It seems every musician has a song that sparked his or her career and that’s exactly what Bob Boilen investigated in his just-released book, “Your Song Changed My Life.” The host of NPR Music’s “All Songs Considered” interviewed 35 and got a bunch of fascinating responses. Take Jimmy Page of Led Zepplin. He first picked up the guitar when he heard a kid at school playing “Rock Island Line.” He owned the Lonnie Donegan recording of the song, but he didn’t try to tackle it with the old campfire guitar that was left in his house until this boy agreed to teach him how to play. Annie Clark, the girl behind Saint Vincent, was lucky enough to have a box of CDs fall off a truck in front of her house. This got her listening to music, but it was when she saw the video for “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam that she fell in love with the band and was inspired to be a rock star like Eddie Vedder. While Boilen’s project focused on musicians, they are not the only ones who can name songs that changed everything for them. Here’s what 10 notable New Englanders told us about their special songs
David D’Alessandro, former chairman and CEO of John Hancock I was 17, sitting in an art class, and the professor was playing Judy Collins on the speaker system. First time I heard an angel’s voice. She sings “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” She sings of not having regrets about fickle friends, the storms of winter, the birds of spring, and having no fear of time. It had a profound effect on me as she sings of being a solid person regardless of abandonment and change. I had always felt that way as a boy, but the first time I had heard it expressed — and expressed so beautifully. With this mantra, I have tried to live my life personally and professionally — not always successfully, but more often than not.
Evan Turner, guard for Boston Celtics “Aftermath’’ by Joe Budden [explicit]. I like this song because it challenges you to not make excuses and overcome adversity. There’s a motivational speech from the movie “Rocky Balboa’’ that plays throughout the song that always gives me the chills. This song has definitely picked me up numerous times when I’ve been knocked down.
Jen Mergel, Beal senior curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Growing up, I hadn’t been exposed to much classical music beyond my parents’ Christmas LPs. In college I knew a physics major from Ohio who also turned out to be an amazing cellist. He invited a group from our dorm to his year-end concert. His group introduced me to Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major. I was moved beyond words; I finally felt classical music for the first time. It was both subtle and direct, cerebral and physical, encompassing doubt and joy and doom and resolution on a high-energy track of notes. It affirmed for me that engagement with art and artists can inspire us in unexpected ways. I asked my friend after the concert which recording of the piece was the best. I took his recommendation and I bought my first classical music CD the next day: Schubert’s “Quintet in C” by the Emerson String Quartet with Mstislav Rostropovich. And in playing that impassioned recording over the next few weeks, my thanks and respect for my talented friend grew. He was at a crossroads, deciding whether his future was in physics or in the cello. I too was at a crossroads: deciding whether to pursue neurobiology or visual art. Ultimately, that term I committed myself to art, and it led me on the path toward my current role as a curator at the MFA.
Stephen King, writer There was a guy on WBZ radio out of Boston that played stuff you ordinarily didn’t hear on the radio. One night, while we were coming back from the drive-in, this guy, I think it was Dick Summer on the “Nightlite” show, played “Roadrunner” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. I thought, “That’s everything I ever felt about rock ’n’ roll music, and it’s not like anything I ever heard before.” It was surreal and totally realistic at the same time, and gave me a new slant on my own writing. So here’s to “Roadrunner” and going faster miles an hour . . . with the radio on.”
Robert Pinsky, BU professor and former US poet laureate When I was a 14-year-old tenor saxophone player, Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk, Part Two’’ gave me the key to American culture and from there to culture itself, including poetry. Of course that’s not how I put it to myself. At the time, Clifford Scott’s unforgettable tenor solo thrilled me in itself and because this rhythm and blues instrumental was a hit. You heard it everywhere, and I kind of understood it. I could even, in a way, play it. For me “Honky Tonk’’ embodied, in a word I probably didn’t use for it, Art.
Sonia Chang-Diaz, state senator The Alvin Ailey version of “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham’’: I was maybe 10-ish the first time I heard it and saw the piece from “Revelations.’’ It sparked an immediate and lifelong love affair with Alvin Ailey. There’s no better American artwork than “Revelations.’’ For me, the music evokes joy and community, even in the midst of hardship. It makes you want to jump out of your seat and give thanks and celebrate life.
Jamie Bissonette, chef and co-owner of Coppa + Toro Music is a huge part of my life. From the first time I heard the Bad Brains “FVK” or Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” songs have had a serious impact on my life. But the one song that comes screaming into my mind is by a not-so-well-known band called Iceburn from Salt Lake City. They may sound like a typical hard-core band, but Gentry Densley, the guitarist, plays all kinds of music and has some classical training. On the “Firon” album they play “Take Five’’ at the end of another song and Vivaldi’s “Winter’’ and turn parts of it into a hard-core song. It made me think about training. Someone who is classically trained in music, but playing hard-core. It’s how I look at cooking, 24 years later. Learn how to cook classically, and apply it however you want.
Amanda Palmer, performance artist and musician “Flower” [explicit] by Liz Phair. I wasn’t a fanatic Liz Phair fan, but I do remember hearing “Exile in Guyville” when I was 17 and thinking: “Wait, wait . . . you’re allowed to say that in a song?” To wit, sung in a cute, disaffected voice over tinkly major chords: “Every time I see your face/ I think of things unsure unchaste/ I want to [expletive] you like a dog/ I’ll take you home and make you like it.’’ That blew open quite a few doors of possibility for me.
Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art I was inspired by “Sisters of Mercy’’ by Leonard Cohen. It came out in the late 1960s. I loved its interiority and raspiness; and in my teenage years, I felt close to his depiction of the search for wholeness. In fact, in my high school yearbook where each student had their own page to design, I reprinted the lyrics of the song in its entirety.
Seth Moulton, Massachusetts congressman Jewel’s “Foolish Games’’ was stuck in my head during one of the worst battles of the Iraq war, because it all seemed so foolish.Interviews were edited and condensed. John Paul Stapleton can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnP_Stapleton.