I was recently released from prison. A harsh start to an article, I know, but that’s the way things are sometimes. But more importantly than ex-con, I’m a music guy. I listen to music, I play music, I collect music, and I love music. And like many other music lovers, I’m rather particular about what kinds of music I listen to.
I was sent to prison in Decatur County, or as we knew it, the Chain Gang. It’s in southern Georgia, so it comes as no major revelation that just about everyone there listened exclusively to Hip-Hop or Country. Unfortunately for me, those two genres are just about the only two that I don’t listen to. The forced fabrication in subject matter and style has never stricken a chord with me. They don’t speak to who I am, what I know, or my experiences growing up in Cobb County.
My parents are awesome. When I found out we could have CD players in prison, I wrote to them as soon as I could and asked for a few CDs. The CDs they sent me changed my entire perspective on day-to-day life in prison. I’ll never forget receiving that package. When I opened it up, these are the albums I found inside:
These CDs have greatly shaped my current taste in music. After I got these CDs, I spent all my free time listening to them. Whenever I wasn’t on work detail or running tattoos, I had my headphones on. I can’t tell you just how much they improved my mood and helped me keep my sanity.
I’ll go into some detail here about what work detail is. At minimum security county prison camps, like the one I was at, the inmates are given work details. That could be anything from working in the kitchen preparing and serving food, to what I did, cutting grass around the county. For the most part, I was on a detail that cut grass, trimmed bushes, and all in all kept the county government buildings looking nice.
The prison system is a very high stress environment. Testosterone levels soar and tolerance for even petty offenses is minimal. Nobody wants to be there, and everybody is crammed into small dorms with nothing to pass the time. It’s easy to push someone’s buttons, especially when you don’t know what those buttons are. Throw in another hundred men they don’t know who are also separated from their loved ones, and you can begin to imagine how tense things are at all times.
Radios are big too, for two reasons. They’re sold on the commissary and they are very cheap. Unfortunately, the only stations a radio will pick up in a concrete prison with a steel roof are stations with very strong signals. Stronger frequencies obviously cost more to transmit. The only stations that can afford such strong signals are funded by the same businesses that promote the biggest and most popular music acts. Are you following me? The only stations my bunk mate’s radio could pick up were the most generic Country, Pop, and Hip-Hop stations imaginable. As far as diversity was concerned, I was up shit creek without a paddle. It was while I sat around contemplating how long I could make it before jumping overboard that I got my two new favorite CDs. I still wonder sometimes how I managed to never burn holes in them.
If I was lonely, if I was sad, if I was angry, if I was bored, if I was high, I could put on one of those CDs and escape my environment for a few minutes. Some of the songs would take me home, some of the songs reminded me of my family, some songs would help me vent my anger, but they all took my mind outside those walls to a place that was much more tolerable. Having these CDs probably kept me out of a lot of fights, because instead of getting pissed off at somebody or arguing about nothing, I could put on Veil of Maya or Born of Osiris, and the aggressive music they write would channel my negative emotions out in a nonviolent way. When I first got to prison, I had just broken up with my girlfriend. It’s a long story that we definitely don’t need to get into, but that La Dispute CD has a couple great breakup songs on it. If I was down or angry or frustrated, I could put on that CD, let it ride, as the music went in the anger and frustration went out. It was wonderfully therapeutic. Music probably kept me out of a lot of trouble as well, because the guards that work for the Department of Corrections do not like to hear an inmate talk back to them, and I’ve been known to have a mouth on me when I’m in a mood.
The albums I listened to the most were undoubtedly Somewhere at the Bottom of the River and Animals As Leaders. They are definitely still two of my favorite albums to this day, and I have still never burned out on them. Jordan Dreyer of La Dispute is such a profound lyricist. The words are so moving, and coupled with the intense, driving music behind his vocals, they’re a huge reason La Dispute is one of my favorite groups. Since I’ve been home, I downloaded their newest album and it’s everything I expected it to be; moving, emotional, brutal, beautiful.
Animals As Leaders amaze me in another way. They are an entirely instrumental band with no vocalist. This makes them wonderful to listen to no matter what mood I may be in. The level of musicianship the guys in this band have achieved is so incredible it almost makes me want to give up playing music. No, but seriously, as far as I’m concerned, this album is the pinnacle of instrumental music. The melodies are beautifully arranged, it can make you want to cry at some points, or bang your head against the wall at others.
The day I was released, I asked my parents to listen to Animals As Leaders with me on the way home. I knew there were at least a couple of tracks that even my mom could enjoy. There are so many beautiful melodies and guitar riffs on that album, and when it was over, she asked me to replay On Impulse and The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing. I thought it was very cool that I could get my parents (who are much much older than I am) to listen to such a progressive group, and that they actually ended up liking it as well.
Obviously, being in prison is just about the most terrible thing that could happen to someone, and after being there, I wouldn’t even wish it on my worst enemy. But in every storm cloud, there is a silver lining if you choose to look for it. I found mine in music. Having familiar albums to listen to during my journey through the system helped me stay sane, and also helped me remember to enjoy the little things. Now that I am free, I have access to all the music I could ever listen to and more, but I will never forget the CDs I had while I was locked up and what they meant to me.