Songs That Changed Our Lives

She wanted adulthood to look like Elliot Smith. He found the missing piece in Velvet Underground.

By Kyle Bylin


Songs become a part of the story of our lives. Their lyrics linger inside of us. We recall those words, but what we remember isn’t what they meant to the person who wrote them. It’s what they mean to us. We relate their lyrics back to the events that have happened in our lives. We interject our personal narrative into their songs, and it feels as though they mirror our own memories and emotions.

We build a history of music throughout our lives that is unique to us, shaped by our tastes and life experiences. For many of us, it is the closest thing we have to the journal we never wrote or the diary that has long been packed away. The soundtrack of our lives is an ongoing playlist that we add to with each new experience. Unlike old journals and diaries, this soundtrack does not collect dust on a nightstand or in the bottom of a box but is stored on a smartphone that we take everywhere and hold tightly in our hands.

The time had come to collect and share these stories to create a people’s history of music. What you’ll read in Song Stories: Music That Shaped Our Identities and Changed Our Lives are thirty personal accounts of how people’s lives have been impacted by specific songs. In this excerpt below, music writer Cortney Harding shares why Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars” set her romantic notions of adulthood and startup founder Marc Ruxin explains how The Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” changed his tastes.

I hope reading these essays will inspire you to share your own song story.


Elliott Smith — “Between the Bars”

By Cortney Harding

The sensory memory I always associate with “Behind the Bars” by Elliott Smith is of a cool, drizzly night, the sidewalks cleaned by the rain. I’m in an alley between two bars somewhere in Portland, Oregon, probably on NW 21st Street, back up against a wall, while some handsome indie rocker kisses me furiously. I’m drunk and I haven’t a care in the world.

That was the image I had of my life when I was 16 years old and Elliott Smith’s Either/Or was released. Having discovered Elliott Smith via a friend’s cool older brother, and after seeing him play in coffee shops, I was fully prepared to love the record. “Between the Bars” stuck out for me because it came out right around the time I started picturing adulthood, and what I wanted adulthood to look like. I was also enamored of the Portland indie scene, dying to be one of the hip kids and not just some juvenile hanger-on. I wanted to be equal to the artists I admired, to be one of them, part of the in-crowd.

Elliott Smith - Either/Or (album cover)

My parents rarely drank, and I wasn’t much of a drinker as a teenager, but my image of adulthood always revolved around hanging out in bars, having deep conversations, and staying until the last call. When Smith sang about drunkenly making out while looking at the sky, it was quite possibly the most romantic thing I could imagine. I was a weird, precocious (and honestly, pretentious) kid, and I cared little for teen culture, instead watching talky indie films about twenty-something couples and their problems. Nothing was more grown-up than smoking cigarettes and drinking beer at some dirty dive bar.

Although I had barely lived one lifetime, I liked to imagine that I would accumulate baggage and tragic secrets and would then be driven by the need to find someone who could accept that. It was another marker of adulthood — experiences to be shared at cocktail parties or detailed in memoirs, dark stories about sex and drugs. The idea that I would even have a history that I’d want to forget, and that I would find a man who could help me forget it, was the epitome of the future experience I wanted.

“Behind the Bars” sticks with me now, even though I’ve had many drunken nights with plenty of men and have no desire to ever make out in an alley again. I did all those things, and they were interesting, and now I am done with them, but I miss that romantic ideal. Adult relationships, as it turns out, are about more than drinking and smoking and talking all night — there are things like house mortgages, vet appointments, and vacation plans that must be dealt with — the mundane stuff of life.

Elliott Smith is also the troubadour of my teens and early twenties — he died when I was 23, and I’ll still never forget waking up to the news of his death, right as I was realizing the vision laid out in the song. I’d been out the night before and woke up in a bed in a grody punk house that had a pirate radio station in the laundry room. When I opened my laptop, I saw the news on Livejournal. I cried before shuffling off to my boring office job to spend the day posting lyrics online and commiserating with other fans on Friendster.

He was the patron saint of Portland, a Portland that no longer exists — of specific bars, restaurants, and experiences that are all long gone. I remember watching him walk down the street with two other nineties-era local music stars, Pete Krebs and Sean Croghan, all wearing identical white shirts and cuffed jeans. I thought, “That’s it. That’s the future.” I had that future for a while, and now it’s the past, but hearing the song still makes me feel like it’s all yet to come.


The Velvet Underground — “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”

By Marc Ruxin

It happened one brisk evening in the fall of 1988. I was a freshman in college and was midway through an East Coast road trip, having already stopped to see friends at various colleges along the way. When we got to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, I remember walking through the city to a divey but incredible Vietnamese place. By the time we stumbled back to my friend Tom’s apartment, a dozen beverages into the evening, we collapsed on a pair of threadbare couches next to a few crates of records and an old turntable.

At our small prep school in northeastern Ohio, he and I were among the handful of folks who obsessed over music. He turned me on to the Grateful Dead and Tom Waits, and I turned him on to “alternative music,” which at the time included R.E.M., The Smiths, Husker Du, and Cocteau Twins. We would be forever bonded by our shared love of music. Like all true music nerds, we could, and still do, talk about music for hours, arguing about the relative merits of specific songs or albums.

The Velvet Underground - Loaded (album art)

At some point, he dropped the needle on the Velvet Underground’s final album Loaded. This was a remarkable choice because it not only very appropriately described our state of mind at the time, but for me, it was like finding the missing piece to a puzzle I hadn’t realized was incomplete. Immediately, and I mean within the first few notes of the album, my mind was blown and my musical life was changed forever. We must have played the album four times straight without really talking — just lying there letting each precious word and guitar line wash over us.

It was the epic, rambling closing track “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” that got under my skin, where it has remained for 25 years. In some ways, that song was the bridge between the distant first wave of modern rock bands (that wouldn’t occur until a decade after Loaded was released) and the music that we now call “classic rock.” What the Beatles did for pop music, Dylan for folk, and the Stones for rock and roll, the Velvet Underground did for what would become “independent music.” I knew it had to come from somewhere, but I never knew where.

“Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” rides on a smooth, patient guitar line and rock-steady drum line, slowly building into a celebration of the destitute New York characters about whom Lou Reed is singing. The chorus is beautifully echoed by backup singers who lift the song from what would otherwise be a mildly depressing tale to something almost optimistic. It is magic every time I hear it.

Now I understand much more clearly what Lou Reed was going for: it’s a song about reinvention, set in the bleakness of a New York frozen in time. I lived there once, too, and loved that same beautiful grit. Like The Catcher in the Rye, Harold and Maude, and a handful of other exquisite works of modern art that changed my life in immeasurable ways, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” set me on a very different course. I can’t imagine who I’d be without it. Great songs take you back to moments you can otherwise not access. To this day, I remember that night and the friendship forged over a love of music.


Excerpted from Song Stories: Music That Shaped Our Identities and Changed Our Lives by Kyle Bylin. Available now in both hardcover and e-book from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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Top Image by Ted Van Pelt via Flickr / CC BY

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