There was one of those innocuous Twitter questions that caught my eye earlier this morning. Four albums that saved your life in high school–Album covers only, no commentary.
I’m a sucker for those kinds of questions. It’s like being interviewed. Like someone actually cares about the answer, when in fact so few rarely do. But I almost always bite. It’s human nature.
I posted my picks then loaded them up and listened to them in order. And let’s have another moment of brutal honesty–“saved my life” is some Grade-A hyperbole, at least for me. Kept me sane? Helped me figure out who I was? Helped shape my sense of identity? Sure. I’ll accept that.
Some of my favorite memories of that age were hanging out with friends listening to records. Everyone had their own little area of special interest, their own musical DNA. Despite what nostalgia-trigger shows like Stranger Things tend to make us think, music in the 80’s was not as homogeneous as it’s often portrayed. I was introduced to a very wide range of sounds, both contemporary and vintage (I’m thinking of Eric’s British Invasion collection, or Charlie’s Prog-rock predilection). And between them, college radio, and whatever music I could procure at the local music shop, I developed my own weird little niche.
That brings us to David + David.
They put out exactly one album, Boomtown, released in 1986. I just learned today that it was one of the many albums destroyed in the massive fire at Universal in 2008, which isn’t relevant but still weirdly fitting. Boomtown was not a huge hit. They released a couple of singles, none of which charted higher than #8 (on the Rock tracks. They topped out at 37 on Billboard Hot 100). They also contributed to make a huge impact on Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club album, but didn’t produce another album as a duo. David Baerwald would go on to put out a trio of solo albums and soundtracks, including the song “Come What May” to the movie Moulin Rouge! which earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
Boomtown was one of those albums that the critics loved but never caught on with the general record-buying audience. People did a really nice write up on them, in 1987. Rolling Stone called the album “one of the year’s most impressive debuts.” But it was too difficult to classify and the material was, well, kind of niche.
And that, I suspect, was a big part of the appeal for me. It’s a masterful album not concerned with trying to latch onto a particular sound or movement. It’s just Los Angeles style rock with a bit of a folk influence and darkly poetic lyrics portraying characters trying to survive Los Angeles in Reagan’s 80’s. Baerwald’s upbringing in LA as the son of a political scientist and a psychologist cannot be overlooked as an influence to his lyrics.
At their core, many of the songs on Boomtown are about dreams deferred, of isolation, of the empty pursuit of wealth, of people who fell through the cracks. It’s political without being Political. An examination of a point in time when Prosperity Gospel took over, when the safety net failed, and people were teetering on the edge. In many ways, that makes it all the more relevant today than when it was recorded over 30 years ago.
“Ain’t So Easy” is from the perspective of an abusive husband who wants to make up for his fits of rage, to make everything better. It’s a plea to forget the past, not because he’s reformed so much as his awareness that he can’t make it on his own.
“A Rock for the Forgotten” is a vignette from the perspective of a bartender, knowing that he’s surrounded by broken souls, his regulars who’ve shared their stories because they depend on him for stability that he himself craves.
“River’s Gonna Rise” is a musing on the city of Los Angeles itself, crumbling at the edge of the abyss. It crackles with an apocalyptic urgency, both warning of and praying for the end, symbolized by a river coming to wash the city away.
This nine-song magnum opus, told with howling guitars and haunted keyboards, sung with the voice of someone who has, as the kids are saying these days, “seen some shit,” is not as depressing as it sounds. I know, surprise, right? The desperation in the lyrics is served up with world-weary empathy, more understanding social worker than exploitative poverty tourist. They reflect the dreams, the fears, and ultimately the dignity of the marginalized and forgotten. In nine songs (and his subsequent solo works), Baerwald tells the stories of the people he knows, speaking their truths in the same way that Bruce Springsteen has done for decades.
In so many ways, this album has proven to be a huge influence on not only what I write, but who I write about and who I write for.
Boomtown closes with the song “Heroes,” which has been on countless mix tapes and writing playlists for me over the decades. A perfect culmination of the album’s themes, it delivers a message of hope and perseverance–that surrender is no option, and that even if our struggles prove futile, they have merit. That win or lose, there is honor in fighting for something you believe in. That, heroes aren’t always the ones who win–that they’re the ones who keep fighting for what’s right even when they can’t win.
But rather than leave you at the end, I’m leaving you with the first track, their biggest “hit.” I encourage you to seek out the album and giving it a spin.