Around this time last year, I was in the throes of a terrible depression. It was unlike any wave of emotions I’d ever been through in my entire life. For four long months, I would struggle to get through my day without turning into Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, having to sneak away and cry for ten to fifteen minute jags. I never analyzed the cause for my mental woes, but I have a pretty good idea what was weighing heavy on my mind. Every year at this time, as we approach the CF Great Strides walk, I can’t help but get a little overwhelmed. 2007 just happened to be particularly difficult.
I wrote the following Basement Song entry while I was slashing through this depression with a dull butter knife. This week, I wanted to revisit this entry because a) I never had a chance to actually share the song with any readers and b) most of the emotions I wrote about still exist. This song, “The Greatest Gift,” continues to move me whenever I hear it, especially the intricate guitar playing by the late Kevin Scott MacMichael (formerly of Cutting Crew). What I poured into this entry came out in one twenty-minute sitting. I decided to repost it as originally written without any further edits or polishes. I hope you enjoy it (and the song).
What can you say about a song that is like a parasite? It latches into your brain, your heart, your soul, and grows tendrils, sucking the life out of you. It becomes everything that you are, everything you think about, everything you want. A song like that is what I find so wonderful about music. A song like that is what loving music is about. It’s not something you can explain. Good song. Bad song. It’s your damn song, so who gives a shit what everyone else says. A song like that is magic. A blessing and a curse. A song like that is the definition of a basement song.
Last week, I received a copy of Robert Plant’s Fate of Nations album, released in 1993. I was riding a wave of euphoria — life felt good after several weeks of depression. For those of you who keep up with the blog, you know why I’m depressed so much. You may not understand it. I don’t even understand it most of the time. I like to think of myself as an optimist, but I continually find myself sinking to such depths of despair that I don’t know if there is a way out. For the first time in my life last week, I actually saw how a rational person might think taking their own life could be a means to an end. I would never do that, but I understood how they could feel that way.
That euphoria I was riding had skipped away so suddenly, it felt like a wave pulling me under. It was the music I blamed. It couldn’t be anything else. I’m getting ahead of myself.
I received the album from a friend of mine, a guy named Jeff Giles. I’d volunteered to write a guide to the music of Robert Plant, an artist I’d admired for a long time. I’ve been a fan of Plant’s since his second solo album. Some DJ on WMMS exclaimed that he had a new record coming out and I thought this must be important. Back in those days, you listened to the DJ. The DJ was your guide to music. Anyway, I had no fucking clue who Robert Plant was. If I’d known he was the former lead singer of Led Zeppelin I probably would have run. Back in the early 80’s, Led Zeppelin was HEAVY METAL, and I was just some kid who listened to Journey. But Plant had Phil Collins playing drums for him, so I thought, he must be cool. The first time I heard “Big Log” from The Principle of Moments on the radio, I was mesmerized. I was hooked. Six weeks later, when my shipment of 12 albums from the Columbia Record House arrived, Plants’ LP was one of them. It would be another couple of years before I became a Zeppelin fan. Still, I continued to enjoy what Plant was doing as a solo artist. Loved the Honeydrippers. Tried to like his eccentric album Shaken ‘n Stirred. Banged my head and dragged Steve to see Pant in ’88 at Blossom Music Center. I remember that show more for Stevie Ray Vaughan opening. By the early 90’s, the music landscape had changed and I was into the whole alternative scene. A classic rocker like Robert Plant seemed so passÃ©.
A couple of years ago, I heard some selections from his most recent record and really liked it. So much so, I thought I would approach my friend Jeff about this guide. He sent me copies of the Plant album I didn’t own (funny thing, turns out there were only two) and the first one I listened to was Fate of Nations. I was wary, of course. I knew this record contained a “Kashmir” sounding song. But the album also contained two of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard, “29 Palms” and Plant’s elegy to his son who died when the boy was 5, “I Believe.” I had heard a couple other songs, so I didn’t expect much. I just wanted to hear the album to be familiar with the record. If you read my entry last week, you know that I‘ve been listening to it nonstop for over a week. I think about this record all of the time. I look forward to playing it every chance I get. I have not had this feeling in a long time. Just a month ago I was lamenting the fact that I hadn’t had the feeling of new discovery anymore. And then this arrived in the mailbox. I could go on about the whole album, but this is basement songs, and I need to discuss the immediate entry into the basement speakers nailed up to the cinder blocks wall of fame. That song is “The Greatest Gift.”
It begins so unexpectedly. At first I thought maybe Plant was trying to riff on Burt Bacharach’s most recent music. Strings slowly build, and simple guitar notes begin laying down the melody. Other instruments chime in. Cellos. Subtle percussion. Light keyboard textures. All of it sets up the most sincere, tender vocals I have ever heard from Plant.
Everything I do, yes I do for my love
Every place I go, she is on my mind
I would give the world, my soul, to discover
Send me just a sign, angel on my mind
A lost love? A true love? A wife? A child? It seems obvious what he’s singing about. But when he claims that “This is the greatest gift that I can bring to you,” I know that that gift is love. Through the two verses and the first two choruses, Plant and the musicians he’s assembled create a warm, lush sound that reminds me of something Clapton or Rode Stewart would record, but it’s more passionate. Not so slick. Then, in the bridge leading to the guitar solo, the band lets it rip for several bars. The drummer cuts loose, in a Pearl Jam, “Alive” beat the shit out of your cymbals fashion. What does this lead into? One of the most sincere guitar solos ever. Something akin to Stevie Ray’s beautiful tracks, like “Riviera Paradise” or “Lenny.” The guitar player, Kevin Scott MacMichael, was the guitarist of Cutting Crew, of all bands, who knew he had these chops? Certainly not the folks who promoted that band. Out of that solo, there’s one more time through the chorus, and then the song changes.
I call it a coda. A mandolin (or something akin to it) changes the melody. And like the opening, this mandolin begins alone. Then the drums come in, electric piano. Soot e strings and an electric guitar. Things gradually build to heartbreaking effect. That’s right, heartbreaking. This short portion of the song is the most emotional section. A brilliant move. Grab the listener with simple beauty and rip their heart out at the end so they can’t forge the song. They HAVE to hear that song again. I HAD to hear it again and again.
Like so many songs I dwelled over time and again in my parents’ basement, I have listened to this song possibly a hundred times in a week. And it gets me every time. But here is the wonderful, transcendent thing about “The Greatest Gift”: When at first, it sunk me to the lowest depths of my fears of Jake and his health, it also helped me out of that mood and has now given me hope. Whereas last week I was ready to give up, I wanted to shout at God and curse him for inflicting my son, I somehow rose above those feelings. Perhaps that was the message all along, huh? The greatest gift is love, right?
I do no good for Jake or our family by dwelling on the sadness. It’s there, man. That fucking sadness is always going to be there. And I’ll always fight through the shit. Trust me. Because on the other end of the shit is a family so wonderful I can only thank he heaven’s that I have been blessed. I am so damn in love with my wife. I only wish I could be braver for her. And Sophie and Jake are the light of every single day I live. I can’t imagine m y life without them. That’s where the shit comes from. It comes from that fear of losing them; of losing my Jake. In a way, I may have gravitated to Plant’s music because he suffered a loss so great that I want to take his pain and learn from it. I’m being selfish, but I need his pain in order to get through my own. He puts his pain out there in his music. I place it on the world through my words.
This one song has become my theme. I didn’t look for it. I didn’t ask for it to take over my emotions. But that’s what music is capable of doing. It takes us to new places, old places, dark places, and places of optimism. It inspires me. It drives me to be better, to do more. It kicks me in the ass to not give up. Damn it, Malchus, don’t lose hope.
One week. One song. I have been through the ringer. And still, as I type this, I am listening to the song for the fifth time in a row. If this were my parent’s house, my dad would have yelled down already, “Aren’t there any other songs on this record?” Sure there are. But none of them are as great as this one.