Yesterday, I completed the playlist for Sonic Seducer: Our Heaviest Moments, Memories, and Magic of Rock and Roll. There was no number of songs that were a target. I just knew it was going to be over 500.
Words: Sunil Singh
It was 628 songs. The fact that it is massive–and it is–is not what made me take a really long pause of disbelief. To give you some cryptic context, when I finished the playlist up until Chapter 6, which literally brings the book “half-circle”, the playlist count was 314.
Yes. 3.14 is an iconic approximation of pi. And, 6.28, is an approximation for tau, the lesser known–but actually far more useful–circle constant.
The ridiculousness of this is only amplified because I am a math educator whose previous three books have been on mathematics. Specifically, the connected theme of searching for the awe, wonder, beauty, and spirituality of mathematics.
I didn’t stray too far from that in searching for the absolute heart-crushing, mind-expanding, and soul-affirming definition of “heaviness” in rock music.
I still have several weeks of summer writing to go to finish this mammoth book, but I am confident I have written one of the most unique rock books in history. For one, I’m pretty sure I will be the first person to write “scholarly” books on mathematics and rock music.
I am 100% certain nobody will have penned books that can cite Gauss and Geezer Butler and prime numbers and stoner rock.
While the songs in the playlist are in the chronological flow of the book, I won’t give any more away as to how it pertains to the story of the book–which has a Trojan horse waiting for all readers. Some of you will be able to identify this early in the book. For most, it won’t come until the very end.
And the end of the book is what I want to share with you. I want to share exactly how the book ends. It seems odd and wholly unconventional to give away the ending to any book, but hopefully, you will understand why I am doing it. The story eclipses the book itself, which, strangely, is what I was subconsciously hoping might be able to do to Sonic Seducer.
Have a few tissues around. That’s all I can say…
We are neighbours in a modern world where proximity is relative and the threshold to our hearts moves beyond time and space.Chris Cornell
If you are my age, you know that Brian’s Song was a 1971 movie starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, which centered around the real-life friendship of Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. When I started writing this book in late 2021, I had no idea as to what the final words would look like. But, I had a desire–subconsciously at least–to share a story that was personal as fuck, giving an unsurpassable testimonial to the power of heavy music and friendship. The story, as you will read, didn’t turn out to be mine. The story, as you will read, had to begin very far away from me. In both time and space. I am humbled to know that this story is the emotional end for this book. It is a story about Brian. It is a story about his song.
Heavy music. Hopefully, I have helped illuminate that the idea of “heavy” has little to do with volume and velocity of the music. It’s just pure and simple emotion. Anything from love and lust to death and despair–and of course, anything in between. Sometimes we need thunder and lightning and howling winds. Sometimes we just need the pitter patter of raindrops on a window. Any limiting definition of heavy music makes it not as heavy. It makes it a commodity. It makes it less human. Sonic Seducer has been only heavy because of its humanity, and the stories of its barely flickering stars. Our proximity to these stories is what often defines barely. To the musicians and their fans, there’s no fuckin’ flickering. It’s scorching hot. Brian Newtons’ story burns with the intensity of a thousand suns. You just might never hear of a more amazing story. I know I never have. I just had to wait until Mar 11, 2023. Only then did a story that resonated and reverberated with all the emotions of heavy music– and living a life that mirrored the truth, passion, and courage contained within–entered my life.
Specifically, it came around the hours of 6 to 7 pm, sitting at a bar in Bakersfield, California in a crowded restaurant with one of my soulmates in this life, Zak Champagne. It was the first time we ever shared beers and had a sit-down conversation in the six years we have known each other. So, I guess I owe all of you some background as to what led to this fateful connection. It strangely doesn’t go back very far. In fact, it goes back only one day.
On the evening of Mar 10, 2022, I gave a keynote at a math conference in Central California to a full house of 500 people. The title of the talk was Mathematics is Filled With Romance and Wonder: So Why Don’t We Teach it That Way? But, the audience was in no way prepared for the direction that my keynote would head off in. I talked candidly about my daughter’s anxiety/depression she was diagnosed with in 2021. I talked about how mathematics helped me process her serious mental health issues with evenness–in spite of not comprising my deep emotional concern for her safety and wellbeing. Specifically, I referenced an article from The Guardian that came out in August 2022.
I must have gulped a few times as I talked over the slide that showed this article. If I didn’t include this in my presentation, and not veered into a place of being vulnerable, transparent, and emotionally uncomfortable, the story you have already started reading never materializes. Zak and I might have said “hello”, exchanged some lighthearted barbs, and maybe even exchanged some music stuff. But, in no way shape or form do we do a collaborative dig into the messy and unglamorous parts of life. A key point you must keep in mind during this story–even the saddest parts–was that there was this love and energy that charged our conversations. It was like the removal of shame, guilt, and failure created a field of lightness and immense possibilities.
As we walked to the restaurant, somewhat disoriented as to the actual location–feeling free and not frustrated– our conversation was a mutual unpacking of our divorces, and the trials and tribulations that ensued. It wasn’t editorialized. It was just shared, unvarnished and without cliche analysis of “woe is me”. We simply smiled to know that we all have challenging stories. Yeah, challenge us to pick up the pieces and keep ordering our eggs sunny side up.
There was little small talk. This evening was going to pack one wallop after another. In the beginning, they alternated between life and mathematics. By the time we got to the bar, finally seated with our cold beers, it became exclusively music. It was a joyful romp through any kind of music/band we could think of. One minute we were talking about Sepultura, and the very next a band called Beach House–my daughter’s favorite band. In fact, I immediately began texting my daughter that I was talking to a friend of mine who likes(so does his daughter) “your favorite band!”. No hesitation. She texted back seconds later, asking what is his favorite song/album. The connection to Zak only felt stronger now, as our daughters were connected by a band that is critical to their lives. If you haven’t heard Beach House, it’s like modern day shoe-gazer, but feeling lighter, more buoyant, and celestial even–elevator stoner rock!
Soon the topic turned to my book. Zak asked me “what’s it about?”. Normally, this question would be easier to answer, but Zak has an equally deep love for music, so I didn’t want to shortchange him with my response. The lightness of the second beer was kicking in. I talked about how seconds are so valuable in order for music to reach the deepest parts of our souls–examined or not. I brought up Wild Horses. Yup. That same examination from Chapter 4: Closer To Home. Even though the Sonic Seducer has covered a lot of ground since then, the 5 seconds it takes Jagger to muster the spot on romance of childhood is symbolic for the book’s purpose–to live fully, completely, and bravely in those fuckin’ seconds we take for granted. You will never guess what happened about ten minutes later. Wild Horses was played by the house band. And, as I just typed the previous sentence, the massive riff of Acid King’s Electro Magnetic(2023) is wreaking spiritual havoc on my ears. How bloody appropriate is that! As the night was an intense energy field that made such communion–and musical ironies–happen.
Childhood living. It’s easy to do. It’s where the soul and guts of the main arc of this story begins. Brian Newton and Zak Champagne were childhood best friends, whose bond became strengthened by a love of music. All kinds of music. It could have been hard ass shit like Sepultura, or it could have been more accessible fare like The Counting Crows.
But one band forged their friendship like no other. Pearl Jam. They had the lyrics “I’ll ride the wave where it takes me” from the song Release(1991) tattooed on their forearms. Brian had “I’ll ride the wave” on his left arm. Zak had “where it takes me” on his right arm. When they put their arms together, the powerful symbolism of those lyrics–ride whatever wave life gives you–was captured. So was the magnitude of their friendship. If you are anyways familiar with the movie I mentioned at the top, you know how this story is going to end. You also have noticed that I am speaking in the past tense. Brian Newton passed away of cancer on January 22, 2017, four years after being diagnosed. It was also the date of this daughter’s third birthday. If you have children, go hug the shit out of them right now. The few hundred words of this book that are left can wait.
A small reminder. This entire story is being told at a bar. All the intensity of the various emotions are being uncorked in a small, jubilatory space–that sublimates the gut wrenching tragedy into a universal lesson of endless love. We would discuss it a few days later in a Twitter chat, but we knew even as it was happening, it was one of the best nights of conversation that either one has ever had–in spite of the evening being eventually centered on grief and loss. There was only one balm available here. Music. It eclipsed everything. It healed everything. It celebrated everything. And that’s what those tattoos were. Celebration of life. Celebration of lives. After Brain was diagnosed, it was when it was decided to get the tattoos. But, Brian was also a Foo Fighters fan, so they both got lightning bolts on their arms. So did others. The “Lightning Squad” is now north of 50 people.
One of them is Zak’s father. It’s his only tattoo. That’s how much Brian Newton impacted people. One final, beautiful twist to this story was left.
Zak and I have mutual connections/friends in the math world. One of them is Allison Hintz. I was honored to write a review of her book, Mathematizing Children’s Literature(which she co-wrote). I immediately referenced the idea of “romance” in my review. It’s the only reason we exist, right? Love. It’s punctuating this whole book right now, which has been filled to the brim with some of the heaviest moments and memories of rock thus far–which are merely sonic expressions of love in its rawest and purest form. Allison, as it would turn out, would be a critical conduit to this story going to its highest possible plateau–Pearl Jam, the band itself.
One day Allison–an emerging music fan–asked about the tattoo on Zak’s arm. The same story I told you, is the one he told Allison. After which Allison paused and shared that her children go to school with…. Mike McCready’s children. I wouldn’t blame you if you thought I was making this whole story up. It’s so fuckin ridiculous in its connections. We’re not even done yet. The full story, as you might rightfully guess, is heading towards that geometric shape of connectedness, wholeness, and timelessness. A circle.
So naturally, Allison–whose family surfs with McCready–passes on this story to the famed Pearl Jam guitarist. More than a year later, Allison sends Zak a short video. It’s Mike McCready at his home(during the pandemic) doing a shout out to Brian, Harper(his daughter), and Zak, and proceeding to play an instrumental version of Release. It’s simple. It’s raw. It’s heartwarming. It’s a magical and organic transfer of energy from Mike McCready back to the story’s origin. That’s what stories do and always have done. They transfer energy.
When Zak and I finally had a video catch up several weeks after our magical evening, still auditing the importance of those ten thousand seconds, he commented that the story of Brian’s life reaching the very band that was inked into his soul and skin is his favorite story of all time. That a story of such profound loss has now turned into a story of such profound celebration and love, that will swirl around the friends of Brian forever.
Me sharing this story here is a small way of honoring and sharing that legacy of friendship and music. There is no other way to close this book. There is no other way to let it go. There is no other way to release it. May we live more passionately with the seconds we have with the music we love. With ourselves and with each other.
Forever and loud as fuck.