A History of My Life in 10 Songs

I have been reading Greil Marcus. I haven’t read “A History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in 10 Songs” yet, but the title intrigues me. One night I couldn’t sleep, and the result is the following chronological history of my life in ten songs. With only a couple exceptions, it would be more appropriate to list albums, but if singles are good enough for Marcus…

1. “Rhinestone Cowboy”
Glen Campbell
1971
Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels, and Merle Haggard were the canon in my childhood home. When I was four, I heard this song on the radio and I was captivated by its glamour. My parents looked at me with the same expression I now use when my daughter puts on Katy Perry.

2. “A Kind of Magic”
Queen
1986
Remember the movie Highlander? I loved that movie. A boy in my class gave me a cassette with the soundtrack on one side and this album on the other. It was the first time I felt obsessed by music. I was well on my way to wearing the tape out when the fact that I hadn’t listened to anything else in a really long time (weeks maybe) freaked me out. Nowadays I roll my eyes at actual Satanic bands, but in the sixth grade, Satan was real and that kind of fanaticism for forbidden music must be the first step to Dungeons and Dragons and demon worship. I erased the tape.

3. “Pride (In the Name of Love)”
U2
1984
I didn’t hear U2 until Joshua Tree, so maybe “With or Without You” should be the song on this list instead. But if Queen was the left-hand path, U2 was the road to a higher image of God and “Pride” best captures that ethos. Bono’s blunt-cut hair and black sunglasses were what sex looked like in 1987, but U2’s brand of rock was so much more. They were art in the service of a better world, and they made me want to help create it. This was our soundtrack to Amnesty Internation letter-writing parties.

4. “Just Try to Find Me”
Gorky Park
1989
Remember the scene in Say Anything with the boombox? Of course you do.

I remember this.

5. “Hunger Strike”
Temple of the Dog
1991
I don’t remember how I first heard Temple of the Dog. But the sound was unlike anything I had ever heard before, the lyrics filled with deep mysteries. Even when it was new it had the aura of legend; in a faraway city, a great but unknown musician had died and the artists around him had come together to make this tribute before going back to their own projects. I could not imagine a place where music like this could be created incidentally, but I would live there myself 21 months later. I was already starting to measure my life in this song’s terms. Am I taking more than my share? And if so, who am I taking it from?

If listing songs instead of albums is a kind of cheat, then #6 has to be a Ponzi scheme. How can even one album capture what happened next? In August 1991 (seven months after Temple of the Dog) Pearl Jam released one of the best albums that has ever been recorded. In October 1991 Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger. We started digging and found Alice in Chains’ Facelift in anticipation of their March 1992 release Dirt. In August 1992 I saw them upstage Van Halen.

I was a senior in high school. My entire life to this point was preparation for the Ivy League. I never turned in a single essay. Instead, I filled out one application form and by January 1992 had confirmation that I would attend Seattle University. Which brings us to –

6. “Once”
Pearl Jam
1991
Freshman year, a bunch of guys from Guam had the room across the hall from my boyfriend. Two giant, outward facing speakers completely filled their dorm room window. On the first day of school, they turned the volume to 11 and filled the courtyard of Xavier Hall with Pearl Jam’s Ten. And they didn’t turn it off until the next summer. The guys from Guam liked to fight, so no one ever asked them to turn it down. I never minded.

They say the human brain is wired to be most affected by music around the age of 18. Even decades later, people prefer the music that they liked during those first pseudo-adult years that cast the longest shadow in a person’s memory. Pearl Jam was the first and most constant musical presence in the year that continues to define me.

Well, speaking of long shadows… years like that only happen once. I remember a streak of feminine music – Belly, The Cranberries. White Zombie’s AstroCreep 3000 got a lot of play, and Corrosion of Conformity’s Deliverance left a mark. But none of these things are biographical. I guess it would have to be

7. “Thieves”
Ministry
1989
I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen Ministry. My first taste of Ministry was at Lollapalooza in 1992. I still see 12 foot skeletons racing across the stage when I hear this song. It was different, but I liked it. My friends were unimpressed, and sandwiched between Soundgarden and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, they were easily forgotten at the time. The impact came years later, as commerce co-opted grunge. Tired of guitars and in search of something heavy, we found industrial. Einsturzende Neubauten, Pigface, Skinny Puppy, and lots of Ministry. It was a phase, but it lasted a long time.

8. “Where Do I Begin”
Chemical Brothers
1997
From industrial it’s a short slide to electronica, and the Chemical Brothers were the perfect gateway. This track off Dig Your Own Hole perfectly captured the heavy music hangover that marked the end of the 20th century for so many people my age.

9. “South Side”
Moby
1999
Picture a weekend in the mountains. You’ve got a real job and grown-up friends who won’t skip town with your boyfriend’s amp and your VHS collection and owing you two months rent. Moby’s Play plays on the restaurant speakers at breakfast. Your biggest decision of the day is Whistler or Blackcomb. You ride all day then hit the hot tub before hitting the bars. Play blares out of every third shop. It’s on the radio when you’re seated next to a world famous snowboarder at the sushi bar.

On the way home, the Sea to Sky Highway is clear of snow. Thousands of feet above sea level, the clouds part. The sky is brilliant blue and the sun glints in your eyes, reflected off the ocean below. You will never see anything this beautiful again, but the image will stay with you for the rest of your life. “South Side” is playing in the car’s CD player.

10. “Silent Waters”
Amorphis
2007
The first years after we brought home our first daughter were rough. One day my husband, who had been listening to Skyforger for months, made me watch this video. From this introduction, I moved through their discography, and Skyforger became the Orphic soundtrack for my journey back from the place where every day was just about making it to the next one.

Well I’m out of numbers, but not songs. As a writer, I’m supposed to use words to describe my inner landscape. I’m not good enough to do that yet. For now, I have to let Sólstafir do it for me. At any given moment, the odds are good that I have a Sólstafir song stuck in my head. This is sometimes even true while I’m listening to other music or asleep. It might be “Þin Orð,” Pale Rider,” “Ljos I Stormi,” or “Goddess of the Ages.” But as often as not, this is what my mind sounds like:

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