I can’t remember when I officially started playing this game in my mind. I think it was 1983, cruising along in my Ford Fairmont, and listening to Robert Plant’s Big Log and thinking, This song is a metaphor for my life right now. But I also realized then that I’d been clocking songs as “metaphor for my life right now” since 1980, when I heard Alan Price’s Pity the Poor Boy,courtesy of a mix tape my brother, Gene, gave to me for Christmas that year. I further realized I’d been unconsciously noting songs along the way…with one song bubbling to the top and defining the year for me since Gene gave me that tape.
But 1983 is when I started tracking it intentionally. Thus, the list was born.
The rules for creating the list were simple. It wasn’t a collection of my favorite songs, nor even what I deemed to be the “best songs.” They weren’t necessarily released on the year they were assigned to, and I may have been exposed to the song at any point before that time. But for some reason, the song resonated with me that particular year. It probably got a lot of play that year, in fact. I probably leaned on this song more than any other song that year and, at some point, I said to myself, This is it. This is the song.
Still, I’d never written out the list. It was a very personal and intimate thing, tucked away securely in a vault in my mind. It was a private exercise I went through each year to understand my life better. To get a bearing on where my head and heart and soul was, so I could navigate through the coming year. Honestly, in some years, the list might’ve been the only thing that kept me sane. It was a healing dose of desperately needed perspective. Something to hold onto in the tempest that was my life.
I never thought about sharing the list because, well, one, I was embarrassed, I guess. It seemed like a silly thing, and who would really care, anyway? Mostly, though, I think I didn’t share it because so much of my life seemed out of control and other peoples’ business for so long. This music I kept to myself. The list was the one thing no one could take away from me.
It wasn’t until 2015 I entertained the notion of sharing it. Once again, I was driving. This time, I was on my way home from Santa Monica and rocking out to Take Your Time (Coming Home) by Fun. Near the end of the song, a smile of recognition crept onto my face. Oh…there you are! The song encapsulated what a turning point that year had been for me, and as I played it over and over and over as I sped eastward on the 10, I remember saying to myself, Maybe it’s time to share the list with the world.
It took another two years to actually act on it, though. Toward the end of 2017, I was working on a new TV pilot called Hope Springs. The series would be somewhat autobiographical, and, interestingly, I was really struggling with the character who would loosely represent me in the show. Then it came back to me. Right… And, you know, I had this thing called Apple Music… So after 38 years, I finally set out to assemble and document the list for the first time. I thought if I heard all the songs together, it might help me get a better handle on the character.
I listened to it the first time on a road trip down to Mexico to pick up my brother. The experience of listening to my life play out in song is difficult to describe. Cathartic is a word that comes to mind. I laughed (I was afraid I wouldn’t), and sometimes I cried so hard I had to stop the music and pull over to the side of the road until the wave of emotion passed. I was so glad I did it, though. I saw and understood my life and myself from a whole different perspective. I appreciated my life and experience more. Was, dare I say, proud of my past self, which was kind of a 180 for me in terms of the way I’d viewed my past in, well, the past.
Listening to the songs cemented for me that my life was absolutely moving in the right direction. That I’d learned and evolved over the years. It was more than that, too. I saw my past wasn’t something be ashamed of. That there was as much good as there was bad. That this guy had done his best and was worthy of at least empathy, if not outright respect. That I had accomplished some cool things, too, as I struggled (at least from my perspective) so profoundly through my 20s, 30s, and somewhat into my 40s.
And good news! I got handle on the character I was writing, and the pilot script turned out well.
After that first listen, I made a promise to myself. Wait…that’s not the right word. I posed a challenge to myself. That’s more like it. I told myself that after year 40 I would publish the list. The last month or so, I’ve wrestled with that. I almost didn’t do this. There are too many reasons to name for my hesitation.
In the end, though, I found courage. John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, in talking about creating mix tapes, said, “…You’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.” Delicate, indeed. I don’t know if anyone will enjoy it or find it interesting. I don’t know anyone will get it, either. I can walk you through why each song was chosen and what I think it means and how it applies to my life at the time, of course, but that would take too much time and too many pages. I don’t even know if anyone will sit through the three hours to listen to it from start to finish, much less read a lengthy explanation behind why each song was included. And some songs on the list might possibly stir up controversy, even. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Because the list is the list, and the list is enough. And the songs represented capture my life as well as anything else. And my life is good.
NOTE: for Apple Music folks, I published the playlist here — https://music.apple.com/us/playlist/forty-years-a-musical-autobiography/pl.u-xdxPuk97YBp
For everyone else, here you go:
Forty Years: A Musical Autobiography
1980 — Pity the Poor Boy (Alan Price, England My England) [age 15]
1981 — Prologue/Twighlight (ELO, Time)
1982 — She Blinded Me With Science (Thomas Dolby, The Golden Age of Wireless)
1983 — Big Log (Robert Plant, Now and Zen)
1984 — Let’s Go Crazy (Prince & The Revolution, Purple Rain)
1985 — Burning Down the House [Live] (Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense) [age 20]
1986 — When Love Breaks Down (Prefab Sprout, Steve McQueen)
1987 — Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head (Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Blood & Chocolate)
1988 — [Nothing But] Flowers (Talking Heads, Naked)
1989 — Should Food to Go [Sina] (The Manhattan Transfer, Brasil)
1990 — The Heart of the Matter (Don Henley, The End of the Innocence) [age 25]
1991 — Don’t Give Up (Peter Gabriel, So)
1992 — Silk Pyjamas (Thomas Dolby, Astronauts and Heretics)
1993 — The Greatest Discovery [Live] (Elton John, Live in Australia)
1994 — All I Ever Have to Be (Amy Grant, Never Alone)
1995 — Watershed (Indigo Girls, Nomads Indians Saints) [age 30]
1996 — When I Fall (Barenaked Ladies, Born on a Pirate Ship)
1997 — The Other End [of the Telescope] (Elvis Costello, All This Useless Beauty)
1998 — When There’s No One Around (Garth Brooks, Sevens)
1999 — Holy City/Through the Floor [hidden track] (Edwin McCain, Misguided Roses)
2000 — State of Mind (Clint Black, No Time to Kill) [age 35]
2001 — Destination Moon (They Might Be Giants, John Henry)
2002 — 3×5 (John Mayer, Room for Squares)
2003 — Let Him Fly (Dixie Chicks, Fly)
2004 — Ghost Story (Sting, Brand New Day)
2005 — Answer (Sarah McLachlan, Afterglow) [age 40]
2006 — Which Way Your Heart Will Go (Mason Jennings, Boneclouds)
2007 — Ancient Highway (Van Morrison, Days Like This)
2008 — Stop and Stare [live] (OneRepublic, City 97 Sampler, Vol. 20)
2009 — A Beautiful Mess (Jason Mraz, We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things)
2010 — Letter to Me (Brad Paisley, 5th Gear) [age 45]
2011 — Stay By Me (Annie Lennox, Diva)
2012 — Oceanea (Thomas Dolby [feat. Eddi Reader], A Map of the Floating City)
2013 — Land Sailor (Vienna Teng [feat. Glen Phillips], Aims)
2014 — Live While We’re Young (Johnnyswim, Diamonds)
2015 — Take Your Time [Coming Home] (Fun., Aim and Ignite) [age 50]
2016 — Color Decay (Junius Meyvant, EP)
2017 — She Used to Be Mine (Jessie Mueller, Waitress [Orig. Broadway Cast Recording])
2018 — This Is Me (Keala Settle & Ensemble, The Greatest Showman [Orig. Soundtrack])
2019 — Cool Change (Little River Band, First Under the Wire)