A short creative essay about music in my life.
My Life, to Music
My memory before music is fragmented and cloudy. I remember glances at objects from the low altitude of a child, bits of conversation, sounds my house made growing up, frozen images of my brother and parents sixteen years younger, but nothing cohesive. Being so young, I had no frame of reference, nothing to attach my memories to – pictures and noise, shuffled together, anchor-less moments in a confused ocean. Strangely, it's noise that finally brought things into focus for me. For my fifth birthday, my parents bought me a cassette recorder-player combo (the combination of speakers and buttons made it look like it had a smiling face) and suddenly, everything becomes chronological.
Puff the Magic Dragon gently hums while I sit on the tan carpet of my bedroom, flipping through my picture books, making up stories to go with the images, ignoring the words that I don't understand. When the early morning sun still casts itself sideways through my bedroom window, waking me through my eyelids – the lyrics from my favorite song from the Babe movie play in my head, If I had words to make a day for you, I'd sing you a morning golden and new. Smiling, I walk into the kitchen, excited for the day to come. It's three mice that sing that song. How cool is that?
A song playing in the background of any situation informs, or betrays the feelings of those listening to it. As a child, my room, and the sunny, upbeat lyrics of the children's music I listened to were in stark contrast to my older brother's room that could be found one floor beneath mine. George, like his music, was intimidating and imposing to me, nineteen to my seven, but also, intriguing. His room was often dark and full of abrasive (at least to my parents' ears) punk rock music with the occasional grunge sprinkling. It made a startling difference too, painting the room with sound in a way. Somber blues, passionate reds and calm greens pour from the speakers like a spout in differing parts.
Pink Floyd and The Beatles are my dad sitting in his music room. The room downstairs that my dad spent the majority of his at-home time in was where he housed his music collection. Lining the walls are hundreds of eight-track tapes rescued from the thrift store or posters of rock legends of the past like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. I sit on the floor and play with my Teenage Mutant Turtles and my Power Rangers while he sits on the couch listening to Time or Sargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, his own action figures depicting Gene Simmons or Jim Morrison look frozen, still in their packages. He almost never did anything else, just sit on the couch, and listen. Maybe he was using music to remember too. Whenever I hear Frankenstein by the Edgar Winter Group I'm still reminded of how cold I was in that room while we listened to the keyboard solo through his surround sound system.
Sometimes it's not a distinct memory that comes through when hearing music. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, memories get buried beneath endless minutes and hours and it is only through association that we can unearth them. Certain instruments, or combinations of instruments, may bring to mind emotions, the strongest part of a memory, the fossil left in the stone when the leaf has long since dried and crumbled.
Piano, to me, is cold, bright, and quiet – it is the winter and fall. Synthesizers are often warm and colorful – rainbows exploding into showers of fireworks. Steel drums are happy and celebratory, but more than anything, they remind me of water. These metal drums are Sebastian the crab expounding on the virtues of living Under The Sea. Steel drums are me sitting across from the Jamaican influenced drum band in the Alderwood Mall. They play in front of the giant fountain located at the heart of the mall. At regular intervals throughout their songs, the fountain interrupts, launching water into the air before it slows, reverses, and slaps a thousand times against the clear surface (blurred, there are hundreds of dollars of penny wishes visible underneath). When we moved from the house I grew up in after the summer of forth grade, I assumed that I would be able to continue to visit these musicians who were there on occasion – after all, we only moved one town away. To my dismay, change seems to come all at once and, after the remodel of the mall, they removed the fountain, and the singers.
Twelve and standing on the playground, I remember the girls in my class all huddled together on the steps leading to our field in a group of twenty, screaming the lyrics to The Thong Song. I think a thong is a type of shoe, and I have no idea who Sisqo is, so I'm perplexed when they single me out and ask if I have heard it before on my way back to class. “Umm, no,” I mutter in response, not sure of what the right answer is. They all laugh in chorus, and I continue on my way, red-faced. Due to the scandalous nature of the thong song, and the fact that none of the girls were old enough to be thinking about wearing thongs, no one knew what a thong was when the song first came out. That is, no one knew what a thong was until some jackass decided to Ask Jeeves about it. The word spread quickly and I was the last to know. I blame Sisqo, both for my embarrassment, and for the sudden appearance of thongs riding up above the jean line on little girls. That song still pisses me off.
Sometimes, we listen to lyrics in hopes of deciphering what the singer is saying, perhaps in hopes of finding truth in their words. Music is the written word, condensed, put to instruments, and pumped into every possible venue, endlessly breeding association. Perhaps there's a song that simply reminds you of the grocery store because that's the only place you hear it. Maybe, a song's place has already been claimed in your mind, and when you hear it, you find yourself divided unevenly between your current location and wherever it is that your mind tries to take you after.
Snow whispering over the outside of the car, and melancholy piano plays from the speakers as we drift through the icy intersection. My friend Eric has just purchased Plans, the new Death Cab For Cutie album. He, Anton, and I decide to screen the album while driving through the back roads of suburban Bothell. Eric is a reckless driver and, despite my telling him to calm down, he uses the e-break to flirt with power sliding around most corners. The adrenalin pumping behind my eyes when the wheels can't find purchase on the slick ground is in violent contrast to the soft, melodic rock; the tires spin soundlessly against the smooth, blue ice of the intersection. The flashing yellow of the late night stop lights gives the snow an intermittent, sunny hue. When we get tired of almost killing ourselves, we drive to the top of the local community college's parking garage where Eric and I sit on the hood while Anton climbs onto the roof, slipping in the wet and the ice as he tries. The headlights of cars on the freeways through the cotton sleet look like Christmas decorations as we sit, slowly being covered and becoming one with the white mass of the car and the parking garage.
There are people whose job is solely to listen to music, talk about it, write about it, grade and catalog it. Many people make it a goal to place “their” favorite artists and songs above those of others as more skilled or qualified. Sure, I understand that there is a level of skill that is involved in creating music that is lost to me. I also understand that, as far as technical quality is concerned, some artists may really be better than others, but this is not the point. The point is to attempt to look at music differently. Put away your blogs, your opinions, your critical reviews, and remember the first time you sang Mary Had Little Lamb in a round, sitting criss-cross applesauce in a bright room, warm with primary colors and crayola marks.