I recently finished reading Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity for the second time. If you've read the book or seen the movie – both are wonderful – you know that music plays a prominent role in both. In some promotional footage for the film, John Cusack – who plays Rob, the lead character – talks about how we experience music autobiographically. I have to agree with him wholeheartedly here.
Even more poignant than that, however, is this passage from the book (which also serves as the opening lines in the movie):
“What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?
People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos.; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands – literally thousands – of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.”
Hornby took those points one step further with 31 Songs, (not quite as good – I didn't recognize most of the songs) a series of essays about songs that affected him in some sort of way. Various authors took notice of this, and McSweeney's even published a bunch of them.
After reading through the songs I knew, I thought that I could do the same thing.
I picked seven songs that, throughout my life, really got to me. Going through them, I noticed that the tracks weren't necessarily connected to specific events; rather, they're concepts and themes that reflect who I was, who I am, and perhaps who I may become.
I hope writing about them doesn't take too long. The longer I get away from an idea, the easier it becomes for that idea to fade away. The songs will appear in roughly the chronological order of my life.
Without further ado, here is the first song in the series:
“With a Little Help From My Friends” – The Beatles
from: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band
The short version: Henry Rollins already described it better than I ever could.
I was 12, maybe 13 when I would come home from school each day and turn on the television. I watched after-school programs like everyone else – Animaniacs, anyone? – until I got bored. This is when I would scavenge through my dad's CD collection. Aside from the car radio, this is where I discovered the Beatles.
My favorite albums at the time were A Hard Day's Night and Sgt. Pepper. Right off the bat, I heard something in “With A Little Help From My Friends” that resonated with me. Only thing is, something was a little bit off: I didn't have any friends. Sure, I had guys I played basketball or video games with, but I wasn't close with them. I couldn't confide anything in them. They were just dudes who enjoyed my company enough not to tell me to fuck off.
That camaraderie in the chorus (“I get by.../I get high.../I'm gonna try... with a little help from my friends”) was something I longed for. It would kill me every time Ringo got to that second verse:
What do I do when my love is away?
(Does it worry you to be alone?)
How do I feel by the end of the day?
(Are you sad because you're on you're own?)
The third verse doesn't get any happier:
(Do you need anybody?)
I need somebody to love.
(Could it be anybody?)
I want somebody to love.
There were nights then (and throughout my adolescence) where I would hear those lines and imagine myself being held. If it wasn't out of loneliness it was out of the fact that I knew even then that those years of my life were going to be tough. To my feeble mind being held was adult and exotic; it was my ticket out of Hell.
As a child – and probably still somewhat as a grown man – many felt I was afflicted with this profound sense of sadness. Hearing those verses certainly brought it out in me then. I continue to be affected by such lyrics to this day.
Listening to the song now – and I think even then – I can find hope amidst the sadness. Ringo does have his friends to help him get by; I would eventually find friends of my own. Ringo believes in love at first sight; I would find love. Really, I could have picked any Beatles song here. As sad as that song made me feel at 13, it also made me feel human. In those seven years (1962-69, Let It Be was done way before it was released in 1970) the Beatles recorded music, they made songs of joy, exuberance, despair, hurt, love, loss, and a million other emotions and experiences. I can put on any one of those tracks, experience those feelings, and feel alive. It brings me back, in a way, to a time when those feelings were new and exciting.
To listen to the Beatles is to listen to life itself happening before your ears. “With A Little Help From My Friends” was the first song to lead me down that wonderful, terrifying (and, yes, long and winding) road.