Soundtrack of my Life: “The Ballad of El Goodo” by Big Star/ “Mona With the Children” by Doug Cameron; or The Search for the Absolute Favourite


I get asked time and time again about what my actual all-time favourite song is. This is an impossible question- the answer changes every hour, depending on mood, what I’m listening to, what I’m tired of, what I can remember from day-to-day, who I’m talking to. “In The Midnight Hour”. “Find The River”. “Dancing Queen”. “Seven Seas of Rhye”. “See Emily Play”. “Like A Prayer”. “Ave Maria”. “Strangers”.  “Bastards of Young”. “(White Man At the) Hammersmith Palais”. “A Song From Under the Floorboards”. “Dance to The Music”. “Suspicious Minds”. “Golden Slumbers”. All these songs have been, at one point, an answer to that question. So have many, many, many more.

So in sitting down and trying to figure out what may be my true answer, I have had to dig deep. My love for the Kinks is all-consuming at times- “Strangers” is an obvious choice, but is it really a song I turn to in time of comfort? Does it speak to the base of my soul? What about “Life on Mars?”, which is still my favourite Bowie song ever. I identify with the song from the get go- I was the girl with the mousey hair, dammmit. But is it a song I need to listen to day in, day out? In my head I am still going to grow up and marry Joe Strummer, a man who has been dead for thirteen years, was married to someone else when he was alive, was twenty five years my senior, and of course I had never met him. But the Clash are my favourite band after the Kinks and I have used hammersmithpalais online for years as an email address. I used to use Palais for anonymity and still do on many sites. “Ave Maria” is simply the most gorgeous song ever written. But does my ability to acknowledge the beauty of a particular song really mean it’s my favourite?

Maybe it’s something more recent. My blog’s name come from Phoenix’s “Lisztomania”- “Not easily offended, know how to let it go from a mess to the masses.” Beyonce’s “XO” is an instant love song classic. “Holocene” by Bon Iver contains my new favourite song lyric in “And at once I knew I was not magnificent”. I have a fragment of Damien Rice’s “The Blower’s Daughter” lyric tattooed on my inner left arm. (“And so it is… no love no glory, no hero in her sky”. I don’t believe in shorter stories. I believe in long ones, for that is what life is.) I am absolutely in love with CHVRCHES “Recover”, Biffy Clyro’s “Mountains”, and the Fratellis’ “Whistle for The Choir”. Maybe it’s the optimism of Amy McDonald’s “Life in A Beautiful Light”, or the dashed romantic dreams of Adele’s “Someone Like You”. Maybe it’s the plea of Sam Smith’s “Like I Can” or the despair of City And Colours’ “Sleeping Sickness”. Why on earth do people keep making good music? I can’t keep up!

I will continue to write about songs and albums I love and every time I write I will insist this particular one today is my absolute favourite of all time. But I was sitting on my bed, pondering a new project (I can’t help myself, though it does overlap with the current projects, so it’s a curious thing I’m thinking about adding to my already non-existent blogging duties). Staring at my collection of music, I realized that I did, indeed, have a favourite song. It was none of my stated favourites, though it would appear on any list I would create. It was on this list from the beginning. I wrote about other songs, ones that spoke to the woefulness of my love life, or issues that were on my mind. Others were written to boost my mood due to their joyous nature. But there was a single song that I realized that I came back to  time and again.

Music memory is a curious thing. I remember songs that even the internet seems to have forgotten about (“Mona With the Children”. Anyone? Anyone? ANYONE?) There are also massive big hits I completely forgot about until years later. Most of the 90s worked that way. With recent studies showing that we tend to stop searching for new music at the age of 33, I wonder about the ability to not stay stagnant in those memories. Of course, music, memory, and emotions are linked. Our favourite songs almost always comes from childhood- that’s why bands from the 1980s and early 1990s are mentioned so often on this list.

But my childhood featured a lot of my music listening being controlled by external forces, i.e. my parents. Certain music was verboten. My mother’s music taste was the taste of the popular, from the Beatles on through to ABBA. My father disdained pop music, had a fondness for 50s country, but more or less stayed with his Russian orchestras and their bombastic classical repertoires. Both these tastes influence my own, as does the healthy dose of Christian inspired popular and classical music that was encouraged by my parents. My father was appalled by my love of Madonna and Boy George and couldn’t comprehend the New Romantics and their billowy shirts and eyeliner. My mother really didn’t get my love for harder, darker material. Metal was forbidden. So was punk rock. It seemed smarter to not rock the boat. But I couldn’t stop myself. I loved finding new and different and I always managed to do that. I found ways to hide music that wasn’t allowed under the shiny teeny bopper pop that was grudgingly permitted. And I always had the radio.

A lot of people malign mainstream 80s radio, and rightfully so. The point was that I could listen to Top 40 and get my Duran Duran and Madonna fix, but I could also go hunting for classic rock and listen to Zeppelin. I would also find college rock and discover the new. I first heard R.E.M. that way. Sometimes I’d venture over to the station that would play jazz. That’s how I came to love Coltrane. There was also a station that took their music from the Great American Songbook. They loved Bing Crosby there, but mostly I was their for the composers- Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and so many others. The jumping from station to station was instrumental to my musical education. My piano teachers had a certain idea of what I was allowed to play. I wanted to play Elton John and Queen.

But there is also a magic in the self discovery. Growing up in Canada I had access to music that other people growing up would never have had.  Art Bergmann, Teenage Head, and the band Rough Trade mattered as much to my rebellion as the Clash and Ramones did. I developed a fondness for artists like Gowan, the Grapes of Wrath, Rusty, Spirit of the West, the Infidels, Junkhouse. But in the recesses of library music collections and thrift store/garage sales finds, away from the restricted and staid musical collection of my parents, I found magic.

The curiosity of thinking about the favourite song question has led me to an interesting place, emotionally. While thinking about childhood memory versus adult meditation, I came to the realization. The song I have thought of the most over the last thirty years is Doug Cameron’s “Mona With the Children”. Is it really my favourite song of all time? No, I don’t believe so.  The other realization was that I do think that my favourite song is the gloriously melancholic “The Ballad of El Goodo” by Big Star. That song literally feels like my soul was captured by Chris Bell and Alex Chilton five years before it even existed and left for me to find when I needed it. God, have I needed this song over my life. It’s one of the songs I listen to daily.

I have discussed my love of Big Star’s #1 Record before.  I have an affection for power pop, which leads me to make bold statements like Bandwagonesque is a better album than Nevermind and praise bands like Teenage Fanclub and the Replacements ad nauseam.  I praised the song “The Ballad of El Goodo” at the time as being one of the greatest ever written.

The song is rumoured to be Alex Chilton’s Vietnam protest song. It certainly is about being independent in the face of “unbelievable odds”. On top of being ridiculously pretty melodically, Chilton and his heartbreaking voice sing of God and faith counterbalancing external expectations. Shiny and shimmery guitars over a  strong but gentle back beat, a minor key ballad with arpeggiated chords and strums. Everything about the song is sadly beautiful.

But Big Star was not a huge part of my childhood. I came to them through my love of the Replacements and R.E.M., and solidified that love after listening to Teenage Fanclub, who could not deny their influence for a second (“Star Sign” sound like a lost #1 Record outtake).  But I didn’t own a copy of any of their records until late into my adult years, when I began collecting the music I really wanted as opposed to the music I just remembered. Remembering a song like “Mona With the Children” is all fine and good- the imagery of the music video and the theme of the song have stuck with me for thirty years (it’s about the execution of Baha’i women in Iran in 1983, and singer Doug Cameron is a member of the Baha’i faith, so its musical power is undeniable and personal. This story had no impact on me as an eight year old- I had never heard of Baha’i until I was an adult and the story of Mona was unknown to me until a few years ago, but the music video still clearly affected me deeply in spite of my ignorance of the incident, which speaks volumes for the song itself.). But for all it’s inevtable power over me, it’s not the song I would bring with me thriugh life to calm and soothe my anxious mind and troubled soul. Since I use music to medicate myself and protect my heart, I can feel for Doug Cameron and empathize greatly with the subject of his song, but it didn’t make it the earth shattering song that “The Ballad of El Goodo” was.

It may also come down to how the songs themselves have aged as well. “Mona With the Children” hasn’t aged terribly well. It’s definitely very 1980s. It’s very 1980s CANADIAN, what I remember of the CanCon music that nobody wanted to play but had no choice in playing (it’s not fair, I know, but when you have to sit through episodes of Video Hits where bad CanCon bands are played instead of the Smiths you can become quite bitter). Discovering Douglas John Cameron’s one hit wonder and the way the song ate through my brain so that I would keep searching for it for nearly thirty years is a fascinating look at how music, memory, and the internet can all work. The song would literally disappear from my life as quickly as it came in 1985. I believe I saw the video one last time on Remembrance Day 1986. I never heard it on the radio and I never really had a conversation about it. I was allowed to listen to it at the time- any song that mentioned faith seemed to get a pass from my parents (it’s how I was able to keep Cat Stevens in my life). “The Ballad of El Goodo” is richer sounding, even forty-plus years later. It doesn’t sound dated at all- in fact they have been emulated so much they sound contemporary by accident.

There is a commonality to both songs. They’re both political. Big Star’s is more abstract while Cameron’s is documentary style. Both talk of faith and trying to overcome difficult situations. Both criticize the desire for conformity as dictated by “others”. Both are a type of call to arms.  But the vagueness of Big Star’s lyrics means the song can translate well outside of any of the band’s intentions. Cameron’s song is actually more important as a prtest song and a vehicle for change and understanding becasue of it’s directness. It had me searching for more information as an adult because it did make such an impression on me at eight. Protest songs about Vietnam are about a dime a dozen- people still write them. But the emotions evoked by Chilton’s vocal, with it’s ache and brokenness, are more immediate and personal to me.

It’s clear to me that somewhere along the line, after discovering the song in the wake of a troubled existence, that “The Ballad of El Goodo” and it’s defiance is the song that speaks to me the most in this world, while a song like “Mona With The Children” takes me to a time and place that is still easily recalled. It really does become a battle within my own mind. Both are close to the surface memory wise, but Cameron’s ballad runs through more of my personal history and is more the natural earworm. If memory itself constitutes a favourite song, than clearly this song would be my favourite. But the emotional pull and dedicated fondness for Big Star, and Alex Chilton in particular,  leads me to believe that childhood memory, while important in the development  of what one will possibly be drawn to as an adult, reaching peak maturity musically at 33, does not necessarily mean that your favorite all-time song is rooted in those memories. The emotional gratification I get from “the Ballad of El Goodo” means more than the universe to me. And that’s why I firmly believe that it’s my favourite song of all time.

“My guns, they are ready to be stuck by. And at my side is God.” Alex just got me. And that’s all I ever really wanted out of life. To be accepted and understood.

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