We’ve had an ongoing feature here on Pencilstorm with the contributors sharing albums that changed their lives. When I sat down to work on this assignment, it became quickly apparent to me that I had a short list. I listen to a lot of music… different genres, artists, decades… you name it, I’ve listened to it. But here we’re talking about albums… WHOLE albums… that changed the direction of my life in a totally different course. That list is only five for me.
My list begins with my first rock album - Bat Out of Hell by Meatloaf. I was around 10 years old. Until this album I was stuck listening to my mom’s easy listening stuff and my dad’s classical stuff. My older brothers had not done their job, yet, to gift me the education of rock that I needed and unknowingly yearned for. One of my sisters was listening to that pop-ish REO Speedwagon, Billy Joel or (gag) Air Supply. But somehow I got my hands on my other sister’s Bat Out of Hell album. From the first power chord and the subsequent piano riff, my rock n roll innards screamed out “YES! MORE! MORE! MORE!” What I discovered from this album is that I loved my rock n roll with a heavy dose of DRAMA. It needed to be more than just a few power chords, catchy tune and clever lyrics. It needed to explode off the vinyl and hit me in a way that knocked the hell out of me. I listened to the album so much that I can still hear the skips I put in the vinyl… and I put in many. (I was 10 and did not know how to properly take care of an album. Please forgive me, Scott Carr.) What I never realized at the time is that this desire for drama would permeate into everything I do. At first it was my songwriting, then it was my other artwork - movies and books. Soon it was my personality and lifestyle. Bat Out of Hell shaped me and who I was beyond the music fan. It shaped me as a human being.
As I got older my brothers finally started my musical education, but instead of moving forward in time we kind of worked backwards. There was heavy doses of Yes, The Grateful Dead, Genesis and The Police from my brother Jim and more mainstream rock from my brother Tom, with The Eagles and Steve Miller Band. But the next album to change my life was Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen & The E. Street Band. Talk about drama. The stories in these songs were full of them. Thunder Road. Backstreets. Born To Run. Jungleland. Every track on this album is damn near perfect and I could listen to the whole album forever. But that sax solo in Jungleland. Wow. A work of art. I remember listening to that sax solo and opening up the album cover staring at The Big Man, Clarence Clemons, with that brassy tenor sax hanging from neck. I wanted to be Clarence Clemons soooo bad. Imagine that for a moment. Here I was, a skin & bones geeky white boy about 13 years old, 100 pounds wet, 4 foot 9 with plastic rimmed pop-bottle glasses, desperately wanting to be an ebony-skinned, 6 foot 5 black man. That’s what his sax solo did to me. A year later my dad bought me a Tenor Saxophone and I became a musician. One of the best things that ever happened to me.
My journey in the world of drama continued, this time with a healthy dose of art to go with it. It was my angst-filled emotional teenage years and the first album that defined my high school years was Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Yeah, I know that it was released years before I discovered it, but when I found it I was… blown.. a… way. Until I listened to this masterpiece, I never knew that rock & roll could be an artwork. This album is magical and tells the story of one person’s life through not just one disc… but two! This isn’t just a concept album, this is work of art. The Mona Lisa. The Sistine Chapel. The Vitruvian Man. Beethoven’s Fifth. The Wall. This album changed my approach to EVERYTHING. I realized art can be infused everywhere: that everything can have a deeper meaning, layers beyond layers and that humanity can be expressed in the simplest of ways… even through a rock and roll song. After this album, I tried to have even the smallest things in my life have a deeper meaning. It became a blessing and a curse.
The second album of my high school years to change my life was a contemporary album instead of one released years before. It was 1987 and I was going into my Junior year. We didn’t have a big life event to define our generation. The Sixties had Vietnam. The Seventies had Watergate and cocaine. The Eighties had nothing. We were filled with rage but had nothing to rage against. So when Guns N Roses’ Appetite For Destruction hit the airwaves it came on like a freight train you jumped on and rode with wanton abandon. This was my generation’s album. It oozed that Eighties Bravado that defined my generation - led by front man Axl Rose. Axl opened a door for me that I’m ever so grateful for. Before Axl, all the hairband singers were average and anyone with a decent singing voice could pull off covering their music. But Axl had talent, range and passion. It took a singer that could hit the high notes with a set of angry balls. Thankfully, that was me. I finally had an honored place among my own brethren because I could pull off Axl in a way no others could. I put down my saxophone and picked up a microphone. From then on I was a lead singer, fronting bands and covering stuff like Guns N Roses, Rush and Journey with the bravado of Axl Rose. Changed my life forever. Thirty years later, I still consider myself a lead singer.
Which leads me to my final album. If you’ve heard of it, I’m very grateful because it’s mine. In May of 1991, as part of Armada we released the CD Don’t Give Up The Ship. Understand this was back when independent CD releases were rare. The only other people I knew of during that time who did it was Watershed and the guys from Shock Tu. It was a big accomplishment of my life. To be in a studio, record your music, craft the tracks and then sell physical copies of your music is an experience that is just mind- blowing. Every now and then a visitor will look through my CD collection and ask, “Who’s Armada?” (I file my CDs alphabetically and it’s usually the first one they see.) I always open it up and show them the picture of me with my long hair. Sometimes they make me play something off of it. This album changed me forever. It bonded me to three other guys that are like blood brothers but it also gave me a huge sense of accomplishment. I created something special and it proved to me that I could continue to do amazing things throughout my life. Unfortunately, Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana came out the same year and if there was a sixth album that changed my life forever that would be it, but in a bad way. It ushered in the Grunge music era and by that time no one wanted the high tenor voice that was adored during the Appetite For Destruction era just four years earlier. My career as a lead singer came to a screeching halt as Eddie Vedder mumbled out “Son, she said, have I got a little story for you…” Thank God I went to film school and had a back-up career planned as a Hollywood filmmaker. (Which didn’t happen, either.)
I find it fascinating how music can change our lives forever. It’s more than a soundtrack of our lives. Music is an inspiration, a friend to lean on, a guide and support system, all in one. If anyone ever tells you they don’t need an artist, they’re lying to you. People need musicians and artists like they need air. They help us define and celebrate our humanity in ways no other professions can. The next time you’re walking down the street and a musician is playing on the corner, toss some money into their gig case and thank them. And the next time some one tells you they don’t need an artist, call bullshit.
Thanks for reading about my five albums.
Wal Ozello is a science fiction techno-thriller novelist and the author of Assignment 1989 , Revolution 1990, and Sacrifice 2086. He's the lead singer of the former Columbus rock band Armada. His film work includes directing Dad Can’t Help You Now by Colin Gawel.