An Essay on Sonic Reminders: Lovely/Painful/Invaluable
It’s a neat trick. Play a song and go back in time.
“She’s Like the Wind” is playing and suddenly I’m in a car on the way to my grandmother’s house after my grandfather died — I was a kid and it was the first time that I had to deal with the fact that people won’t always be where you want them to be for as long as you want them to be there. Thankfully, I rarely ever hear that song.
“I Get Around” plays and I’m standing on a table singing into a hairbrush as my Mother claps — I’m 7 or 8.
When I hear Soundgarden‘s “Black Hole Sun”, I’m outside of my friend Joel’s house playing basketball — badly. The boombox is cranked up, and it’s not like I’m aware that this moment is a Polaroid that I’ll hide away in a box somewhere. Wouldn’t it be lovely to always have the wherewithal to know that?
I’ll hear “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” from The Offspring for the first time on Joel’s boombox too. I haven’t seen him or heard from him since Junior High. We didn’t have the same ability to keep in contact then as we do now. The one virtue of this abundantly social anti-social era.
I wonder if Joel is a forensic accountant now, but I have accepted the fact that I’ll never know.
When “Peaches” plays on a playlist that I forgot I made once, I’m 13 and laying on the carpet in the living room of a condo in Rockaway, NJ with my headphones on. I used to dance to Michael Jackson’s “History Album” on that carpet. I like to dance, but when I dance now, all I remember is that I probably look ridiculous and that I should stop.
Self-consciousness is a real cocksucker. A barnacle that we pick up as we sail through life, so big that it throws our balance off until we start shitting ourselves and it looses its effectiveness.
That summer was the one that most resembles the type of summer that one has in a coming of age movie — it was where I spread my wings after a childhood spent on the run. My father worked in retail and got transferred a lot. “Childhood spent on the run” may have been a little over-dramatic.
Me and my gang of friends spent every day playing baseball, basketball, or roller hockey at the park across the street in the 100 degree heat. We also spent a fair amount of time staring at the lifeguard down by the pool. In hindsight, she wasn’t that pretty, and she was a bit old and burnt by the sun.
I was 13 and she had a pulse — she could have had a second nose and I still would have stared.
At that point, all I had seen of the exposed or near exposed female form emanated from the Sears Catalog brassiere section, whatever Shannon Tweed movie I could catch a few minutes of while sneaking downstairs to stealthily watch Cinemax at midnight, and the bright moments of miracle when the Spice Channel’s obscuring snow parted.
In the fall, we’d move to the woods of Pennsylvania and away from my friends and that solid six of a lifeguard. The Spice Channel never un-blurred there. Not one time.
I still had “Peaches” and Green Day’s “Dookie” album to keep me sane out there, but by then, I had chucked my “Woo Hah (Got you all in check)” cassette that I had purchased in the spirit of self-serving friendship. I no longer had a need to listen to Busta Rhymes since I no longer had the ability to bond with Manny, a 6’2″ 13 year old whose kinship netted me a small amount of protection by way of reputation throughout the 8th grade.
“We can’t punch that fat, twitchy, smelly kid who thinks he’s funny. I saw him yelling ‘Got you all in check!’ while playing POGS with Manny in the cafeteria.” – 8th Grade Bullies, probably.
Kids can be so cruel, even in self reflection.
Pennsylvania is boring, by the way. I’m sure there are laser tag emporiums and music stores with a guy named Rob who moonlights as a sound shaman, but those things were not in the woods of Dingman’s Ferry. Our mailbox was 2.6 miles from our front door. One of our neighbors walked his dog with a shotgun. There was also a leash.
When I hear “Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley, I’m 14 with a walkman as I depressingly stare at depressing leafless trees in the depressing moonlight while standing on a depressing snow covered deck as my new dog pees. He was not depressing, but we chose to let him pee on the deck as opposed to walking him at night, because bears.
In the woods, I became a teen-aged hermit. I moved my mattress to the floor like a junkie, ate nothing but takeout food and potato chips, and I traded human friendship for a deeper relationship with my Nintendo 64 and my television.
At 15, I got my hands on a VHS copy of Showgirls to replace the lifeguard and Shannon Tweed (in as much as Shannon Tweed can be replaced), but I missed the pill popping Jesse Spano of my more youthy-youth. Also, I thought that the female orgasm resembled a seizure thanks to the pool scene in Showgirls, and it scared me.
It took many years to find out that the female orgasm does not resemble a seizure. I am, however, prepared to concede that I may be doing something wrong, but I’d rather assume that Kyle MacLachlan has a magical penis.
Thankfully, I still had MTV, my wellspring of musical exploration and Dan Cortese. Unfortunately for me, MTV started to suck when I needed it most.
1997 was the year of The Spice Girls, Hanson, Mariah Carey 2.0, and Puff Daddy. Marcy Playground was around too, but I was already too depressed about my ballooning weight to care about candy, and I knew nothing about sex or why it smelled like anything. 1997 was also the year before Britney Spears and NSYNC worked hard to erase everything that Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Soundarden, and the others had tried to do.
They are the murderers of good and I hate them.
I enjoy that the things we grow up with take on mythical levels of glory that nothing can compare too. To some, Hanson, The Spice Girls, LFO, and Jessica Simpson represent a societal high point. Those people are stupid and I hate them too.
Anyway, these were dark times and absent good music and friends — because nobody wants to be friends with the kid who sits alone, looks miserable, and lightly mumbles to himself about hating everyone — my tastes began to embrace the music favored by my new peer group — my parents.
My parents loved Billy Joel, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Annie Lennox, and The Beach Boys. Some of that stuff is quite good, and at 31, I’m happy to admit that I have a deep love for “Tumbleweed Connection” and “461 Ocean Blvd.”, but my parents were into Elton’s “I’m Still Standing” back then — a decidedly lesser work.
Save for a love affair with the songs of Weezer, I mostly squatted in that bizarre sound cloud until I was 20 and took a car ride toward a day of hard labor in Avenel, New Jersey with a fellow retail slave. He was a sage stoner who taught me about Daft Punk and Radiohead. His car died on the New Jersey Turnpike, setting us off on a micro-adventure of work avoidance, music listening, fried chicken, and begging his sister to let us borrow her car to take us the rest of the way.
I told him that I thought “Pinkerton” was the greatest album of all time. I no longer believe that.
Every time I hear Paul McCartney‘s “About You” from the “Driving Rain” album, I think about his sister, a friend who I had a knee buckling crush on.
Love, or the stuff that feels like it, is something that is so wonderfully attached to music. When I hear Queen’s “Tie Your Mother Down”, I remember a great conversation that I had with a plump redhead who had a neck tattoo and a bubbly personality.
When I hear Radiohead‘s “There, There”, I remember buying the “Hail to the Thief” CD for the girl that would become my wife because she listened to it with me in the break room at work and lied about liking it.
I deleted the redheads’s phone number when me and Radiohead girl had our first date. Al Green was playing on a crappy tape deck when me and her danced for the first time. We were in a grassy alley between a Kmart and a Dunkin Donuts at the time. It sounds less magical than it was.
Brendan Benson‘s “Metarie” is the soundtrack to that summer of first’s. I swear I saw that video 500 times on Fuse from July to the autumn. It is my favorite song.
When I hear The Barenaked Ladies‘ “What a Good Boy”, I’m suddenly in a car next to Radiohead girl and we’re on a road trip to nowhere, discovering a bunch of nothing that is somewhere and something to us. It is my happiest place, and I get there through the portal of a Canadian pop song.
There are a thousand other sonic reminders like this. Emotional glue traps. Lovely/painful/invaluable.