What was your first favorite song?
I’m not talking about that hip, semi-obscure tune around which you formulated your preteen identity — the one you told everyone at school you loved because it made you seem mysterious and cool. I’m talking about a time before all that, before you were conscious of taste, and all you knew about a song you loved was that it struck a resounding chord somewhere deep inside of you.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
Shortly after I turned 3, “Lethal Weapon 2” came out on VHS. One night my dad was lucky enough to score this coveted Blockbuster rental, and because it was — gasp! — an R-rated movie, I was not allowed to go in the living room while he was watching it. Of course, for the next two hours there was nowhere in the universe that I wanted to be more desperately than the living room.
From my safe, G-rated perch upstairs, I strained to hear any sound I could make out from this tantalizingly forbidden flick. I was getting so cranky about it that my parents made me a compromise: They would let me watch the closing credits of “Lethal Weapon 2” — a black screen filled with a bunch of ascending white words and names I could not yet read. But it didn’t matter, because the song that played while they scrolled was incredible. “Again!” I cried when it was over; they were kind and rewound. There I sat directly in front of the television, enraptured by what turned out to be a very minor 1989 George Harrison single, “Cheer Down.”
I didn’t yet know who George Harrison was. I didn’t yet know that it is kind of random that George Harrison wrote the theme song for “Lethal Weapon 2.” I didn’t even know who the Beatles were. I just knew that this evocative, lightly melancholic sequence of chords, that comfortingly gruff voice and those slide guitar notes that streak across the song’s coda like shooting stars made me feel a certain way, and that I wanted to feel that way forever.
Before he returned it to the video store — F.B.I. agents, look away! — my dad gamely taped the closing credits for me on a blank VHS. It’s still an inside joke in my family, the story of a 3-year-old future music critic constantly asking her parents to put on “the ‘Lethal Weapon tape,’” just so she could listen to this Harrison song over and over.
You can learn a lot about a person from asking about their first favorite songs — it’s the sonic equivalent of looking at someone’s baby pictures. And since I’ve been dropping into your inbox twice a week with this newsletter, I figured it was only fair that you heard a few of mine.
1. Cat Stevens: “Moonshadow”
I am pretty sure someone sang this as a lullaby to me when I was a baby, and to this day the-artist-formerly-known-as-Cat-Stevens’s voice can still make me feel an almost preternatural comfort — a feeling of being swaddled beyond what even the heaviest weighted blanket can offer. My parents got a CD player (state-of-the-art technology) when I was young, and I can still remember being taught how to place “Cat Stevens: Greatest Hits” into the tray very, very carefully and cue up track 8, which was of course my song, “Moonshadow.” (Listen on YouTube)
2. Tom Petty: “Free Fallin’”
I grew up in New Jersey and did not visit the West Coast until my mid-20s, so throughout my youth the proper nouns in this song sounded exquisitely exotic to me: Mulholland, Ventura Boulevard, this surely indescribably glamorous oasis called “Reseda.” “Free Fallin’” would now probably land on the shortlist of the most overplayed American rock songs of the 20th century, and yet — perhaps the reason I cannot imagine ever getting sick of it — I can still travel back to a time when its lyrics sounded alluringly strange to me, and when I believed there might be actual vampires haunting Ventura Boulevard. (Petty also co-wrote “Cheer Down,” and Jeff Lynne helped produce both of those songs — so clearly the Traveling Wilburys had a hold on my musical taste from an early age.) (Listen on YouTube)
3. U2: “Zoo Station”
After it came out in late 1991, U2’s angsty, glammy “Achtung Baby” was an absolute staple in my parents’ steel-blue Ford Taurus. Taking it in over and over again from the back seat, this album seemed to contain all of the mysteries of the adult world, set somewhere just beyond my realm of understanding. All I knew was that it sounded cool. And a little scary! On “Achtung Baby,” relatively straightforward rock songs are haunted by weird, ghostly sounds, like the mournful, malfunctioning tape loop at the beginning of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” the eerie distortion of “Until the End of the World” or any number of ghost noises that lurk throughout the tone-setting opener “Zoo Station.” I later realized that a lot of this strangeness was the result of the Edge’s adventurousness with effects pedals and, even more ineffably, Brian Eno’s arty production. (I also realized much later — for shame — that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” was an iconic second-wave feminist slogan, not a funny lyric that Bono made up.) No matter what U2 does or how many albums it forcefully installs on my iPhone, “Achtung Baby” will always have a special place in my heart for being one of the first records to freak me out — in a good way. (Listen on YouTube)
4. Peter Gabriel: “Steam”
Peter Gabriel is another artist whose voice and melodic sensibility I’ve been drawn to — disquieted and then subsequently comforted by — for as long as I can remember. The seemingly childlike “Games Without Frontiers” was a song I always loved hearing on the radio, even if its geopolitical message and lyrical content went completely over my head. The one I requested over and over, though, was Gabriel’s punchy, absurdly satirical 1992 single “Steam.” (It boasts what I now regard as the most 1992 music video of all time.) Except I confess that I thought that this song was called … “Steve.” Yes, “Steve.” I imagined on the chorus he was demanding, somewhat menacingly over a telephone, “Give me Steve.” Being a kid is weird. So is this song. (Listen on YouTube)
5. Fine Young Cannibals: “She Drives Me Crazy”
This song was everywhere as the ’80s became the ’90s — it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for a week in April 1989 — and, to quote a phrase, I just could not help myself. The bright, synthetic textures were such an adrenaline rush to me: the cavernous echo of that hopscotching breakbeat, those jagged lightning-bolt riffs that puncture the production’s perfect sheen, and the acrobatic, androgynous beauty of Roland Gift’s vocals. It sounded like the national anthem of another planet, and I wanted to live there. Even today, I’ll sometimes become obsessed with a song and not realize why I can’t stop listening to it, until I realize: “Duh, it kind of sounds like ‘She Drives Me Crazy.’” I am of course incredibly biased, still being an excitable ’80s baby at heart, but I still think it’s one of the more perfect pop songs ever written. (Listen on YouTube)
6. George Harrison: “Cheer Down”
Play the “Lethal Weapon” tape! Again! (Listen on YouTube)
Give me Steve,
The Amplifier Playlist
Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.
“Sonic Baby Pictures” track list
Track 1: Cat Stevens, “Moonshadow”
Track 2: Tom Petty, “Free Fallin’”
Track 3: U2, “Zoo Station”
Track 4: Peter Gabriel, “Steam”
Track 5: Fine Young Cannibals, “She Drives Me Crazy”
Track 6: George Harrison, “Cheer Down”
A few years back, I wrote about another song that similarly enchanted me as a child, perhaps more than any other: Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I omitted that track from this playlist because I would prefer that you continue subscribing to this newsletter, but you can read that essay if you’re so inclined.
Don’t forget: your Pride songs!
I’m still collecting your stories and song suggestions for Pride. So, tell me: Was there a certain song that first gave you the courage to come out? Or is there a particular track that, to you, embodies the spirit of Pride? Share your answers here so I can consider them for an upcoming edition of The Amplifier.