At some point after that, someone pointed out to me that, despite already having written two separate entries about songs inappropriate for children, I missed “Big Balls,” by AC/DC.
That got me to thinking. I remember when that song came out. If I was older than my older (7-year-old) son at the the time, it wasn’t by much. And I heard the song. I didn’t understand it, but I heard the song. It’s filled with double-entendres and is arguably written to push the boundaries of what could be deemed acceptable (not unlike, say, The Gong Show, and other staples of the late 70’s / early 80’s). But if anyone asks, a ball is nothing more than a fancy party, right? That’s what this song really is about and if someone too young to “get it” asks, that’s what you tell them.
The only real chance for my kids (in the here and now, anyway) to hear any of the 150 songs from my list of songs to hear before you die, is when they’re in my presence. That’s true without regard to how “appropriate” it is for them. What follows is a list of songs that I have no inherent problem with them hearing — although in a couple of these cases, there will be limitations. That said, there are some who might disagree with me completely about their propriety around children.
Close to the Borderline, by Billy Joel
Billy Joel, as a musician, has definitely had highs and lows in his career. Back in the late 80’s, a book came out about the worst rock and roll songs of all time. This book was published around about the time his song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was getting a fair amount of airplay, and Joel got the dubious honor of being the worst musician of all time in that book. (I disagree. Sting gets that honor.) That said, I really think the highlight of his career was the pair of albums Glass Houses and The Nylon Curtain. This song is a fun song that has a tongue in cheek attitude. (“I’d start a revolution but I don’t have time.”) This song is included in this list because of the line “I shouldn’t bitch / I shouldn’t cry” which precedes the comment above about starting a revolution.
(Damn These) Hungry Times, by Cousteau
Cousteau is a jazzy band that released two albums in rapid succession shortly after the turn of the century. Most people who know them, know them because of the song “The Last Good Day of the Year,” which was sampled in a commercial for Nissan around about 2002 or 2003. That commercial is one of the few examples of advertising that co-opts a song I like, without making me start to dislike the song. Still, there are several songs of theirs that are even better, including this one. Some of the hyper-religious might object to the use of the word “damn.”
Big Balls, by AC/DC
I think I pretty much explained myself on this song in the introduction to this blog post. A few years ago, I was talking with a coworker who was listening to this song during downtime in a Catholic school when he was younger. The nuns confiscated it and he used the argument that “it’s about parties. What are you thinking if you hear something else in it?” I’m sure that didn’t curry a whole lot of favor with them, but there’s a truth to the observation that it can certainly be interpreted completely innocently.
Lost in the Flood, by Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen may be one of the greatest live performers out there today. He engages the audience, talks about how he came to write the songs he performs and generally gives the audience a real show. And he’s been doing it since the 70’s. I am a big fan of a lot of his earlier work, and am of the opinion that his Greetings from Asbury Park may be one of his most underrated albums. This song tells three separate stories (one from each of the three main verses) involving people who probably weren’t thinking as clearly as they should have been, when they made certain decisions, questioning whether or not the people involved were “lost in the flood”. I’ll never forget the first time I heard this song. I literally felt the hairs on my arms stand on end in the second verse, which tells the story of a race car driver who died spectacularly after driving directly into a powerful storm: “Junk all across the horizon, a real highwayman’s farewell.” This song makes this list because of the word “bitch,” to refer to the car being raced in that same verse.
Locomotive Breath, by Jethro Tull
I debated for a long time whether or not this song actually belongs in this sub-set of songs I feel as though you should hear before you die, or if I should defer it to another list in the future. There are two lines in this song that have the potential for having children raise uncomfortable questions: “His woman and his best friend in bed and having fun” and “And the all-time winner has got him by the balls.” Like the song “Big Balls,” these lines have a fair bit of innuendo to those who understand the lyrics, but if you don’t quite see the innuendo, what does it mean? (I envision his woman and best friend playing games on the Wii…) I have heard this song — completely unedited — on the radio. If it’s good enough for the radio, then it’s good enough for my kids.
Coma White, by Marilyn Manson
This song is a fascinating one on several levels. This song — off of his Mechanical Animals album — was written at least partially in response to any backlash Manson might have received because of his perceived influence over the two shooters in the Columbine High School Massacre. This song is undeniably powerful. In addition to the power of the song itself, the video that he released alongside of it generated more than a little bit of controversy in its own right: it was a re-enactment of the assassination of JFK, with him as JFK and Rose McGowan (his then-fiancee) as Jackie.
Although I will let my children hear the song (they don’t need to know the background of the song at this time), I will not let them watch the video yet.
Holiday / Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Before I get into my thoughts on these two songs I want to acknowledge that these two songs are unique in that they are separate songs and I included both of them in my listing of songs to hear before you die. The reason for this is simple: when I bought the album American Idiot from iTunes, it seemed that each unique track consisted of two songs. Unable to segregate them, I have no qualms about choosing both of these songs. Now that that’s out of the way, both of these songs are powerful statements of a disaffected youth and offer a degree of empowerment to those who might seek it out. Both songs have a single example of a word that I would just as soon not have my kids repeating (“Holday” uses the word “fag” and “Boulevard” uses the word “fuck”.) In the case of both words, though, you really need to listen in order to hear them. They’re both kind of swallowed up within the greater lyrics and the background music. If my kids start repeating the bad lines, I’ll have a little talk with them, but I don’t have a major problem with at least allowing them to hear the songs.
Get A Little, by Folk You Harder
If you feel as though this song is inappropriate for children, then you’re judging a book by its cover. Between the suggestive title and the almost-profane band name, you would be completely wrong for thinking that there’s anything wrong with this song. There is no profanity, no thinly veiled sexual innuendo, no nothing. (Although I suppose the line “it’s been hell of a long cold lonely night” might raise some objections from people who probably wouldn’t be reading this blog in the first place). It’s actually a kind of a sad song with a certain intensity of melody, about the ups and downs of a lot of relationships.
I was unable to find a YouTube video of this song, but you can download an mp3 of the song and read the lyrics here
I Want You, by Elvis Costello and the Attractions
I can think of quite a few songs whose titles are “I Want You”. The statement is an overt expression of interest in a potential lover and therefore has the potential to be unreciprocated even outside of the world of music. This song is simultaneously the most powerful and the most creepy way of handling this expression of this natural (and admittedly, not always welcome) emotion. Although there’s nothing overly objectionable to any specific lines of this song, the song as a whole could give a young, impressionable mind that it’s all right to say things like this. The joke about the line “I’m afraid I won’t know where to stop” is to respond by saying “About two verses ago.”
Away, by Athenaeum
This is a song of empowerment. Sung to and about people who might recognize themselves in a bad relationship in the hopes of giving them the chance to get out and not looking back and having regrets. At the purest level, this song is not appropriate for children due to the line “She’s always taking his shit but I swear it’s going to change.” But the way the word ‘shit’ is sung, you can barely tell that’s what the word is. It’s a beautiful song all the same.
I was unable to locate a video for this song, but here are the lyrics.
The Becoming, by Nine Inch Nails
I suspect that there are some people who would almost instinctively put any song by Nine Inch Nails on a list of songs that are inappropriate for children, and, in fairness, a significant percentage of songs off of the first three NIN albums use language that probably should not be played around young children. I consider The Downward Spiral to be the second best album of the 90’s (only behind Tori Amos’s Under the Pink). And this is an album with a song called “Me and My Fucking Gun.”
“The Becoming” is a song about trying to break out of our own heads and find a way of escape from pain, suffering, and distractions. It is intense, powerful, and sometimes overwhelming. And amazingly, the only profanity in the song is ‘Goddamn this noise inside my head!’ I am including this song in this post because of the “goddamn” line, for the same reasons as my inclusion of “(Damn These) Hungry Times” by Cousteau.
I was looking over the list of the songs that I haven’t yet covered, which I think you should hear before you die, and I realized that there are two songs that I should have mentioned yesterday when I explained the songs that shouldn’t be played around young children.
This is an error of omission on my part. Pure and simple; there is nothing more to read into their absence from yesterday’s post.
So here they are:
Shoe, by George Hrab
George Hrab is one of those artists on my list of songs to hear before you die, who I knew that I’d include on my list even if I wasn’t sure which song I was going to choose. I first met him at the CD release party for his album Vitriol, and listened to the CD on the way home from Bethlehem, PA, to Horsham, PA. I had previously known him only as the drummer for the Philadelphia Funk Authority and went to the party with a couple of friends. By the time I got home, I was a fan. “Shoe” is one of many gems on this album. I don’t normally do this, but I actually played the song again as soon as it ended, I wanted to hear it again. It’s an indictment of sorts of the kind of journalism that’s always seeking scandals and revels in the schadenfreude of watching people fall. Watch the video below and you’ll see the reason why it belongs in the category of songs my kids are too young to hear.
Little Lion Man, by Mumford and Sons
Yesterday, I wrote that “Sing” by The Dresden Dolls was the only song in the group of “not in front of the kids” songs that had a safe-for-radio edit. That was based upon my omission of this song. Unlike the Dresden Dolls’ edit, though, the removal of the word “fuck” from the oft-repeated chorus line of “I really fucked it up this time” does not do the song any justice. This song and album made a lot of critics “best of 2010” lists, and with good reason.
I have two young children. Harry is seven, and Greg will be five later this year. When I’m driving in my car and either or both of the kids is with me, and a song comes on the iPod with naughty lyrics, I will do one of two things, depending upon the song:
- I might turn the volume down on the radio and make some kind of a noise to drown out the bad words, or
- I might skip the song entirely.
To date, the only exception to this rule has been last year, on what would have been Phil Ochs’s 70th birthday. As the boys get older, I will have fewer reservations about letting the boys hear saucy language, so to speak, but for now, that’s my rule. Eventually, of course, all such reservations will go away.
Looking over my list of songs to hear before you die, there are eight songs that meet these criteria. One of those eight — “Working Class Hero,” by John Lennon — was covered when I wrote my blurbs on songs where the artist died too young.
This post is about the other seven songs.
La Vie Boheme, from Rent
I suspect that this song would go over the heads of a lot of young children, and, for that matter, anyone who might not be all that familiar with the immensely popular Broadway musical from the 90’s. This song is sung after the character Maureen’s performance art/protest. The song begins with the attendees going over to the Life Cafe, at which point one of the main antagonists of the show declares Bohemia to be dead. The song goes on to celebrate iconoclasm in all of its outrageous glory.
Go Fuck Yourself, by Sharon Groom
The title kind of speaks for itself. This is a fun, funny break-up song, if you couldn’t guess that by the title. This song is one of many on the list that I “found” in the 90’s back when mp3.com offered legal free downloads of uncopyrighted music from artists who just wanted to get the name out. And there was more than a few really good songs available there at the time. What makes this song stand out is the two very innocent sounding girls singing the titular phrase that is the reason for its inclusion in this particular subset of the songs you need to hear before you die.
I was unable to locate a video for this song.
Lose Yourself, by Eminem
Eminem (real name, Marshall Mathers) has been a polarizing figure for much of his career, primarily because of some of his stances have come off as either misogynistic, homophobic, or both. But there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s as talented a rapper as you’re going to find out there. The 2002 movie 8 Mile was a slightly fictionalized story of Eminem’s life. It was a compelling movie, and this song was the masterpiece from it, with a message that transcends both the genre and any aspects of his life that are less-than-praiseworthy: that taking a risk in the face of fear is usually a good thing.
Sing, by the Dresden Dolls
Of all of the songs I am mentioning in this particular post, this is the only one that has a safe-for-radio edit. And, in full fairness, I suppose the profanity in this song (“You motherfuckers, you’ll sing someday,” which is repeated more than once, all at the end) isn’t really necessary. Or, at least, it’s not as necessary as the profanity in other songs on this list. But this is such an amazing song, from a post-punk band like the Dresden Dolls, there’s no way I couldn’t include it.
Embedding on this video has been disabled, but here is a link to the song.
Get Your Shit Together, by Beth Hart
Beth Hart had a minor hit in the mid 90’s with the song “L.A. Song”. It came from her second album, Screaming for My Supper. Even if “L.A. Song” is better known, it doesn’t match the raw power, intensity, or passion of this song. I think it speaks for itself. Just watch this clip of her performing it live as proof:
Whore, by Anet
Like Sharon Groom (above), I found Annette Ducharme (also known as “Anet”) on mp3.com in the 90’s. This song is unique among the songs listed in this particular post, primarily because it doesn’t have any words (in and of themselves) that are objectionable. (And I don’t consider the title, in and of itself, a word worth censoring from children; if I did, then the song “Filthy / Gorgeous” by the Scissor Sisters would be in this posting.) But it’s the frank discussions of the use of sexuality in this song that make it less-than-suitable for my kids’ ears. I probably will let them hear this song first, of the songs I have listed here.
I was unable to locate a video for this song, but I was able to find a link to the lyrics of the song.
Love, Love, Love, by Teddy Goldstein
I admit that I wrestled with whether or not this song belongs in this grouping. It’s got a single verse in it that’s inappropriate by any stretch of the imagination. Ironically, that same line is the primary reason why I wanted to include it in the list of songs to hear before you die; it’s just such a powerful statement and one we can relate to on many levels: “Isn’t life just like this / A bunch of roses that smell like shit / And though you see the pricks, you still get pricked.”
On the morning of July 23, 2011, I took my older son to see the movie Cars 2. After the movie ended, as I was getting into my car, the breaking news came into my phone: 27-year-old Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her apartment. I sighed and thought, “What a waste.” But I couldn’t honestly say I was surprised.
The history of music is littered with artists who died far too young. Much younger than they should have. Ms. Winehouse’s cause of death is probably as much of a mystery as anything: she had no drugs or alcohol in her system at the time. I think she’d weakened her body too much with the life of a rocker and wild woman, but it really doesn’t matter. For some musicians it was drugs and/or alcohol. For others, it was their personal demons that finally caught up to them. For others still, it was the life on the road and the risks of constantly moving around. Then there’s the risks that are associated with simply being famous.
Whatever the causes of death, though, it doesn’t alter the fact that we lost a lot of talented musicians long before we should have. Looking back over the 150 songs I listed two months ago that I said you need to hear before you die, fourteen of them were recorded by artists who died far too young.
This blog post is about those fourteen songs and the loss that the greater musical community has, by the fact that the artists are no longer around.
Don’t Follow, by Alice in Chains
This song comes from their Jar of Flies EP. Prior to the release of this five-song CD, I admit that I lumped this band in with other grunge acts at the time. I liked (and still like) the musical style known as grunge but I didn’t see anything to make Alice in Chains stand out among the crowd until I heard these five tracks. Layne Staley, the lead singer for the band, had a sorrowful, piercing voice that, when set against a song as melancholy as this one (or, for that matter, “Nutshell,” from the same EP) you sit there, astonished and flabbergasted at the beauty and wonder of a song like this. Staley died on April 5, 2002 at the age of 34. I remember the shock of hearing this news; Alice in Chains has since replaced him with William DuVall; DuVall is good. May he achieve Staley’s greatness.
You Know I’m No Good, by Amy Winehouse
I’m not sure what else there is to say about Amy Winehouse. The girl was talented, with a powerful voice and a slew of personal demons to match it. If you’ve never heard anything she’s done, I would recommend either this song or “Rehab,” but you really can’t go wrong with just about anything she ever sang…
Across the Universe, by the Beatles and Working Class Hero, by John Lennon
I think most of us know the story about how John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan as he was returning home from a recording session on the night of December 8, 1980. He was forty. These two songs are my favorite songs of his, both with and without the Beatles. “Working Class Hero” may be one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard in ages. It paints a bleak, hopeless picture of life and how people are kept down and downtrodden and simply states that “a working class hero is something to be.” I remember reading a review of this song more than two decades ago that said — and I still remember the quote — that it “contains such a bitter flavor it would have been condemned as antiestablishment diatribe even without the obscenities.” I disagree. It is a song that points out certain realities and offers hope: “if you want to be a hero, well just follow me…”
The Mountain, by Dave Carter and Tracey Grammer
Dave Carter was 49 years old when he died of a heart attack on July 19, 2002. That weekend was the annual music festival hosted by WXPN, a Philadelphia-based public radio station (at the time it was called the All About the Music Festival; now it’s the XPoNential Music Fest). He and his wife, Tracey Grammar performed there one year earlier. John Flynn, one of the performers at the 2002 festival, stayed up all night learning “The Mountain” and played it on the stage the following day. He did an amazing job of it. It’s an amazing and powerful song to hear.
Sniper, by Harry Chapin
Harry Chapin’s best-known songs are “Cats in the Cradle” and “Taxi”. While both of these songs are good songs, neither one of them offers much of a glimpse of what the man actually wrote, sang, and performed. At some point in the future I will write a blog entry associated with songs from my list of songs to hear before you die, where the real intent of the inclusion of the song is to familiarize yourself with the artist. Harry Chapin belongs on that list too. Choosing the right Harry Chapin song for the list (thanks to my self-imposed limit of one song per artist) was … difficult to say the least. “Sniper” isn’t my favorite song of his. (“There Was Only One Choice” gets that vote.) But “Sniper” is an epic song by just about every definition. Just under 10 minutes long and it paints a powerful portrait of a psychopath, loosely based upon the story of Charles Whitman. In the mid-90’s, I purchased a DVD of a Harry Chapin concert and watched the DVD with my mom. This song was one of the songs he performed. When it was over, my mom, who had never heard the song before, gave a one-word review of it: “Wow!”
Harry Chapin died at the age of 38 in a fiery crash on the Long Island Expressway on July 16, 1981, while he was en route to a concert. The exact cause of the crash is not, and will never be, known. We do know that as he was outside of the Jericho exit, he was driving in the leftmost lane. He put his four-way flashers on as he slowed to about 15 mph. He tried to get out of the lane but nearly sideswiped another car so he got back into the left lane. Then he tried again and essentially cut off a tractor trailer that couldn’t slow down or get out of the way in time. It climbed the back of his VW Rabbit, setting the engine on fire.
Need You Tonight, by INXS
INXS is one of those bands that define the decade in which they were popular. Women roughly my age swooned (and may continue to swoon) over the boyish good looks and dark brooding melodies of the band, and the men roughly my age wanted (and may still want) to be them. Or, more specifically, their lead singer, Michael Hutchence. There was something about his overall style that demonstrated his tortured mind. In the end, it was anguish over a love triangle that led him to take his own life on November 22, 1997. And women roughly my age have been mourning his death ever since.
Lover, You Should’ve Come Over, by Jeff Buckley
It’s pretty much a given that every artist mentioned in this particular entry should be thought of as being tragic figures. In the case of Jeff Buckley, the entire family is entrenched in tragedy. His father, Tim Buckley (also a musician) died of a drug overdose at the age of 28. Jeff’s death was officially an accidental drowning on May 29, 1997, but his decision to jump into that river in the first place was … unusual to say the least. “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” is so beautiful, so haunting, so melodic… It’s a tragedy that he couldn’t do more.
My Mistake (Was to Love You), by Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye epitomized soulful, sensual, seductive music. Choosing a single song by him, I thought, was nearly impossible. Do I go with the well-known (and oft-covered) “Heard it Through the Grapevine”? One of the songs that practically seduces a potential lover for you (“Sexual Healing” or “Let’s Get It On”)? In the end, I decided I would go for one of his lesser-often played songs, which was a duet with Diana Ross of the Supremes and is an excellent example of a couple talking to and past each other. The real tragedy of Marvin Gaye’s life was what resulted in his own death: that his career took a different tack from his fathers, culminating in an argument between the two men and the father shooting the son on April 1, 1984.
About a Girl, by Nirvana
About a month before he killed himself, Kurt Cobain overdosed while on tour in Italy and the rumors started to spread that it was a suicide attempt. A month later, on April 8, 1994, I was in a friend’s apartment talking about I don’t remember what. I noticed that Kurt’s image was coming through on the TV (but we couldn’t hear what was being said) and I remember commenting, “At least he’s still alive.” I later learned how wrong I was. His official date of death is April 5. Of all of the deaths listed here in this article, I think I was most disturbed and saddened by this one at the time. There’s no shortage of quality songs that he put out among the four studio albums Nirvana released. This is my favorite song from their debut.
Hard to Handle, by Otis Redding
The history of music in the past 100 years or so is littered with artists whose deaths are a direct consequence of the fact that they spent more time in transit than the population as a whole. Buddy Holly. Ritchie Valens. The Big Bopper. Jim Croce. The entire band Lynyrd Skynyrd. Harry Chapin. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Otis Redding. The exact cause of the plane crash that took his life on December 10, 1967 was never formally established. And I’ll be the first to admit it: I never really cared for his best-known song, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. It doesn’t really give a good representation of what the man was actually capable of, musically. “Hard to Handle,” on the other hand, is one you can’t help but move to.
Crucifixion, by Phil Ochs
For a fuller discussion of the life of Phil Ochs, please see my blog entry about the movie There But for Fortune from last month. Phil is one of those artists that you really can’t go wrong with, in terms of the music. I chose “Crucifixion” at least partially for the same reasons why I chose Harry Chapin’s “Sniper”: it is an epic song in every sense of the word. There is a legendary anecdote about how Phil played this song for Robert F. Kennedy, who, about halfway through the song, was moved to tears because he realized that it was about his brother, John. Of course, neither man knew, at the time, that it would soon apply to Robert as well…
Don’t Stop Me Now, by Queen
Freddy Mercury, as an artist, was definitely ahead of his time. In some ways, music is still catching up to him. That’s why his death, from AIDS on November 24, 1991, represents such an outrageous loss. A song like “Don’t Stop Me Now” is one of those songs that you can’t help but love. As proof of that, my seven-year-old son loves it when this song comes on the radio. And it may be second only to “Bohemian Rhapsody” that illustrate exactly what the man was capable of.
The Visit of the Muse or Song about the Plagiarist, by Vladimir Vysotsky
Ronald Reagan once famously referred to the “Iron Curtain” behind which the Soviet Union persisted. This boundary was meant to imply that things that went on there were shrouded in mystery and secrecy. I suppose, to the west, that was true. Of course, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we in the west have come to know and understand more of what we might not have otherwise known. You can learn a lot from listening to music from the 1970’s and 1980’s — mainly, the era of Leonid Brezhnev — that came out of what was, at the time, the Soviet Union.
And at the front of the musical scene during that era was the actor/poet who picked up a guitar named Vladimir Vysotsky. If you listen to his voice, you’ll immediately recognize that his big weaknesses were alcohol and cigarettes. And the former is what ultimately killed him on July 25, 1980.
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, a native Russian, about Vysotsky, or, more specifically, his death. Her reaction was that she was surprised he lived to see the age of 42. The man was so amazingly popular in his time (and it hasn’t really waned all that much in the more than 30 years that have since passed), that I questioned whether there existed any conspiracy theories about how the Kremlin might have tried to silence him. That’s not to say that they have to be believable (but we have to acknowledge the existence of similar theories about John Lennon), but surely the powers that be would recognize the potential danger he could have presented to the status quo. I was unable to find anything that comes close to the level of a conspiracy theory about this.
I chose this song because it captures the fleeting concept of inspiration. He talks about the poetry of Aleksandr S. Pushkin and how difficult it is to write a song before he ultimately ends the song by stealing a well-known line of Pushkin’s (from one of my favorite poems of his): “I remember a wondrous moment, Before me, you appeared.”