Everybody has that one song — that one song that immediately takes you back to a time, a place, a friend, a poignant memory. Now, try to imagine your life as told by a whole series of such important songs. That’s exactly what St. Louisan Dave Holmes, the runner-up in MTV’s inaugural “Wanna Be a VJ” contest in 1998, has done.
Holmes worked as an MTV host for years after that formative experience and now serves as Esquire magazine’s L.A.-based “writer-at-large.” A graduate of Saint Louis’ Priory School, Holmes recently wrote the book “Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs.”
In the book, Holmes delves into his misfit childhood in St. Louis, where he grappled with his sexuality while growing up. Since that time, Holmes has also worked as a host for Bravo, FX, contributed to a video project called “It Gets Better” and said he is currently working on a television adaptation of the early chapters of his book.
“Sometimes the song moves the action forward, sometimes it is just the title of the song that illuminates the theme of the chapter,” Holmes said. “I felt like making a mixtape and I turned into something more.”
On July 11, before an audience in St. Louis Public Radio’s Community Room, St. Louis on the Air contributor Steve Potter, in partnership with Left Bank Books, discussed Holmes’ memoir accompanied by some of the songs Holmes wrote about in his book.
Listen to the show here:
Here are four songs and the reasons they had a profound impact on Holmes’ life:
1) “Silly Love Songs” by Wings
“This is one of the first songs I ever remember hearing on WABC in New York in the family station wagon in New York when the family lived in New Jersey,” Holmes said. “Wings I actually knew before the Beatles, because I’m in that generation where I was born right as the Beatles were ending and Wings was starting. I remember when this song would come on, everyone would sing along with it. My brothers were so much older than I was and this was the only thing we could do together, with my family.”
2) “Closer To Fine” by Indigo Girls
“The summer before my senior year, 1993, I was campus social chair because I like to plan parties and book bands,” Holmes said. “As I say in the book, I was furiously sublimating my need for intimacy. There was a student government conference that campus leaders from all over country came to.”
As one of those campus leaders, Holmes went to Atlanta, where the conference was held, and was surprised to find it was titled “Diversity isn’t that special,” which referenced an outdated Saturday Night Live sketch.
When he arrived at the conference, Holmes was immediately asked to go sit on the floor with other blue-eyed people. Brown-eyed people were given seats at fancy tables and served steak. His group, on the floor, was served cheese crackers with peanut butter in between. He was a part of Jane Elliot’s history “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes” exercise, which teaches about prejudice.
“So, I make a couple of friends,” Holmes said. “We go through this three-day terrible conference. We go to the local Applebee’s to drink away our frustration and I go into this rant about how I’m in a stage where I need help. Like, if you want to talk about diversity, talk to me, ask me questions. If you’ve been through it, tell me what to do. I was drinking, really rolling and I was like ‘I just want someone who has been through it, to tell me what to do.’ As I say that out loud, in walk the Indigo Girls, who, for those who don’t know, are this legendary lesbian folk duo.
“It was as though they had seen a gay distress signal in the Atlanta skies and came to advise me. I talked to one of them and they helped and they were people who had been through it and they helped me do it.”
To top the story off, the night before “Party of One” was released, it turned out that the Indigo Girls were playing for free in Central Park, near where Holmes was staying.
“They always know exactly where to be,” Holmes said. “They have got my back at all times.”
3) “I Want It That Way” by Backstreet Boys
“This to me was like, when I got to MTV, three months into my tenure, everything dropped ten years,” Holmes. “Everything had been rock music and alternative music and the Backstreet Boys happened, NSYNC happened, Britney Spears happened, and Christina Aguilera happened. All of these teenage popstars who were in the Mickey Mouse Club and were now 16 and ready to wear a crop-top or whatever … the kids ate it up. The median age of our viewer dropped dramatically and it became a network for adolescents.
“At first it wasn’t my favorite kind of music but a couple of things happened. First, it is undeniably great pop music. It is all Swedish songwriters who work in a label with goggles and lab coats and make perfect pop music. And second, I would see little-by-little, more and more people would come and look in our studio. They would stand in the middle of Broadway and look to see where the Backstreet Boys might have passed through.
“… to be a part of that thing, when a kid is so close to their idol, and they’re 13 and the best music in the world is coming out. That’s incredibly exciting. Even if it wasn’t your favorite music, and it would inevitably become your favorite music, you’d still love it because it had such importance for our viewers.”
4) “Constructive Summer” by The Hold Steady
“The Hold Steady is my current favorite band,” Holmes said. “What is super exciting about it is that they’re all my age — all guys in their mid-forties and they didn’t even start the band until their mid-thirties. They were all in different bands and had regular lives. And then September 11 happened. You tend to re-evaluate your life after something like that happens. Called a bunch of friends and said ‘let’s be in a band. Who cares if we’re 35?’ They found this magical formula. It is a very much Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band-style bar band.
“I find them inspiring. Their lyrics draw on Catholicism and pop culture of the ’70s and ‘80s. All of the same weird doubts and hopes and everything I have.”
What songs have defined your life? Let us know in the comments below.
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