The Standards

I was born in 1963, and my fondest childhood memories in the 60s were of riding with my large brood of siblings and my parents in our station wagon as we headed to our favorite quaint little family resort called Turkey Hallow, run by our dear friends the Verschor family. It was a small lake with a beach and camping grounds, and most of its members were friends of my parents or older siblings. During that hour-long ride from our house in Rock Island, IL to the lake located to the southwest of the city, we’d have the radio blaring all the hits of that magical era, and we’d all sing along, usually badly and without knowing all the lyrics, but who cared, we were together, happy, and life was fun.

My childhood coincided with the golden era of Rock & Roll, which began with the Beatles and Stones and the rest of the British Invasion, and lasted until the late 70s when Punk tore it all down. It was a musical era of bold experiments and brilliant pop, of larger-than-life superstars and brilliant singer-songwriters who turned the simple chords and beats of Rock & Roll into art. It saw the rise of the massively wide appeal of its brightest stars and their sold-out stadium tours, and also of the abject depravity of the decadence surrounding these wild tours. Within all this madness came the music. Oh, man, the music! It defined my generation, and its greatest anthems, even now, forty and fifty years later, echo with amazing potency to our future generations

It would be difficult to list ten of my all-time favorite Rock & Roll anthems, as there were hundreds of amazing songs from my youth that would be worthy of such high praise. However, there are a few that, as a 56-year-old, still resonate in my memories like a brilliantly-bright star that refuses to collapse. I will list them from 10 to 1, the anthems that ruled my life for so much of it. I could easily list 100 others of almost equal potency, but I like to think these are the most cherished by me.

10. Cinnamon Girl – Neil Young with Crazy Horse (1969)
Young was—is—a moody, irascible, restless artist who would change musical direction with each song he wrote, never comfortable as a pop star, though of course he was one of the biggest of his generation. His voice could be shrill and annoying, and he wasn’t the deftest guitar player, and yet the man wrote so many songs of lasting brilliance and popular appeal. What Neil had was a depth of feeling that translated perfectly to his music, and at his best he could captivate the listener with songs written in simple chord progressions and even simpler beats, and yet within that narrow confine lay something of sublime sonic beauty. I smoked a ton of pot listening to Neil Young in my teens, often at night in my bedroom with my headphones on, and during this song I dreamt of a gorgeous girl, a classmate in junior and senior high of mine I adored, unrequited, for many years, and I was sure Neil had written about her specifically in this superb song. Powered by a simple but catchy guitar chord progression and Neil’s winsomely subtle vocal harmonies with the rest of Crazy Horse, this song captures the romantic vision of the type of girl like my youthful obsession, a free-spirited, mysterious, tight-jeans-clad, ethereal beauty who left me breathless with desire. I wish you all could have known her; I felt honored just to be able to be in her majestic presence despite the fact she barely noticed me. Later, as adults, we got together in Las Vegas in 2010 and I confessed my undying teenage adoration of her. She was like, dude, you should have talked me, you were cute and I so would have dated you. Whatever, c’est la vie. My Cinnamon Girl was too good for my teenage version of myself in my insecure mind.

9. Ventura Highway – America (1972)
Yes, yes, they were a knockoff of Crosby, Still, and Nash, blah, blah, blah, but in 1972-1973 I was a monumentally-depressed boy watching his father slowly die of a brain tumor, and the older brother of my best friend murdered, during that horrible awful painful fucking two years, and music was my only respite from the horror show, especially America’s sweet, simple, folksy, extremely catchy pop songs that kept me afloat as I slowly drowned in sorrow. It was the life preserver around my neck. Dewey, Dan, and Gerry captured magic in a bottle on some of their best songs, and this was reflected in the high pop chart positions this bottled magic yielded as millions (fuck the critics!) hummed along to them as they played on radios or hi-fi stereo systems all across America and beyond. For years after my Dad died, I couldn’t listen to this song without bawling, so I avoided any memory that took me back to that horrible place, even if it had been something that kept me from slashing my wrists or jumping off our roof as I contemplated so many times. I owe music my life. It kept me sane even in my darkest moments. This beautiful little tune was my drug of choice to keep me alive. I am forever grateful.

8. Madman Across the Water – Elton John (1971)
See #9 for reasons for Mat Scheck to live, the 1972-73 edition of my life. While America’s songs were the drug that kept me sane, Elton’s best songs were the pacemaker that kept my heart beating. I have no happy memories from those years, not a single fucking one. I hated the world and I wanted to die. But here I am 46 years later, living, breathing, thriving. Thank you, Elton and Bernie. You lads wrote some amazing tunes. I owe you both more than I could ever repay.

7. Sitting Still – R.E.M. (1983)
My Army buddy Jim Torey rushed into my barracks room with a record album under his arm, and he was nearly hyperventilating with excitement as he manically described what he was sure was the best fucking album he’d ever bought. Jim was a deep, nutty, and brilliant guy, ergo this declaration had to be taken seriously, so we we spent a few hours listening to R.E.M.’s album Murmur that day, and, damn, Jim was right, it was the best fucking record I’d ever heard in my life. There was nothing like it. NOTHING. The music was somewhere between the jingle-jangle rock of The Byrds and the Do It Yourself fuzzbox cool of Punk, moreover you couldn’t understand a lick of what the singer was inarticulating, but the sound was so crisply cool, so moving and magical, and so utterly original, that Jim and I were immediately enthralled. It changed our lives in 1983. Music would never be the same to us. R.E.M. opened up whole new sounds and styles and forms on this record. Strong words, I know, and a bold declaration, but you had to be there at Fort Benning that day and feel the immense vibes created by this amazing music by this band from Georgia that captured our love in that moment. Thirty-six years later I still have no idea what Michael Stipe was singing, and I still don’t give a fuck. I still love this song as much today as I did then. It still moves me to almost indescribable bliss.

6. What Difference Does It Make? – The Smiths (1983 Peel Sessions Version)
Hatful of Hollow was the first album by The Smiths I bought, and by the second song on Side One I knew—KNEW—this would be my favorite band. The brilliant level of musicianship and lyrical eloquence grabbed my sensibilities almost violently, almost painfully. This song in particular, played live in the studio for John Peel’s BBC show, just spoke to me in ways I couldn’t even explain back in 1985 when I bought this album. It just worked for me. It had the anger and energy of Punk, but it wasn’t Punk, it was amazing guitar rock with a driving sound and the nuttiest fucking lead singer ever. This lead singer had a funny high baritone timbre and he sounded like a prissy, persnickety sissy with nutty homoerotic obsessions, but goddamn was he also smart and funny and utterly fucking relevant to me, moreover the guitar player was freak-of-nature great, wildly inventive and superbly sublime, and, finally, goddamnit, as if to add insult to the happy violent injury in my already elated brain, the bass and drums were just plain perfect. This was a great fucking band. I was smitten, floored, and forever enthralled with this weirdly wonderful and highly original Rock & Roll band from Manchester, UK. Oh fuck yes.

5. Ten Years Gone – Led Zeppelin (1975)
Like so many American teenagers from the 1970s, I had a few years where Led Zeppelin was my favorite Rock & Roll band; how many nights did I lie in bed listening to all their amazing songs? Untold. I could name ten songs by this great band that could make this list, but this subtle, sad lament about past love has always been my favorite Zeppelin song. You can feel Robert Plant’s remorse not only for his lost love from days gone by, but also for the fact his vocal range will never be what it once was from his younger years, and there’s a sadness to that fact. He was still a great singer, but he’d never hit the high notes again as he had back in 1969. That made me sad in 1975. By 1978 Zeppelin fell hard from my favorites as I moved on to other bands and newer sounds, and for years afterward I never really gave their records a whirl. But in the mid 70s the band’s music defined so much of my life.

4. Bad – U2 (1984)
I saw U2 live in Paris on July 4, 1987 with my then girlfriend, a beautiful German girl from Zweibrücken named Tanya, who bought the tickets for my 24th birthday. Tanya was a tall, lithe, and super-sexy ginger with mesmerizing eyes who looked like the actress Scarlett Johansson, and she was by far the singular love of my life; no woman has ever loved me with such passion and intensity as this gorgeous German girl with a violent temper and almost destructive intensity. Our romance was tumultuous as fuck as she never fully trusted me, mainly because I was a philandering fool who never gave her good reason to earn her trust; it all ended a few months later when she caught me with another girl. She was the only woman I had ever even imagined making babies with, and holy fuck would she and I have made some beautiful ones. To say I fucked up here is an understatement, the greatest romantic tragedy in a life filled with such toxic disasters.

We drove to the show from Martinshöhe, Germany, where I lived, in my 1980 Pontiac Firebird, an exotic American muscle car few French people had ever seen, so when we parked it became a popular oddity for so many of the show’s denizens who parked near us. The show was of course magnificent, as U2 never fails to deliver live, but on this song, while high on hashish and crowd energy, and just weeks after the worst imaginable experience of my military career, The USS Stark Incident where I played a key role in recovering and identifying the dead sailors from that horrible tragedy, I broke down in tears like a child. Tanya had been my rock during the horrible aftermath of my USS Stark experience where I often needed a tremendous push just to get out of bed every day, and she immediately grasped the magnitude of the psychic pain I was releasing in my tears as U2 played this fucking powerfully beautiful song that night in Paris. It didn’t fully heal me, but it did get easier each day afterward to get out of bed and get back to the fun of living again. When Tanya left me in September 1987 I thought I could find another like her, but 32 years have passed and no one has ever come close to her. How many women have I fucked since her while I imaged it was her? All of them.

3. L.A. Woman – The Doors (1971)
When I was at Burning Man in 2000, I related to the group who sat with me around the bonfire about the story of my brief friendship in 1983 with a nefarious and motley group of bikers and outlaws I met through my stripper girlfriend, who I met at a club on the outskirts of Fort Benning. They lived in a rural campground out in the nowhere of Southwestern Georgia near the Chattahoochee River, a gaggle of redneck gypsies and hardcore bikers and their old ladies who consumed drugs and alcohol in such copious quantities that I, an Army medic, stared in wonderment that they weren’t all dead from overdose. The men were all roughnecks and the women both beautiful and yet feral; the men got by selling dope and fixing cars and cycles while the gals all danced at the clubs for Benning’s endless supply of horny soldiers with fistfuls of payday cash.

My crazy new friends lived free and on their own terms in campers and tents, and didn’t give a fuck if tomorrow ever came as long as tonight was epic. Every night they’d build a huge bonfire and blast music, and the campground turned into an insane orgy of dancing, illicit substance abuse, and sexual perversity that would have made the Romans of old embarrassed. Fast forward to Burning Man in 2000. I said to the so-called “rebels and outcasts” and whatever these dippy kids thought they were, you have no idea what it means to be a crazy outcast until you met this wild crew I met in the summer of 1983 is Southwestern Georgia out in the swampy woodlands near Fort Benning. These motherfuckers were crazy, free, and insane like no one I ever met again; they really didn’t give a fuck. I was so terrified by this freedom I ran away from it after a few weeks when I dumped my crazy stripper girlfriend who dragged me to this encampment of nihilistic insanity and licentious self-destruction. I would guess most were dead by 2000. I asked, can we play L.A. Woman by The Doors and dance around the fire like I did back in ’83 with my insane outlaw pals? The Burning Man gang, eager for “alternative” authenticity, of course agreed. And off we went. Still, it wasn’t much like my experience with my stripper baby and her insane gang. But the memories sure felt good. You wanna get your hippie dance on, motherfuckers, like my crazy redneck gypsy biker friends and their stripper old ladies in Southwestern Georgia who embraced my straight-laced Army ass that summer of 1983, well, put this fucking awesome song on your music player and TURN IT THE FUCK UP.

2. Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones (1969)
I was six in 1969. Men walked on the Moon. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated the year before. There seemed to be almost nightly reports of horrific race riots in every major American city. The fucking 1968 Democratic National Convention turned into a violent shit show as Chicago cops beat the fuck out of hippies while CBS News videotaped it all. The Vietnam War raged on and we watched the casualty lists daily to see if another relative or neighborhood boy serving over there died. And the horrors in ‘Nam never seemed to end: Khe Sanh, The Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill, etc. I am sure there was plenty of free love and peace in America, but it was a lie to say things were good. Things were not good. We were a country divided, mortally wounded, and angry. These pale British Rock & Roll superstars put out a song that captured all this psychic angst in one bold, powerful, beautiful song that captured the airwaves as 1969 turned into 1970. Goodbye, hippie love fest, hello reality, motherfuckers. Reality was a police nightstick smashing a black face as buildings burned in the background and the Viet Cong killed Billy down the street who joined the 101st Airborne after high school. We were in pain and this was the anthem. Unity in America died in 1969 and it’s never come back.

1. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen (1976)
We were driving from our new home in Indiana to our old one in Illinois to visit friends and family, I recall it was a cold, shitty day in 1976, when this nutty song came on the radio. I was sitting in the back seat with my sisters Jeanne and Maggie, and when this played we looked at each other, both puzzled and yet we could not help but fall in love with this crazy, weird, wonderful song. When it was over we looked at each other and were too confused by what we heard to speak. And then, about 20 minutes later on another radio station, we heard it again. On that 5-hour car trip were heard it about six times. By the sixth it was our favorite song and we knew all the words and sang along like idiots. Queen had pushed the limits of Rock & Roll way beyond what anyone thought was the outer boundary, and this insanely brilliant song is testimony to the band’s hubris and genius. It’s silly, sure, but also has powerful moments and kicks ass; it fucking ROCKS. It’s easily the most memorable Rock & Roll song of my lifetime. It’s Metal; it’s Pop; it’s Opera; it’s Rock & Roll! I dare Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga or Beyonce or some other shitty pop star from today to come close this kind of brilliance. I double-dog dare you.

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