Accidental soundtracks and the sounds of home



I think I was sitting on the couch fiddling with the remote when my girlfriend had kind of a weird proclamation.

“Hey, you know the new Strokes album you put on my iPod? I think I’m starting to associate that with everything that happened last week.”

“You still like it, though, right?”

“Oh, yeah, but I think I’m going to think about it every time I hear it now.”

The new Strokes album is Comedown Machine, of course. And the thing that might now be impossible not to think about is the attacks at the Boston Marathon that killed three, left hundreds seriously injured and ended in a manhunt at the end of the week.

The idea of having a certain band or piece of music associated with the events hadn’t really crossed my mind. But it’s a natural phenomenon, and I related to it immediately.

In that moment, I flashed back to Sept. 2001 and the weeks that followed, and how Ryan Adams’ Gold, which came out a couple of weeks after the attacks in New York City and the Pentagon, became a soundtrack and a companion all at once in that time. Adams was a revelation at that time, and hearing that album in particular sends me back to that time, and that means back to my sophomore year in college and back to all the fears and insecurities that were so prevalent at the time.

Naturally, one terrorist attack conjures up memories of another, but being so close, this one felt different. I recently moved back to the Boston area, so this affected all of us a little differently than the simple empathy that comes in mourning a senseless attack. I thought about songs that felt like Boston, like the Standells’ “Dirty Water” and the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner.” And I thought about the times when this wasn’t so tangibly home, and the music that kept me going then.

When I hear certain tracks from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Live/1975-85, I’m stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a highway crossing from Tempe through Scottsdale and into Phoenix, heading for a job that never felt quite right and a job I wouldn’t have much longer, anyhow. There’s Bruce, in his vintage, 1978-esque voice pumping up some delirious crowd in East Rutherford or Nassau or Los Angeles, screaming brilliant truths while I wound my way through a sea of beige to an office that felt somehow more beige than the toy-grid highways and endless stretches of sand and stucco. Certainly, it provided a nice counterpoint to the monotony of the quarter-life crisis.

Around that time, I made a habit of sneaking off to an empty picnic table with a sandwich and my iPod at lunch, and there I distinctly remember digesting R.E.M.’s early albums, Murmur and Lifes Rich Pageant in particular. The crisp guitars and Michael Stipe’s rock and roll poetry gave me a nice lift in those midday stretches. I have entire notebook pages from that time dedicated to the brilliance of “Begin the Begin” and their Athens roots and how they were able to reinvent their sound on each album, which only furthered their sound.

I thought about how they broke out from a number of crowded scenes in the early 1980s without having to align themselves with any of them, I thought about how I had left home for this state and this job I was having second thoughts about, and how they were able to do what they needed to do, and I was in a job I probably wasn’t right for. Before long, I was in a new job, and within a couple of years, everything blew up and I was back in New England.

Being home means the ocean, and that’s always meant Pete Townshend and the Who and Quadrophenia. The main character on that double record is troubled and confused and goes to the ocean to try to find some sense of normalcy, and having just been through a couple of traumas stacked together as they were, it became a soundtrack as I started a new job, found a new apartment and made a new life for myself in an old city. I used to drive down to the beach and perch myself on a rock with a notebook and “Drowned” playing in my headphones. Or I’d listen to the ocean, still hearing Keith Moon while the water rolled up on the banks.

Now I’m back in Boston, and I’m not sure what I’ll associate with the past couple of weeks. It could wind up being the Black Crowes’ Before the Frost … Until the Freeze, which I was listening to when I heard the news and, stunned, just kept listening to for the next day or so. It was comforting, and it was a quick and easy reminder of what life had been like a few hours before, when all those people hadn’t had their lives so drastically altered or, in some cases, ended.

Some newer records certainly had their day. The Strokes’ Comedown Machine, of course, had plenty of time on the turntable, along with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Specter at the Feast and Big Star’s Nothing Can Hurt Me. They were all new songs from familiar voices, sounds to fill the time while authorities tracked terrorists through backyards in Cambridge and Watertown.

I don’t quite know yet who or what I’ll associate with this time, or with living in the Boston area again. But that’s how it works. It’s never a conscious decision. Life is weirder than that.

May 2, 2013

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