Last week Rachelle and I were sitting in the kitchen—or I was sitting in the kitchen, at the table, reading The New Yorker (a story about an unreported chemical leak in West Virginia, if you must know)—while she pulled out things to make crockpot chili, and it was all pretty normal. We call ourselves the spinster sisters, so what. Except—Rachelle also brought out her computer, an aging PC, which was less normal for our afternoon routine. So I asked, what’s up with the computer? She responded with a grin and started playing Everything but the Girl’s Amplified Heart album. We’d both been listening to it almost nonstop since I had rediscovered it the day before, but neither of us were tired of it yet, and we sang along to every song. I say I rediscovered it, but it didn’t feel like a discovery so much as a return to something very familiar. It was one of those albums that my Dad, and Mom too, played so often that the tracks became ingrained into us in a way that only music from the early part of your life can, especially when you aren’t in control of what it is. I think it takes you back to a place too—for me, Amplified Heart is the soundtrack to Sunday mornings at the old house, with Dad making pancakes and Mom reading the paper at the table. That CD, laced with a beautiful kind of melancholy, is so much a part of my childhood that even a fragment of a lyric—am I walking to you, I miss you like the desert misses the rain, if you lose your faith babe, you can have mine, if you’re lost I’m right behind—can conjure an image of the way it used to be, accesses a whole bank of memory that I couldn’t get to any other way.
There are a whole host of CDs that define my life, and my siblings’ too, because of what my Mom and Dad listened to. This is probably true for most people, but it’s come to the forefront for me because I recently made the playlist for my Dad’s 50th birthday—which, if you know him and his brothers at all, is a daunting task. Word to the wise—never play them in Name That Tune, and if you do, prepare to be annihilated. Or, at the very least, out-shouted; volume is a key ingredient to success in that crowd. But I felt confident, kind of, although expectations (in my mind) were high. I have an odd memory for music (book titles and authors too), and I had a good starting point: the childhood CDs.
Which is how I came across Everything but the Girl, and a million other songs that blew Rachelle’s mind. I started with the road trip CDs—the ones that either my Dad loved enough to play repeatedly on long car trips, or that happened to always be floating around in the car (probably a mix of both). Here they are, in short order: The Cure’s Galore, Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp, Cake’s Fashion Nugget and Prolonging the Magic, Marcy PlayGround’s self-titled album, and Chris Isaak’s Speak of the Devil. So prevalent were these songs that not only can I sing all of them, but I can tell you how long it takes to get to Baker City in CD lengths. I have memories attached to each one, but they are fickle, flickering in and out—sometimes different, some always the same. For example, I have a distinct memory that always sparks at Please from Speak of the Devil—it’s of passing by that huge pile of gravel on the left side of the road on the way to Baker. Not super sexy, but it’s what I’m working with.
And then there’s Cake. So narrow was my understanding of the world of music beyond what my Dad listened to was that I thought they were the original singers of I Will Survive. All my early notions of romance were based off of Cake songs, which, in hindsight was probably a good thing. No hyper-sexualized pop stars here, just John McCrea reminding me that satan are men’s motors and that they certainly aren’t fit for the hem of my garment. It dovetails nicely with my Dad’s reminders that girls hold all the power—Mexico, Daria, Friend is a Four Letter Word, need I go on? The Cure Galore was another classic, where I learned about the difficulty men face with gender stereotyping (Boys Don’t Cry) but also found the soundtrack to what I thought it would really be like to be in love with somebody—Just Like Heaven, and incredibly, they were kind of right. They also had the bizarre classic Into the Trees, which I couldn’t really tell you what it’s about, but only that it was vaguely alluring.
I don’t think I have to tell anyone here what Joe Jackson has done for me, but just in case, let me tell you—Look Sharp! has been the only album that espouses the benefits of reading the Sunday papers I’ve ever heard, while also providing a title track worthy of every entrance and exit I’ll ever make. Don’t get me started on the one-liners. Check your watch and wallet now, before I go and it’s too late? Classic.
So it was easy to start going through those, that mean so much to me. And then it was easy too to start going through the Sunday morning CDs, which is where Everythign but the Girl came in. And then it was easy to start going through all the “Dad” songs, the ones that you know because it always gets turned up when you’re riding in the car or because you can hear that person singing them in your head—that’s Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits, people. Or the ones that you grew up having dance parties to, because who could resist Roy Orbison? Who could forget how much my Dad loves Elvis Costello, how often Brutal Youth floated around the stereo. And how often has he said Michael Jackson was a freaking genius, and heard the story of how Prince used to be a symbol, or how many times John Cougar Mellencamp went from being John Cougar to John Mellencamp to John Cougar Mellencamp, and maybe back again. And let us not forget that my Dad saw The Police live in the 80s in Germany and that they almost stopped the show because the Germans kept crowding the rail. I actually have in my head a distinct memory of my Dad saying--Canary in a Coalmine! Come on! That was when the Police were good!
So in this way I make the playlist, one song sparking another, until we get to the night of the party and realize that every song is that song that makes you say--hey! I love this song! I considered the night a success, but also had to recognize that the real reward for my effort wasn't the glory that comes with making the best playlist ever, no, rather it was going home to all those songs I hadn't visited in awhile--sitting in the kitchen with Rachelle, listening to the music.