accomplishment is there, if bitten by the music bug, years of practice can take lead to real mastery. And that leads to another reoccurring theme: “Basically, my adolescence was spent in my room playing guitar.” Attainment followed by obsession and ultimately ability. Outside of talent, and a kiss from the gods, years of hard work to helped these artists attain and strengthen their musicality.

I am finally (shockingly) old enough to see my contemporaries have actually done something with their lives. Consequently,  there are several interviews in the book that resonate deeply with me because I remember being 12 years old and hearing Pearl Jam’s “Ten” for the first time, and seeing their video for “Jeremy” on MTV was powerful and impactful. St. Vincent’s recollection of that album and her subsequent teenage years of obsessive fandom pluck a chord deep in my soul. The difference, of course, is I wasn’t touched with a single bit of musical talent;. She went on to be St. Vincent and I’m writing a review of a book she is interviewed in. Such is life.

There are many wonderful gems dropped into this book. For example: “Jenny Lewis was raised a little differently.  First of all, she grew up in Las Vegas and her babysitter was a female Elvis impersonator. Ellis was her name.” I mean, really? How can anyone not want to keep reading after that?

Or from Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl: “I found myself stranded in Hollywood without a cent to my name and no way home, crashed out in a Laurel Canyon bungalow with a  bunch of female mud wrestlers.”

Or Jimmy Page talking about finding a guitar abandoned in the house he moved into. Thus he started to play, and the world got Led Zeppelin.

We all have a song (or album) that changed everything for us. It might have been a slow, building influence, or maybe it was a sudden transformation that happened overnight, but we all can point to those life-altering impacts art has on us. Just imagine how awful it would be to have never encountered the song that made you grow up and see the world differently. See the possibility that exists in art? Perhaps that is what I love most about this book: the hours of conversation and sharing songs with my friends and loved ones as a result of reading these interviews aloud. I can’t imagine a better Father’s Day present than this book or a better entre to share those memories across the generations.

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