Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Soundtrack of My Life

Last week, my homeboy J-Oro wrote a Soundtrack of His Life. He got the idea from our buddy, Ethan, who riffed on the idea after hearing a story on NPR in which a writer chose six songs that would make the soundtrack of her life. Being the narcissistic fucker that I am, I’ve thought about a soundtrack that could convey my spirit. I’ve fantasized about a soundtrack that could accompany, say, a film based about my life. A few years ago, I experimented with this by writing a piece titled “My Cancer Playlist,” a compilation of 12 songs that could express my “cancer journey” (as oncologists and practitioners in the field like to refer to that tumultuous time in the lives of their patients).

I just wanted to get in on the fun, this conga line of soundtracks, so here’s mine:

1979 - Ring My Bell, Anita Ward

This song came out in 1979. I was in my mother’s womb for the first four months of that year. Now when I bob my head and gyrate to this disco classic, I can’t help but secretly wish that my mom somehow listened to this song in Guadalajara while I was one with her. I can picture it now: me kicking in her womb, a smoke machine in the corner, cute chicks on the sidelines, a disco ball hanging from the uterus lining. I should’ve never left!

Many years later, I would see a parked car in the Mission. It had a bumper sticker that read “I Came to Get Down.” I went bonkers. Fuck yes. That’s what I want my headstone to read.

1984 – Cherish, Kool & the Gang

I have shards of memories from a trip I took with my dad to Miami when we lived near Orlando. (I remember staying in a hotel for one night. I vaguely remember being so pleased by the grown-up table they had in the corner of our room with a pen and blank notepad resting expectantly on it.) On the drive to Miami, I remember sitting buckled into the passenger seat. This song came on the radio while we drove across a bridge. I peered over at my dad. The sun shined behind him, flickered from the suspension cables or passing cars that zipped by. I remember feeling at peace, safe beside my dad.

In large part, my early childhood was unremarkable. I was loved by my parents and sisters. I was one of the lucky ones. Cherish.

1993 - Genius of Love, Tom Tom Club

Junior high. Everyone’s wearing baggy colored pants and striped shirts from Miller’s Outpost. Even though I’m a peruano and not mexicano like most of the other Latinos at my school in Fremont, CA, I figure I should wear the same clothes they’re wearing and listen to the music they’re listening to, like 98.1 KISS FM and 106.1 KMEL (the people’s station!) Since I’m a Latino, I feel like I was supposed to listen to rap and hip hop and R&B and old school R&B, though I had no clue what that really meant, old school R and B. This was a song those stations played. I really liked it even though I had no clue who I should be.

1995 - Rape Me, Nirvana

It’s past midnight because that’s what my digital alarm clock reads. I can’t fall asleep. I turn the radio on my clock. For whatever reason, I flick through the channels, searching for something. I hear the opening palm-muted guitar notes, then the opening verse. It reminds me of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from the Nevermind album I had borrowed from my older sister, Mariana. This time, something clicked inside me. A cog turned. This was the music I felt bubbling within me. The angst. The ugly distorted beauty of it all. I was a rocker in spirit from that day on. And I found my first artistic idol.

2000 – Garbageman, The Cramps

My college years. Still living at home, taking the train all the way to Daly City to attend film school. I’m writing short stories and film scripts in which startling moments of life that are full of life can happen in a boring-as-fuck suburb like Fremont. I’m starting to feel like something is fundamentally wrong with suburbia as a construct but intellectually I still lack the language to elucidate. But I was having startling moments of life that were full of life in Fremont because of my punk-rocker-outsider-type friends, especially my first serious girlfriend who was One half hillbilly / And one half punk. (And she was so much more.) I’m getting loaded regularly. Experimenting with my mind on occasion with drugs. I’m discovering classic cult films, great books, and astounding bands like The Cramps to nourish me, to sing back and paint the world I feel. My friends helped to open these worlds for me.

2001 - Everything in Its Right Place, Radiohead

Here’s a recipe for depression:
• read Derrick Jensen’s The Culture of Make Believe,
• read George Orwell’s 1984 while visiting Peru, your ancestral homeland
• listen to Radiohead’s OK Computer and Kid A a lot
• ¬while visiting your expansive family in Peru, a place where you are a tourist, become keenly aware, for the first time in your privileged life, of all the death, destruction, and tantamount change that was wrought on that land by a group of greedy Spanish conquistadors who believed their God was the right one.

And the world is never the same after that summer.

2006 - El Desierto, Lhasa de Sela

Weeks before Valentine’s Day in 2006 my girlfriend Julia broke up with me. I’m 26 at the time. We parted at a time when I was beginning to assume a future inseparable from her. Other than loving life in San Francisco, I am lost in every way: unsure of what work I want to commit my one life to; no heart to rest mine beside. So I quit my job to backpack alone through South America. I dreamt of winding my way to the Atacama Desert. I longed to walk into the desert. I wanted to vanish in it.

Besides my books and journal, my one true companion on those long, grueling bus rides across the continent was my iPod shuffle. Lhasa de Sela’s La Llorana was on steady rotation, including this song containing this verse:

He venido yo corriendo olvidándome de ti
Dame un beso pajarillo no te asustes colibrí
He venido encendida al desierto pa quemar
Porque el alma prende fuego cuando deja de amar.

[Quebrada del Diablo, Atacama Desert]

2008 - Maloyan Devil, Bob Brozman & Djeli Moussa Diawara

July 26, 2008. Saturday night in the Mission. With my camping backpack strapped around me, I’m marching to the 24th Street station to catch a train to SFO. I’m heading to Thailand and Cambodia for three weeks. To kick off my journey on a righteous note I slip on my headphones and pick a song at random on my iPodito. Of all the 120 songs this beautiful but haunting blues number plays. It startles me. Does this song portend what lies ahead for me?

By then, an ominous swollen lymph node had popped up by left clavicle.

2009 - Of Wolf and Man, Metallica

Friday mornings, before almost every single one of my twelve chemotherapy infusions, this song blared from my headphones as I marched out of my flat on Dolores Street to San Francisco General. My spirit roared to the nasty staccato riff that opens the song; the thundering snare; the opening verse: Off through the new day’s mist I run / Out from the new day’s mist I have come / I hunt, therefore I am / Harvest the land, taking of the fallen lamb. I was the wolf. My corporeal nemesis, Mr. Hodgkins, was my prey.

I was so pissed off to live.

2010 - Nutshell (from their MTV Unplugged album), Alice in Chains

Rejoining “the kingdom of the well”—as Sontag called it—was deliriously great at first, but there’s fallout to deal with. Fallout from lowering my head and pushing through grad school and that shitstorm in my life for over a year and a half and never stopping. Staley’s lyrics and wearied voice in this recording sounded like this feeling locked inside:

And yet I fight
And yet I fight
This battle all alone
No one to cry to
No place to call home.

2011 - I’ll Fly Away, Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch

Winter 2011. I’m in Taos, New Mexico for an artist residency. On the day I rented a neo-hippie white Volkswagen Bug to cruise out of Taos, past the Rio Grande Gorge, I see the land and gray sky open before me, nestled by the surrounding mountains. This song comes on my iPod. It’s all so piercingly beautiful—being alive, listening to this immaculate song in a land that feels like home. I cry. It was a great day to die.

2013 – Always, Atlantic Starr

For years and years I have loved this song. All that time, I think I secretly longed to find someone who I could dedicate this song to. I think I longed to grow into a man who could dedicate this song to someone. In Maria, my sweetheart, mi amorcita, the love of my life (and now my “domestic partner,” according to Kaiser Permanente), I’ve finally arrived there. When I listen to this song, I can easily daydream of us slow dancing to it, surrounded by our loved ones.

2014 – Achilles Last Stand, Led Zeppelin

Over the past four months, I’ve been a bit obsessed with this song. I still remember the first time I listened to it. What immediately struck me was Jones’ galloping bass line and Robert Plant’s voice. Familiar with every Zeppelin album before Presence, I was stunned by the tone of his voice; it’s like the fire in him was tempered. It was evident that this was a different Robert Plant. And it was: during the recording he was wheelchair-bound with a broken ankle and elbow from a serious car accident in Greece.

The rest of the song, with some of Page and Bonham’s most astounding work, is imbued with a soaring, unrelenting, and desperate power. By comparison, it makes “Rock ‘N Roll” seem mundane. The desperation, the-backs-against-the-wall power is what left me in complete awe of this song. I felt validated to read that Plant described Presence as a “cry of survival,” “a cry from the depths.”

Now at the cusp of 35, I feel like this song more than any other. My body’s getting creaky. It doesn’t heal as quickly as it used to, but I feel mighty in a way I didn’t when I was younger.

Meanwhile, the polar ice caps are disintegrating. “Colony Collapse Disorder”—the mass death of honey bees worldwide—has entered our lexicon. Our way of life on this planet is beginning to crumble at an accelerated pace that even we can see. Life is always full of suffering but we’re in for a load of it in this century—if we make it. You know shit’s bad when Stephen Hawking recommends we seek life outside Planet Earth within the next century if we wish to continue this human experiment.

So the outlook’s bleak. Our backs are against the proverbial wall. This is when we’ll see the absolute best and worst of humanity. This is when we’ll truly see what we’re individually and collectively made of, and I’m going down swinging. This is my fight song now.

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