"As someone who abused drugs and alcohol for most of my adult life, the thought of suicide has always been close at hand," reveals Leo Ashline, vocalist of Austin industrial-punk duo Street Sects. "'I want to die' was a silent mantra that echoed in my head on a loop, day after day, like some kind of mental and emotional balm. But just like any other vice, it did very little to make any of my real problems go away. It merely helped me to avoid them. When I finally got clean, almost seven years ago, one of the hardest lessons I had to learn was that getting sober doesn't make those thoughts go away. I still think about it all the time. The only difference is that now I have the clarity of mind to focus my attention and energy towards the one thing that makes my life feel like it's worth living. If it weren't for music I know for a fact I would have ended things a long time ago."
Below — as part of our continuing "Songs for Black Days" series, presented in partnership with Hope for the Day — the vocalist shares 10 songs that, he says, "have helped me to feel alive, present and grateful throughout the years."
In 2012, when Shaun and I began working on the first handful of demos that eventually became Street Sects, I was living in Athens, Georgia, struggling through my first year of sobriety and trying to figure out how to rebuild my life. Shaun was still back in Austin where I had left him the year before. When I was drinking and using, I had fucked over a lot of people, Shaun included. I didn't think he would ever speak to me again, let alone go back to playing music with me. I underestimated his kindness and his capacity for forgiveness.
I remember one day we were discussing the structure of some song or another via text, and we'd had a mild difference of opinion. As a joke, he sent me a YouTube link to this song. He and I used to get drunk together and listen to the Beatles, nearly a decade prior to this. I clicked on the link and before the two minutes and 18 seconds were up I had tears running down my face. Before that day I had never really heard that song as being something so emotionally resonant. Beneath the song's clever simplicity, beneath its barrage of tunefulness and cyclical hooks is a sentiment so earnest and joyous that it can cut through a bad day like a knife. It's a celebration of hope, friendship and the collaborative spirit.
I think what makes this song so special is how it's divided into three sections that musically and lyrically represent three different stages of life, and how effortlessly those sections transition into one another. The first section is a sort of youthful, drunken spree, carefree and whimsical. The second is a dark, burning, passionate proclamation … a love that's bursting at the seams. The third and final section is a bittersweet, painful but joyful memory of a love that no longer exists. This song, along with many other Roxy Music songs, has lifted me up out of depression more times than I can count. It's impossible to listen to music like this and not feel something.
I think it's impossible to pick a single all-time favorite song, but if someone put a gun to my head and forced me to pick just one, it would probably be Pink Floyd's "Dogs." Across its 17-minute run time, not a single second is wasted. Every note, every word, is perfect. This is a song I can listen to, close my eyes and feel as though I'm being transported somewhere else. The arrangements are otherworldly. In general, I've never really cared too much for guitar solos, but Gilmour's solos on this song (and there are quite a few) are fucking devastating. The synthesizer solos are nearly as powerful. And the lyrics … the lyrics to this song hit harder and truer than perhaps any other song I've ever heard. They convey a masterful understanding of human behavior and its inevitable repercussions. This song as a whole is truly an incredible piece of art. Pink Floyd are often (unfortunately) associated with drug culture, but in my opinion, music this intensely focused and intelligent is best experienced with a clear mind. It's a lot to take in.
The second track on our new record, The Kicking Mule, is called "Birch Meadows, 1991," and there is a reference to "The Dance" in the lyrics. Birch Meadows is the name of the trailer park where I grew up in upstate New York. Lyrically, it deals with the brutal divorce I watched my parents go through when I was a kid. Garth Brooks' debut album had come out a year or two earlier, and that cassette got a lot of play around the house that year.
My mom took me to Arkansas to stay with my aunt that summer, and when we got back home my dad had left all these notes taped up all over the trailer, saying things like "welcome home," "I missed you," "I'm sorry" … my mom went around and tore them all down, one by one. Later that night when my dad came home from work, my mother told him she wanted a divorce. I heard my father crying in their room, begging her to change her mind, though at the time I didn't understand. They told me together at dinner later that night. It was a shock, but I remember that the hardest part was seeing how much it hurt my father. He was sobbing uncontrollably at the dinner table, tears and snot running down his face. I remember being angry at my mother then, silently blaming her for destroying our family. Many months later, when I was visiting my father in jail, I had a different perspective. My mother had tolerated as much as she could for as long as she could, and it was more than she should have.
I don't remember when it was exactly, but one day around that time I sat and listened to that Garth Brooks tape by myself. I didn't really care for much of it, except for "The Dance." I'd probably heard that song a hundred times, but I'd never really listened to it. This time was different. This time those words shot right through me, and all of a sudden I understood my father's pain, his anger, his regret. I was still too young to have experienced heartbreak myself, but this song made me feel what my father must have been feeling, and eventually it allowed me to forgive him for the things he did. I don't listen to this song very often, but when I do, it wakes me up. There is something pure and perfect about the way it captures those core elements of love and loss, and how the razor-sharp accuracy of those feeling can be energizing in their own punishing way.
Hands down one of the greatest, most musically imaginative pop songs ever written. I've been listening to Elton John on and off since I was a kid, but it seems like the older I get, the more mercurial and fascinating much of his work becomes to me. Listening to this song is like looking through a window into the past, a past where magic is real, and people wrote and recorded music in a way that no longer seems possible. This kind of lifelike attention to detail, this alchemy of melodic ingenuity and crystaline production just doesn't exist anymore.
After my parents divorced, my mother and I moved around a lot, and I found myself in and out of a number of different schools. I had also developed an unhealthy relationship with food, something I still struggle with to this day. I ate to make myself feel better, and I had put on a good deal of weight. Being fat, and always being "the new kid" made me a target for bullies, and I got into a lot of fights. At that age, everything seems so much bigger than it really is, and everything hurts that much more. I could handle getting beat up, getting kicked out of school again and again, but the insults always stuck with me. Eventually I became the one who would always throw the first punch, and I learned how to make people think twice before disrespecting me. But those feelings never really left me, that sense of shame and embarrassment, and the automatic distrust and suspicion of others. I learned pretty early on in life that the best way to deal with most people in this world is to just stay the fuck away from them. Later on, I learned that the best way to deal with the past is to just let it go. That's what this song has always been about to me. It's an anthem about getting as far away from the past as you can, and moving forward with your life.
In the year 1998 I dropped out of high school, got a full time job and moved in with my girlfriend at the time. By the following year, the two hardcore bands I was singing for had broken up, and my girlfriend and I decided to leave south Florida behind and move up to western Massachusetts — a town called Holyoke, where she was originally from. We moved into the basement of her mother's boyfriend's house.
The house was always quiet, and he was always home, upstairs in his bed, where he was living out the last few months of his life, slowly dying from an alcohol-related illness. I didn't know anyone there in that town, so I spent most of that summer sitting down in that basement, reading and writing songs on an Ovation guitar I had bought right before leaving Florida. There was an old record player in the basement that had been there since long before we'd arrived. There were only two records, Harry Chapin's Sniper and Other Love Songs and Joni Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon. The latter was by far the better of the two. I listened to that record until I knew most of it by heart. This song is the one that has stuck with me the longest. To me, this song is about the darkness and the wonder of possibility. It's about the fear and excitement that hangs upon the precipice of an unknown future. The lyrics to the first verse, in particular, are some of the most haunting and beautiful words ever put to music.
One of the few things my father and I bonded over when I was growing up was music. He turned me on to Black Sabbath and Steely Dan at a very young age, and we both discovered R.E.M. together. We used to watch the offbeat sitcom Get a Life, and the R.E.M. song "Stand" was the theme song. A year or so after that show came out, "Losing My Religion" hit the airwaves, and my father and I both loved it. I bought him the cassette single for his birthday that year, and he kept it for many years, long after he and my mother had gotten divorced and he'd moved down to Albany [New York]. To this day it's still one of my all time favorite songs. Michael Stipe's voice is so unique and aggressively tender ... there really is no one else that sounds quite like him. The lyrics are strange and evocative, and lend themselves to variety of interpretations, making the song both universal and incredibly personal.
I got my first copy of Little Earthquakes on cassette about four or five years after it came out, when I was in my junior year of high school. I had been singing for a hardcore band called Failsafe in South Florida for the last year or so, pretty immersed in that world and its influences, and this record was basically the antithesis of that. I loved it. The way she gives physical definition to her emotions with her voice and her words, it gave me chills. It still does. I remember playing certain songs again and again, memorizing the words and singing along, doing my best to imitate every note and cadence of her voice. I'm sure I sounded horrible, but I wanted to relive those feelings the songs gave me over and over again. It was like getting high. This song, in particular, was always my favorite. The lyrics tell such a beautiful, achingly sad and timeless story, and the melody in the chorus, when she hits the word "change" ... it literally takes my breath away. It's songs like this that remind me why I gave my life to music, why I kept chasing it long after most of my musician friends had either given up or sidelined it as a hobby. It reminds me that life, when there's music, is mostly worth it.
This is the song that sealed my fate. I remember being nine years old, sitting in my room watching MTV when the music video for this song first premiered. I had never heard of Metallica before that. What I saw and what I heard blew my mind. It was the most beautiful, most horrifying, most overwhelmingly intense thing I had ever experienced. From that day forward I never wanted to be anything other than a musician. At that time I had a cassette/radio boombox in my room, and it had a little built in microphone in it. You could stick a blank tape in it and press down record and play at the same time, and it would record whatever sound it picked up. I used to wait for songs I liked to come on MTV, and then I would put the boombox up to the TV speaker and record the song into the mic and onto the tape. The quality was terrible, but it didn't bother me.
Eventually I got a recording of "One" onto a blank tape, and I listened to that motherfucker until it was worn out. I remember when I finally got a copy of …And Justice for All on cassette for Christmas later that year, I was actually kind of disappointed by the version of "One" that was on the album, because it didn't have all of the dialogue samples from "Johnny Got His Gun" that the video version had. Thirty years later, this song is still just as powerful as it ever was. Although it's a song about a limbless soldier who was horrifically crippled in combat, some of the lines speak to the incapacitating feeling of modern day depression … particularly the line "I cannot live/I cannot die/Trapped in myself/Body my holding cell." In spite of the narrator's circumstances, this has never sounded like a song of defeat, at least not to me. It's a song about fighting, even when it seems like you have nothing left to fight for.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of resources.