When I was 10 years old I bought my first album – MC Hammer's 'Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em'. I played it until the tape stretched and the sound went wonky. I drove my parents insane singing along at the top of my lungs. In an effort to teach me about more ‘refined’ classical music and shift my musical tastes away from rap, they enrolled me in a local choir.
It worked, I moved on from rap but not towards classical music. A friend I made at choir told me I had to listen this great new band she’d heard on the radio. She put the headphones over my ears and pressed play and the opening riff of Nirvana’s 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' fried my brain. Those four simple power chords opened up an entire world I never knew existed. I never listened to rap or pop music again – grunge was my new religion. I spent the summer working in my folks’ back yard – mowing the lawn, digging up bamboo, painting the fence – anything to get the precious cash I needed to buy my next fix. The local record store was my church and the guys who worked there were my priests – in flannel and torn jeans.
I remember flicking through the racks until I found Nirvana’s Nevermind – that iconic cover with the baby floating in the pool reaching out towards the dollar bill on a fish hook. I was caught hook line and sinker. I poured over the liner notes on the train ride home, committing the lyrics to memory. When I got to my house I rushed to the stereo, cranked the volume and hit play.
It was pure freedom - exciting, dangerous, raw, confusing and powerful. And best of all, my parents hated it. A bunch of guys in their twenties in Seattle were writing songs that expressed all the confusion, excitement and angst I was feeling and I felt a little less alone because of it.
I would listen to that album over and over again until I knew every chord change by heart. Twenty-five years later I still know all the lyrics. My Dad became more and more concerned about the amount of time he thought I was wasting listening to music. He told me there were more productive things I should be doing with my time. To be fair to him, he could never have foreseen what a pivotal role music would come to play in my life.
Music was my first love and it came to influence every love that followed it. I met my first girlfriend on a choir camp. She was two years older than me – tall, blonde, stunning and impossibly cool. I was an awkward, shy, pimply, gawky fifteen year old. It was a complete coup. By all rights I shouldn’t have stood a chance but I won her over with my nerdy knowledge of obscure bands.
Four years later as a nineteen year old I fell in love for the first time. I was head over heels and it seemed mutual. When she fell for another guy six months later it destroyed me. So I turned to music to get her back – compiling a mixed CD of ‘our’ songs in the hope that reminding her of our common love of Super Furry Animals and Radiohead might be enough to convince her of the error of her ways.
When that didn’t work I inscribed her favourite line from her favourite song on the inside of a ring – ‘My kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder’. But that didn’t work either. So I used music to put my broken heart back together – Jeff Buckley and Joni Mitchell to remind myself I wasn’t alone in my heartache and the Beatles to lift me out of my self-indulgent funk. In a way I guess you could say I used music like a drug – downers to help me feel and express the heartache and uppers to shake me out of it.
But music was always more than a way of modulating my feelings. I began finding truths in the lyrics of great songwriters – Bob Dylan, Glenn Richards, Nick Drake and James Mercer – great wordsmiths who could transmute complex ideas and feelings into revelatory poetry. It was around this time that I set my heart on learning how to do the same and poured most of my late teens and early twenties into mastering the craft of songwriting.
I soon came to appreciate firsthand the power that musicians wield. I would sing my songs at gigs and see people smiling in recognition as they saw themselves in the lyrics. After shows people would tell me that a particular melody or phrase ‘spoke to them’ like it was written especially with them in mind. Sometimes when I got into the zone I could feel the air crackle with electricity as people connected with the music.
On especially good nights it was the closest I have come to feeling what some might describe as a ‘religious experience’ – a strong connection with something bigger than myself – a feeling like I was in service to others – a channel for the music to flow through. In those moments the boundary between me and the audience melted and I felt a deep sense of connection and fulfillment.
I never made a living out of music but it continued to enrich my life. I met my wife at a recording session for my first album. Three years later we bumped into each other again at a record store where I was working. When we met again three years later I finally got my act together. She was scheduled to fly back to London where she was living at the time and I couldn’t let that happen. So I wrote her a song. I called her up a week before she was due to fly out and recorded it on her voicemail. When she called me the next day she had decided to give me a chance. Eight years later I am still grateful to music for bringing us together.
Looking back over my life there are thousands of other examples of the powerful force for good that music has played in my life. But this isn’t just my story. It is the story of every other musician and music lover and, in fact, human on the planet. The ability to create and connect with music is hardwired into all of us. It is the language of the heart – it speaks emotions and truths that words could never convey. And it is this intangible quality that connects us to each other - bypassing our rational mind and going straight to the soul - overcoming divisive beliefs, opinions, attitudes and prejudice with a few simple chords and a drum beat. Music is the glue that binds the world because it reminds us that we are not alone in this wonderful and painful human experience we call life.
It turns out my Dad was both right and incredibly wrong. There is no point to music – it doesn’t produce anything and it could be seen to be a waste of time. But at its greatest it has the power to save the world – one heart and mind at a time.
Story Written By Cameron Elliott