Flashback Fives: True tales from a real-life musician

Along with our letters, we also publish “Flashback Fives”—a list of five moments when each writer fell in love with a song, album, artist, genre, et al. This list was submitted by Ezra, a transient fugitive who has secret hideouts in Oakland, California and Chicago.

One. I was twelve when I found a copy of Green Day’s Dookie lying around somewhere in my house. My older brother had bought it and lost interest quickly. As for me, I had never heard punk music before. It was the first band I truly loved as my very own, and I became ravenous for punk bands. Eventually I outgrew Green Day, but it took a long time, and that nineties stuff still sometimes grabs me and doesn’t let go all afternoon.

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Two. I wanted a guitar because a friend of mine told me punk was really easy to play, you just learn one chord shape and move it around on the guitar neck. My mom told me I could get a guitar under two conditions: a. It had to be an acoustic guitar, and b. I learned to play songs that she liked too, like Bob Dylan. I didn’t know who Bob Dylan was, really. She got me a cheap but good acoustic guitar and a book of chords to about twenty Dylan songs. Once I learned to play I agreed to learn one Bob Dylan tune to pacify her and then go back to my punk songs. The book was alphabetically organized so I decided to learn the first song, “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” It was from Blonde on Blonde and my mom had a copy. The song comes fading in like a freight train of tremendous energy, and Bob sings in an insane voice that was different than any singer I’d ever imagined, “Well your railroad gate, you know I just can’t jump it.” I realized something special was going on here and I devoured the whole album, became obsessed with it. That’s when I decided I had to become a great songwriter. It really wrecked my life.

Three. There’s no story here really, but when my friend Zach first played me his CD copy of the Pixies’ Doolittle, I was flipping out before the end of track 1, “Debaser.” I had never heard them. I loved them, I needed them. I still do.

Four. I was at some kid’s house on a Saturday night because there was going to be a reunion of my summer camp there. We were watching Jack Black host Saturday Night Live and waiting for the other fifteen-year-olds to show up. The Strokes came on as the musical guest and they were magnificent. They played “Last Nite” and later “Hard to Explain.” I got lost in Julian Casablancas’ wounded, searching eyes. I could see how much he felt as trying to pretend to feel nothing. At a time when I mostly listened to classic rock and assumed contemporary bands basically couldn’t be good, the Strokes were very much needed. But on some emotional level I connected all too deeply with the tension between their ultra-cool aesthetics and their troubled songs. They were my favorite band for years after that.

Five. Freshman year of college, I had a friend named Erin who knew a lot of bands I’d never heard of. She loaned me Disc 2 of the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. I think she had mislabeled them and meant to loan me Disc 1. I was kind of skeptically listening to it and growing more and more intrigued, though not sure about their theatricality and unrelenting irony and cynicism. I remember it was during the song “Promises of Eternity” that I realized all in a rush, simultaneously, that a. Oh wait EVERY SONG IS BRILLIANTLY WRITTEN, and b. the sarcasm is actually indistinguishable from the deep, deep sadness and also somehow joy that draws Stephin Merritt to write songs. It’s all one sincere and deeply alienated worldview, I realized during that song, and I became a disciple of that wonderful band.

Magnetic Fields: Promises of Eternity

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