Several years ago, I wrote about this wish of my brother’s and how my spouse and I chose to honor him by naming our daughter after him. Now that she is getting older and able to dialogue with us (she’s still on track to becoming a talker like her uncle), I am beginning to wonder how I might start having this conversation with her. And today, on what would have been his thirty-second birthday, I’ve decided I will do it through music.
I’ve written before about my love and my daughter’s love for music. There is not a day in our household that music isn’t heard: either on our iPod at dinner time, or singing in the car on the way home from school, or on some occasions when my little Curly Fries will pick out a record for me to spin on my turntable. (Last record she selected: The Power Station. That’s right, “Some Like It Hot.”) Music is everywhere in our family and, I am convinced, always will be. It was a huge part of my youth and it was a large part of my brother’s life, too. As tough as it is sometimes for me to talk about him and how I miss him, it is easy for me to talk about music. So I’ve put together a playlist for my little girl to listen to and learn about her uncle. Of course, if I were to be true to the way things were when her uncle were alive, this would be a mixtape on a cassette. But unfortunately, I don’t think my daughter is growing up in a world where children will know how to operate tape players. So one day I will play her this playlist as a way that she can get to know my brother.
1. “All I Want” – Toad The Wet Sprocket. My brother loved TTWS. He saw them in concert and brought back a tour t-shirt that had cost a lot of his allowance. He was relieved to find that the beer spilled on it by an inconsiderate fan sitting behind him had come out in the wash. This was the biggest single off of Fear, but my brother maintained that Pale was their finest album. The appeal of Toad’s best work is its sonic clarity and emotional transparency (Coil notwithstanding). Of course this appealed to my brother, who was an earnest, sincere, and straightforward guy.
2. “Roll To Me” – Del Amitri. These guys were a one-hit-wonder of the mid-1990’s, but this song was everywhere the year that my brother was sick. I remember that he had this album with him when making trips to Duke for his radiation therapy treatments. It’s a ridiculously upbeat song, and I think it resonated with his positive outlook and desire for things to be better. But I cry every time I hear it.
3. “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” – R.E.M. My brother was a deep-cuts R.E.M. fan: Out Of Time got him into R.E.M., but he also had Murmur and Fables of the Reconstruction in his collection, which made him cooler than a lot of college students. There was always something a little out-of-step about R.E.M., something soft and sincere. This single off of Monster – an album that was a clear departure for them from “soft and sincere” – is a song that always reminds me of him. One day I was jamming out on my electric guitar and I discovered a chord progression that sounded cool and full and perfect. I started writing lyrics to it, and my brother rushed in and said, “I didn’t know you knew how to play ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’! I love that song!” So I cursed at him and threw away the lyrics.
4. “Are You Gonna Go My Way” – Lenny Kravitz. You could not escape this song in 1993. Before that time, none of us knew who Lenny Kravitz was, and he sort of fell away from the music scene for a few years. But this song was a favorite of ours and it helped me convince my brother to listen to a little Jimi Hendrix, even though he never learned to appreciate the beauty of electric guitar heroics as much as I did. But he loved to rock out, particularly to a riff that was as simple and reliable as this one.
5. “Heart-Shaped Box” – Nirvana. Nevermind is a better album than In Utero, but this is the song that causes me to remember the Friday afternoon in April of 1994 when my brother came running into my room exclaiming, “Kurt Cobain killed himself!” I pretended not to care, but it genuinely distressed my brother. He was a much bigger Nirvana fan than I was, but I also believe he was less concerned than I was about protecting himself from emotional vulnerability. Like thousands of other teenagers, my brother connected to the ingenious combination of punk-rock squall and pop-music melody of Nirvana’s music. But between the two of us, he was the one who seemed freer to express hurt and pain. Maybe that’s why he seemed to relate to Cobain’s death so strongly.
6. “More Than Words” – Extreme. If you are within seven years of my age, then you remember this song, particularly if you were a) a teenage girl or b) a teenage boy who wanted to impress teenage girls with your sensitivity. My brother was a softie and it was important to him that he got along with people. In addition to this being a very lovely musical song, I think the lyrics always had power and meaning for him. When my brother bought Pornograffitti, the album it was on, he was very disappointed with how the rest of it sounded.
7. “Mr. Jones” – Counting Crows. My brother loved this album. Until the day he died, he would have told you that Counting Crows was his favorite band, and he died three months before they released their second album. I prefer their later work; the whiny affectation that Adam Duritz passes off as singing on this record grates on my nerves. But my brother found it to be an endearing sign of earnestness and he played this record more than anything else he owned. I also think he found it to be a refreshing breath of air from the grunge music of the time, which had started to feel heavy. I do wish he had lived long enough to hear Hard Candy.
8. “November Rain” – Guns N’ Roses. My brother was not a GNR fan. But in 1992, everyone loved “November Rain;” it was our generation’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” We had the cassingle, and we didn’t even bother to listen to the b-side, which was “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Yeah, that’s how much we loved “November Rain.” We recorded the music video off of MTV and watched it like little kids watch Sesame Street. It had drama: it moved from sweetness to turmoil to anguish and betrayed an emotional depth that hadn't been as obvious in other GNR hits. The great trick of hair metal is that it allowed boys to be sensitive and badass at the same time, and this song had just the right amount of badass for me and my brother.
9. “Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen. Thanks to the movie Wayne’s World, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is also our generation’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” We had an arrangement of this song on piano sheet music that included every single note – and required all four of our hands to play it. Like thousands of other teens in the nineties, we sang “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” back and forth at each other in the car, trying desperately not to spew with laughter. We didn’t understand the theatrical dynamics behind 1970’s rock, Queen’s version of it in particular. But casting overwrought drama into operatic form was a brilliant move, and it still connected with us adolescents twenty years later. It’s a peculiar little piece of musical history recycling over itself, like the Stray Cats playing rockabilly in the late eighties or the Brian Setzer Orchestra playing swing in the late nineties. But it was an essential part of our lives together for one crucial summer.
10. “Let Her Cry” – Hootie & The Blowfish. Punchline that Hootie might be now, everyone – and I mean everyone – loved them for a few months in 1994. We saw them in concert at the World’s Fair Park in Knoxville and they tore through a pumped-up college-town set, closing with a cover of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” “Let Her Cry” was my brother’s favorite track from their insanely successful debut. It’s tender, it’s sad, it uses the words tears, rain, sun and tomorrow over and over again. It was also melodically beautiful and simple, easy to sing along with and remember. My brother lived just long enough to get over Hootie madness: they released their second album, Fairweather Johnson, three months before he died. I remember how disappointed he was listening to that second album. Don’t tell Darius Rucker that he let down a kid dying of cancer, or he’ll write a country song about it.
11. “To Be With You” – Mr. Big. Another big-chorus tender-heart song that won the hearts of boys trying to win the hearts of girls. My brother sang this – impromptu and unaccompanied, of course – to several of the girls in our youth group. It seemed embarrassing to me. But then again, it must have worked, because the girls loved my brother. Perhaps I should have been listening to more Mr. Big.
12. “Flood” – Jars of Clay. My brother was on the front end of what was happening in Contemporary Christian Music. In the eighties and early nineties, CCM always felt ten years behind popular secular music. But in the mid-nineties, Christian artists started catching up to – and in some cases, anticipating – popular music. My brother had the debut albums from Jars of Clay, Caedmon’s Call, and Third Day; all of these albums were considered “underground” in the CCM culture then. I dismissed them outright; I was convinced that CCM would never be musically or artistically relevant outside of a church youth group. But my brother saw something new and interesting in the way that this music connected with faith and youth. A year after my brother’s death, I heard “Flood” on a major Top 40 radio station and wished I’d shared a little of my brother’s foresight.
13. “Hook” – Blues Traveler. My brother was also ahead of the curve with Blues Traveler; he had their three previous albums before their smash breakthrough Four. But he wasn’t the sort to get resentful about a band “selling out” and getting popular. He loved this album as much as everyone else, and particularly the single “Hook.” It was a great riff and a fun song to sing, particularly the fast verse towards the end (“Suck it in, suck it in, suck it in / If you’re Rin Tin Tin / Or Anne Boleyn…”). The lyrics are far more cynical than my brother ever was, but John Popper sang them too fast for anyone to care (which is sort of the point of the song). And when we figured out that the chord progression of this song is an exact rip-off of Pachelbel’s “Canon In D,” that somehow made it even cooler, appealing to our inner piano-student music dorks. Blues Traveler have faded in popularity since 1995, but I bet my brother would be excited to know that they are still putting out albums.
14. “Black Or White” – Michael Jackson. My brother and I had been fans of Michael Jackson since we were little kids. One Christmas, Santa brought us a copy of Off The Wall – on vinyl, when that’s what people bought – and our very own Fisher Price record player for us to play it on. We had a silver glove that we shared between us, reenacting the dance sequences from “Beat It” and “Thriller.” They didn’t call him the King of Pop for nothing. His last great album came out late in 1991 and featured a whole slew of hits. This was the first single off the album and it was accompanied by yet another genre-busting music video which was, quite frankly, the coolest thing we’d ever seen on television. The scene near the end of the music when the many different people singing the song morph into one another was mind-blowing, and the music-less coda where he danced on the car (and grabbed his crotch) was instantly legendary. This song was my brother’s favorite Michael Jackson song, and it was without a doubt because of the lyrics and theme. My brother was an idealist to the core, and this song’s plea for racial harmony struck him as powerful and inspiring. I far prefer the funk-pop of Jackson’s first two records, but this song instantly makes me remember my brother and how hopeful he could be about the world.
15. “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” – Boyz II Men. We didn’t listen very seriously to much R&B; only occasional singles that received massive radioplay here and there. But we got into Boyz II Men’s first album, Cooleyhighharmony, in a big way. We didn’t know that this song was a 1970’s Motown song, or that the title of Boyz II Men’s album was a tribute to the film for which this song was written. We only knew that it was beautiful, that the harmonies on this track were otherworldly, and we wished we could sing like this. And all the girls we knew loved it. So we sang it. We pretended to sing in harmony. It was more of a suckybadharmony, but we felt smooth and sensitive when we sang it together. This song’s impeccable sadness and beauty is enough to make anyone weep, and I pretty much can’t listen to it anymore.
16. “Brother” – Toad The Wet Sprocket. When my brother died, I inherited his CD collection. He had every release from TTWS, including a compilation of b-sides and throwaway tracks called In Light Syrup that came out shortly after his cancer was diagnosed. It’s mostly a forgettable CD, and I can't remember hearing my brother listen to it. The first time I listened to it was after his death. This is the only memorable track, if only for the subject matter and its importance to me. But it's also the first track on the disc, and when I first heard it I was overcome. I'm not sure I could choose another song that captures the way I feel about my brother. I don't know whether he liked this song or not, but it’s the only way I could end this playlist.