An Unfortunate Sober Break in the List

Normally, you'd find the next in my Top 100 Songs of My Lifetime list here.  But I wanted to take some time to talk about something actually important.  As much fun as I've had writing these entries and as seriously as I've taken them, the whole thing pales in comparison to hearing that my grandpa, Joe Bodolay, died this morning at the age of 97.  I wanted to tell the world (or at least as much of the world that would actually read this) how much he meant to me and everyone else.

He was born in Hungary, but his family moved to the United States when he was young so they could pursue their own American dream.  They were processed into the U.S. through Ellis Island, eventually landing in Ohio.  He met the love of his life, my grandma Winnie, and had three children.  My mom, Joyce was the first, followed by my aunt Barbara and finally my uncle Joe.  He worked as a mechanic for Greyhound bus, getting countless numbers of buses back on the street to take Americans from here to there.  He worked hard every day, but was also a kind and gentle man, who loved his family as much as any man could.  In a generation where men were told to hold emotion in and live a serious life, where smiles were hard to come by and compliments even rarer, Joe Bodolay bucked the trend with all of his being.

A smile was always on his face.  A warm handshake soon followed.  Kind words then poured out, brightening your day.  If he knew you for longer than ten minutes, a hug wasn't far behind.  He was married to my grandma for 72 years, a lifetime in itself.  He loved her so much that he couldn't even contain it.  He was constantly holding her hand, smiling at her, throwing buckets and buckets of love her way.  So much so that it spilled over to the rest of us.  He raised his children to love life and everyone else, because to not do so was a waste of time.  Why be a jerk to people when you can make your day and their day better?  That was his driving philosophy.  My mom later boiled it down to what became her philosophy:  "It doesn't cost anything to be nice."

The first game of real golf I played with my grandpa, a not very good golfer who taught me nothing about the game, other than to enjoy myself with every shot, good or bad.  He smiled when he hit a good shot, laughed out loud at the bad ones and I never, ever, heard him raise his voice in anger.  As a ten year-old, he let me drive the golf cart, where I felt like a real grown up.  He always treated us kids with respect, never talking down to us just because of our age.

Grandpa Joe influenced me more than any other man in my life (sorry, Dad, but it's true).  He taught me how to be a great husband, father, but most of all, a great person.  If anyone has anything nice to say about me, the credit goes first to my mom, and then to Grandpa.  We took both of our sons to see Grandma and Grandpa very soon after they were born, and many other times, because I wanted some Grandma & Grandpa juice to rub off on our boys.  Whenever our boys were there, Grandpa just couldn't wipe the smile off of his face.  He just loved to watch them play with each other and hug their great-Grandma.

I was able to tell both him and my Grandma that they were my inspiration as a husband and wife team.  If my wife, Jennifer and I were able to live our lives as they had, we'd both couldn't be happier.  I tell my wife at least a dozen times a day that I lover her.  With Ty and Ethan, it's even more.  And the reason I'm comfortable enough to do that is because Grandpa showed me how.  Most of all, though, he taught me not to be embarrassed to let people know that I loved them.  It wasn't a sign of weakness, it was the ultimate sign of strength.  He was so comfortable with himself and his feelings that he never felt the need to hold them in.

Most of you never knew my Grandpa, and that's a real shame.  He made the lives of anyone who spent any real time with him better.  If the true measure of a life is whether or not the world was a better (or worse) place because you were in it, then Grandpa is a first ballot Hall-Of-Famer person.  I hope this might inspire some of you to know more about people in your lives who are committed to making the world a better place, one small act or interaction at a time.

We'll all miss you, Grandpa.  You showed me how to live a life that's worth telling people about, so I'm going to tell people about yours.  For those of us who believe in heaven, enjoy your time there.  You've earned it in spades.  Give Mom, Dad & Aunt Barbara a hug and kiss for me.

To steal that great line from Gladiator, I will see you again, but not yet..... not yet.

I'll start posting more entries for my list in a couple of weeks.

 Here are some pictures.....

Grandpa's birthday in 1987.  Right before this picture was taken, I told Grandpa that since I was a huge Dodgers fan, he'd better hold on tight to that jacket or else I might steal it (just in case you don't know me, I was kidding, you know...).

July 2006.  This is Grandpa holding my eldest son's hand.  Ty was the first great-grandchild and Grandpa was so excited every time we'd visit.  Both Ty and his little brother, Ethan, got to visit Grandpa quite a few times since their births, which was great.

May 2009.  Grandpa and Ethan.  Grandpa really loved Ethan's pretty blue eyes and couldn't stop smiling watching Ethan run around and play.

May 2009 as well.  (L to R: Grandpa, Ethan, Jennifer (standing), Kent (kneeling), Todd (sitting), Joey (but he wants you to call him Joe now), Scott, Ty (sitting on Scott's lap), Margie, Joe & Grandma)

17. Led Zeppelin - Rock and Roll

Okay, let's get right to the controversy that's sure to be out there about my Led Zeppelin song choice -  "Stairway to Heaven" vs. "Rock and Roll."  For many rock critics, "Stairway" is the Citizen Kane or Godfather of rock & roll.  It's the best rock song ever, period.  The haters, though, say that "Stairway" is a bloated, pretentious excercise in fancy-schmancy songwriting.  "Stairway to Heaven" has been polarizing song for decades.  Since it's considered by many to be the best rock song ever, there's a fair amount of backlash of people who never want to hear it again. 

My feelings are somewhere in the middle.  Although I can grant that "Stairway" is most likely is the most overplayed song in the history of rock radio, it's also an almost perfectly crafted song that shows the amazing breadth of styles that rock songs can contain (it's a ballad, it's a rocker, it's a greatest hits song all in one!).  But for me, it just doesn't do much for me, and I can't quite explain why.  I'm the same way with Casablanca, keeping with the movie analogies.  They're both good, but not nearly as good as everybody is telling me they are.  So that's why I went with "Rock and Roll," because, purely and simply, it's a kick-ass rock song that I've never tired of hearing.
The criticisms of "Rock and Roll" are there as well, though.  Since it's based on the classic blues 12 bar blues progression and that drummer John Bonham's intro is basically a lift of the beginning of Little Richard's "Keep a Knockin," people claim that it's derivative and unoriginal.  Legions of people would say it's at best the third best song on Led Zeppelin IV.  But I just counter with, "Yeah, but it kicks ass."  That's all that matters to me.  A perfectly cooked steak can be a perfect meal with just three ingredients (steak, salt, pepper).  Same with a song.  Just because it's simple, doesn't mean it can't be perfectly done.  If anything, that makes it even more impressive.  And that's what "Rock and Roll" is.  It may be the most pure rock and roll song ever written.  No pretension - just an unadulterated tribute to the history of the music that they (and we) love.

It all kicks off with that thundering drum intro by John Bonham.  And while it's true that the riff is almost identical to the one that starts "Keep a Knockin," Bonham adds a power and passion that's lacking from the original.  So like they do throughout the entire song, the members of Led Zeppelin take inspirations from the past and make them their own.  Jimmy Page's guitar may be with the blues progression, but it's cranked up, fuzzed out, and utterly his own - and fully rock and roll.  John Paul Jones' bass is what it was back in the songs they're paying tribute to, a strong rhythm that holds the song together, except Jones add quite a bit more thump in his low end.

And then there are Robert Plant's vocals.  One of the reason I prefer this song to "Stairway" is Plant's vocals.
Robert Plant has arguably the best rock and roll voice ever.  In "Stairway" he doesn't get to unleash it the way he does in "Rock and Roll."  He lets loose from the first word and never takes his foot off his vocal accelerator.  Every word he sings has force behind it.  He knows that if you're going to have the balls to call your song "Rock and Roll," you better put your voice behind that statement.  And boy does he.

The lyrics are simple and without a deep storyline, like so many early rock classics.  For the original acts, the lyrics were pure escapism - hanging out with friends, having fun, and (hopefully) having sex.

It's been a long time since I rock-and-rolled
It's been a long time since I did the Stroll
Let me get it back, let me get it back, let me get it back
Baby, where I come from
It's been a long time, been a long time

When I heard this song for the first time when I was ten, I thought that this guy really liked music and missed it.  Then one day it hit me.  He's talking about sex!  It was scandalous to a thirteen year-old.  It was like the floodgates opened for me and all the other songs that I'd been listening to over the years.  "Love Gun" by Kiss?  Not about firearms, it's sex!  "I Want Candy" by Bow Wow Wow - sex!  "She Bop" by Cyndi Lauper - masturbation!  Well at lest "YMCA" by the Village People is a wholesome song about young men finding a decent place to stay and have a good meal. What?  It's about what?!  Um, anyway, moving on...

While the mature me finds it hard to believe that Robert Plant ever had any trouble finding someone to have sex with him, the teenage me really felt bad for the guy.  He's basically begging.

It's been so long since we walked in the moonlight
Making vows that just can't work right
Open your arms, open your arms, open your arms
Baby let my love come running in

Going back to the music, there are tons of other standout moments.  There's that awesome stuttering, start-and-stop Jimmy Page solo, as if he's trying to figure out if he really wants to unleash a kick-ass solo or not.  Yep, he does.  Beyond the lyrics, there's that trademark Robert Plant wail.  John Paul Jones' bass has that cadence of a heart that's about to explode.  Near the end of the song, there's that clinking piano that again pays tribute to the oldies.  And for those who criticize Bonham's lifting of the "Knockin" riff, he finally gets to let loose with some of this own tricks at the very end of the song, and it's worth the wait.

Start to finish, "Rock and Roll" is not even four minutes long, but every band member tears through every single second.  Nothing is wasted.  While it's a simple arrangement for a rock song, it's also a perfect rock song.  And like that perfectly cooked steak, you're soon jonesing for another one.  So while "Stairway to Heaven" may be sautéed duck breast and foie gras with a cherry shallot reduction, "Rock and Roll" is that perfectly seared ribeye steak.  And between the two, I'll take the steak.  Be honest with yourself.  You would too.

18. Alanis Morissette - You Oughta Know

Shakespeare's* quote about a woman scorned is often used when talking about "You Oughtta Know" by Alanis Morissette.  And while that may be true, I think the song takes it to an even harsher level.  In this case, the song's subject is about the annihilation of a woman's self-esteem that's been replaced with a vitriolic rage that she can't control (nor does she really want to).  In other words, don't fuck with Alanis Morissette.  And although she's never confirmed it (much like Carly Simon and the supposed Warren Beatty dig, "You're So Vain", it's been confirmed by Dave Coulier+ that he's the ex-boyfriend in question.

At the urging of her new producer, Glen Ballard, Alanis left her musical past# behind her and started writing songs from her life.  As they teach in Writing 101, write what you know.  And boy did she.  The song starts with her slow, but very deliberate lyric "I want you to know, that I'm happy for you" as she begins to unleash a torrent of hate in the general direction of, well, anywhere her ex-boyfriend might ever be.  And for those irony impaired, she's not really happy for him.  There's just a simple, quiet snare drum that's being played with brushes to keep the beat muted that goes well with her quiet opening lines.  As she builds melodic and lyric intensity in her vocals, the instrumentation tries to match it. 

With the help of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Dave Navarro and Flea, the musical foundation that Alanis can build her vocals on is very strong indeed.  Although I didn't know that it was these guys playing on the track until recently, I always thought the bass line was awesome.  Now I know why.  Flea brings an intense funkiness to every bass line he plays, and it really works well in this song.  The fuzziness in Dave's guitar was a sound I hadn't really heard before and it really helped bridge the gap between Alanis' dramatic vocal pauses.  If you just listen to the instrumentation, you could easily fit a fun, poppy vocal performance around it, showing the versatility of their playing.

But this is not a fun, poppy song.  You can definitely see the influence of Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville" all over "You Oughtta Know" and the whole Jagged Little Pill album.  They're both albums by women who are through with being screwed over by men and are taking things into their own hands - and not always in a positive way.  Alanis' biting lyrics in the chorus speak volumes:

And I'm here to remind you
Of the mess you left when you went away
It's not fair to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me

But that's not all.  In the next verse, she really pulls all the punches with her accusatory words.  There's nothing left to interpretation.

You seem very well, things look peaceful
I'm not quite as well, I thought you should know
Did you forget about me Mr. Duplicity
I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner
It was a slap in the face how quickly I was replaced
Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?

I asked my wife, Jennifer, (a big Alanis fan) why this song spoke to her and so many others.  "Because we've all been there," she said.  Almost every woman has been dumped by a guy who moved on to the new flavor of the month, either oblivious to or apathetic of the destruction he left in his wake.  When I told Jennifer that I thought it might be tough for Alanis to sing it now, after she's had some semblance of closure and years to put it behind her.  Jennifer told me of a quote she heard from Gwen Stefani, speaking about her hit with No Doubt, "Don't Speak."  Gwen said that even though the song wasn't an accurate portrayal of her current life, she still sang it on behalf of all the other women in the audience that were going through those things right then.  I imagine that Alanis does the same when she sings it now. 

But the ultimate question is, why is this song #18 on my list?   Simply because it spoke to me, a man, so deeply about the amount of emotional damage we men can do to the women that we claim to love that I couldn't shake it for a week after I first heard it.  And I've never even treated a woman in such a cowardly way.   It made me really feel for the women who have been.  We, as men, have an obligation to treat women with respect, even when we don't want to be in a relationship with them anymore.  When we don't, we do so at our own peril, because one of them could write a song that makes you look like a hall-of-fame asshole.  And don't we do enough other stuff to make us look bad, guys?

*The quote that I talked about at the beginning of this post is often attributed to William Shakespeare, with the dictum being, if it's old and famous, Shakespeare probably wrote it.  While that's mostly true, it's not in this case.  The quote is:  "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned.  Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned."  It's from the 1697 work "The Mourning Bride" by William Congreave. 

+ Yes, that Dave Coulier.  Uncle Joey from TV's "Full House."  Which begs the question, how could a humongous dork like that possibly hurt someone that bad?  Either she had the emotional stability of the San Andreas fault or he is one closeted mean motherfucker.  When you add the fact that she was sixteen at the time and he was thirty-one!, I'd probably bet on the latter.

#Alanis Morissette had a secret from her past that she desperately wanted no one to discover.  Alanis is a talented singer/songwriter and is respected in her profession.  But her secret finally comes out.  Years before, she was Alanis Morissette, Canadian pop star.  But her shame is our glee, so please enjoy her music video** for "Walk Away."

In the TV comedy How I Met Your Mother, one of the characters has a secret from her past that she desperately wants to keep.  Robin Scherbatzky is a TV news anchor and is respected in her profession.  But her secret finally comes out.  Years before, she was Robin Sparkles, Canadian pop star.  But her shame is our glee, so please enjoy her music video** for "Sandcastles in the Sand."

**Alanis' video featured a pre-"Friends" Matt LeBlanc as her love interest.  Robin's video features a post-"Dawson's Creek" James VanDerBeek as her love interest, and 80's American pop icon, Tiffany, as her rival.

19. George Michael - Freedom '90

More than ever, popular American culture is obsessed with fame.  The goal to become famous is easier to attain than ever, but the cost is often high.  People mortgage their self-respect, body images and sobriety in order to have their pictures in magazines and faces on television.  And while getting famous may be an easier golden ring to grab in the digital age, the desire to become famous is nothing new.

Back in the early 80's, George Michael wanted to be famous, badly.  He wanted to be the world's biggest pop star and prove his disapproving father wrong and that he could succeed in the music business.  He needed to prove himself.   The problem is, he did succeed.  He became wildly successful, first with Wham! and then with his gigantic first solo album, Faith.  He had millions of fans, was on dozens of magazine covers and basically co-opted MTV as his own personal cable channel.  For someone who wrote a lot of catchy danceable songs, he was also critically well received.
George Michael was different from almost all of his contemporaries in the 80's.  Sure he sung pop songs, but he also wrote and produced them all by himself.  When he recorded the first Wham! album, he was nineteen!  I don't know about you, but I didn't have my stuff together nearly so well at nineteen.  Back then, I probably thought I did, but the old me realizes I was only kidding myself.  Sure, I thought I could change the world, I just never got around to doing anything about it, just like most of us.  But not George.  He wasn't going to waste any time.

And he didn't.  After Wham!, he released his first solo record to critical acclaim and sales of over 10,000,000 copies.  But it didn't make him happy.  His fame, like it has for many, had become its own machine, with George being pulled along in its wake.  So although he helped build that machine, he consciously stepped back from it and decided to let his music speak for itself.  And boy did it.

Starting off with that infectious drum machine loop, the stage was set for the song that would be popular for George based solely on its musical merits, rather than the attractive face with which it was packaged.  Then you add a just as catchy piano riff, and the song really takes off.  Although there are very few instruments playing in "Freedom '90," they way they're played is with a funky intricacy that builds a strong, if chaotic, foundation.  The song's disco'ish guitar break leading into the bridge may be my favorite musical part of the song, because it took such a dated sound and repackaged it in such a fresh sounding way.  Many singers could be overwhelmed by that much talented musical complexity, but George has a voice that can pull off almost anything.  The way George generally sings his vocals has a very breathy quality to it, but behind it all is pure talent.  There may be more talented pop singers than George, but none jump quickly to my mind.  So if he's not the best, he'd put up a hell of a fight for the title.

Lyrically, the song was first and foremost in response to his fame and trying to deal with it.  Looking back on it now, it also was probably strongly influenced by his living his life as a gay man in private, but not in public.  Both of those were tearing at him and he wanted to fight back, to a certain degree.  Sure, both messes were ones he made himself, but he was trying to deal with them the best way he could.  He's less interested in making the rest of the world happy, he's just going to try and focus on himself and let the rest take care of itself.

But today the way I play the game is not the same
No way
Think I'm gonna get myself happy

But he also realizes that there's an obligation after you take steps to assure your own happiness.  You have to help others find their own happiness.

All we have to see
Is that I don't belong to you
And you don't belong to me
You've gotta give for what you take

George also realized the chance he was taking with his new public persona.  It could have very well blown up in his face and his fame could have evaporated just as quickly as it had appeared.  He was unapologetic about how he was going to live his life, and for a man whose face (and ass) had become almost as famous as his music, it was a serious gamble to take.  But he didn't care, and that's probably why it worked.

May not be what you want from me
Just the way it's got to be
Lose the face now
I've got to live I've got to live

It's hard to combine a danceable song with lyrics that are strong and provocative.  George wasn't going to write a lyrically disposable song like "Car Wash" that was seriously catchy but with all the lyrical depth of a piece of paper.  George wanted to mix the two and do it in a way that would still speak to people.  He succeeded massively and put together a song that will almost always get me bobbing my head and harmonizing along with him in the choruses.  And judging by its critical reception and record sales, there are about 10,000,000 others of you who agree with me.

Two videos for this one.  The first is one of the most famous music videos of all time, while the second may be one of the best MTV Unplugged performances of all time.

(Fun Fact #643:  The video for "Freedom '90" was directed by noted perfectionist David Fincher, who went on to direct some great movies, including Fight Club, Se7en, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the just released (and critically lauded) The Social Network)