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When I Think of Heaven

I met my then-future wife in college. Our first date was on December 17, 1996, and just a few days afterward, we each went home for Christmas, her to Hot Springs, Arkansas and me to Orlando. We were a time zone away from each other, and cell phones were yet to be a thing. I knew I’d be talking to her sparingly, and I also knew I was deeply smitten. It’s a hard place to be—young, in new love, and a thousand miles apart.

Just a few months prior, Counting Crows had released their sophomore record, Recovering the Satellites. Just like everyone else, I’d been a fan of August and Everything After, an all-time great debut, and I’d made sure to pick up Recovering the day it came out. By the time December came around, I knew every word to every song, and as I rode home to Orlando for that season, with Jeffery Verlander manning the driver’s seat, the songs manifested in a new way. I remember how Jeff drove through the night and the rain, and I sat in the passenger seat with a pen and paper and wrote a poem to Janna. I couldn’t see what I was writing, so the words were scattered around the pages, but I could read them well enough to type them up later. I was an English major and I knew my way around poetic form, but at that moment, it wasn’t Shakespeare or Petrarch that flowed through my pen—it was Adam Duritz. I wrote that poem to the rhythm of Counting Crows’ “Mercury,” a song that includes the lines, “She’s entwined in me/ Crazy as can be/ Yeah, but she’s alright with me.” My version included lines like these (if you know “Mercury,” you can sing this to the tune):

She is walking through the grass with me Shooting stars that only she can see On an acre filled with massive trees I sit there while she counts the leaves I watch her patiently She’s kissing every leaf She is completing me

Janna and I wrote letters to each other from our respective homes that December, and when we reunited at college in the new year, it felt like it had been years, not only a month. From then on, we knew our song would always be a Counting Crows song. Not “Mercury,” although we loved it, but “A Long December,” which is a song Duritz wrote about visiting a friend in the hospital over a particularly hard season. Did the lyrics actually fit what we’d experienced over that month? Of course not. But did we mean it in our own way when we sang “A long December, and there’s reason to believe/ Maybe this year will be better than the last”? Absolutely we did. And did I think of her every time I heard Adam sing, “All at once you look across a crowded room/ To see the way that light attaches to a girl”? You bet I did. You bet I still do.

The first words on Counting Crows’ live album, Across a Wire, are these, “Please welcome my favorite band, Counting Crows.” I don’t know who says them. The set comes from VH1 Storytellers, so I imagine it’s someone that worked there, but I don’t know. What I do know is that I agree with the sentiment. Counting Crows is my favorite band, too.

I used to think I knew what it meant to have a favorite band. I thought it meant you loved every note, every song (even the hidden tracks), and every album. It meant you knew every iteration of the band on every record. But the older I get, I’m finding that’s not it at all. Sure, you’ll know those things. But having a favorite band is like having a spouse. Love develops around the particulars of your life, especially the difficulties. Having a favorite band is understanding that the new-love phase is well behind you, and the relationship you have now is so much deeper than it ever was when love and lust were young—when you still wrote love poems out of the loneliness of your heart. Having a favorite band is like having a lover—you never tire of finding new nooks and crannies to explore.

I’m in my forties now, and everything isn’t out in front of me like it was back in those college days. I’ve changed, grown up, and made more mistakes than I’d like to admit, and the Crows have grown up along with me. All the phases of my life since high school have been paired with a new Crows record: high school with August and Everything After, college with Recovering the Satellites, newly married and aimless with This Desert Life, the beginnings of fatherhood with Hard Candy, a new city and a new career with Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, being a parent of teenagers with Underwater Sunshine, and launching kids into the world with Somewhere Under Wonderland. Having a favorite band is knowing that, while they don’t know me at all, their songs do.

Of course, I don’t like them all. There are songs I once loved, but can’t tolerate any more, like “I Wish I Was a Girl.” There are songs I can’t listen to anymore because of what they dredge up inside of me, like “1492.” Certain songs and I have reached detente—I don’t bother them and they steer clear of me, like “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago.” Some of them challenge me to love people I don’t even want to like (“Palisades Park” is especially hard). There are songs that infuriate me with their hardheadedness, and there are songs that never fail to bring tears—I usually skip both types.

But, oh, there are the other songs, too. Songs that well up inside me like fire, like “Rain King.” Songs that make remember longing and devotion, like “Sullivan Street.” Some songs, like “Miami,” are for driving late at night with the windows rolled down. There are songs that soothe my troubled spirit, like “Black and Blue.” There are songs that conjure the best of times, like “Mr. Jones.” I’ll never tire of “gray is my favorite color/ I felt so symbolic yesterday/ If I knew Picasso/ I would buy myself a gray guitar and play.” And there are songs that make me relive especially hard times, but in that most self-deprecating, delicious, kind of way, like “Possibility Days.”

Having a favorite band is learning to take the delightful with the somber, the effortless with the arduous, and the joyous with the melancholy. All of this makes me sound painfully old, I imagine, but that goes with the territory. If having a favorite band is like being married, then the appreciation only deepens the older you get.

In the old days, Janna and I used to drive around small towns in Arkansas in my red Jeep with the top down, singing at the tops of our lungs to “Daylight Fading” or “Have You Seen Me Lately?” Now, my kids beg for me to put Somewhere Under Wonderland in the car’s CD player so they can belt out “Elvis Went to Hollywood” or “Scarecrow.” I sure hope they find a favorite band of their own someday, but if not, the Crows will always be there for them, just like they were for me.

With that said…. ladies and gentlemen, please welcome…my favorite band, Counting Crows.


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