The Anthems of our Lives
“YOU, YOU GOT WHAT I NEEEEEEEED. BUT YOU SAY HE’S JUST A FRIEND, AND YOU SAY HE’S JUST A FRIEND, OOOOOOOOOH BABY YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!”
The first time I heard these words, they were bellowed at top volume by a locker room filled with awkward 14 year old boys, their voices changing, while changing after gym class. I didn’t understand the context but I quickly educated myself. I may not have connected with them over much, but I had access to the same cable television portal as all these other suburban boys to the world of early 90s rap music.
The man behind this boisterous refrain was Biz Markie, part relentless innovator, part clown prince, all legend. After learning about Biz Markie, I went on to learn about and learn to love acts ranging from Public Enemy to De La Soul. And I was also linked to “Just a Friend” forever. Any time that song came on anywhere, from a lonely road trip to a crowded bar, I couldn’t help but belt out those lyrics at the top of my lungs in my best baritone. Over the last 30 plus years, it has become an anthem of my life.
Biz Markie’s death this week made me think about the meaning of the musical anthem. An anthem tells a story and inspires listeners and its build to the crescendo in its refrain. When the song reaches that refrain, an explosion occurs- there is no stopping yourself from belting it out at the top of your lungs.
These anthems end up telling the stories of our lives. They accumulate over time. The final episode of “The Sopranos” brought “Don’t Stop Believin” back into the canon, and now the Journey hit is once again a regular at wedding parties and just before last call at beach bars. It’s often paired with its spiritual sibling, “Livin on a Prayer,” another tale of a down on his luck working class narrator choosing to believe rather than to give up. I can picture all the times I’ve stood in a circle with friends- whether undergrad, grad school, law school, or law firm- and screamed that “WE’RE HALFWAY THERE,” never quite sure if we were, but living on that prayer in the moment.
Some anthems become directly associated with one moment in time. For me, “Come Sail Away” will always bring to mind driving over the Margate Bridge spanning the Intracoastal Waterway on a beautiful, sunny summer afternoon. Bruce Springsteen’s cover of “Trapped” will always remind me of the fortysomething men who sung it at the top of their lungs at the dearly departed Maloney’s, lamenting any absence of choice in their lives. When did I wake up and become those guys?
Anthems are of course the soundtrack of sports. When the Yankees won their first championship of my sentient life, one of the greatest old school anthems of all time, “New York, New York” blared on the television as I called my father from the pay phone at the Tombs to share the moment with him. Then, with the song still playing, I rushed back to the stools to give Gerard a hug to commemorate our shared journey that October. Similarly, hockey’s “Rock and Roll Part 2,” which has understandably fallen out of favor, nonetheless captures my own NHL craze in the early 90s. I remember singing “We Are the Champions” at the top of my lungs on my way back to the dorm after our intramural softball championship (to poor Doug’s chagrin as he tried to prepare quietly for his Japanese quiz.) And sometimes you create your own anthem- after the Hoyas run of crushing losses in the NCCA tournament during the late JT3 years, I began playing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” to psych myself up before games. (“We’re Wright, We’re Free, we’ll fight, you’ll see.” It really should have worked.)
Of course, concerts are the purest place to experience or learn an anthem. Many view Springsteen as the epitome of the anthem rocker. There is nothing quite like hearing a football stadium full of Bruce fans. chant “Ohhhh ohhhh ohhh ohhh” in unison as they build toward the refrain of “Badlands.” Wanting to hear an anthem live can be the entire reason for buying concert tickets. My cousin Mark and I will get to live “Paradise City” (even if Mike’s Weird Al-esque parody “Pentagon City” is even better) and “Sweet Child of Mine” just as Guns N Roses intended in just a couple of weeks.
The heralded king of the anthem also doesn’t mind messing with his anthem-loving fans, however. Bruce throws a time bomb into the refrain of his deeply anthemic “Glory Days.” You stand there, maybe at a wedding, maybe in a crowded bar, or perhaps at a baseball game, singing those words at the top of your lungs:
“Glory Days, well they’ll pass you by
Glory Days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye
Glory Days, Glory Days.”
One day you’re singing the first two words as an immediate affirmation- almost a Stan Gable-esque frat boy boast of those present tense glory days. The picture in your mind as the song plays if of all your friends gathered together, because you were always good at bringing people together. Then you look back at those moments from a decade or two ago, and everything has changed from that picture. Some of those friends gathered around you are gone too soon, others have drifted out of your life for good or bad reasons.
But there are those that remain. The friends that heard you sing it during college at the Tombs, or at the Big Hunt after Capitol Hill softball, or Maloney’s, or the Irish Channel after a Hoyas game. Our anthems snowball along with our memories. And we know that those who continue to share those glory days are steadfast, empathetic, caring, and loyal. You start singing the song surrounded by the memories of 15 or 20 friends. Through tragedy, drifting apart, or just the challenges of life, you’re lucky if a handful remain to sing with you forever. But that’s all you need to hit those notes perfectly.
They are… “Just a Friend.”