Songs that saved me

Songs that saved me

Music is what has saved me from myself over the years. There are too many songs to mention here but, I have found, the songs that mean the most to me come from my formative years. This has something to do with my mental and spiritual growth in establishing who I am, I guess.

Despite this, I’m lucky that I can still discover songs that I gravitate toward. It would be terrible to think that I couldn’t find emotional sustenance in a new song anymore.

A lot of my favorite songs are included on my favorite albums. This is an artifact of the time I came up in. Usually an album was cohesive and each cut was a part of the experience. Sometimes we would drop the needle on our favorite cut but, more often, we would listen to the album side taking things in and anticipating the song’s approach. It seemed like the best cuts were buried further in. At least for me.

For Haven’s Sake by Richie Havens from the album Richie Havens, 1983 (1969) is an existential song if I ever heard one. It fit in well with my thinking at the time — I was a teenager always preoccupied with mortality. I had a little coterie of friends who explored the underside of things and we would listen to this song so frequently that we could sing along. (Not a happy song for a sing along but it spoke to us.) It encapsulates the absurdity of life and how we discover and lose each other in the sands of time. The instrumentation and the mood of the song is very entrancing. I highly recommend listening to this with headphones. This is from the time when sound traveled around the room and from ear to ear.

Shouldn’t Have Took More Then You Gave by Dave Mason on Alone Together (1970). Alone Together is one of my favorite albums of all time. This particular song has the same element that grabs me on many of my favorite songs, a simple and profound lyric with a transcendent ending. The title really says it all, human selfishness can make a mess of things so beware. Things can be painful but we will get through it and move on. It was very relevant to the romantic relationship I was having at the time and continued to be a go to song in other failed relationships. Let’s face it, a good grieving song is essential to any breakup especially if it has an “I told you so” motif. Again, headphones recommended.

The entire album, Play (1999), by Moby. A very good friend made me a tape (yes, a cassette tape) of the CD when I was about to drive cross country to be with my dad after he had a stroke. This became the soundtrack to the drive. It was sort of like the Easy Rider of the late 90’s for me. The experience was heightened by the emotional state I was in. I particularly remember driving through California, Arizona and New Mexico where the landscape is so starkly beautiful that your senses are heightened. The road stretched out before me, the desert and the music sending shivers up my spine. I never remember feeling so sad and so exhilarated at the same time. Everloving captures this mood completely as it starts out very plaintively and then builds upon itself until things seem to be bursting at the seams.

What about you? What songs have shaped and sustained you over the years? I invite you to share them here.

San Francisco as the epicenter of loss: Part 1

Keith  Haring, Untitled, 1983 The Political Line: Keith Haring, De Young Museum,  San Francisco, Ca.,  November 8, 2014- February 16, 2015
Keith Haring, Untitled, 1983
The Political Line: Keith Haring, De Young Museum, San Francisco, Ca.,
November 8, 2014- February 16, 2015

It was 1981 and I was at the underground MUNI Van Ness Station in San Francisco. The platform was sparsely occupied. Who knows where I was going. Public transportation was a part of my daily routine.

I had had my struggles in emerging from a very self-destructive lifestyle (to say the least) to one in which I was trying to stop using drugs and alcohol. My success at this endeavor was intermittent at the time but I was making an effort to change my course in life. This cost me friendships with people who I hung out with. I knew I would never stay clean if I continued to see them.

My friends defined me in my 20’s which, I think, is pretty much the case for most people. The loss of my party friends was a major loss for me as I began my recovery. A treatment program somewhat prepared me for this. I had no warning or preparation for the other overwhelming loss that was to take place in my social sphere.

It was not unusual in those days to run into someone you knew from the nightlife especially if you were taking a train to the Castro, the gay hub of San Francisco. I was standing on the platform when a familiar face came into view. My friend, Spider, approached. (At the time many people had odd nicknames that described their personality, some aspect of their appearance or how they made their living — Flamingo, Peaches, Rusty Nails.) He was the most drug-addled of all the people I knew. His name fit him well; he had a removed and sinister air about him and was at the center of a literal web of people in the gay drug scene.

He was, on this rare occasion, not under the influence of a drug. That struck me as strange in itself. He said he had been ill lately and chalked it up to a case of the flu. We had the most mundane of conversations. We caught up. I explained that I was trying to get out of the party scene and so had not been in touch or returned his calls. He seemed to understand. I watched as he ascended the MUNI stairs towards the street level. There was a fatalistic air about him that made me quite uneasy but I passed it off as a relic of our shared past.

Three days later I got the call. A mutual friend informed me that Spider had been admitted to the hospital and transferred to the intensive care unit. He had a severe pneumonia which was very difficult to diagnose; it turned out to be pneumocystis. He was intubated and in critical condition. While he could still speak he had asked that some friends be notified.

During this time a number of gay men had been getting deathly ill. No one really knew what was wrong; people were saying that it was the “gay plague”. Most people were misinformed and naive. Paranoia was the order of the day. Who might have it and how you got it were mysteries. AIDS was a diagnosis that was not even on the radar yet. We were still in unknown territory.

I called a physician friend who had treated both myself and Spider and we hurried over to Ralph K. Davies Hospital in the Castro. I was only 27 and had never been in the presence of anyone critically ill. We stood at the bedside in shock. Spider was unable to breathe on his own and was no longer conscious. We did our best to say goodbye. He died soon after our visit. It was very quick. In those early days there was not a lot they knew about prolonging life when you had the illness.

AIDS decimated the gay community in San Francisco from 1980 to 1995. Spider was the first friend I lost. He would be far from the last. My circle of friends became ever smaller as the noose tightened. Virtually all the gay men who I knew from the 70’s, save one, would be dead in a fifteen year span….