Ten years after Elvis died, Bob Dylan said that when he first heard the King's first single "That's All Right" as a kid, it "was like busting out of jail." Music is the most important thing in my life, but I don't think most of us feel that freedom Dylan did. Maybe Elvis busted us all out of jail nearly 50 years ago, and so we don't have to worry about it. Thinking about it made me struggle to find the songs that revolutionized my life, but I didn't find Elvis, or Dylan or even the Beatles. I found R&B classics and Top 40 trash and leftist punk and heavy metal, and it was less like breaking out of jail than this really great, ugly old quilt that keeps me warm at night. Nothing to look at but comforting to have around.
One of the memories stuck in my psyche is my parents slow-dancing to the Otis Redding tune "I've Been Loving You Too Long" on a Christmas Eve, not too many months before they divorced. "I've been loving you too long to stop now," it goes, and it's just not true, and every time I hear that song it smells like Gatlinburg, Fort Walton and all the places we went on vacation growing up, and that I don't ever need to go back to.
I remember the first girl I ever loved, and the song that always makes me look around for her, even though we haven't spoken in five years. It's not the R.E.M. she loved—especially "Reckoning," played until the cassette wore thin, but one of the lousiest bands of all time: Ace of Base. We were at this lousy club in Florida, right at the tail end of 1993, and they're playing "All That She Wants," and we're dancing in that lousy jumping-up-and-down club way, and it's probably 90 degrees, and I'm sweating, and I glance over at her and she's just staring at me. And then she leans in and kisses me, and damn it, it's 10 years later and Ace of Base is still hanging around my neck like the lousy Swedish albatross they are.
Propagandhi's "Refusing to be a Man" was never on the radio, except when kids like me stuttered it out on a clutch of college stations. But this Canadian band's demand for boys to be boys and for men to go to hell grabbed me around the neck and shook me—and still does. Especially in today's punk-porn world, the lyric "there's a difference between sexism and sexuality" means something. At a time when I was trying to figure out what it mean to be a "grown-up," it helped me realize that you're supposed to make your own way.
Music hasn't revolutionized my life as much as it has defined it; given it body, breadth and meaning. Music can change you, but you don't always know how. What did it do to me that I hid Metallica tapes under my mattress because my mom thought they were a devil band? Did getting kicked in the face years ago by a stage-diver at an Avail concert in south Alabama make me a better person? Am I a worse person today for having seen Tesla, Bad Company and Damn Yankees as a teenager? That one is a definite yes. But getting to see the Violent Femmes rant about "American Music," drunk on smuggled-in grape Mad Dog made me better. I'm sure about that one.
David McCarty is a law student in Jackson.