Part two of my musical autobiography, in which I cross the Atlantic, play hundreds of gigs, become a family man, hit bottom and change careers, all while humming, whistling, singing and/or screaming along to the following soundtrack.
It’s been a funny old life so far. But here’s hoping it continues for another twenty-five years. Or songs. Or both.
13) Def Leppard: “Let It Go” (1981)
After the release of their first album in 1980, I saw Def Leppard on several occasions around the UK (often accompanied by Glenn Williams) and met them a bunch of times backstage. The last time I saw them in England was in July 1981 at the Derby Assembly Rooms, days after High ‘n’ Dry–their second, and by far their best, album–came out, and I chatted for a bit with Joe Elliot after the show. The following month, I left England for America to be a student at SUNY Brockport and on October 1, they played at the Aud in Rochester, warming up for Blackfoot (a bill which would soon be reversed). The show was close to Brockport, so I went out that afternoon hoping to meet the tour bus when it pulled in. Sure enough, mid afternoon the bus rolls into the parking lot, and as it stops about twenty teenage girls appear from nowhere and surround the door. A few minutes later, the door opens, Mr. Elliot appears, looks over the heads of said girls and, with a very bemused look on his face, sees me and says, “F#!king hell, Bruce! What are you doing here!”
In the words of another Leppard song, “Hello America!”
14) The Beatles: “Blackbird” (1968)
I began my fledgling musical career in the US in the Coffeehaus at SUNY Brockport, playing my handful of original songs on acoustic guitar. After one underwhelming solo show, someone came up to me and said, “You’re from England. You must know some Beatles songs. The crowd will love it if you play some.” Truth was, I didn’t know any–all I had ever played in the UK, in The Big Jobs and later in my other band, Manitou, was original material. Plus, to us Brits, the Beatles had become pretty passé by the early eighties. So I quickly went off and learned a few, including this McCartney classic that has remained a staple in my solo repertoire ever since.
15) Richard Thompson: “Can’t Win” (1988)
By the mid eighties, my tastes in music had drifted away from the Metal/Glam/Punk/New Wave axis. But my love for folk and the quirky always remained, and RT became a staple in my CD player, seeing me through one marriage and into another. I entered his career with Amnesia, and that album, and this song in particular, are still favorites. I love the way the song moves from the major key verse through the uncertain bridge into the decidedly minor key chorus. The cathartic doom-and-gloom lyrics and incendiary Thompson-trademark solo at the end only add to the pleasure.
16) Billy Bragg: “Tank Park Salute” (1991)
1994 came in with the birth of my son, Will, and left with the death of my Mum. It was in many ways the year in which I became a fully fledged adult. The following year, on July 3, we took Will to his first show: Billy Bragg supporting Barenaked Ladies at what was then called the Fingerlakes Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua. I was a big fan of Billy’s, and we had really only gone to see this show as he hadn’t played Upstate in some time. Billy had just become a dad himself and had also recently lost his father, the experience that drives the lyrics to this song. I remember hearing it while sitting on the lawn that evening, bouncing Will on my lap with tears rolling down my face.
Later, we met Billy and chatted for a while with a small group of other fans. Part way through, he looked at Will, who was strapped into a backpack on my back and said to me, “How old is he?” I replied that he was a little over 18 months. “Oh,” said Billy, and a look of sadness came over him. “He’s the same age as Jack [his son]. I haven’t seen Jack in a few weeks. Mind if I hold him?” Which he did for about 20 minutes while we talked. A lovely moment that I like to think set the tone for Will’s life to be.
17) Savoy Brown: “Tell Mama” (1971)
Sometimes music should be just plain fun. I had many a great night wailing on this little gem with the East Shore Allstars and The Bearded Bards during the 1990s. Of course, we used to drag out the ending, especially if the crowd was into it. This is for Paul, Ian, Neil, Chris, Cato, Chuck, Dave, Dan, Ed and all the other musicians I have had the privilege to work with throughout the years.
18) Chuck Berry: “Nadine” (1964)
This song has a special place in my heart for two reasons. First, since 1997 to today, my life has been linked with the legendary Chuck Berry. That year, I began work on his biography, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, which was eventually published in 2002. Since then, I have also written an essay on “Roll Over Beethoven” for the Library of Congress and a lengthy essay on his music for Rock and Roll Music, the 16-CD box set released by Bear Family in 2014.
Second, I played this song for many years in my solo act and with the bands mentioned above, and I have always enjoyed wrapping my tonsils around those breathless, syncopated lyrics that so perfectly describe the singer’s chase for his eternally elusive love.
19) Steely Dan: “Babylon Sisters” (1980)
In the early 2000s, my family spent several vacations on and around Cape Cod. They provided family memories that I will cherish forever. The kids were very little, and to keep them occupied in the car we had to listen to their music most of the time. When it was time for a break from the Barney the Dinosaur movie soundtrack, I used to pop a CD in the stereo that had a mixture of tunes that all the passengers in the vehicle would like. This song was one of them, and it produced a wonderful Pegg-family mondegreen when Carolyn and Hannah misheard the chorus and sang “Buckle-up sister!”
For that reason alone, the song deserves inclusion in this list. But I have always loved Steely Dan, so a song of theirs needed to be here. I remember many years ago having an argument with a woman in a Manhatten bar who hated the band. I retorted, “Yeah, take away the intelligent lyrics, superb musicianship and tight grooves and whaddya got?” To this day, the comment remains one of my favorite (and all-too-rare) spontaneous comebacks.
20) Don Henley “Heart of the Matter” (1989) and 21) Bruce Cockburn: “Pacing the Cage” (1996)
“Sometimes the road leads through dark places …”
I experienced some of the toughest times of my life during the spring and summer of 2004. I had just separated from my second wife and was trying to rebuild my life from the ground up while cobbling together a living as an adjunct teacher and a musician. I quickly introduced both of these songs into my repertoire and sang them, some nights barely choking back the tears as both songs, for different reasons, spoke directly to my soul.
I was never a huge Eagles fan, but Henley nails the sentiments of separation perfectly in the lyrics to his song. And though the lines about forgiveness and anger might seem a little trite, they were, and still are, hard for me to hear after everything that went down.
Cockburn’s lyrics, on the other hand, are a little more abstract but still have a huge emotional resonance with me. The opening image conjures up memories of watching the sunsets on Oneida Lake at the time and wondering when, or even if, my life would turn around.
22) Iron Maiden: “Aces High” (1984)
I was a Maiden fan back in the early days, seeing them at the De Montfort Hall at least once in the early 80s. I lost touch with them through the years, but that all changed when Will discovered them when he was 12, and I bought him a copy of A Matter of Life and Death for Christmas. The following year, the band announced their Somewhere Back in Time Tour, so tickets were promptly secured for the Meadowlands date on March 14, 2008. It was Will’s first show (not counting the Billy Bragg show mentioned earlier), and to celebrate he had his first sip of beer in the parking lot with a bunch of fans who had made their way up from Virginia for the show. He promptly spat it out, much to his credit and everyone’s amusement.
“Aces High” was the set opener for the tour, and being well-versed with concert openings, I didn’t need to see the enormous pyros that I knew would go off as soon as the song kicked in. So instead of looking at the band, I turned to look at Will just in time to see his eyes open wide and his jaw drop. Priceless, as the advertisement says.
23) Coheed & Cambria: “In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3” (2003)
When your son is into metal and classical guitar, your oldest daughter is into J-Pop and your youngest is into Broadway show tunes, finding music to put on the car stereo during long trips (the odd Steely Dan tune notwithstanding) can be a real challenge. Fortunately, into the Pegg family’s life via Will came Coheed, whose blend of progressive metal, punk and melodic rock has been about the only thing that we have all been able to agree on to date.
This song of theirs has a special place in my heart as it was the opening song for the only concert all of us have attended together so far: September 3, 2010 at the Chevy Court of the New York State Fair in Syracuse, NY. When the band came on, we were standing next to a group of teenage girls who had seen Justin Bieber play the night before and were probably very curious as to whether they would like Coheed. They had their answer when the whole crowd screamed “Man your own jackhammers!” Exit stage left, bless ’em.
24) Kyoji Yamamoto: “The Story of a Little White Whale” (1999/2010)
I had the distinct pleasure of spending most of 2010 and 2011 trying to introduce Mr. Yamamoto to an American audience. Ultimately, it proved an impossible task, but I am proud to say I was the first person to release Kyoji’s solo work in the US through the Voyager compilation in 2010. This unfortunately titled piece remains my favorite on that CD, as it shows Kyoji at his very best, playing slowly and expressively at the start before unleashing plenty of guitar pyrotechnics at the end. It brings back great memories of trying to build a music empire from my bedroom!
25) Steven Wilson: “Routine” (2015)
I hear far too many people of my age wax nostalgic for the music of their youth and say that music today isn’t what it used to be. When I hear that kind of sentiment, I just tell them to listen to Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree. The music is at once familiar and yet new, and I know that it scratches me right where I itch. It has been a constant in my life for several years now, and I firmly believe Fear of a Blank Planet is a true work of genius.
This song was the highlight of both the shows I saw with Will and Tessa on the Hand. Cannot. Erase. tour in 2015. In a little under nine minutes, the song manages to tackle the unimaginable issue of mass shootings in a sensitive, dignified and ultimately uplifting way, lyrically and musically taking us through the emotions of determination, confusion, anger and acceptance. Ninet Tayeb’s world-weary vocals suit the song’s mood perfectly.