A few days ago, on recommendation of my father, whose music advice I trust blindly and without fail, I listened to these guys, and I’m playing “Black Tables” over and over again on my computer this morning (morning in terms of proximity to sleep only, I hasten to add–I’m officially on vacation, and it’s actually past noon now). It occurs to me as I sit here that nearly every artist or band that I have had a lasting and meaningful auditory relationship with was introduced to me by one or both of my parents.
A huge part of my writing (and, indeed, thought) process involves moments like this: a repetitive soundtrack, a window, a seasonal spark of inspiration. Music sets my mood; or my mood sets the music. I can never decide which. I have an uneasy relationship with music; tender on the one hand, fraught with pitfalls on the other. Like most things, it’s a relationship which didn’t become complicated until my teenage years. My memories of music prior to my 14th birthday are simple and, to a certain extent, poignant (in a distinctly generational sense–I doubt anyone who isn’t my age could consider Michael Jackson “poignant”): listening over and over again to the Free Willy soundtrack in the living room of our Laguna Beach mobile home (yes, really, like the TV show, and yes, really, a mobile home) as a 5-year-old. Bouncing up and down in my seat as we rumbled through the deserts and mountains of Utah in the Volkswagon bus, Mozart (played by the orchestra at St. Martin in the Fields, a poetic name that I liked even then) blaring. Developing a fierce love for the Counting Crows a few years later, trying to play “Sullivan Street” on my keyboard, writing the lyrics as I heard them (for some months I believed that the song “Rain King” was actually “Rain Gauge,” which didn’t strike me as at all odd). Playing a Hootie and the Blowfish tape in my dad’s silver toyota 4×4 as we drove in search of planks of wood, toilet seats, faucet fittings, cabinets, bathtubs (my parents were building a house now). My mom’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” mix tape, which featured at least four versions of said song and which she listened to sometimes on the way to school, lending a morose east-coast sound to our blazing-sunshine west-coast commute.
But in high school it all became something different. I met people who would judge you based solely on what was in your portable CD player (these were the days literally just before the iPod, when we still carted around heavy nylon cases full of well-loved discs). I met a boy, who I desperately wanted to impress by my savvy (who once asked me, in dark and derogatory tones, “exactly what CDs do you own?”). After our adolescent adoration dissipated and we decided, for no good reason at all, that we would never be able to speak civilly with each other again (less than a year later we were comfortably friends), I fell into a strange and uncharacteristic punk phase, dyed my hair maroon, wore Doc Martens with fishnet stockings and a plastic studded belt. A close friend and I went to Warped Tour, which visited the seaside park in Ventura in summertime, ate french fries and joked nervously that maybe we would get closer to the mosh pit next time. In our black converse and messy eye makeup we saw Green Day at the Santa Barbara bowl and bounced up and down on each other’s feet, shrieking out the words, convinced that we were cooler by miles than anyone else we knew. Late one school night her father drove us to town so we could see a band called No Use for a Name play at a now-defunct venue called “The Living Room”; I remember being dissapointed that they didn’t play my favorite song at the time, “Why Doesn’t Anybody Like Me?”, but I bought a sweatshirt that was six sizes too big for me anyway, and duly wore it to school the next day, with my obligatory headphones and walkman.
In the secrecy of my own room, however, I was listening to things that I foolishly felt I could never share with my classmates. I sought solace in Belle and Sebastian’s album “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” which my mom had purchased on a whim after hearing them on KCRW; on the gravel pathways between classrooms I was humming “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” and before track practice I heard Stuart Murdoch’s dulcet tones reminding me stars of track and field you are beautiful people. I borrowed all of my parents’ Van Morrison albums, learned through my mom to appreciate Leonard Cohen and through my dad that the pop-punk that I so loved would be nothing without The Clash (I still remember going to the Anti-Mall in Orange County with him, stopping at the music shop to buy “The Best of the Clash” so that he could educate me).
By my third year of high school, I had an iPod (first generation, a birthday gift from my dad, technology still so new at the time that I was literally nervous the first time I brought it out in public at school lest my colleagues deem me hopelessly geeky–ah, the glorious irony) and an infinately more refined taste in artists and songs. I was still plauged by the people who, now, would judge you based on your playlists, but now I wore a Belle & Sebastian t-shirt every other day and at least my hair (after a brief period of being black) was back to its normal dark brown colour. I would grow increasingly confident about my own ability to make musical choices ever after, apart from a period in college during which a boyfriend continually told me that the artists I liked were invariably “whiny” and during which, therefore, I decided that in addition to my usual litany of favorite artists, I also liked 50 cent, Dispatch, and, confusingly, Ashlee Simpson (that was not a proud moment in my personal history).
I know they say that smell is one of the most evocative senses, but I also have a memory that’s littered with song. Standing high above a lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains, watching the cold black surface as someone sang Coldplay’s “Spies” in eerie tones; a summer spent playing the same Death Cab for Cutie album over and over again as I wrote hundreds of pages of incomprehensible notes about a monthlong tour of four Greek isles; playing Rilo Kiley’s “The Execution of All Things” as I drove away from a hotel on my first morning as a high school graduate. If I play Paolo Nutini’s “New Shoes” I can still see the Man’s bookshop, now shut and empty, where I spent hours circling him, listening to the books and smelling coffee and stealing kisses in between customers.
(I like to close my eyes sometimes and feel bits of my own life come to the surface in response to a few notes.)