Back in the early 1990s, my life pretty much imploded. I had gotten married just before my senior year in high school. The bride was the person I would point to as my “high school sweetheart,” whatever that means. Without delving too far into the details—a soul-wrenching undertaking that I shall save for other columns, or my memoirs, should there ever be any interest in my writing them—I can safely tell you here that our divorce knocked my world off its orbit. I have often said that we loved each other deeply but didn’t like each other very much. I still think that’s accurate, at least from my perspective. She was the first person I ever truly loved, and though our lives together turned almost unspeakably ugly, the death of our marriage destroyed my concept of “forever” and my faith in relationships in general. It took a long time and much trial and error for me to recover in substantive ways.
When I think about that time period, my memories are inextricably linked to my life’s soundtrack. I don’t remember exactly which books I was reading, what films I was watching, or what TV shows I followed, but I remember the music.
Often, after the latest kick in the teeth, I would get in my car and just drive. My piece of junk had no air conditioning, so I would roll down the windows, crank up the volume, and hit the road, the wind whipping my hair as I banged my head and sang along, not caring who heard. Some of the songs appealed to me because of their lyrics. Others fit my mood perfectly through their tones, their tempos. Some did both.
When I think of that time period, these songs play on a loop in my head. It’s always in stereo, always loud. If you’re going through your own personal hell, you’ll probably find your own soundtrack, much of which might well be more contemporary or, possibly, more historically widespread. You might, though, want to consider the music that follows. Much of it will probably mirror how you feel. Some of it might help uplift you just when you need it most. In any case, for those who want to join me, here’s a little window into my past—my own personal songs for divorce, in no particular order.
1. “What’s Up,” 4 Non Blondes.
“Twenty-five years and my life is still / Trying to get up that great big hill of hope / For a destination…”
I was not yet twenty-five, but with all my plans dashed to pieces, I identified with the struggle to reach one’s goals. I no longer had any destination in mind. Indeed, sometimes it seemed that the only possible destinations were jail or a cemetery. That sounds melodramatic, I know, and it was, but to my younger self, it was real.
“And so I cry sometimes / When I’m lying in bed / Just to get it all out / What’s in my head / And I am feeling a little peculiar / And so I wake in the morning / And I step outside / And I take a deep breath and I get real high / And I scream at the top of my lungs / What’s going on?”These lines eerily nail what I was going through at the time. In my life, I have almost never cried, not even when I should have. But during this period, I would often awake to find tears on my pillow. I sometimes cried while watching sitcoms. Sometimes the tears echoed the aching sadness I was feeling; sometimes they were expressions of a dangerous rage. But that need to get out of your own head, to scream, to hit something or someone—I could relate to all that. And for me, the words “What’s going on?” took on a special importance, because I honestly had no idea what had happened, how life had come to that point.
A lot of people dismiss this song, and the band that produced it, as an early-90s lark. As for me, I still remember how I felt back in those days, and when I hear this song now, I feel grateful that I can understand it in a different context.
2. “Jet Airliner,” The Steve Miller Band.
“Goodbye to all my friends at home / Goodbye to people I’ve trusted / I’ve got to go out and make my way / I might get rich you know I might get busted / But my heart keeps calling me backwards / As I get on the 707 / Ridin’ high I got tears in my eyes / You know you got to go through hell / Before you get to heaven…”
A song with multiple personality disorder, “Jet Airliner” combines the desire to get the hell away from your current situation with the knowledge that wherever you go, there you are. The above verse of the song says goodbye to important people in one’s life and suggests that the speaker desperately needs a change, even one for the worse (rich or busted). I especially identified with the idea of going through hell to get to heaven; I desperately wanted to believe that something better lay in my future (spoiler alert: it did).
If this verse was all about leaving, though, the chorus reminds us that we can never truly get away from ourselves: “Big ol’ jet airliner / Don’t carry me too far away / Oh, Oh big ol’ jet airliner / Cause it’s here that I’ve got to stay.” Take me away, but not forever. Let me leave and find myself again, but know that I want to come back. With my family, my friends, my daughter, and my work, I had too much in my life that I could never leave. Too much that I would never want to give up.
The need to go, the need to stay, pulling you in opposite directions, ripping you in two—I heard all of that whenever I listened to this song.
3. “Already Gone,” The Eagles.
Every single lyric in this song—as well as its up-tempo, celebratory nature—appealed to me back then. It’s really a “screw you” song, and I needed a few of those. A couple of examples:
“Just remember this, my girl, when you look up in the sky / You can see the stars and still not see the light (that’s right).” The image of a woman seeing but not understanding really got my blood pumping in those days. Not “woman” as in “women in general,” of course—I always pictured my ex. I believed that she did not understand me. I believed that one day, she would realize what she had given up and would look to the heavens for some answer to the question, “Now what do I do?” It was the same question I was asking so often, and the petty, revenge-seeking part of me really wanted to be there when the epiphany happened.
The verse that appealed to me most, though, went like this: “Well I know it wasn’t you who held me down / Heaven knows it wasn’t you who set me free / So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains / And we never even know we have the key.” Those lines were so prophetic that they sent chills down my spine. I knew that I had not been happy in our marriage, but I also knew that the decision to stay—or to leave—had been mine. I had been the key to my own liberation for all that time. Even though leaving cost me a great deal, it was still the right thing to do for everyone involved.
In my more upbeat moods, I listened to this song until the cassette broke. Then I bought a new one. I would repeat that pattern for most of the works on this list.
4. “Black” and “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam.
“Jeremy” tells the story of an angry young man who erupts one day in school. It’s a great song, but it had little to do with me. I listened to it more during my divorce than I ever did before or since, though, mostly because of its ominous, angry tone. It fit my dark mood on most days.
“Black” was different. “Oh, and twisted thoughts that spin round my head, I’m spinning, oh, I’m spinning, how quick the sun can drop away” could have been written about what was going on inside my head on most days. But the lyrics that really drew me in were, “I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life / I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky / But why, why, why can’t it be, can’t it be mine?” There were, you see, many days when I missed my wife. When I wanted to go back, even though I knew it would be the death of me, or her, or both. When I wanted to scream at life or fate or God and ask why my path had led me to feeling so lousy about myself.
When I wanted to revel in my own misery, “Black” was a great accompaniment.
5. “Blew” and “School,” Nirvana.
I loved Nirvana from the first time I heard their album Bleach. That record contained several great tracks, perhaps most notably “About a Girl.” But in my time of emotional dying, these are the songs I repeated ad infinitum. There is nothing terribly thematic about either song, at least in terms of my own situation, though the refrain of “Blew” resonated with me: “Is there another reason for your stain / Could you believe who we knew was stress or strain? / Here is another word that rhymes with shame…” I suppose it was that image of being stained, marked somehow, that I related to, though the seemingly throwaway reference to shame probably contributed to my fascination.
“School” never appears on any best-of lists, but its sheer simplicity appealed to me in a time of complex causes and effects. The lyrics are as follows: “Wouldn’t you believe it? / Just my luck / No recess.” Later, the repeated line “You’re in high school again” give the whole track the feeling of a dark fever dream, one of those where your life doubles back on itself. There you are, back in high school (or grade school, or college, or your twenties, or whatever), doing the same things you used to do. You retain the sum total of your life’s experience, your knowledge, yet you’re covering the same ground that you never expected to see again—the road already taken.
Neither song completely adheres to Nirvana’s famous, Pixies-esque “loud-quiet-loud” aesthetic. Neither is particularly memorable compared to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or the dirgelike “Something in the Way” or the eerie, nightmarish “Heart-Shaped Box” or the tinged-with-regret “All Apologies.” But both “Blew” and “School” found their way into my divorce rotation. Make of it what you will.
6. “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away),” Motley Crue.
Look at the title. Remember that I’m talking about divorce. Do I really need to explain this one?
Let’s let the lyrics, about a good-riddance separation, speak for themselves.
“Seasons must change / Separate paths, separate ways / If we blame it on anything / Let’s blame it on the rain / I knew it all along / I’d have to write this song / Too young to fall in love / Guess we knew it all along / That’s all right, that’s okay / We were walkin’ through some youth / Smilin’ through some pain / That’s all right, that’s okay / Let’s turn the page…”
This one has an upbeat, poppy tempo—a departure from most of the Crue’s hair-metal jams, though not unheard of from them. It’s more of a kiss-off than anything else, and any divorce mix needs some of those. Plus, it references two awesome songs—the Crue’s own “Too Young to Fall in Love” (off their album Shout at the Devil, which should have been on Entertainment Weekly’s list of 100 Best Albums) and Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.”
Then there are these lines: “We were two kids in love / Trying to find our way / Thats’s all right, that’s okay / Held our dreams in our hands / Let our minds run away…” When I hear that, I can only nod and say, “Yep. That’s it.”
Of course, the song ends with, “Girl, don’t go away mad / Girl, just go away,” which is how I felt about my ex more often than not.
Incidentally, 80s hair metal is often unfairly maligned, sniggered at, dismissed by hipsters and music snobs. I don’t know why. Recently, someone giggled when my wife mentioned that we’re going to see Motley Crue in concert. I wasn’t around, but if I had been, I would have said, “Yep, they’re funny, all right. All they’ve done is sell millions of records, make tens of millions of people happy, influence thousands of young musicians, and make lots of money in the bargain. What have you done with your life?”
1. Led Zeppelin, IV.
There is nothing here that lyrically spoke to me about my own life at the time. But sometimes I just wanted to be happy, and Zep always does the trick. I’m not sure I would want to live in a world where Led Zeppelin had never existed.
Why this album? Well, why not? You can’t really go wrong with Zep, but this is the one I played until the tape broke.
Think about it. The nasty, hard-driving blues of “Black Dog.” The pure heart-pounding joy of “Rock and Roll.” The esoteric weirdness of “The Battle of Evermore.” What some people think is the greatest rock song ever, “Stairway to Heaven.” The best Zep song that people keep forgetting about, “When the Levee Breaks.” What’s not to love?
When I felt optimistic, you’d hear this album blasting from my car as I drove down Arkansas backroads.
Of course, there was one album that, for whatever reason, served both kinds of moods:
2. Nirvana, Nevermind.
The album that effectively ended hair metal as a music phenomenon. The record that made Kurt Cobain a household name, in spite of his own ethics and aesthetics.
Nevermind is one of those perfect albums, and one I’ve written about before. Of all the songs on it, I have a hard time remembering what “Lounge Act” sounds like in between listens. The rest are as fresh as the day I first heard them. I suppose the best compliment I can give the album in the context of this writing is that my horrible mood did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for it.
3. Alice in Chains, Dirt.
During my divorce, on eight nights out of ten, I was either drunk, or driving really fast and seriously considering a hard right turn into the nearest tree or bridge abutment, or both. On those days, I did not want cheering up. I did not seek happiness. Call it out-of-control romanticism, that weird death-wish that so many young people seem to have, or a pity party. Both would be accurate. But when I felt that way, I sought out music that would reflect and enhance those feelings.
Dirt by Alice in Chains fits the bill. Understand that I love this one and the last record on my list because they are great rock and roll records. I still listen to them a lot. But they had special significance during my divorce.
Tragically, two of the musicians who made this record are now dead—Mike Starr, the troubled bassist who passed away in 2011, and Layne Staley, the band’s distinctive vocalist. He died several years ago. I have never really gotten over it, to the extent that I can’t yet bring myself to listen to the band’s new album. It ain’t AiC without Layne.
How about these lyrics from the track “Rain When I Die”? “Is she ready to know my frustration? / What she slippin’ inside, slow castration / I’m a riddle so strong, you can’t break me / Did she come here to try, try to take me?”
Or these: “Will she keep on the ground, trying to ground me / Slowly forgive my lie, lying to save me / Could she love me again, or will she hate me”?
Of course, the dirge-like “Rooster” is always good for your sad, angry mood. That goes without saying. It’s also arguably the album’s best song, and that’s saying something.
“Hate to Feel” is a full-throated shout of frustration and misery, perfect for those nights when even the stars seem to be laughing at you. “Angry Chair” is great for head-banging, steering-wheel-pounding moments.
The two songs I was most drawn to back then, though, were “Would?” and “Down in a Hole.” I present some lyrics for “Would?” below:
“Into the flood again / Same old trip it was back then / So I made a big mistake / Try to see it once my way…”
These lines make up the chorus. They speak of covering the same old ground to no good end, of mistakes acknowledged, of the desire—the drive—to be understood. Of course, the chorus’s very repetition suggests that understanding never happens. Then there are these lines:
“Am I wrong? / Have I run too far to get home? / Have I gone? / And left you here alone? / If I would, could you?”
Did I make all the mistakes? Have I been wrong about everything all along? Is it too late to fix things? Is reconciliation possible? The song never answers these questions. Neither did life, at least not all at once. Sooner or later, I realized that the answers were no, no, yes, and no. And then all I had to do was figure out how to live with those answers.
“Down in a Hole” is perhaps the most appropriate song on the album for a divorce soundtrack, at least if you’re unhappy that your life has taken such a turn. Again, I’ll present the chorus, the lines that we hear more than any others:
“Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved / See my heart I decorate it like a grave / Well you don’t understand who they / Thought I was supposed to be / Look at me now I’m a man / Who won’t let himself be…”
Self-explanatory, right? You can’t ask for a more fitting breakup song than this, at least if you’re a self-pitying kid who just wants to be loved.
So some songs on Dirt appeal to your self-indulgence. Others are good for moments when you’re just plain good and pissed off. But if you want darkness, you should seek out the final album on my soundtrack…
4. Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine.
A lot of critics claim that The Downward Spiral is the best NIN album. Maybe they’re right. I also freely admit that NIN’s later song, “Only” (from With Teeth), provides one of the best kiss-my-ass lines in history: “You were never really real to begin with / I just made you up to hurt myself.”
But in many ways, Pretty Hate Machine kept me sane during those long, sunless months. Sometimes it didn’t make a lot of sense. The album’s opener, “Head like a Hole,” isn’t ostensibly about relationships; it seems more like an anti-capitalist rant, with its pejorative references to “god money.” But the pounding music is good for working yourself up into a lather, and the bridge and chorus fit bad breakups like a snug pair of jeans:
“head like a hole / black as your soul / I’d rather die than give you control / head like a hole / black as your soul / I’d rather die than give you control / bow down before the one you serve / you’re going to get what you deserve / bow down before the one you serve / you’re going to get what you deserve…”
If your ex is greedy, even the verses can fit.
As for the rest of the album, you can probably understand how well they work during a divorce just by reading titles: “Terrible Lie”; “Sin”; “That’s What I Get.”
How about these lines from “Down in It”? “So what what does it matter now / I was swimming in the hate now I crawl on the ground / And everything I never liked about you is kind of seeping into me / I try to laugh about it now but isn’t it funny how everything works out / I guess the jokes on me, she said…”
Trent Reznor might well have been spying on me when he wrote those lines. “I was up above it,” he wails, “now I’m down in it.” I know exactly how he feels.
“Sanctified” perfectly captures the helpless self-awareness, the bipolar tides that pull you apart: “Heaven’s just a rumor she’ll dispel / As she walks me through the nicest parts of hell (bitch) / I still dream of lips I never should have kissed / Well she knows exactly what I can’t resist / I’m still caught up in another of her spells / Well she’s turning me into someone else / Everyday I hope and pray this will end / But when I can I do it all again?”
Then, of course, there is the funereal “Something I Can Never Have,” and the line that perhaps best sums up the loathing you feel for all that you’ve let someone else make of you: “Gray would be the color if I had a heart.”
Those who knew me at the time can probably recall how well these lines fit: “You make this all go away / I’m down to just one thing / And I’m starting to scare myself.” I scared a lot of people back then.
When you have lived with someone for a long time and wake up one day to find them, or yourself, gone, you feel dislocated, as if someone picked you up and dropped you in a foreign country, the language of which you do not speak. Nothing makes sense. Nothing seems right. Yet everything still reminds you of what you’ve lost. Hence these lines: “In this place it seems like such a shame / Though it all looks different now / I know it’s still the same / Everywhere I look you’re all I see / Just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be.”
Pretty Hate Machine punched all the right buttons for my darkest moods. Listen to it often, with the volume turned all the way up, during your next catastrophic breakup. Then go pet a puppy and look at a rainbow. You’ll need to cleanse your soul’s palette.
These are the songs, the albums, the artists, that saw me through what I might, in a moment of tremendous understatement, term a “rough patch.”
Now…if you have made it this far, you might feel like this essay (if that is the right word for this piece) is less developed than other things I’ve posted, other things you’ve read. Perhaps that’s true. Maybe it’s less revealing, less “important,” less eloquent. Maybe it’s thought-provoking and emotionally bare, but maybe it’s only one or the other. Perhaps it’s neither. What it will do, I hope, is lead is to these questions?
What did you listen to during your divorce, or your engagement, or that whirlwind six months between meeting the love of your life and committing to a full-blown relationship? What did you listen to after your mother died, after your first child was born, while he/she was growing in the womb? What made your playlist when you graduated medical school, got rejected from a graduate program, published your first poem? What music accompanied the ripping out of your heart or the greatest triumph you have yet experienced?
What makes up the soundtrack of your life?
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