Every once in a while, I’ll meet someone and think, ‘Wow. Now that is how you live a life.’
That’s how I feel about Brandi McCombs. In between working with her daughter on basic piano technique and working together on the creative team for a while, I got a few glimpses into the life of this woman who tends to gather herself very closely. It was always fascinating; she’s the kind of person that really honors the gift of life, in that she seems to truly live. From dabbling in photography to learning to weld, and God only knows what else she’s discovered – this is a woman who is not content to let life go by unexamined and unchallenged.
I’ve always been fairly confident that we had a lot in common, and once she shared her thoughts about a record of influence, I realized I was right – at least in part (I know every word to every song on one of her two choices). Her words here are inspiring and interesting; they are a public gift from a private person whose soundtrack to life is diverse, raw and real.
In keeping with my history of commitment issues, I had trouble narrowing down my answers to one album, or even one artist. Always the fan of a mix tape, I revel in diversity/randomness. In thinking of the period of my life with the greatest changes, I have a mix tape in my head. It has Randy Travis, and Ratt, and The Cure, and Tesla, and Mark Chestnutt, and Metallica.
My last two years of college were a major time of change for me (The first two years I was at community college and either living at home, or with my grandparents — which I would not trade for anything!), and the two years after graduation as well. When I moved into my dorm at the University of Tennessee, I had a boyfriend from my hometown and I knew we would get married and have cute babies and live happily ever after. I buckled down and studied and went to class and was a good girl doing the “keep the home fires burning” thing. He joined the Navy and travelled the world on a floating frat party.
But I digress…
Indigo Girls – Indigo Girls
It was 1989. I had gotten to UT and was trying to find my way as a transfer student in a dorm full of people who had come as Freshmen and had bonded groups of friends already. As an introvert, I am a sponge — I sit and listen and soak up the vibe and temperature of a room. It still takes me a good amount of time to feel comfortable enough to opine, but back then? In the social realm, I moved with sloth speed. I made one friend on my floor who was the complete opposite of me. She was boisterous and flashy, came from a family with money, and was hell on wheels. When I was with Kristin, I did not have to say much — she got us in places with her blond hair and flashy style and easy flirting. The guys paid attention to her, and I relished some of the attention by default. She could work a room and have them buying us drinks while she told crazy stories, and I would just smile and laugh and somehow be part of it all. She made life as an introvert effortless.
Kristin had a CD from this new group called the Indigo Girls. I immediately loved their harmonies, and the poetry of the words, and the simplicity of the acoustic sound, which was new compared to the synth-pop and hair bands of the 80’s. I loved that I could sing along with voices in my range. I loved that this music was so different than the heavy-metal that my boyfriend insisted on blasting. I loved it so much I went out and bought the cassette (no CD player because that was way more than I could afford) and would listen in my car everywhere I went, singing at the top of my lungs when I was by myself…Over and over and over. The freedom of driving my car with the windows down wherever I wanted to go, listening to what I wanted to hear, doing what I wanted to do. Without parents to tell me to turn it down. Without the stress of figuring out what I was supposed to be doing with the rest of my life. Without an overbearing boyfriend to take over the driving, the decisions, the music. Pure freedom. Soaring. Top of my lungs.
Kristin flunked out and had to return home. I had to pick a major and return for my senior year and graduate and get ready to marry my sailor. Then there would be no more dressing up and going out with girlfriends (because “M” did not like me spending time with other people). No more sitting at tables full of lively, beautiful college boys, laughing and smiling and feeling good about myself (because “M” got angry when anyone else looked at me and was sure to tell me that I was lucky to have him). No more Indigo Girls (because “M” always controlled the music and the volume and would never listen to “two lesbian chicks”).
For years that cassette was in my collection, but I didn’t listen to it anymore and finally got rid of it somewhere along the way. I had to pull it up on iTunes to verify what it was called and remember the songs on it, but to my surprise I still could sing almost every word of every song. And it still lifted my heart. I looked at the songs I liked best — Closer to Fine, Love’s Recovery, Prince of Darkness — and it is fascinating to look at the lyrics and realize how maybe they were a little voice making its way through the confusion and “stuckness” of my young adult life, quietly planting a seed of light and hope and freedom.
So to Kristin, wherever you ended up, thanks.
“The best thing you’ve ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously, it’s only life after all”
And to “M”:
“By grace, my sight grows strongerand I will not be a pawnfor the Prince of Darkness any longer”
Which then brings me to album #2….
Alice in Chains – Dirt
I graduated college on top of the world with vast knowledge and a piece of paper that I thought guaranteed me a thrilling career and fat paycheck. I walked out the door of commencement and entered one of the worst job markets in history. Months of applications, interviews, and sitting by the phone… nothing. I felt like a failure. A farce.
My fiance was still in the Navy, but stateside, so I loaded up and moved to Washington state to share my brilliance there. My parents were none too pleased that we were not married but living together. “M” was not the small-town boy who we said good-bye to when he joined the Navy. I was not the wide-eyed innocent girl who did what she was told anymore. Once out there, I had no family to fall back on and no job and very little money of my own that quickly dwindled until I was dependent on “M” for pretty much everything. Meanwhile, he didn’t like my clothes, my hair, my attitude. It was an eye-opening six months until I hung my head and returned home to live with my parents again.
The Seattle music scene was booming and while “M” still had a habit of blasting the heavy metal music in the car so loud it made my head hurt, he had also gotten into the alternative/grunge sound as well. Somehow when I left, this Alice in Chains album came with me. It is a long drive from Washington to Tennessee, with a lot of little radio stations in the static along the way. Somehow this got listened to more than anything on that journey home.
“Down in a hole, feeling so smallDown in a hole, losing my soulI’d like to fly, but my wings have been so denied”
I returned home to find my beloved Granddaddy dying. My older sister was also moving back in with my parents with an alcoholic husband, a toddler, and an infant in tow. The relationship I had spent 4 years in was coming to an ugly close, even though my fiance had now returned home from his stint in the Navy and we still saw each other at his convenience. My four year degree was worthless, and my friends were all elsewhere. Life had gone on without me, which was yet another rude awakening.
I listened to this music some more. Somehow the beat and intense guitar and still those harmonies I seem to like made me feel better on some level.
“Loneliness is not a phaseField of pain is where I grazeSerenity is far away”
It was December. Again, I hung my head and canvassed the mall, finally resorting to retail to bring in a little money to at least be able to buy my family Christmas presents. I met some fun people. I worked long hours. I had to listen to that insidious mall Christmas music all day, every day.
“Have a Holly Jolly Christmas!” I was a borderline alcoholic at age 23.
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” I feel like a total failure at life.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” And at this rate, I’ll be home forever. I feel like a total failure at life.
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!” I go home and sit in my room and wrap whatever pathetic presents I got for my family with Alice in Chains cranked on my stereo. Fa La La La Fucking La.
Ah, my friends — Alice in Chains. So different than the happy mall music. They say what I am feeling.
“I feel so alonegonna end up a big ol’ pile of them bones”
Over the music I can hear Mother hesitantly knocking on my door and asking if I am okay.
It is the last Christmas Eve my grandfather is alive and I miss it because I am working. I drive three hours around the region, chasing the rest of my family on our traditional route. I race to my grandparents’ house. Granddaddy has already gone to bed, and my granny is always happy to see me but her face is tired. I race on to my aunt’s open house (little did we know it will be the last Christmas she is alive as well), and get there as they are putting away the snacks and egg nog. My folks left 30 minutes prior.
“Oh God, please won’t you help me make it through…”
Yeah, I don’t listen to this music anymore; Alice in Chains still gets radio play and I come across it sometimes. I listen to it with a different ear now. It is too intense, too angry, too depressing, and riddled with what I now know are heavy drug references. I never paid much attention to that before. No wonder my mother was so worried about me. However, there is a happy ending to the story and the real reason this album had a profound impact on my life.
I met a guy. At the mall. We were at a mutual friend’s party on the eve of a new year. We started talking music. I said, “I listen to all sorts of stuff, but currently I am really into Alice in Chains.”
Him: Oh, I have that CD.
Me: Hmmph, I only have it on cassette.
Him: It sounds SO much better on CD. You could come to my place and give it a listen, but I don’t want that to come across weird.
But it didn’t seem weird, so I did. It did sound much better digitally. I started spending more time with this guy. He let me pick what we listened to, or what we watched on tv. He liked my hair and my clothes and my attitude, and he said HE was lucky to have ME. I made him mix tapes of goofy country music that he had never listened to. And I realized what I had been missing in life, in my heart, and in my soul.
So I married him instead. 🙂