The Soundtrack of My Life: Dharma Days

Shortly after I left high school, in that nebulous period I best define as somewhere between “I wasn’t in college” and “I didn’t have a job” (my parents were so proud), there was a coffee house my friends and I would hang out at in the evenings. By evenings I mean usually after 9 PM, for reasons I can’t quite define except for perhaps that some of them were in fact in school or had jobs, and other than that it just seemed like a good idea at the time.

Anyway, this wasn’t some Starbucks-clone or even a tragically hip hangout where all the cool kids went (although it eventually ended up being somewhat of the latter). It was a strange oasis, a place where everyone was equally welcome (or unwelcome, considering the surliness of the staff and the regulars). Once you became known and established you were accepted as a part of… something. Not the family, because it wasn’t as closely-knit as a family, although there were some sub-groups that did become that close. Nor was it a club or a clique, because most people didn’t care that much, although some people did. In the end I guess you could say you were just accepted as part of the group, the zeitgeist that simply was the experience of being there. That’s not to say they wouldn’t still hurt you or take advantage of you (if they were the kind of people who would do that in the first place), but at least they would protect you from outsiders who would try to.

If I sound nostalgic for that time and place, it’s only because I am. I wouldn’t go back to it now if I could, because I made a lot of mistakes there, and I know better now. But to be young enough, vibrant enough,  and innocent enough to make those mistakes is something I occasionally miss. And I miss having a place I can go, have a cup of coffee, hang out with some friends, play cards, and listen to music like this.

The Cure – Disintegration: If you don’t know who the Cure are, chances are you are either over the age of 60, under the age of 20, or have lived in a cave. This is one of the defining albums of the goth movement (emo kids, pay attention, this is where you came from), and a landmark album in rock and roll history. Not only does Robert Smith have a uniquely breathy, seductive voice, but the instrumental work on the record goes far beyond anything that is traditionally thought of as “pop music”. Dark without being depressing, sexy without being explicit, this is a fantastic example of how to make subtle yet powerful music. Possibly the most famous track from the album, “Lovesong”, has been covered by such notables as 311 and Adele, as well as a host of other bands. “Pictures of You” is another famous track off this album, although I would highly recommend checking out the less well-known “Fascination Street” and my personal favorite “Lullaby”, which is probably the sexiest, most disturbing song I have ever heard.

The Pixies – Doolittle: Whenever I mention the Pixies, someone invariably brings up Surfer Rosa. Okay, I’m going to admit it upfront. I must not be much of a Pixies fan, because the truth is I thought that album sucked. It sucked the big one. Boring with a capital “OH DEAR GOD MAKE IT STOP.” Which surprised me a great deal, since my only previous exposure to the Pixies had been through the soundtrack to Pump Up the Volume, on which they had the UK Surf mix of their classic “Wave of Mutilation”, and Doolittle, the album on which that song originated. I had to get that out there, because as much as I don’t like Surfer Rosa, I do like Doolittle. It’s offbeat, quirky, it’s got a unique, almost-but-not-quite punk sound to it that I’m sure someone can define but I can’t, and it just works for me. In addition to “Wave of Mutilation” (which I really can’t recommend highly enough), my other favorite tracks off this one are “Here Comes Your Man” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven”. If you want something well out of the mainstream that still has a good strong rhythm, give this a try.

Counting Crows – August & Everything After: For a long time after this album became big, it wasn’t unusual for my friends and I to sit around playing cards and drinking coffee just about every night up at Dharma. Inevitably, this album would come on, and inevitably, one of my friends (and he knows who he is) would wail along in a caterwauling screech “ROOOOOOUND HERE!” Yes, we got looks from the other patrons, and as I recall more than once the staff asked us to shut him up. Ah, good times. To this day I can’t listen to that song without hearing his voice in my head (although if he’s in hearing distance that’s because he still does it). The truth is though that I loved this album from the very first time I heard “Mr. Jones”, and every song on the album is a winner for me. It’s sad, poignant, melancholy, and beautiful. If there’s hopefulness in this album, it’s tempered with a sense of realism that change isn’t easy and it always comes at a cost, and sometimes that cost is too high. While “Round Here”, “Rain King”, and “Murder of One” are probably the best known tracks, be sure to check out “Perfect Blue Buildings”, “Anna Begins”, and “Raining in Baltimore” if you’ve never heard them.

emmet swimming – Arlington to Boston: Although I rarely if ever heard emmet swimming played inside Dharma, it wasn’t unusual to hear them being played on someone’s car stereo outside. You could also hear them playing live from the next bar over, as they were regulars at the place next door, and I did get to see them live once at Dharma (I was just never a bar kind of guy back then). This is one of those bands that I was late to the party on, and I regret it, because had I realized at the time how great they are I would have gotten to see them a lot more. They still play live from time to time (if you’re in the DC Metro area I highly suggest checking out their website at, and I have seen them a few times in the last few years. While I can easily recommend any of their albums, this remains one of my favorites. While their big radio hit was “Arlington”, I actually feel like it may ironically be the weakest track on the album (not that it’s bad, just that there are so many great songs). Picking out favorites is tough, but My Not So Humble Wife loves “Bullet In Your Hand”, so that one’s easy. “Fake Wood Trim”, “Living Room”, and “8:45” are also not to be missed, but really, the whole record is not to be missed, so there you go.

That’s it for tonight. Time to put up the chairs and turn out the lights.

Related Posts:

The Soundtrack of My Life: Odds and Ends

The Soundtrack of My Life: An Ongoing Series

The Soundtrack of My Life: I Discover the Nineties


9 Comments on “The Soundtrack of My Life: Dharma Days”

  1. I, too, have SUCH vivid memories related to ‘August and Everything After’. And I know the kind of cafe you mean… don’t seem to see many of them around these days. Yet another reason to lament the passing of the nineties.

  2. I must be the one who should no longer ignore western music… are the one who has to listen to carnatic music (still the best in my opinion).

  3. bhuwanchand says:

    Reading about August and Everything After of Counting Crows brought back my memories of time long gone by, and the friends who are I am not in touch with anymore. I loved the album and there was a time when I used to listen to it almost every day.

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