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Five Albums That Changed My Life

I am obsessed with music. Not as an intellectual pursuit but as a lifestyle choice. Music is central to who I am. It shapes my attitudes, offers me comfort, bonds me with friends and provides an emotional blueprint for my life.

Without music, I would have been lost a long time ago.

I started exploring music as soon as I was old enough to get a paper route and could afford to buy cassettes at Kmart. Right away, music gave me things I didn't have: a place I fit in; a place where other people understood me and saw the world the same way that I did. Music also provided an escape hatch - a Walkman on full blast shut out the rest of the world completely.

What follows are the most influential albums of my life. I don't mean the records that remind me of a specific place or time or person but albums that really shaped me into who I am today.

I took the emotions, philosophies and directions of each of these albums to heart, memorized them and turned them into action. Time, repetition and solitude imprinted these records into my DNA. These are not brief periods for me; these albums are the emotional and social building blocks for the weirdo we all know and love today.

Without these albums my life would be different today.

Quick note: before you laugh at my ardor for some shitty '80s metal records, you should know something about the obsessive, maniacal, compulsive and repeated way that I listen to music. I will play the same album exclusively over and over and over for months (even years) on end.

I am also a walker and a thinker. There is nothing I like more than strapping on a pair of headphones and going for a long, pointless walk to mull shit some over. And more times than I would like to admit, I've found the answer I was looking for in the Walkman (or the iPod now.)

Some of the following albums have influenced me for the good and a few, in retrospect, for the bad. They cross genres but have common denominators: dark emotional undertones; the voice of emotional struggle; explicit themes of violence, revenge and suffering.

Here, then, are five albums that changed my life:

1. Kill 'Em All/Metallica

"Thrashing all around/Acting like a maniac/Whiplash!"

Kill 'Em All was the first record that set me on fucking fire. From the first time I pressed play and KEA thundered out of the tinny, shitty, little speakers of my Panasonic boom box, it took aim at my spine, snapped it in half and tapped into the very core of my being with lightning speed, unchecked aggression and furious electricity; I became a dirty fucking dirthead who didn't give a dirty fuck and was proud of it three songs into my first listen.

KEA gave me an instant identity that was true to how I felt and how the world seemed to treat me. Where I once felt powerless because I was different, Kill 'Em All made me feel like there was power and glory in not fitting in. It made me feel that I was not alone: that there were other miscreants and misfits out there just like me, and guess what? We are taking over the fucking world, posers.

My clearest memory of the power of that album was when I got thrown off a baseball team by the coach* in the middle of a game for mouthing off about playing time. It was also the only game I can ever remember my biological father attending. He was so proud of himself that he had finally made it to a game after all those years and by the third inning, I was crying and packing my shit. I left without speaking to him or any of my teammates.

I rode my bike home, determined to commit suicide because the pain and embarrassment of that rejection in front of my absentee father was simply too much. I decided that the last song I wanted to hear before I died was "Seek and Destroy." I put on the headphones and lay on my bed trying to figure out the best way to do myself in.

But the song got to me that anguished afternoon; somewhere deep, somewhere primal, where my natural tenacity lives. As I rewound it over and over and over, I was overcome with the feeling that I could use that anger and disappointment and rejection to destroy every person who ever fucked me over. My anger made me stronger than them; someday, there would be hell to pay. That's what the song and the whole album say: you've fucked us over and now we are on an unstoppable march.

The unlimited energy supply of my rage tapped into by Kill 'Em All gave me solace and kept me going. Using anger to survive became a way of life for me for a long time.

That album still speaks to the angry teenage part of me who wants to fight everyone - to rage; to be ruthless. I don't need to live that way anymore but it's good to know it's available if I need it.

*Fuck you, Coach.

2. Paul's Boutique/Beastie Boys

"Every dog will have its day and mine will be in front of a jury."

Paul's Boutique is all about connections for me. Paul's Boutique was the sonic bridge between my heaviest drug-using days and my first days as a sober teenager. It opened up a musical world beyond the (waning) genre of thrash metal. But most of all, this album cemented an already strong bond between me and my childhood best friend.

From the beginning, Paul's Boutique destroyed our drug-addled minds. The record was all about taking a trip on hallucinogenic lane*, from hip to hop with a stop in funkytown. We had been so uptight with the rules of metal and hating posers that it felt good to just calm down and enjoy some funky jams.

We were doing a lot of drugs in '89, especially LSD, when PB was released. R and I turned a lot of bugged-out hours into hazy days, lying on his waterbed, tripping on acid and listening to Paul's Boutique (and the Butthole Surfers' Hairway to Steven), trying to decipher the richly multi-layered sonic and lyrical masterpiece. Every line had a different inside reference to discover, every rhyme was a metaphor for our lives, every song a six-hour philosophical debate waiting to happen. We mined our own shorthand language out of that album - lyrics, memories, inside jokes - that only we (and my brother) really understood.

I was afraid I wouldn't be able to listen to Paul's Boutique anymore when I went into rehab because it would be a drug trigger for me or that I wouldn't like it sober. In fact, my counselor told me that I wasn't going to be allowed to listen to it and confiscated my copy. But R gave me another cassette when I was out on a weekend pass. I was hesitant to listen to it but finally, one night after lights out, I put it into my Walkman and just chilled. I loved it every bit as much sober as wasted and it didn't make me want to dose. By the time I got to "Hey Ladies" I knew that being sober was going to be okay.

(As a really funny side note, R found a trunk full of his dad's old leisure suits and in honor of the "Hey Ladies" video wore one to school every Thursday of sophomore year. It was a fucking riot and it goes to show that high school wasn't all anguish.)

* I don't advocate hallucinogenic drug use but if one were to get high, get an original album, drop your doses and read the liner notes as the album plays. Fucking balls, man.

3. Temples of Boom/Cypress Hill

"Looking for someone like me/I'm living in my own world to my own degree"

Temples of Boom is my lonely album; the record that I listened to incessantly when I was nearing the bottom of my self-imposed isolation period and was again starting to doubt how much longer I wanted to go on. There is a lyrical reluctance to surrender to the darkness on this record that held me together when things were pretty bleak. There's also a bit of gothic "smiting" of one's perceived enemies that resonated as well.

I was living alone in a boarding house in Kenosha when I first came across this album. The boarding house was directly across the street from the Kenosha lakefront (before they made it nice). R and I had had a falling out over some damn thing and we weren't really speaking. The girl I was crushing on ran off with a Marine; I was in no mood for happiness.

The unstable darkness of this album spoke directly to the depression and vengeful violence I was feeling at the time. Almost every track is soaked in mental illness or revenge (there's a fair amount of weed smoking too, this being Cypress Hill).

I sat out on the lakefront rocks all night, listened to Temples of Boom and contemplated whether I was fucking crazy or everyone else were just assholes. Tracks like "Illusions," "Killa Hill," and "Red Light Visions" led me to believe I was crazy while tracks like "No Rest for the Wicked" and "Throw Your Set in The Air" made me think that everyone else was. Ultimately, I think I came down on the side of both.

Temples of Boom holds very few redeeming qualities for me. I didn't have any big revelations or determined resolutions come out of my experience with it. What it did do was speak to my depression and fears and kept me in a dark place probably longer than I needed to be there. (After a good number of years of therapy, I can just enjoy the damn thing now.)

4. Dummy/Portishead

"This shade of Autumn, this stale bitter end. Years of frustration lay down side by side."

This album, more than any, made me more tolerant and open to different people than any other. I hate to admit it now but I was a homophobe as a teenager and young adult. I don't know if it was because it was just a convenient way of labeling someone to hate or if it was pure ignorance. I suspect it was a combination of the two.

So I was not thrilled when R invited his gay friend, a man I did not know, to live with us. S was a little guy. Childhood cancer stunted his growth; he was the size of a 10-year-old boy. He had a deadly sarcastic wit and a booming voice that outsized his body by a factor of five. He hated just about everything I stood for: heavy metal, early '90s gangster rap and being a loudmouthed, angry jackass. It was a recipe for disaster.

But the truth is that we hit off just fine; in fact, we quickly became pretty good friends, mostly because we were both unemployed insomniacs and we both loved Portishead. We would stay up all night, smoking and listening to Dummy, the only album we could agree on. We were both voracious readers and we'd talk about books, conspiracy theories and whatever dumb shit R had done that day.

R had bought a little cafe in Kenosha that S and I would hang out in and listen to Portishead on the PA. The year this album came out, everyone was into to it and we would all sit at a table all day, drinking R's free coffee. The assorted freaks, fruits and weirdos that S hung out with stopped by constantly at our table to catch up with him. These are people that my metalhead ass would have never been caught dead talking to, ever.

But the conversations invariably started with how great the Portishead song playing on the loudspeaker was. Making friends with people I would have never associated with became really easy because we all loved Dummy.

S and I became close friends and roommates for years, even after R lost the cafe and sold his house. Sadly, S passed away a couple of years ago and I did not attend his funeral, something that shames me to this day. But every time I hear Portishead, I think of him and how I would have missed out on so many wonderful people if he hadn't opened my mind.

5. Load/Metallica

"The thorn in my side is from the tree I've planted."

This is the granddaddy of influential albums in my life. There is not a single record that has more of an emotional, social or physical effect on me than Metallica's most hated record. Beneath all the haircuts, glam clothes and blues riffs, Load is an album about a man locked in mortal combat with his inner demons. And what struck a chord with me was the feeling he was going to win that battle no matter the cost.

In short, everything about this record changed everything about the way that I lived.

As much as it pains me to say this now, I ignored Load when it came out; it was out for almost a year before I picked it up. But man am I glad that I picked it up.

I was going through major upheaval. I had been sober for a long time but I was not going anywhere. I was a high school dropout, drifting without any purpose and starting to be eaten up by emotions I could no longer control.

The self-destruction and anger I had buried with drugs and alcohol for so long but couldn't hide from sober were overtaking me. I had ineffective and juvenile coping mechanisms for all that rage and self-hate and my defenses were starting to collapse. I felt like I was coming apart at the seams.

I picked up exercise as an antidote and became obsessed. I started rollerblading and biking for hours and hours. I was marginally employed so time wasn't really an issue. And the only thing I listened to in my headphones was Load*.

Load might be a derivative sell-out to grunge and the last straw for a lot of hardcore original fans, but for me it was a lifesaver. It gave me the blueprint to fighting off my demons: defiance in the face of all odds, accepting and absorbing responsibility for my own actions and fighting back with a reservoir of strength that just absolutely had to exist.

Because Load was always in my ears and I was taking what it said seriously, I slowly started to let go of things that didn't matter ("Ain't My Bitch," "Wasting My Hate"), started to believe that if I could have survived some of the shit I did, then nothing was beyond my reach ("Bleeding Me," "Poor Twisted Me") and that it was pure grit and self-determination that were going to pull me up ("The Cure," "Outlaw Torn," "2X4").

Slowly over time my behaviors changed and life started turning around. I lost 75 pounds, paid off my crippling debts, got an apartment and went back to college (I already had my GED).

And throughout, no matter how difficult it got, the only thing I could hear was James Hetfield growling "I do believe, I do believe, I do believe/It must get better than this."

*I estimate I've listened to Load about 7,000 times. It was the only album I listened to for at least three years (365 days x 3 = 1095 days x 5 listens a day = 5,475 listens in the '90s alone, plus 100 times a year in the last 10 years.)


Comments welcome.


Other Lists By Drew Adamek:
* Today's Syllabus
* Shit My Dad Says
* Work Weirdos
* Things I Miss About Chicago
* 20 Albums I Wish I Had Never Bought
* Their Chicago
* Cities I've Slept In
* My Favorite 1980s Chicago Radio Memories
* Why Milwaukee Rules
* Why I'm Glad I Don't Live In D.C. Anymore
* The Beer Goggle Recordings
* A List Of Reader Comments To Drew's Lists
* Life's Little Victories
* The Worst Jobs I've Ever Had
* Jobs For The Zombie Apocalypse
* Lemme Get A Bite Of That
* Lists I'll Never Write
* Things I Miss About My Imprisoned Best Friend
* Things I Miss About Being Single
* Things I Love About Being Married
* Why Chuck D Should Have Been Our First Black President
* Picture This
* My Suggestions For Ways To Further Desecrate Wrigley Field
* Signs I Am Getting Older
* My Most Memorable Half-Assed Ideas
* Why My Mom Rules
* My Summer To-Do List
* Signs That My Doomsday Is Nigh

* Fan Note: Me & Metallica


Posted on July 27, 2010

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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