I was driving alongside the Brisbane River not far from home, with a Ramones anthology playing at full volume, when it hit me. I was trying to piece myself back together after a difficult couple of years. My mother had been transferred into care with advanced Alzheimer’s disease and my marriage had broken up. Something To Believe In was the song that did it – an almost-forgotten single from the Ramones’ troubled mid-’80s era. It was about losing your grip on yourself, on life, then rediscovering your sense of purpose. I knew I wasn’t going to be the same person but, then again, I didn’t want to be.
It was March 2018. I’d written a few pieces that began to sketch out a story of a life on the margins of music but from the perspective of a fan, a wannabe, rather than a player. Over the next two months, a music memoir poured out: the first 30,000 words in three weeks. It was finished by Mother’s Day. Something To Believe In was the obvious title, music being that something that had kept me sane, kept me going and, at times, kept me alive.
What follows is a playlist of 10 songs – most sublime, at least one ridiculous – that signposted that journey.
1. The Ramones – Something To Believe In (1986)
For whatever reason, the title track of Something To Believe In isn’t on Spotify, so you’ll have to go to YouTube for it. It’s a Dee Dee Ramone song; he wrote most of the band’s really dark stuff. This is one of his saddest but it’s also uplifting. Joey’s vocal will put a lump in your throat. In the first half, he wishes he was someone else. After Johnny’s solo – one of very few solos by the guitarist – there’s a bridge where he grabs life by the throat: he decides he’s going to accept himself instead.
2. The Velvet Underground – Rock & Roll (1970)
3. Iggy & The Stooges – Raw Power (original mix, 1973)
To me, this is the greatest song about the power and the glory of rock & roll ever written. The chorus – “Don’t you try, don’t you try to tell me what to do” – is what it’s all about. So is this lyric: “Raw power’s got a healing hand / Raw power can destroy a man.” Who knows how Iggy is one of the last true originals left standing but you only have to count the bodies to know he’s right, and his next stop after recording this album was a psych ward. It’s a classic now but, at the time, Raw Power was so far ahead of the curve no one even knew there was one up ahead. David Bowie’s mix buried the rhythm section but it’s still punk as almighty fuck.
4. Do Re Mi – Man Overboard (1985)
This came out when I was 14 years old. At that time I knew nothing about women, let alone feminism, and I didn’t really understand this song but connected with it anyway. I was a tiny kid and got bullied a fair bit in the playground, and I think I just related to Deborah Conway’s rage and hurt more than anything. It’s a post-punk song and a lot of punk spoke to people who had been marginalised in some way. These days I identify more with the object of Conway’s disdain in ways I’d rather not – I know I’m addicted to attention and, as a music writer, I’ve been wallowing in a swamp of trivia for most of my adult life.
5. Patti Smith – Free Money (1975)
Lenny Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith group and compiler of the great ’60s anthology Nuggets, once said garage music reminded people of why they wanted to rock & roll in the first place, which was pure desire. And we always want what we can’t have. Another key concept of rock & roll is transcendence, the conceit that it can take us outside ourselves and so set us free. Smith embodied both in this song about escaping the prison of poverty. What really gets it over is the intensity of her performance. She sounds as though she’s clawing out of your speakers. It starts slow, with just Smith and Richard Sohl on piano, then the band shifts through the gears until they’re at maximum horsepower.
6. Kate Bush – The Big Sky (1985)
This is similar to Free Money in that what makes it leap out is Bush’s wild performance. Hounds Of Love, the album that it’s from, is really special to me; it seems to keep reappearing at key times. This song is about moving on – the idea is that we’re all just specks in the cosmos. It’s all big tribal drumming and stacked vocals, arranged for maximum impact. It gets louder the longer it goes as more elements are added to the mix but at the centre of it is Bush’s voice. From about the three-minute mark she completely loses it – she sounds as though she’s talking in tongues, then from 3.45 she unleashes a series of heart-stopping shrieks. She was possessed.
7. Liz Phair – Johnny Sunshine (1993)
A lot of these songs are about the self-mythologising of rock & roll, something the Rolling Stones were pretty adept at. Liz Phair was in love with that ideal too – and the Stones – but understandably she had a problem with a lot of the lyrics. So she decided to write a song-by-song feminist response to the Stones’ Exile On Main St. That was her first album, Exile In Guyville, and it upended all those old cliches. I write about Divorce Song in the book (because, well, divorce) but Johnny Sunshine is closer to the theme I’m getting at here. It’s Phair’s response to All Down The Line, where the protagonist takes off with a “sanctified girl”. In Johnny Sunshine, Phair replies from the perspective of the woman he’s left behind. Living in an adolescent fantasy world usually means that someone, somewhere is getting hurt.
8. Jen Cloher – Hold My Hand (2013)
My mother is in the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease; she has been bedridden and unable to communicate for more than 18 months now. But the years before that were harder for her emotionally, and for her family and friends, as her illness stripped her identity from her, piece by incremental piece. She got it young, too, when she was in her mid-50s (she’s 71 now). When Jen’s song appeared, it reduced me to ash. Her mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s too and the song describes a circular conversation between her parents: her dad explains to her mum how they met but she forgets instantly, so she asks him again. I had lots of conversations with my mum like that. The message of the song is that “love is more than a reward or balm we use to soothe”. It’s an ongoing test of patience and loyalty.
9. Neil Finn – Chameleon Days (2017)
In early September 2017 I was in Auckland for a music conference when I should have been in hospital. I was in a hotel room and had enough tablets on hand, plus booze, to kill a horse. I was in a really serious, unstable condition. But I had one thing left to do: I had to review Neil Finn’s album. It sounds absurd but it was important to me to finish this one task. I listened to Chameleon Days about a dozen times in a row and it stayed my hand. It’s a very gentle song about fate, change and radical acceptance. The next day I was up at Roundhead Studios where Neil had livestreamed cutting the song.
10. Kiss – God Gave Rock & Roll To You II (1991)
It’s worth finishing with something big and dumb and silly, and they don’t get bigger, dumber or sillier than Kiss. Originally this song was a hit for Argent in 1973. Kiss covered it in 1991, long after the face paint had come off. I love it, partly because it’s so ridiculous, but also because it posits rock & roll as a primal life force in and of itself. Paul Stanley’s rave at the end is hilarious: “I know life sometimes can get tough! And I know life sometimes can be a drag. But people! We have been given a gift. We have been given a road. And that road’s name is … rock & roll!” He was a true believer.
• Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
First published in The Guardian, 28 June 2019