If you’ve enjoyed my more objective, analytical tangents thus far — about what constitutes Horribleness, or the way a lack of control can make hearing a favorite song on the radio so much more rewarding, or the way one’s expectations can color your experience and enjoyment — well, too bad for you; this one’s just a semi-truck full of subjectivity with all the brake lines cut. Especially once we get to the “childhood” bit, because you’d better believe I can’t pick just one song. Maybe picking just one song is supposed to be the point of this whole thing — given that it wasn’t originally intended as a writing prompt as much as a prompt to share a YouTube link each day. But I say again: too bad for you.
First, songs that remind me of my parents. I could try to dig into their personalities and seek out a song that described my parents as people, but honestly, that wouldn’t be a song that reminded me of them. Moreover, the songs that DO remind me of them may not be their actual favorites. Because, to be honest, I associate whole bands with them quite a bit more than any individual song, and also because I’m not exactly sure what their favorite songs are because I am A Terrible Person.
My mom is friendly to the point of social fearlessness. She’s the kind of person who’ll strike up a conversation in the grocery line with any stranger around. She always has a budget for greeting cards — for all occasions, and for everyone from relatives to former coworkers. When children are polite in public, saying “Please” and “Thank you” to cashiers or waitresses, she rewards them with golden dollar coins. If she ever gets around to looking her age, she’ll be the archetypal Nice Little Old Lady, just like her mother before her.
However, if she’d been born a few decades later, I lay odds she’d have been a big fan of The Cure.
Despite all her sunny grandmotherly ways, she loves murder mystery novels. She watches all sorts of gory police procedurals and forensics shows. The entire PBS series “Secrets of the Dead” might as well have been produced just for her. The Lost Colony of Roanoke, Terracotta Warriors, mummies whether Egyptian or bog. So, not surprisingly, that undercurrent of morbidity has extended to music as well.
She’s always been rather fond of the teen-tragedy genre of songs: Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel,” or “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers. Even if they wouldn’t be on her own Top 10 list of favorites, the fact that she likes them at all is weird enough to me that, whenever I hear them, I think of her. And then I turn them off, because those songs are total bummers.
Beyond that, I know she also likes Ricky Nelson, as well as Roy Orbison. I’m not sure exactly which of their songs are her favorites (remember: Terrible Person,) and there’s no particular song that has a clearer association than any other. Which might make them pretty crappy answers, huh! Still, I feel I’d be remiss not to include them at all.
Therefore, picked somewhat randomly, I give you Fig. 1: Ricky Nelson’s “Fools Rush In.”
And Fig. 2: Roy Orbison’s “Only The Lonely.”
My dad likes a surprising diversity of music under the general aegis of Oldies. Southern Rock, like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Alabama and CCR. Doo Wop, like The Diamonds and The Coasters. Motown, like The Temptations and Smokey Robinson. The music of Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys often remind me of him as well, if just from their focus on car culture and his own appreciation of hot rods — and his occasional teenage leadfootery.
He liked Jim Croce, too, and for some reason I have particular memories of listening to those albums. Sitting in the green-carpeted living room, perched on the arm of his orangey recliner, the green bars of the stereo equalizer hopping as, across the room, stereo speakers taller than I was thumped out the tunes. Also, as is required in the great handbook of fatherhood, my dad would pick on me upon occasion. Whenever I tried to pick back, he had a habit of reciting the chorus to “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” Even apart from that, the song just made me laugh.
So did “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” for that matter.
I guess I liked songs about bar brawls.
But my dad also likes things that, I suppose, would be considered Classic Rock now — but which, at the time, wasn’t too current, but also wasn’t an Oldie, and wasn’t yet Classic Rock, and so floated in genre limbo. Things like The Eagles, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, the Dire Straits, and Jimmy Buffett.
And this is where, as the prompt surely intended in the first place, “songs that remind me of my dad” overlaps “songs that remind me of my childhood.”
We didn’t go on vacations much when I was a kid. We’d visit the occasional relative, or spend a night at the inn of a State Park, or spend three or four nights somewhere in a neighboring state — but we’d always go by car. We’d have the radio on the local Oldies station when we started out, as it always was. But, in perhaps an hour’s time, it would begin to warble and fade, or get run through by jagged fragments of other broadcasts. Soon, the snakes of static would slither in and hiss. That, more than any terrestrial landmark, more than any mile marker, was how I knew I had crossed a threshold, how I knew I was Far From Home.
Only then was it time to put on the music. Since my father was doing the driving, his tastes also drove the album selection. So, through the years, certain bands became entrenched in my mind as road trip soundtracks. Vagabond anthems without which, somehow, the journey would be incomplete. (When I moved a thousand miles away from home a few years ago, I pointedly avoided these songs or bands. The magnitude of the move was overwhelming enough already — the symbolic finality, the acknowledgment that I was parting not just with a place but with my past, would have been more than I could handle.)
I’m not sure what Eagles album we listened to. Maybe it was a Best Of. Maybe we just listened to all of them. Some songs made me a little sad: “After The Thrill Is Gone,” “Desperado,” and “Wasted Time,” in particular. “Lyin’ Eyes,” as well. It wasn’t just sadness, though; it was always tinged with… frustration, perhaps. I was a painfully idealistic elementary school kid, already hopelessly struck with unrequited crushes. I couldn’t really relate to songs of heartbreak, of course — but it wasn’t encouraging to be reminded that, even if anyone ever did love me, they probably wouldn’t for long.
So I much preferred a few other Eagles songs — the first one or two times we heard them, anyway. “Witchy Woman” was catchy, and the harmony was interesting. “Take It Easy” was upbeat and fun, if just because I liked the hamburger-focused parody my friend and I had penned (entitled “Make It Greasy,” as if you were wondering.) I didn’t want to admit liking something so clearly country-fried as “Seven Bridges Road,” but I loved the harmony.
My favorite of the lot? “Take It To The Limit.”
It does something I love in any music: it starts simple and slow, but as it goes, more instruments fade in, more harmony comes in, the vocals become more strident, and generally builds to a peak. Roy Orbison’s music often did the same thing — “Running Scared” is a prime example — so I guess I was primed to enjoy it by both my parents.
The Dude would not abide my mentioning them in the same post as The Eagles, much less immediately after them, but for many of the same reasons, I also liked when CCR’s “Long As I Can See The Light” came on:
And, even moreso, Bob Seger’s “Like A Rock.”
But man. The Dire Straits. “Money For Nothing” was one of the albums I hoped would be played during the few hours of the trip when I wasn’t dead asleep in the backseat. I loved the guitarwork, and Mark Knopfler’s muffled but earnest vocals. However, the fact that I so often was asleep gave it some additional appeal — because, rarely but wondrously, the songs would filter into my dreams and guide them. That’s a long ramble for another time, but still I’ll share one of my favorites, “Tunnel of Love.”
But of all “dad’s music” I embraced for my own favorites as a kid, nobody surpassed Jimmy Buffett. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard — there were twinges of folk and country, but all with a carefree Caribbean flair. And I always liked how he could sing slow and sad ballads like “He Went To Paris” or “A Pirate Looks At Forty,” then play upbeat nigh-upon-novelty music like “Fruitcakes” or “Volcano.”
So, while most of my fourth-grade peers were listening to Boyz II Men or Tag Team, I was making accurate the title of “Songs You Know By Heart.” Awesomely and improbably enough, there was someone in my class who knew and enjoyed Jimmy Buffett, along with all the other Oldies and Classic Rock songs and whathaveyou that I’d been growing up with, in seeming isolation from everyone else. And, in another improbable contrast to everyone else, he deigned to acknowledge my existence, and continues to do so to this day. So, while most of elementary school is a mostly-forgotten muddle of awfulness — like a durian smoothie left out on a counter — Jimmy Buffett songs still offer, as always, an escape.
Jimmy Buffett – Cheeseburger In Paradise
I’d also stumbled across my sister’s CD of Bat Out Of Hell II at about the same timeframe, and found myself absolutely smitten. It was everything I loved — howling guitars, jangling pianos, pounding drums and choral harmonies. Semi-orchestral theatrical bombast. Hammer-down Fender-burning ivory-banging paeans not just to Love and Lust and Wasted Youth but to Mystery and Surrender. Everything Louder Than Everything Else, ingoddamndeed. And yet there were catacombs underneath, reminders of inevitable death and irreversible loss. It had a haunted, Byronic, masculine vulnerability. Yes, yes, and thriceyes. Nobody ever told Meat Loaf not to wear his heart on his sleeve. He’d nail it right to his wrist and use the run-through point as a plectrum.
Meat Loaf – Out Of The Frying Pan (And Into The Fire)
Mirabile dictu, the same Parrothead also liked Meat Loaf as well. He is a fellow who knows What’s What.
Though these songs remind me broadly of childhood, there’s another category of songs, a little more specific, that trigger even more specific memories.
For me, sound is second only to smell in its ability to make me feel nostalgia. It’s so potent that I’m not sure “nostalgia” is a strong enough term — at least, not the way we currently tend to use it. Okay, I know I promised to avoid the pedantry, but forgive the etymology: it’s from Ancient Greek, in which “nostos” meant “a homecoming” and “algia” — just as in “neuralgia” — meant “pain.” Nostalgia isn’t just a wistful reminiscence of times gone by. It’s when you want to go back in time so desperately that it hurts. When you think about your childhood or your teenage years and you feel all warm and fuzzy, that’s not nostalgia. Nostalgia is when the hands of time suckerpunch you in the solar plexus. When I hear certain songs, or smell certain smells, it doesn’t just make me think of my past. It’s more than memory. It’s an incredibly vivid sensorium, a mental time capsule of What It Felt Like To Be Me, Then. It’s like a snapshot of my entire mental state. Or like an old saved draft briefly overwriting your latest version (ahem.)
There’s a lot of music that used to give me that instant, overwhelming sensation of nostalgia, of reliving a past sense-of-self and realizing how very different it was from who I am now. But, as time has gone on, as “retro” music has returned to the mainstream, returned and been milked for these very same positive associations among the disposable-income’d twentysomething, as music has become so easy to get at any time… some of those strong associations have been defused. And diffused. They’re spread too thin between my childhood, my college years when I first heard some of them again, and my recent years when I’ve played the mp3s. Even something as often-played as Bohemian Rhapsody was once, for me, a key to parts of my childhood brain.
But there are a few that still have that near-teleporting power. Songs that take me back. What it takes me back TO isn’t usually anything eventful: mundane things like the view of my childhood room, or a view of the family room before we remodeled it, or a view of the public library desk because the song was stuck in my head at the time. The songs don’t mean anything to me, and might not even be my favorites. But they, for whatever reason, are the ones that take me back. They aren’t things I’ve tried to remember, they’re just things that had always been there, waiting silently until I found their sounds. But I can no more articulate that sense of What It Felt Like To Be Me In That Moment than I can articulate what it feels like to be me in -this- moment. So I’ll share them essentially without comment: songs that take me back to some part of my past, songs that I forgot I remembered, songs that I didn’t know I knew until I found myself singing along.
(Is it a cheap shot to use a Sesame Street song? Do I actually care?)
Sesame Street – Telephone Rock
(Another PBS kids’ show song! Because it’s awesome.)
Square One Television – Mathematics of Love
Guns ‘n’ Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine
Janet Jackson – Miss You Much
Club Noveau – Lean On Me
Billy Joel – The River of Dreams
The Cranberries – Dreams
Martin Page – In the House of Stone and Light
Moody Blues – I Know You’re Out There Somewhere
Not the most intriguing or in-depth or cohesive post — if just because I went on a severe tangent and clipped it all for future extrapolation. But there are more days to cover — and I’ve got a lazy Sunday ahead of me. Onward!