My main solace and support during an unhappy adolescence was my radio. I remember it as good-sized and rectangular with a wood finish. It sat on the little night table by my bed, and was always set to the same channel — WRPI, the station (still in existence) of the nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, staffed and run by college students.
WRPI played what was then called progressive rock — rock songs that were outside the Top 40 hits that the commercial stations played. These could be songs, available only on albums, by performers who had Top 40 hits, or songs by performers considered esoteric or “experimental” enough that they were outside the Top 40 sphere altogether. Among other things, “progressive rock” offered me more introspective, poetic music that knew something about the deeper world of my feelings.
Since then my tastes have expanded, from ultra-introspective Mahler and Bruckner to wildly joyous Sonny Rollins and much in between (I also attempt my own contribution). The advent of YouTube some years back led me, in a sort of hushed curiosity, to search and find songs that in some cases I hadn’t heard since those distant days of adolescence. And in some striking cases I discovered that a song had not lost—or had even gained—power over me compared to back then.
All of the four songs I’ve picked below use only voice and acoustic guitar. All are from the late sixties; my WRPI-listening years were 1969-1972.
I was never, even back then, a particular fan of Pink Floyd—except for the Roger Waters number “Grantchester Meadows.” It was considered experimental because it uses taped background noises of a skylark, a goose, and a fly. In fact, gimmicky though it may seem, it works well; the nature sounds fuse beautifully with the pensive guitar chords and idyllic lyrics.
For me this song was a refuge, an induction into a dreamy realm where serenity and even eternity —
Laughing as it passes through the endless summer making for the sea….
flickered. I was also struck by the lyrics:
Basking in the sunshine of a bygone afternoon,
Bringing sounds of yesterday into this city room…
They added a nostalgic overlay, saying the tranquil scene was not happening in the present but, rather, a recollection, weaving its enchantment out of the past.
As to Steve Noonan’s “Buy for Me the Rain,” I seem to have a genetic affinity for it even though I’ve never met a single person who’s aware of this original version and none of the few people I’ve played it for were too impressed. That the song does have broad appeal is proved by the success of the 1967 cover by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which was a big hit.
Yet to me this version—lost in obscurity like Noonan himself—is infinitely more delicate and affecting. Love, time, loss—all here in a simple, haunting, melancholy tune with starkly poetic lyrics as in a centuries-old English folksong. True, the last chorus slides into the maudlin-morbid; I wish it could somehow be rewritten.
We’re back to the idyllic-nostalgic with Joni Mitchell’s “Sisotowbell Lane.” Here the opening guitar chords are caressingly gentle, the mood at once lovely and dreamy. The song is from her first album Song to a Seagull, which is full of gems; but again, other Mitchell songs from that era like “Both Sides Now,” “A Case of You,” and “Big Yellow Taxi” won far more fame even though, for this listener, “Sisotowbell” surpasses all of them.
Although Mitchell herself said Sisotowbell was an invented name, the song seems to me to evoke a very real place:
Go to the city you’ll come back again
To wade through the grain
You always do…
Come back to the stars
Sweet well water and pickling jars
We’ll lend you the car
We always do
Yes sometimes we do…
It sounds a lot like Mitchell, while venturing out to Calgary and then Toronto in her late teens and early twenties, going back to visit her parents’ quaint, pastoral home in Saskatchewan. The song, in any case, is magic, pure as the prairie stars and the well water and drawn from the same essence.
That is a very unusual song, it’s in a very strange tuning with strange time signatures. It’s about three women that I loved. One of who was Christine Hinton, the girl who got killed who was my girlfriend, and one of who was Joni Mitchell and the other one is somebody that I can’t tell. It might be my best song.
“Guinevere” is brooding and hypnotic, tinged with tragedy and, finally, hope. It particularly came back to haunt me in 2003 after a failed romance that was conducted largely on the Tel Aviv shoreline. Its unique, almost indescribable mood frames the present within receding mirrors of the past.
So these were some of the songs that helped me through an adolescence experienced as bleak and disappointing. They told me that, beneath the abject surface of my life, there was another realm; sadness and loss were there too, but also beauty and mystery. I don’t know if such songs are being written today, but if so, I don’t hear them anywhere. I wouldn’t have wanted to face the world without them.
Image courtesy shutterstock / Bruce Rolff