‘Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances.’ —Maya Angelou
Shouldn’t music be a sixth sense? Songs are a powerful bridge over which memory and emotion intermingle, sometimes resulting in silent euphoria or contentment; other times causing the blood pressure to rise or the pulse to quicken. Pieces of music can bring us back to a moment in time where the years vanish. Remote and trivial details become instantly pristine. It is a venue that creates a window that you can peer in and see exactly what shoes you were wearing — where you were standing — what the mint smells like down by the South Fork river.
“Delilah” by Plain White T’s, reminds me of my nephew, Tanner, who was murdered at the early age of 20. He was learning this song and playing it on his guitar before he was killed. I immediately leave a store if it comes over the intercom. I’ve been known to drop my pasta sauce and rotini, in the frozen aisle if necessary, and beeline it through the nearest exit. I see his face and emotions wreak havoc on me. “Hey there Delilah, I know times are getting hard, but just believe me girl, someday I’ll pay the bills with this guitar.” It was as if Tanner wrote it. His best friend, Mike Randall, sang and played “Blackbird,” by Paul McCartney, at Tanner’s funeral only to drown in a car accident a few years later with my son, Solomon. Since then, when I hear “Blackbird,” I am haunted by the mental image of Mike singing it.
‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’
When my son passed away at age 23, I was convinced that the song “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House, was a message from my son. I couldn’t get it out of my mind and found myself singing it without even knowing it. I’d wake up to it. I was crazed at that time with the loss, so it wasn’t a stretch to think maybe he was communicating with me. You want it so badly that it becomes true.
“There is freedom within, there is freedom without
Try to catch a deluge in a paper cup
There’s a battle ahead, many battles are lost
But you’ll never see the end of the road
While you’re traveling with me
Hey now, hey now
Don’t dream it’s over
Hey now, hey now
Now I’m walking again to the beat of a drum
And I’m counting the steps to the door of your heart…”
I never wanted to hear music again. Every song reminded me of him and would make me cry. Why couldn’t I just wrap him in plastic and preserve him, gently fold him and carry him inside of me again? People didn’t and don’t understand that. I’m still a work in progress. It took many years to want to hear anything whatsoever — not sad music; not happy music; not even a foot-tapping. It didn’t matter. Music wasn’t magic anymore, and I didn’t want to hear again. Ever. My music was gone. I didn’t want to play the guitar — I didn’t want to sing — and I didn’t want to hear anyone else either. I wanted quiet and complete solitude. I wanted to close my eyes, submerge myself in a bathtub, and hum so loudly that nothing could penetrate. My sister and brothers and I loved to sing at my mom’s house — a house that was full of music. My sister, brother and I sang and played the guitar at my brother’s wedding. We played at my wedding. But those times were not marred by sadness. It took a long time to appreciate music again in any fashion. I’m still not quite there but I see improvement.
‘Born to Run’
I love Bruce Springsteen. He is my hero. When I was 15, my boyfriend was Bruce and I was Wendy in “Born to Run.” Two small-town kids wanting more. We couldn’t wait to blow out this one-horse town and never look back.
“Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Oh, someday, girl, I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go
And we’ll walk in the sun
But ‘til then tramps like us
Baby, we were born to run”
I think of my son every time I hear Bruce Springsteen’s, “I’m on Fire.” His words are like sandpaper, tearing me up when he soulfully sings, “It’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull, and cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my soul. At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet and a freight train runnin’ through the middle of my head….”
When “Wagon Wheel,” by Old Crow Medicine Show comes onto my Pandora feed, I think of my mom. “Rock me mama like a wagon wheel; rock me mama anyway you feel.” Mom has always loved music and encouraged it in our family. If you dropped by her house, chances are music was playing, usually country. She loved hearing me play the washboard to this song in our garage where we’d hang out. When she went into the hospital and we almost lost her, this song became too painful to listen to. I would put a thumbs down on Pandora when this came on. This song will forever vividly reflect her smiling face.
The flash of memory can be insignificant — short. I remember driving home to my apartment in the U-District from North Seattle Community College in 1978. My memory for detail is remarkable for this whole 15 seconds that I listened to the radio as I waited to turn left onto the 45th street exit in Seattle. I was 18 years old as I sat driving my boyfriend’s brown Nova that belonged to his mom. I was mesmerized listening to “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, playing on the car radio. How can I still remember the navy corduroy coat I was wearing that day, still with the John Lennon pin riding on my lapel? How is it that I can perfectly visualize the tan vinyl book bag sitting beside me that my mom had sewn for me to tote heavy books to class? It isn’t even my favorite song. In fact, if I had to pick 10 of my favorite songs, none of these would be on the list.
In 1972, I bought the 45 record of “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” written by Looking Glass. I remember looking desperately at Dennis Company for the perfect gift for my neighbor and classmate in 8th grade, Dave Pehl. To this day “Brandy” brings me back to that day, as I shyly walked up the long gravel drive to the Pehl farm on the South Fork to deliver my birthday present to Dave. Almost 50 years later this song still evokes nostalgia from my 13-year-old feelings. I also went “steady” with Dave in 6th grade when I was passed a note by some other boys asking if I would, and I answered yes. We went “steady” for three days without once talking to each other. I broke up this passionate relationship with another note.
We always had a phonograph
Music was a part of our family from as early as I can remember. My dad played the guitar and he and mom sang together often, once winning first prize at the Chester with their harmony of “Little Cabin Home On The Hill.” They won a little ceramic covered wagon with miniature mugs in the shape of barrels hanging off the sides from hooks. I always asked dad if he would please play the duck song. “Mama had a chicken and she thought it was a duck; she put it in the kettle with its legs sticking up… you gotta step up and go….” Each time I heard it I was melted with adoration for my dad.
We always had a phonograph. Initially, we had a player that held ‘78s, which were smaller than an album but bigger than a 45 record. The needle had to be manually lifted from the record. A few years later, they came out with a console record player that would stack five or six records at a time, each dropping down for the needle when the previous record finished. If we played 45s, there was a small cartridge adapter that would stack our favorite 45s. My parents listened to country, so we grew to love Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash in particular. My sister and I were often stood on tables to sing Hank’s, “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used To Do,” for my dad’s friends. In the evenings, our family listened to music more often than we watched TV. I was disappointed, however, when the movie about Hank Williams came out at the Raymond theater. Hank was not nearly as handsome as my dad, I thought. I always thought Hank would look just like him.
As my brothers were six and seven years older than me, by the time I was six I was listening to the Beatles and the Monkeys. My sister and I loved their wacky shows on TV where we could see what they looked like and pick our favorite Beatle or Monkey (John and Mickey). When my brothers were only 12 and 13, they joined to form a band with the Smith brothers, Forrie and Ronnie. Ronnie initially didn’t know how to play the drums but learned by beating on a Quaker oatmeal box. He developed his talents and was a professional drummer for the rest of his life. Forrie played main guitar. Tony played rhythm, and my brother Randy played bass guitar. At a very young age, my sister and I were going to watch the UFOs at school dances, the Chamber of Commerce in South Bend, and at the Pacific County Fair. Though still in junior high, they were playing for high schools and at public venues. The UFOs were once part of the entertainment at the “Love In” held at the park in the ‘60s outside the Raymond swimming pool (outdoor summer concerts). “Light My Fire,” by the Doors brings me back to that day sitting on the grass trying to fit in like the teenagers dancing around me. My mom made them vests of glittery red vinyl left over from one of her upholstery projects. Much to my dad’s dismay, they all began to wear their hair in a bowl cut, long bangs like the Beatles, tight ‘60s pants with pointed shoes, and medallions hanging around their necks.
Gone too soon
I loved John Lennon. I had known him since I was 6. When I went to college at 17, I was wearing a pin of his picture on my coat lapel. I had every album he made and could sing along passionately to each song. I was devastated when he was murdered. I later visited his memorial in Central Park. It was John’s birthday and Yoko had decorated his memorial with a beautiful colorful peace sign of flowers. I walked past the Dakota where he was shot, picturing the loss of such a talented man, and wondering what he would have created next had he been given the chance. He was my “Working Class Hero” and he taught me “Instant Karma.”
I was saddened that the talented John Prine left the earth this year. I saw him at Parkers in Seattle in 1984. It was a very small concert, but he stole my heart. I played his albums and learned many of his songs on my own guitar. After returning home from the Vietnam War in 1971, when he was 25 years old, he wrote “Sam Stone,” singing it with his patented echo of car wheels on a gravel road. In this song, he explains an outcome from the war that is hauntingly inevitable. Prine saw veterans returning home struggling with mental and emotional anguish. Though the physical conflict of war was in the review mirror, many were not able to rise above the horrors witnessed in the Vietnam War. So Prine wrote a song that showed sympathy for soldiers at a time when it wasn’t fashionable to do so. “Sam Stone” turned out to be one of those rare songs so powerful and insightful that it still entertains people with its sad beauty. It may have also enlightened a few who viewed all soldiers as remorseless killing machines. It’s hard to measure the impact of this song because there have been so many others that subsequently mimicked its empathy for Vietnam vets when it became more politically correct to do so — but Prine got there first.
The Shirelles’ “Going to the Chapel,” breaks my heart when I hear it. It reminds me of when my husband was healthy — before he was ravaged by MS and presented with unspeakable suffering, later dying with a peg tube for feeding and a trach in his throat to breathe. When I hear this song my mind steps to the Avalon Ballroom in downtown Seattle on Stewart, where we learned to dance together for our approaching outdoor wedding. We learned the waltz and foxtrot, and I picked “Going to the Chapel” as our wedding foxtrot. We practiced in our living room every night, always to Sam Cook’s “Twisting the Night Away.”
Remember “Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation from 1973? I vividly remember standing knee-deep in the ocean with my sister, smelting in Grayland, which is casting a net and gathering up the little silver fish called smelt. Mom fried them in bacon fat with the insides remaining — just cutting off the head. This song was belting out of a nearby parked red MG Midget with the top down.
“Every since our voyage of love began … Rock the boat, don’t rock the boat baby. Rock the boat, don’t tip the boat over.”
Suddenly, I was talking to “Mark,” a gorgeous, curly blond 23-year-old with a tan. I was painfully shy. To me, he seemed like one of the Beach Boys. I was a skinny 8th-grader in my homemade corduroy bell-bottoms, cable-knit sweater — sandals, and blonde hair that I had “streaked” from a box kit. At some point during that week, he asked if he could take me to Seattle. He had an errand to run and did I want to go along. Not thinking it through and swimming in flattery, I found myself seated between two men in the cab of a Ford F-150 headed for Seattle. I had no idea what to talk about, my eyes shining ahead as steadily as lamps. I had failed to ask exactly where we were going or when we were coming back. I sat stiffly not speaking as he sat smoking like the Camel man, hand lightly resting on my left knee. I don’t think I said two words the whole 2.5-hour drive. He ended up taking me to Seattle International Raceway, where I was completely out of my element. Race cars? Good Lord. After the race, we went to his friend’s house and they loaded two motorcycles into a box truck. There were hushed tones. The back of the truck slider slammed down and crunched shut, and we got back in the truck and drove home. No harm, no foul, you could say — other than the stealing of motorcycles.
As fate would have it (or luck), Mark had no bad intentions toward me, at least none that I was aware of. He didn’t so much as kiss me. A week later I saw a red MG Midget driving up the gravel road to my mom’s house in the country. I practically jumped over furniture to get to the bedroom and peaked horrified out the window. I instructed my mom to tell him I was not home. She did, and I never saw him again. I later heard he was killed in that MG. “Don’t rock the boat, baby.”
Memories come flooding
Going to Astoria in the back seat of Dixie Smith’s “Merc” singing along with “Close to you,” by the Carpenters on the radio; Dixie driving and loving life. “On the day that you were born, the angels got together, and decided to create a dream come true.”
So think about it. The memories that come flooding to your mind when you hear songs from the past are powerful — the connection completely different from your list of favorite songs. These are the songs that let you relive experiences, good or bad — you can’t get away from them. They drop you smack back in a time warp, where you can picture exactly the shoes you had on, or the distinct smell of patchouli when that song was playing. There is incredible power in music.