For the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I will be using this space for a series of pieces I call Mixtape – a set of personal stories about the pop music that made a positive change in my life. Enjoy and share your thoughts on these and the other songs and records that shaped the way you see and hear things now! Part of the power of music is how it can be both personal and communal at once.
Gabe was a little younger than me, but in our early teens he already looked older.
From his dad he’d inherited Cuban good looks and a wide, infectious smile that were both in full bloom and on top of that, he was genuinely nice.
Gabe was also a great guitar player – or at least the best I knew in that suburban Indiana town. When I wanted to start a band, he was an obvious first recruit. I was aware even then that bands needed at least one really good-looking member.
We soon convinced a drummer and a second guitar player to join our endeavor and we all made a joint decision that I should learn to play bass (because I was clearly the least equipped to do a guitar solo). We all went to different schools and lived in different zip codes, but on weekends we’d crash into the great room at the drummer’s mom’s house, smash at power chords and snare drums and live decadent rock star lives filled with pizza deliveries and late-night South Park binges. We never became famous (or even all that listenable) but we all helped each other figure out what friendship might look like.
Over these years, Gabe would show me tons of music that would stick in the roof of my mouth. He was into New York hardcore bands and ska, but he also pushed me toward the Counting Crows (who I still consider my all-time favorite musical act). But when I think back about Gabe now, the story that comes to mind first is the one he used to tell about why he decided to learn to play guitar.
“I just walked into the living room and MTV was on,” he’d say. “And the video for ‘Come Down’ by Bush was playing and right then I knew I had to play.”
In the intervening years since Gabe and I and our friends were getting the cops called on us for noise complaints from the surrounding subdivision, I have heard almost the exact same story about personal experiences with the music of Bush from a lot of people (including my wife).
The British rock band’s major breakthrough Sixteen Stone had some entrancing quality to it that, while hard to describe, seems to have shark-bitten most of a certain generation of rock fan. There was this loud, fuzzy grunginess counterbalanced by big sing-able pop choruses that sound hopeless and happy at the same time.
At first, I heard the album mostly broken up into its five hit singles that took over rock radio in the mid-nineties. Curious about who these guys were, I remember latching onto the only pre-internet rock and roll press I could find in my house – a magazine column from a guy who reviewed popular music for parents and line-item everything that could be deemed offensive. I specifically remember this column explaining that the band’s name and/or album title are references to marijuana (which is untrue of both) and that the singer referred to his brother in a song as an “a**hole” (which is totally true). These two unsubstantiated observances alone added enough mystique to the group for me to need to hear more.
When I did, I found that songs like “Everything Zen” and “Machinehead” sounded angry and drug-hungry as I expected, but the most powerful moment of the album for me was the song “Glycerine.” Here was a guy singing hard over big grungy power chords… and a cello?? It was bold in its lack and while I understood what none of it was supposed to mean (I still don’t), it resonated in its raw simplicity. And Gabe taught me to play along. “I may not be able to play solos,” I thought, “but this is much more important.”
Two summers ago, well into my thirties, my wife and I got tickets to see Bush – or really lead singer Gavin Rossdale and a new backing crew. We watched from the balcony as the band ripped through song after song and we remembered how important these tunes had been to us.
During the encore, we noticed suddenly that Gavin – still in mid-song – had disappeared from the stage. We knew he must have stepped into the crowd, but from our seats above we had a hard time following his path. Most of the folks near us abandoned their theater seats and headed to the railing to get a better look at what might be happening. My wife and I just stayed put, content to watch the show unravel from a distance.
The song kept on, Gavin’s vocals returned and I suddenly realized they seemed to echo. I turned to my left to see that walking down the mostly-abandoned row I was still occupying was Gavin Rossdale. He had bodyguards near, a mic in his hand and he was belting out one of his biggest hits right in front of me.
I knew I had to keep my cool. He gave me a quick hug and I moved out of the way. And behind me, Gavin met my wife. Her smile was wide and so were her arms. He leaned down and embraced her, then picked her up and kept walking – and he never missed a note.
And that to me explains the power of Sixteen Stone in a single visual moment. Maybe at first it was talent, maybe it was timing, maybe it was both and a whole lot more. But in the right place and at the right time, Bush can still sweep us away.