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Blues busters Tough times like these demand tough tunes

Ever feel like the gray, lifeless sky isn't so much a product of shifting weather patterns, but is in fact a direct manifestation of inner turmoil? That somehow the troubled times below have managed to bum out the very atmosphere itself?

There is, at present, so much to be ungrateful for. The economy in shambles; the country at war; the promised change revealed as a steep uphill climb toward an uncertain peak; our inspired and far-reaching inventions failing us and resulting in loss of life. All seem to be conspiring against us.

On a personal level, over recent weeks, I've watched helplessly as people dear to me suffer illness and tragedy, friends and colleagues die unexpectantly and leave no sense of closure for the living, and nature itself strikes a cruel and indifferent pose. I'm far from alone in this, and "same as it ever was" might be an applicable mantra. But lately, it's not raining; it's pouring.

Music is more important now than ever. In times of trouble, the religious turn to religion, the drunkard to drink, the poet to the sturdy reliability and indomitable logic of language. The music junkie turns to music, though. And I believe he or she is the one most likely to be healed.

"What secret is there in music which attracts all those who listen to it?" asks Sufi philosopher Hazrat Inayat Khan in his transcendent collection of writings, "The Mysticism of Sound and Music."

"It is the rhythm which is created. It is the tone of that music which tunes the soul, and raises it above the depression and despair of everyday life in this world. If one knew what rhythm is needed for a particular individual in his trouble and despair, what tone is needed, and to what tone that person's soul should be raised, then one could heal a person with music."

When things are going well, and one feels puffed-up and mighty, the above might read like a load of idealistic, hippy-dippy nonsense. But when everything comes crashing down, and the need for some sort of elevation above the travails of the day becomes very real, the wisdom in these words screams from the page.

Music can do so many things, and some of them are actually worthwhile, if not downright essential to our collective and personal well being. It can entertain, distract, amuse, reinforce our sense of self, for better or worse. Those are its low aims, though. Much more importantly, it can offer what Khan calls "healing," but what might just as easily arrive as a strong, stiff, straight-up snifter of empathy, identification, kindness.

When Michael Stipe sings "Everybody hurts/and everybody cries," or Bono acknowledges that "Sometimes you can't make it on your own," the words might come dangerously close to cliche if simply read from the page. Marry them to a yearning melody, give them Khan's "tone and rhythm," and they become something else entirely. So many musicians have encountered fans who insisted that "Such and such album saved my life," and surely, some of this gushing could be interpreted as hyperbole. If you've ever had this feeling yourself, however, you know it to be real and genuine.

This week, feeling a bit overwhelmed by a rapid series of unfortunate events, and desperate to bar despair from the door, I surrounded myself with song. That's not unusual in itself. This time, however, I was after a particular strain of sound and song. Not the fire and brimstone, salt-in-wounds brilliance of Bob Dylan, or the defiant rage of, say, Nine Inch Nails, but rather, the affirming, empathetic variety. So I assembled a playlist, carefully attempting to right the universe by the simple act of song-sequencing and selection. I'll share it with you here, in the hope that it might help you out, if you're in need, or inspire you to construct one of your own and pass it on. I tried to steer clear of the overt and obvious, but sometimes, only "Imagine" can do what "imagine" does.

* "Hold On," Tom Waits

There's a quiet, gruff dignity in this song. Stoicism, mostly.

* "Light Years"/"Love Boat Captain," Pearl Jam

"And wherever you've gone/and wherever we might go/It don't seem fair . . . today just disappeared/Your light's reflected now, reflected from afar/we were but stones, but your light made us stars".

* "Let It Be," the Beatles

McCartney's prayer to the muse has never let me down.

* "Imagine," John Lennon

Simple, perfect, unattainable.

* "Beautiful Day," U2

"The heart is a bloom/shoots up through the stony ground." I like that.

* "Snow-borne Sorrow," by Nine Horses

A profound collection of musical and linguistic images that is world-weary, but not resigned.

* "Love Is Stronger Than Death," the The

I hope so.

* "Let the Happiness In," David Sylvian

Like the clouds finally parting.

* "Spiritual," John Coltrane

Without the benefit of words, Coltrane tells the whole story of the human condition. Unrequited love, unfulfilled longing.

* "Don't Give Up," Peter Gabriel

Suffering, but with dignity.

* "One Love/People Get Ready," Bob Marley and the Wailers

Secular gospel music. "Give thanks and praise. . ."

* "Kingdom of Days"/"Surprise Surprise," Bruce Springsteen

Going forward with a grateful and humble heart. Seems like the way to go.

* "Love Is the Answer," Todd Rundgren and Utopia

Who cares what the question is.

* "Ripple," the Grateful Dead

"If I knew the way, I would take you home."


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