As is the case with all important conversations, it began with an innocent remark and all but ended with tears.
It was a Wednesday, and the continuation of a trend. Six days earlier, my father’s murderer was released from a Scottish jail under their “compassionate release” program; he had prostate cancer, and, supposedly, less than three months to live. (Seventeen months later, his demise appears to be distinctly less imminent.) That afternoon, I had lucked into a free pair of tickets to a sold-out Seattle Sounders match, to which I took my friend Jen. That was a Thursday.
Days later—moments before the clock ticked over to the aforementioned Wednesday on which the important conversation occurred—Senator Ted Kennedy, the legendary politician, passed away. That news broke shortly after Wednesday officially began, and, that morning, Jen received a free pair of Mariners tickets.
So it was that the pair of us settled into the first row of seating in right-center at Safeco Field, Jen with a couple of veggie dogs and myself with an order of garlic fries. That evening, the hometown Mariners’ opponent was the division rival Oakland Athletics; the visitors swiftly proved themselves unworthy of their nickname as center-fielder Rajai Davis dropped two fairly routine fly balls in the early innings—one right in front of us—which led to some amusing heckling from the guys sitting a row to our rear.
For the first few innings, the late Senator dominated the conversation, largely due to the pregame moment of silence in his honor. I told Jen how I had considered interviewing him for my book—he was famously a great advocate for my family’s cause—but realized before I even tried to schedule an appointment that really, I just wanted to interview the great Ted Kennedy.
Then, the conversation shifted.
It was some time around the fourth or fifth inning, that point where the game starts to lull, when I realized that some players’ at-bat music was repeating while others had multiple selections. As I noticed this, I jokingly ruminated on how funny it would be if a player strode to the plate to the tune of “The Super Bowl Shuffle”, the 1985 Chicago Bears’ ill-advised attempt at rapping.
Suddenly, we were off to the races, trying to come up with the worst possible at-bat music of all time.
For the previous two years, I had been occasionally providing my cousin Zach, 11 years my junior, with CDs full of mp3s in an effort to further his appreciation of music. After the first couple of these, I started increasing the variety, venturing beyond the things that I knew he would enjoy and trying to broaden his horizons. One album included to this end was the Cure’s Disintegration, which I selected because, according to South Park’s Kyle Broflovski, “Disintegration is the best album ever!” The next time I saw Zach, he mentioned he didn’t particularly like the album, deeming it “too ’80s.”
“That’s fine,” I told him. “But here’s the thing: One day, you will get dumped, and it will suck. And, for some time after that—it may be a day, it may be a week, it may be a month—’Pictures of You’ will be the greatest song you’ve ever heard.”
I was only partially joking.
Music can affect moods in unique ways; the right song can make everything better when nothing else can, or it can do the exact opposite. It can build you up or break you down, it can amplify or temper moods, and it can inform those around you how you feel without you having to say a word. Some music doesn’t even affect moods at all, but rather absorbs the mood at the time of listening and reflects it as its own; this is why I refer to Coldplay as the tofu of pop music.
For an example of the mood-altering power of music, look at (or rather, listen to) “Pictures of You”. The song clocks in at a should-be-remarkable 7 minutes and 28 seconds, but at that length is only the third-longest song on Disintegration. The version appearing on the single is only 4:48; while I haven’t heard that version, I suspect most of the difference comes from trimming the several-minute-long intro. In 2003, “Pictures of You” served as the soundtrack for a Hewlett-Packard digital camera ad; a year later, Rolling Stone selected it as the 278th best song of all time, just below David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and just above the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love.”
But “Pictures of You” rises above all of this trivia; “Pictures of You” is an important song for entirely different reasons. On a scale of moods from 1 to 10, where 1 is learning your father killed your wife in a murder-suicide and 10 is winning the lottery seconds after losing your virginity, “Pictures of You” will always take my mood to approximately a 1.9. In other words, about 91% of the time, “Pictures of You” is one of the most depressing songs of all time, and the other 9%, it’s the only thing that can cheer me up.
At-bat music has become commonplace at Major League Baseball games (as has intro music for relief pitchers); generally, the music is reserved for players on the home team, and usually, it’s music of the player’s choosing, although last season, Diamondbacks first baseman Adam LaRoche pranked teammate Kelly Johnson by having the team’s public address announcer swap Johnson’s at-bat music to “It’s Raining Men” for a game. At-bat music is supposed to psych up those who hear it, both the players and the fans, while also expressing something about the player’s personality. Some lean towards country music, others towards rap or hard rock, but there’s an almost universal uptempo quality to it.
A year before that Mariners game, Jen and I were both founding members of the Oscar Wildes, a softball team comprised of volunteers from 826 Seattle. That summer, several of us had discussed what our at-bat music would be if we were silly enough to do such a thing at a softball game; I selected a song entitled “The Step and the Walk” by London indie-rockers The Duke Spirit, primarily because the song opens with a bass line comprised of pure swagger.
But the Duke Spirit was far from our minds as we sat in the lower outfield that Mariners game; instead, we were going the opposite route, diving deep through our musical memories to try to come up with the least appropriate song to be played as one strode to the plate. At first, we were just throwing out ideas; ironically, the second or third song suggested was deemed our best idea by the end of the exercise, but not knowing that was the case at the time, we pressed on, throwing out song after song that would deflate even the most raucous of atmospheres: R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”, Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up”, U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)”.
Some bands were dismissed wholesale as too obvious, the Smiths and the Cure among them; others took more thought. Slowly, we whittled away at the possibilities, narrowing down the entirety of human musical history to a single track.
Great songs are about more than just the words and music; great songs are about the story and personae behind them. Some of the greatest songs have subversive qualities to them; the lyrics in Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” (which placed three spots above “Pictures of You” on that Rolling Stone list) are a sharp criticism of American policies during and following the Vietnam War, but is still played annually at Fourth of July celebrations. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, quite possibly the most important song of my lifetime, was played played one year as the Mariners took the field at the start of games, much to my chagrin; “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was at the heart of the anti-jock grunge movement, and Kurt Cobain would almost certainly have objected to its use in such a manner.
These songs, like so many others, have transcended to become more than mere music; these songs are as iconic as anything inherently ephemeral, like sound, can possibly be. There are many others, of course; a litany of songs that carry one banner or another, songs that have meaning. Some songs become the heart of movements, advocating peace or equality.
And then, some songs are more personal, and sometimes, those songs are the most important of all.
As Jen and I continued to speculate, two images battled for dominance in my mind.
The first was that of a grieving father and his guitar.
The second was Safeco Field during game seven of the World Series. It’s the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Mariners are down by one to an unknown National League team with runners on second and third, and the team’s number nine hitter has just watched strike three for the first out. Still, the atmosphere is electric, with 47,116 fans erupting as Ichiro Suzuki—the team’s iconic outfielder, leadoff hitter, and all-around mystical figure—finishes his routine in the on-deck circle and strides towards the plate.
These two images began to sync together, and that’s when I knew that only the former image could ruin the latter. That’s when I imagined a sad, acoustic tune emanating from Safeco Field’s P.A. system—”Would you know my name/If I saw you in Heaven?”—bringing a cheering crowd to near-silence.
In imagining that fictional moment, I realized the simple, elegant truth: Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” is the worst possible at-bat music of all time.