Oh how I wish I was in your bedroom right now and could place inside your tiny paper plate ears a pair of plastic headphones so you could close your eyes and hear what time travel sounds like at least once before you die.
Since I can’t or, let’s face it, you won’t let me no matter how nicely I ask or how sane I try to sound, I will settle for the next best thing which is to request that you click through to this link and turn the volume up as high as it will go, press play and close your eyes.
The next 27 seconds is what time travel sounds like; and the three and a half minutes after is best suited for singing out loud. No, not lip syncing, but, singing out loud. Or (this part is optional and only for the truly possessed) pretend you are slow dancing — with me, or with someone else not me, someone you won’t let put headphones into your ears even though you really want to because you think she’s a little off or a little too sorrowful or a little off.
Close your eyes. Then, cross your arms. Rest your hands on opposite shoulders. Sway back and forth. Back and forth. Until
I am not a music-while-I-work kinda girl. While writing or editing, music typically gets in my way. Instead of focusing on the project, I’ll often sing along or find my mind wandering back to a time before.
This morning, however, as I sat in front of the screen, I realized I needed music to kickstart my week and opened YouTube whose imaginary panel of advisors recommended a few playlists to me based on my previous choices; but all were from albums I knew would distract me from the careful proofreading I was required to perform.
The last option in the row of recommended playlists was one I haven’t listened to … in almost forever: America’s Greatest Hits.
I recognized the album cover as one that used to be among my parents’ combined record collection that moved to the finished basement once they purchased a stereo with a cassette player for the living room. I remember only really discovering these records, though — Kansas, The Eagles, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Jim Croce — the summer I turned ten and went off to sleepaway camp. Music, from that summer on, became the soundtrack to my memories. Music became longing.
That summer, now that I think about it, was also when I first discovered my own taste for music. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate music before — some of my earliest memories are singing harmonies in the backseat of my father’s car with my brother. But what I remember about discovering the record collection is understanding that music is not just words and melody strung together; it’s a legacy. There was a reason why certain songs ended up sung around a campfire. There was a reason why I laid on my back on the Berber carpet in the basement while Photographs and Memories crackled over the speakers, filling me with a certain sense of sorrow.
The only title familiar to me on America’s Greatest Hits.before I pressed play was “A Horse With No Name.” But as I faced the screen to review the manuscript I was working on and as the album moved along, I found myself humming along knowingly from time to time — curious that I had stumbled upon an album that was both surprisingly and pleasantly familiar, but neutral enough to allow me to stay focused on the task at hand. (Ironic since many of the songs are, indeed, about longing.)
This music, unlike my mixed tapes which seem to always jolt me back, kept me rooted in the present, but still subtly soothed by the comforts of home. Not the home I am often drawn back to — the emotionally-charged home of Milan Kundera or Proust. Home without the overwhelming nostalgia. Without the compelling need to look back.
“We took our coffee into the living room. He stood at the stereo and asked if I had any requests. ‘Something Blue-ish,’ I said.
While he flipped through his records, he told me about the time he’d asked his daughter for requests; she was about three at the time and cranky after a nap, going down the stairs one at a time on her butt. He imitated her saying, ‘No music, Daddy.’
‘I told her we had to listen to something,’ he said. ‘And she languorously put her hair on top of her head and like a world-weary nightclub singer said, ‘Coltrane then.'”
— The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing, Melissa Banks
I’m a big believer in the magic of books, music, and people falling into your lap when you least expect them to and when you are most ready to appreciate their messages.
(For this reason, I’m about to download The Happiness Project since three people in as many days have referenced it to me.)
But just because the wisdom fortuitously appears at just the right time doesn’t mean its vessel hasn’t fallen into your lap previously … maybe even shimmied back and forth a bit; stirred almost otherworldy sensations down there. Somehow, though, you overlooked the deeper message the first time around.
What’s even more incredible is when the words of comfort or inspiration have been there all along — in your CD cabinet, let’s say — just waiting to be understood.
This is the case with my collection of Grooves compilation CDs that were a hand-me-down gift from a boyfriend’s mom in the mid-90s.
I have seven of them still. Two I’ve loved since college, but the rest mostly gathered dust buried there at the bottom of my alt/folk rock section. This past week I’ve been listening to volume five (one of the dusty ones) on my way to work and school. It’s been a week of transition, and a week in which I need to feel understood, and loved.
It’s been, as I like to say (quietly to myself), a sing-with-the-windows-down kinda week.
Here’s the playlist of volume five:
Hold Me Up – Velvet Crush
Layer By Layer – Steve Wynn
You R Loved – Victoria Williams
Tell Everybody I Know – Keb Mo
Partisan – Katell Keineg
Holding Back The River – Luka Bloom
Who’s So Scared – Disappear Fear
Dreams In Motion – Felix Cavaliere
Good Times – Edie Brickell
Mockingbirds – Grant Lee Buffalo
Send Me On My Way – Rusted Root
Her Man Leaves Town – Rebecca Pidgeon
Two Lovers Stop – Freedy Johnston
You And Eye – David Byrne
Oye Isabel – Iguanas
And If Venice Is Sinking – Spirit Of The West
Century Plant – Victoria Williams
I’ve had this CD in my possession for two decades (the copyright says 1994 on the disk jacket), but I’m only now finding meaning in the messages.
This is what good music does to a soul: Seeks it out and seeps in deep just when the spirit craves it most.
And the songs, just as they were advertised at the time, are fresh. juicy. like new.
Gifts …even in the form of hand-me-down compilations CDs … have legs, I guess. And can walk a long, long distance in order to deliver a much-needed message.
In one of my cardboard boxes, I found a folder with some work samples from my time as a book club manager at Scholastic.
While rifling through the R.L. Stine Goosebumps newsletters and colorful seasonal book catalogs I used to edit, a typed out note on white paper fluttered through the air and landed on the floor. It took me only seconds to realize what it was: a note from my former co-worker, Nelson, a kind man, the production manager of the creative team.
The words gracing the page were in Spanish, and though I hadn’t thought of them or heard them in years, I knew they were the lyrics of a song.
Nuestro tema esta …
Cantado con arena, espuma y aves del amanecer.
I rushed to the computer. Standing in front of the monitor, I typed in YouTube, then the words:
The song appeared in the search bar. I held my breath.
You know the kind of breath holding I mean?
When you know you’re about to get the wind knocked out of you … but in a good way?
I pressed play and waited to get the wind knocked out of me.
And, as I could have predicted, I was overcome … a wave rolled over me.
I closed my eyes. And smiled.
* * *
The song, by Cuban musician Silvio Rodriguez, was on a mixed tape someone made me. Smitten by Rodriguez’s voice and guitar, I brought the tape into work and asked Nelson, a native Spanish speaker, to listen and transcribe the lyrics for me. (This was back before there was “lyricsfreak” and other easily available websites.) Even though my high school Spanish was rough, when I got the words from him, I immediately understood enough of the sentiment, and some of the imagery to know for certain it was a love song. A metaphor. A painting in words. Pure poetry.
” …besos a las seis de la manana”
Best of all, with the words in hand, I could sing along to the achingly beautiful voice.
Which is what I did for weeks and weeks and weeks until I eventually lost interest … and track of the song.
* * *
“Nuestro tema esta… Nos cuesta tanto
Que ya es un sueo y una cancion.”
Back in the present, I hummed along, thankful for the easy access of YouTube (and wishing I had never given away my Yellow Sony Walkman…who would’ve guessed?)
I only became aware of my breath again when the song was finished. I had apparently let it out at some point. My chest was relaxed; my shoulders loosened. My soul lighter. The wave had passed over me and back out to shore.
For this is what “Nuestro Tema” always did for me. Let me believe I could let go of some of the weight of the beauty and agony of this world, knowing that others were bearing it for me.
I couldn’t have told you all that then, though. That stuff about the beauty and the agony. About carrying the weight of it all on my shoulders.
I didn’t understand it then. The weight of all that beauty … that agony. The ability to let it go when we listen to music or allow our hearts to swell with someone else’s description of it.
All I knew is that I loved the song so much I had to know the words.
If I had nothing else to do in my life right now — no full-time job, no school, no household chores, no parenting, no community commitments — I might decide to drop everything and pursue a journalistic investigation of music and memory.
Truth is, I am doing this already on a very personal level. For those of you who follow the blog, you might have already sensed my budding fascination in some of my recent posts (Check out “Both Sides,” Don’t You Remember You Told Me You Loved Me,” and “Seeking the Language of Music“). These snippets appear in large part due to a long form piece I am in the early stages of writing that explores how music shapes a person, and how a person, often unknowingly, shapes her Self under the spell of music. It’s about how embedded music is in our memory, how memory sticks because of its attachment to music, and how, we can or do use music to maintain memories we deem integral to our sense of Self.
But what about the memories that don’t stick? The ones we let sink down into the darkened depths of forgetfulness? Either on purpose, because they are too painful? Or accidentally, because we think we no longer have use for them?
I am finding that all it takes is a journey … an intentional journey of remembering … for those memories to ascend on their own from the deep. We have a drawer, I’m realizing, we didn’t know we had access to. It’s our subconscious — And we can open it and take out what we need if and when we need it. Of course, there are times a memory surfaces before we realize its usefulness. And then it’s up to us to make the connection.
One such memory levitated to the surface of my consciousness yesterday, seemingly from nowhere (though I am starting to understand that nothing surfaces from nowhere.) It happened like this:
<A few haunting notes tap tap tap on my brain>
<Paying closer attention now>
Are those train horns?
<Even closer attention>
It’s certainly familiar…
Wait, is it this?
No… no, not quite that. Something similar, though.
Wait a minute.
Oh my God.
<Startled look on my face>
<Heart skips a beat>
<Can’t catch my breath>
I haven’t thought about that in years.
And it all comes flooding back.
The memory — the very visceral experience, actually — that I hadn’t recalled in oh so many years was that of listening over and over again on my Walkman freshman year of college to a love song. In particular, “Love Song for a Vampire,” performed by Annie Lennox off the soundtrack of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (a film I have never even seen …surprisingly.)
The introduction of the song, indeed, sounds like train horns. And maybe that’s all it took yesterday, as I rode the train from Binyamina to Tel Aviv, for a memory to stir, to shoot up like a bubble waiting to be uncorked. All it took was the sound a horn makes.
I searched for the song on my smartphone, but couldn’t get to it due to a bad connection. So I obsessed a little all day long until I could return to the computer. In the meantime, because I had time to kill on the train, I pondered.
Why? I thought. What purpose does this memory serve now? Why do I need it? How does it apply?
I still don’t know the answer. It’s on the tip of my tongue, just like the song was yesterday, and while I don’t see the purpose yet, I know this memory will be a valuable one in my writing. This piece (this book, this short story, whatever it becomes) — it’s not just about music and memory. It’s not a clinical piece. It’s about me. About my own passage into middle age. About coming to peace with my past in the face of my present and in the prospect of my future. It’s about accepting myself for who I was and who I am now — acknowledging and embracing the differences.
It’s about forgiving — yourself, others, the cruel linear aspect of time.
And I think, in there, lies the key to “Love Song for a Vampire.”
The first song I can remember singing in the shower started like this:
“When I was young, I’d listen to the radio,
waiting for my favorite songs
When they’d play I’d sing along.
It’d make me smile.”
Do you know this song?
Do you hear the tune in your head?
Are you singing along with me?
If yes, you’re already in on the joke.
If not, play along for a few minutes. Humor me.
The song continues:
“Lookin’ back on how it was in years gone by
And the good times that I had
Makes today seem rather sad, so much has changed.
It was songs of love that I would sing to then
And I’d memorize each word
Those old melodies still sound so good to me
As they melt the years away…”
I was five then. I know only because I remember the blue paint on the walls of my parents bathroom and my reflection in the mirror that spanned the length of the vanity. I was beveled, like the glass of the shower door.
I was Karen Carpenter in that mirror. Singing my little heart out. Singing about the kind of pain I wouldn’t know until many years later — the simple heartache that is a result of nothing too tragic, just the passing of time.
Soon after those singing in the shower days, I’d lose the freedom to belt out Karen Carpenter to social pressure. The Carpenters, after all, were played only in the tape deck of my mom’s car and on the easy listening channel. The Carpenters were weak … and for losers.
This changed quite suddenly when I was a senior in college. A compilation CD was released called “If I Were A Carpenter” in which alternative rock bands got together to cover the songs of the brother-sister duo. The result was stunning. Mind-blowing. Just listen to Sonic Youth’s rendition of Superstar. It’s an entirely different song. Reinterpreted, and yet, carrying the same powerful message.
“Don’t you remember you told me you loved baby?
You said you’d be coming back this way again baby…”
It’s dreamy, this version, creepy even. Not sweet and innocent. Nothing a five year old girl would sing in the shower. It’s so not Karen Carpenter, and yet, her legacy remains between the lines.
Funny, I thought, this morning. At 5, I could hear a faint bit of optimism in Karen’s vibrato, as if maybe the superstar would one day return. At 39, listening to Sonic Youth, all I hear is drawn out hopelessness and the certainty that the superstar will never “be back this way again.”
Who was right?
“Yesterday Once More,” the song I used to sing in the shower was covered on the album by a band I never heard of (and still haven’t) called Redd Kross. Their version introduced electric guitars and transforms a wistful reflection into an anthem.
Consider what happened to Karen Carpenter when her songs were covered by alt rock bands. She became relatable to an entirely different audience.
Someone whose ears would have been closed shut to her poetry, to her message when she sang it … suddenly might have opened up when her words and music were expressed by someone else. In their accent.
This made me think of my listening of others. And others’ listening of me.
How quick we are to stop listening when the voice is unfamiliar, when the song isn’t one we want to sing along to. Or when we’ve already decided the person speaking is weak, or a loser.
We’ve already shut our ears … before they even have a chance to speak. Or sing.
And what happens when someone else steps in and offers the same message, but with a different tune.
I wrote recently about this superpower I possess called synesthesia. How I see letters and words in full color. And how I am going to defeat fear once I manage to harness my power properly.
It occurred to me this morning that my superpower might be the cause of quirky compulsions I also possess like the one that prevents me from listening to the Beach Boys in December, or drives me to listen to Van Morrison when the leaves start to change color and fall from the trees (even if I’m not living in the country in which they do.)
The connection between music and emotion is a studied one that’s not unique to me, but actually quite documented in human beings. But what about music and season? For me, the music must fit the weather outside. And there are singers or albums that are just completely inappropriate in winter, or off limits when I’m driving with the top down in July.
Studies show that music is connected to color and color is connected to emotion — particularly for people with synesthesia. From there, the connection is easy. Emotion as it relates to season is a no-brainer. Lots of babies are born in August, nine months after couples snuggle up together inside supposedly to warm up from winter’s cold. I think it’s more than shelter from the cold they seek; but love and interpersonal connection that is often sacrificed in the isolation that winter brings.
Ask the average Joe or Jane which emotion is aroused when they envision summer. Most will say joy. Freedom. Fun. Ask the same person to describe the accompanying emotions to winter, Most will say introspection, introversion or sadness.
What about you? What do you say?
Having superpowers can make a girl feel lonely sometimes. Like I’m the only one whose heart hurts as fall moves towards winter. But when I get like that I cry it out to Randy Newman … whose voice and lyrics match perfectly the melancholy and nostalgia that crop up for me in fall.
Or I listen to this video — a performance of his “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do” in Berlin– and I laugh. Knowing I’m not really as alone as I think.