Recently I made what I trust is a correct decision and opted against that suicide I was planning. [Don’t worry; everything’s great now, even if everything still sucks.] I cannot possibly overstate to you one factor in my decision: I have serious reservations about the availability of popular music in the afterlife, be it as cherub or as wormfood. I would miss music too much.
This close call has led me to think a lot of grateful thoughts about how music got to be such an integral part of my life.
It always knocks me slightly off kilter to walk into someone’s place and not hear music. Why don’t they have music on? They’re just walking around their apartment in silence? Is their version of silence actually silent? They have to have voices like everyone else, right? I would kill to swap the voices in my head with the voices in their head for five minutes. How can these people walk around not wanting to have the voices in their heads silenced? Do their voices tell them things like “You’re lookin’ swell today, Greg! Keep up the good work!”? When they close their eyes do they see one of those old Successories™ posters from the 90s? Do they recite to themselves that “Footprints in the Sand” tale?
My voices say things like, “You know you’ll be first on the conveyor belt when they start up the Soylent Green factories. Let better people snack on you.” I could try to drown that out with “Footprints in the Sand,” but that story just reminds me that the middle toe on my left foot has been hurting for weeks now. I assume it will need to be amputated. That’s why I always have music on whenever I can help it. Right now it’s the “Mellow New Years” playlist and The Posies’ version of “O-o-h Child.”
As a lot of bipolar folks will tell you, our minds tend to wander. Music is a low fence that keeps me from sauntering out of the yard and into dark traffic. Eventually I get back to the task at hand.
As soon as I got a radio in my room around the age of 8 or so, it went on, and it stayed on. The only reason I ever turned it off was I was leaving the room, and I only did that grudgingly because President Ford told us to. I would lay awake at night tuning in far away AM stations, feeling an electricity whenever I tuned in a station that began not with a boring W, but with the exotic K or even the weird-tingly-feeling causing C. Even in far away Canada they listen to the same music we do. Somewhere, some other kid was listening to “Kung Fu Fighting” at the exact same time. I’ll take connection where I can get it.
To this day, it’s one of the main ways I bond with friends. Ask anyone whom I’ve cornered at a party just to debate the parameters of “Yacht Rock.” Imagine being trapped in a kitchen with me hulking over you: “Then after you solve the question of how far Yacht Rock can extend into the 80s, you have to take into consideration the question of whether any output of black R&B artists can ever be considered ‘yacht.’ It’s only then you can determine if “Yah Mo Be There” is indeed Yacht Rock.”
I know someone is a kindred spirit if, instead of saying, “Excuse me, I just need ice” or “That’s kinda racist,” their eyes widen, and they posit, “Well, it all depends how heavily you weigh Michael McDonald’s contribution.”
The music is perpetually on, filling in always-awkward silences.
I often wonder how music got this ingrained. It’s not like my parents played me Chopin in the womb. Other people have wonderful stories about their parents and music. Just the other day, I was sitting enjoying a beer with a friend discussing whether or not Bob Seger had any #1 singles when “Old Man” by Neil Young came on the jukebox after Seger’s “Turn the Page” ended. His eyes swelled and he recalled, “This album reminds me of how my mom would sit in a rocking chair, smoking a jay, and doing batik, and I would be there in my little matching rocking chair, rocking along.” This tableau would not have happened in my house. First of all, my mom never sat down. She was bipolar like me, and usually just traveled from room to room, lighting a new Winston for each room’s ashtray. And if my mom ever mentioned marijuana, I’m sure the word was spoken in hushed tones like one did with “sex” and “cancer.”
But the main reason that scenario could never happen was that it just seemed that music barely existed in my parents’ world. The LP collection in our family room consisted two Jim Nabors albums, a copy of Vaughn Meader’s First Family that I doubt had been listened to since Kennedy was shot, and a bunch of public domain Rachmaninoff from a Waldbums giveaway.
Yet, I developed the need to have music on all the time. It had to have come from somewhere. And that somewhere is 1973. More on that date later. Before that, we need to discover how the people with whom I shared a house at that time related to music. If my friend can be influenced by his batik-ing mom, surely I was influenced, too.
We can immediately eliminate on person as the source of music jones –my dad. He just didn’t do music. I have no idea what his singing-along voice was like. He listened to the radio in the car, but my dad’s car radio menu consisted of the following:
Talk radio. Yes, some of my fondest memories are sitting in traffic intentionally baiting my dad with contrarian viewpoints. To quote William James, “There is, it must be confessed, a curious fascination in hearing deep things talked about, even though neither we nor the disputants understand them.” These arguments may have helped me learn that words can do anything, but it wasn’t music.
CB radio. In the late 70s, my dad decided he needed a CB radio to monitor as he traveled between his Wendy’s stores across the Tidewater of Virginia. Apparently Smokey was quite a problem on I-64 in those days of the 55mph speed limit, even though he was always careful to set the cruise control at 64mph, one below the ticket threshold. On one family trip to Wisconsin, we had to listen to the thing the whole way because doing so would ultimately save us thirteen minutes avoiding speed traps. Every time I tried to speak on the thing, someone would inevitably come on and say, “Please get off this channel little girl. This is not a toy.”
The “Beautiful Music” station. Yes, the word “music” is here, but these stations were never about the music. The whole format was designed to torture the youth. They would take a perfectly good pop song and put it into this machine that would rip off the song’s balls. Like “Brown Sugar” by the Stones? Well now it consists of nothing but humming and “La La La”’s.
“Dad, can we listen to the CB radio?”
Side note: The “Beautiful Music” station in Norfolk, VA was WFOG. I swear their ads went like this: “I work in a FOG. I garden in a FOG. I drive in a FOG.” Myself, I write on Klonopin.
All was not bleak, as he would sometimes allow us to listen to actual music. He would ask the same question about every song: “Is that a popular song?” Yes, that’s a rational question until you realize that a good chunk of the music listening involved Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on the way to and from church on Sundays. He knew perfectly well that a song was popular. This was his version of my baiting him during his talk radio.
The less said about his stationary listening habits the better. He always seemed to have some sort of briefcase that contained a cassette machine, the kind with the three white buttons and one red one, and a complete motivational/managerial course on a couple dozen cassettes. One I remember was from Christian Management Guru Zig Ziglar. He purchased the system –and they were always a “system” –when he got mixed up with the Charismatic Catholics for a spell. Another was called something like CyberGolf that promised to improve your swing through the magic of repeated visualizations and mantras, all audio. Lastly, there was one called “You Pack Your Own Chute,” produced by this overly enthusiastic woman named Eden Ryl. I remember her name because the system came with a paperweight with her name emblazoned on it. Included, too, was also a 16mm copy of the film version of “You Pack Your Own Chute.” I remember him inviting several business-buddies over to watch it on a rented projector in our living room. I really hope he wasn’t mixed up in a multi-level marketing scheme.
I have exactly one memory from my entire life of my dad specifically saying he enjoyed a song, and that was from sometime in late ’85 or early ‘86 when we both happened to be next to a TV playing the video for Genesis’ “Illegal Alien.” “Hey look! That Phil Collins is dressed like a funny Mexican!”
By the way, the only reason my dad recognized Phil Collins was that a few months prior to seeing this video he had had an introduction to Phil Collins in an airport fancy-class departure lounge prior to flying to London. Apparently my dad saw some folks in satin Phil Collins and the Hot Tub Club tour jackets and walked confidently (those tapes paid off) to the person he assumed must be the rock star based upon height and hair length. “Hello Mr. Collins, my son saw you last month at Live Aid and said you were great.” From behind him came a voice: “Umm, I’m Phil Collins. I’m the short, bald one.”
And no, Dad, I don’t think “Illegal Alien” was ever a particularly popular song.
[Next installment: Mom likes “Sweet Caroline” while I’m partial to “Fox on the Run.”]