A couple of weeks ago, my buddy Ethan linked to a story on NPR in which a writer chose six songs that would make for the soundtrack of her life. It’s an idea I’ve thought about often: If someone made a movie about my life, what songs would play in any particular moment. But six? No way. I love music way too much—and am way too self-centered—to whittle it down to six.
A few days later, Ethan came up with his own soundtrack, but he decided to give himself ten songs. I thought I could maybe do that. But when I got to thinking about the arc of my journey through life (I’m a writer—we tend to think of things in terms of narrative arcs), I found that I didn’t want to make this a Top 10 list, like I’ve done with so many posts on this blog.
So, what I ended up putting together isn’t a list of my favorite songs (though if I do someday put together my All Time Top 10 list, a few of these will almost certainly make the cut). Instead, it’s a list of songs—a lucky thirteen of them, to be exact—that I either associate with moments in my life or that represent what I was going through in those moments. Personally, I think this would make for a pretty bitchin’ soundtrack.
1981 – Speak To Me/Breathe In The Air, Pink Floyd
Because the opening of Dark Side of the Moon—that dark, quietly beating heart being intruded upon by laughter and screaming and then a crescendo burst of haunting, echoing arpeggios and slide guitars—sure seems to me like what being born must feel like.
1986 – King of Carrot Flowers, Part 1, Neutral Milk Hotel
“When you were young you were the King of Carrot Flowers/And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees/And holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet.” The almost hallucinatory imagery that Jeff Mangum describes here perfectly evokes what childhood—years I lived nearly entirely in my own cracked imagination— was like for me. And the second verse, when he sings, “Your mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder/And Dad would throw the garbage all across the floor,” also captures for me what it’s like to be a child who sees things he doesn’t yet have the wherewithal to understand—like the rage and sadness of his parents.
1995 – Ambitionz Az a Ridah, 2Pac
I was a confused, angry kid—like most teenagers. Dragged across the country from New York to California, then from gritty Richmond to affluent Walnut Creek, I really didn’t get who and what I was supposed to be. I tried on a bunch of costumes, during this time, one of which was a pretty dedicated Hip-Hop schtick.
Released right after 2Pac got out of prison, and in the midst of my high school Hip-Hop phase, All Eyez On Me is full of anger and hubris and yet dotted with insecurity (I’ll always think of ‘Pac as a truly intelligent artist wearing thug’s clothes to fit in with the people around him). So, it’s a pretty good fit for what these years were like for me.
1997 – Holland, 1945, Neutral Milk Hotel
I spent much of my early childhood with my grandmother, and I often say she raised me. (No slight to my parents; the time with my grandmother was just that formative). She was a Holocaust survivor, giving this song, written by Jeff Mangum about Anne Frank, extra resonance. My grandmother died when I was sixteen and, for me, “The world just screamed and fell apart.”
1999 – St. Ides Heaven, Elliott Smith
In September, 1999, I showed up on the campus of UC Santa Barbara. It may seem funny to choose a dark song set in gray, rainy Portland for my years on a beach paradise, but it’s all in the lyrics. I drank hard at SB, a lot of it under the guise of “partying,” and I look back on those years fondly, but there was a self-destructive sadness beneath it all. St. Ides Heaven is a song about exactly that dynamic. It opens with a carefree, get-fucked-up-and-do-whatever-you-want sentiment: “Everything is exactly right/When I walk around here drunk every night/With an open container from 7-11/In St. Ides Heaven”; but later it gives way to a darker, more isolated feeling: “I think you know what brings me down/I want those things you could never allow/You see me smile and think it’s a frown/Turned upside down.”
2001 – Paperback Writer, the Beatles
It was right around this time, my junior year of college, that I decided I wanted to be a writer. It was an ambition that I spent the next decade pursuing.
2003 – Little Wing, the Jimi Hendrix Experience
I graduated from college and moved back to the Bay, and then I started going out with Lara. And for a long time, I really felt like she could walk on clouds.
2006 – You Really Got a Hold on Me, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
In June of 2006, less than two weeks after I turned 25, Lara received a double lung transplant. Her recovery was incredibly difficult: she spent several weeks in the ICU at Stanford Hospital, and then about three months living in an apartment next to the campus. She struggled to walk, to eat, to remember things. It was an awful time. But I’ll always remember one day we were sitting in the living room of that apartment, and this song came on the radio, and Lolly made me get up and slow dance to it. It’s one of my favorite memories of her, a moment that encapsulates so many of the things I loved about her: Her persistence, her strength, her ability to take joy in small things. I think of her every time I hear Smokey Robinson.
2009 – In My Life, the Beatles
I broke up with Lara at the end of 2009. 18 months later, she died. As I’ve written about before, we sang this song when we scattered her ashes on Sands Beach in Santa Barbara.
2011 – Oh My Sweet Carolina, Ryan Adams
Lara was dead and I was lying in a basement in New York City, no job, no book deal, heartbroken and flat broke, having failed at anything I ever tried to do that could have mattered and not seeing any way that it’d ever get better and wondering if there was any point in going on with life. And I lay in the basement in the dark, lost, listening to this song, with “the sunset just my lightbulb burning out.”
2012 – Desperados Under the Eaves, Warren Zevon
I found myself back in San Francisco, trying to recover, but finding that I was still lost. I hated my job, I was surrounded by friends and family but still felt completely alone, “still waking up in mornings with shaking hands,” still “trying to find a girl that understands me,” still unable to see how things were ever going to work out for me. It sure seemed like if California slid into the ocean, I’d get stuck holding the bill.
2013 – I and Love and You, The Avett Brothers
So I left San Francisco and went back to New York. “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in/Are you aware the shape I’m in?”
2014 – To Live Is to Fly, Townes Van Zandt
Because I’ve left friends behind. Because I’ve still got holes to fill. Because the choice was mine to make, and I chose life. Because to live truly is to fly, both low and high, so I’ll shake the dust off of my wings and the tears out of my eyes.