Compiled by Nathan Poppe, The Curbside Chronicle
There’s a question I ask during almost every interview with a Curbside vendor who’s ended their homelessness. It’s a relatively straightforward query, but everybody has their own answer.
I like knowing what kept them going during such a difficult time in their life. It goes like this: “When the cards seemed stacked against you, what kept you positive and moving forward while experiencing homelessness?”
In December, a vendor gave it some serious thought and later called me after the interview. I missed the call, but I got this wonderful message: “Even when the world feels like it’s breaking, music is always there. I’d say it definitely helped me through experiencing homelessness. Ever since I moved into my place, I’ve been listening to more music. It’s a powerful tool.”
Music is a great connector, too. It doesn’t matter if you’re Lizzo laying down a sick flute solo, Wayne Coyne rolling around in a bubble the size of a Buick or a brand new Curbside vendor selling magazines on a street corner. We all need a soundtrack to help make sense of the world and bring us together. That part has been tougher for the past several months as COVID-19 continues to alter our daily routines and how we gather. This story was actually scheduled to run back when going to an indoor concert wasn’t a public health risk. Remember those days? I miss them.
Concerts might not be coming back until late 2021, but now seemed like a fitting time to reflect on what we love and set it to music. The answers here are surprisingly personal. I figured most people would focus on songs that make them feel good, but these candid replies show just how deep music resonates in our heads and hearts. It’s no Spotify playlist, but here are some songs that might change your life, too.
Roderick Crystal (Curbside vendor) – ‘Juice’ by Lizzo
‘Juice’ is catchy. I’ve heard people compare Lizzo to Beyonce, but I feel like this song makes Lizzo her own thing. She’s an original and true to herself. It’s important not to be exactly what other people want you to be. Just be you. If nobody likes who you’re trying to be, that’s their problem. Express yourself. That’s old school. Lizzo’s style seems more down to earth. ‘Juice’ is just different from what I’m used to hearing on the radio. I’m a DJ and this track just stands out. I’d play her five times a night if I could. I grew up listening to music. I remember running around in diapers and dancing to ‘Brick House’ by The Commodores. My mom and my grandfather used to sing in a gospel group at church. My mother was also a DJ, so appreciating old school music runs in the family.
John Waller (Curbside vendor) – ‘Wrong Side of Heaven’ by Five Finger Death Punch
This song has a strong impact on me. My cousin introduced me to the band’s music. He’s a former Marine and so are members of Five Finger Death Punch. I was skeptical at first because I do listen to metal, but it’s usually classic metal. I could tell this band was talented and their music had a strong, rhythmic groove to it. ‘Wrong Side of Heaven’ sticks out to me largely because of its music video. It shows vets at war and how a few come home to experience homelessness. I recommend watching it. I hope it opens peoples’ eyes.
Two of my brothers served in the military and died in combat. They passed away for their country. Five Finger Death Punch ain’t just writing songs to write songs. They’re writing songs about what they know and what they’ve experienced. A lot of us only see one side of things. It can be hard to get out of your comfort zone, but it’s worth it. I don’t know what type of music everybody listens to, but it’s worth it to get out of your own norm for a minute. A change of perspective can be really important.
Chuck Woolard (Curbside vendor) – ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’ by Muddy Waters
It’s hard to believe that my advanced kindergarten mind had trouble wrapping itself around a message so simple. Muddy Waters kicks off his take of the Big Joe Williams song by begging for another chance. For my whole life, I couldn’t get out of the way of my own stubbornness and humble myself for a moment. I lost the love of my life gambling with negative variables. The only way to win was to lose my pride. It’s not wrong to have tears in your eyes. I should’ve listened to my heart and got down on my knees to say “Baby, please don’t go. You know I love you so.” Unless you want to live alone, these could be the best words a grown man has ever spoken.
Luke Dick (STEVE frontman) – ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’ by Tom Petty
I’ve found inspiration in this song during the most trying times of my life. On music and feel alone, the song has a way of transporting me out of whatever funk I might be in. I feel like Tom Petty has that sense about his music — there’s hope there, even when the lyric might be a little dark or cynical. With this song, there’s movement and a windows-down hope that’s so palpable to all kinds of people. As a young kid, it was a soundtrack that let me know things would be alright if I just kept driving on. You don’t have to be a rock star to run down a dream. You can be a kid in a small town who just wants a little piece of land somewhere else. You could be someone down on their luck wanting to make any kind of change. Tom has that kinda resilience in his music that is both sympathetic and hopeful. I’ll always love him for that.
Jenny Conlee (The Decemberists) – ‘Sir Duke’ by Stevie Wonder
This has been a favorite song ever since I was a child. I could tell, even back then, that the song was about joy. Later on — when I realized he was talking about Duke Ellington and the power of music — I was hooked. I love Stevie Wonder for his funky, complex keyboard parts. He is also an amazing drummer, singer, bass player and everything else. He isn’t afraid to make a strange complicated horn riff be the refrain for this song, and now it is one of the most recognizable hooks in rock music. Every time I hear this tune, I want to dance. It helps me to remember that music can symbolize pure love and joy and also be timeless like this song.
Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips frontman) – ‘Happy Birthday’ by Patty S. Hill and Mildred J. Hill
From a songwriter’s point of view, ‘Happy Birthday’ is a marvel of efficiency. It’s possibly the greatest song ever written. Songs both this simple and useful are very rare. In musical terms, there’s no particular key ‘Happy Birthday’ is placed in. When everyone is singing it at the table you notice — or maybe you don’t notice — how everyone is arriving at their own version of where the melody goes. They get the words right, but the melody kind of waivers around according to how much you can hear the other people around you. This would ruin most songs, but makes ‘Happy Birthday’ somehow even better.
So, it’s a funny thing to have a song that everyone kind of knows. It is so useful. Maybe not as useful as your ‘ABC’s’ sung to the tune of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. To this day — I am 60 years old — if I have to know which letter follows which in the alphabet, then I still sing it. Whatever it is that songs do and how they connect to your memory is a wonderful mystery.
But more wonderful is when you get to sing with the song. You get to participate. It’s a great combination of expression and embarrassment. We want to sing but then we feel slightly embarrassed when anyone has to hear us. It’s no wonder that Steven Spielberg used just five notes to be the language of the alien super beings in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Those five notes: “Da Da Da Da Daaaaa.”
It says we are friends. I am willing to be slightly embarrassed in front of you. I will listen to you. There is a great optimism in those five notes. In ‘Happy Birthday’, there is fun, optimism and connection.
Lincka Elizondo-Sànchez (Latin American pop singer) – ‘Ojos del Sol’ by Y La Bamba
‘Ojos del Sol’ makes me cry happy tears because it makes me think of my abuelitos in Mexico. It reminds me of those old songs that my abuelito used to sing to my grandma. Not because it’s the same genre of music, but because it has the same kind of soul and passion. It makes me feel like we’re still here. Soulful Chicana artists, I mean.
We are still out here creating new experimental and weirdly mesmerizing Latinx music. Classic music that would gain the respect of our ancestors but would still make them think. I feel seen, and I feel represented when I hear her voice in this song. The lyricism is unmatched. With each word she takes you on a journey.
When I hear this song, I picture myself walking in my abuelita’s garden as a kid. With my eyes closed and my hands out touching the leaves and roses that my grandma planted when she was a kid for her grandchildren to enjoy. With every beautiful note she hits, I get taken back to that fresh garden. It also makes me sad for some reason. The song has some religious undertones of her reciting a prayer, which can be a bit wary depending on how you look at it. It is also very sweet though. I’m not very religious, but I connect my Catholic upbringing to a lot of family gatherings, so there are some very special memories there. This song inspires me to be a better writer in such a way that can transport people to their fondest memories.
Michael Ross (Curbside vendor) – ‘Sadie’ by The Spinners
Music can stick in my mind and touch my heart. Songs help me when I’m mad or frustrated because they make me stop to take the time to remember everything will be alright. It’s tough to explain, but they calm me down and help me be Michael. This song lovingly remembers a young mother, and I still had my mom when it came out. If I heard it today, then I’d probably cry because ‘Sadie’ hits home. My mother, AnnieBell, worked so hard to raise me and my two brothers. We never went without a good meal. My mom was so cool. On Sundays, she’d go all out and cook fried chicken, lima beans, gravy and cornbread. It was perfect every week. It was also always an open invitation. I’ve continued the tradition and make sure to cook something special at the end of the week.
John Moreland (singer/songwriter) – ‘Quietest Friend’ by Pedro the Lion
To me, this song is about the ways that the world teaches us to hate ourselves. We internalize those lessons and carry that cruel view of ourselves throughout our lives. Then we become adults and have all this pain and shame that we don’t understand. I first heard ‘Quietest Friend’ during a time when I was newly becoming aware of these concepts. Sitting in my truck in a Reasor’s parking lot, I was moved to tears. It felt good to see it all for what it is. The song ends with a beautiful release of musical tension, and a resolution to be kind and honest with yourself. Not long ago, I experienced something like a revolution in my mind, and this song has been an important part of the soundtrack. I now have a new understanding of what kindness is and its importance in our world.
Jonathan Roach (Curbside vendor) – ‘Perfect’ by Simple Plan
‘Perfect’ reminds me a lot of my dad and me. I felt like he wanted me to be a perfect son. I tried. I can’t be perfect though. I can only be me. I remember the lyrics, “Did you know you used to be my hero? All the days you spent with me now seem so far away,” because my dad was my hero growing up and his passing in 2005 makes him out of reach. He almost always tried to be there for me every step of the way. ‘Perfect’ reminds me of both the good and bad moments from my childhood.
Growing up was tough because we moved so often. We were never homeless, but I remember leaving town when most of our stuff was still in a storage container. I lost a lot of my things — books and even a Dallas Cowboys football helmet. Constantly moving was hard on me, especially at school. In a way, I feel like ‘Perfect’ was written for me. It still gives me a mixture of feelings. I’m happy we got to talk before my dad’s funeral. He apologized for being tough on me.
He died of cancer. I’ll never forget hearing the news over the phone. I cried for days. I didn’t go to work for almost a week. I was told there were a lot of people at his funeral, but I wasn’t paying attention to anyone but my dad. I feel all that every time I hear the song.
Steven Ravia (Curbside vendor) – ‘Nobody Knows’ by Kevin Sharp
This cover of Tony Rich’s R&B hit is relatable to me for a few reasons. I had a heart attack, and the song makes me think about how it’s hard to see below the surface. This health issue was a secret to people who didn’t know me personally. It’s also a reminder that life is temporary. Cherish it. If you’re struggling with difficult news, then remember people are willing to listen. Use that to your advantage.
Colton Smith (Curbside vendor) – ‘A Light To Call Home’ by Julia Brennan
I found ‘A Light To Call Home’ when I was messaging a friend. Normally, I like sad music. I’ve had a difficult life since age 3 when I lost my birth parents and entered foster care. My friend was afraid she’d harm herself and was in crisis. I Googled song lyrics to find something that might help her. I sent her the lyrics, and she said they put her at peace. It did the same thing to me when I was experiencing homelessness. I must have listened to it every day. I feel like people have the power to hold onto hope, but they just need to know where to find it. The song is just really uplifting, and the lyrics about being “homeless but not hopeless” spoke to me.