I’ve been asked why I make an iPod playlist for everything I write. And the answer is that for me, music is often a great help in getting into a story. It helps me to get beyond the shackles of my conscious self and submerge into my unconscious where the good stuff hides, often with cookie crumbs on its mouth. It’s really a sense/memory exercise. A way to access emotion and to use that emotion to drive to new places within the story.
It’s an interesting exercise to try: think of a song from some specific time in your life and use it to get back to that place, then see where it takes you from there.
For instance, if I hear “Blowin’ in the Wind,” I can see my five-year-old self in the back of the Woodlawn Presbyterian Church’s fellowship hall on some Sunday night. The film projector, the old kind you have to thread through reels, clacks along throwing light and shadow on a projection screen, creating images on a blank canvas like God: barefoot children in villages blighted by poverty and disease. Children who, I am told, have no food and so I had better eat what’s on my plate and be grateful for it. It’s bold of my father to play Dylan. Miss Julia, the matriarch of the church bristles, I’m sure, as she does at anything that hints that the times they are a-changin’. Already, some teenagers wear jeans to church and the women no longer come in gloves. There is a new Bible with modern language and a bright green cover. They sit in the pews beside the King James versions like a before and after moment in a movie where the shy spinster emerges from the beauty parlor as a mod goddess.
My tooth is loose. It’s my first, and I find it compulsively addictive to push my tongue against it, swinging it back and forth like the screen door my mother is always after me to let alone. Like that door, I can’t leave my tooth be. I complain. My father is exasperated. He is a handsome man with deep-set blue eyes and a full mouth thinned into a tight smile at the moment. If my mother were there, she would see to me. She’d lean close and whisper that I needed to “stop acting ugly” and behave. But she’s not here. She’s having gall bladder surgery, and my father, who fears the judgment of others where his children’s behavior is concerned for reasons I will not understand until much, much later, is as unhinged as my tooth. He is trying to lead the Minute for Mission meeting, which is a mouthful, all those M’s tumbling toward salvation in a rush.
Winnie Haffner is one of many adopted grandmothers I have in this church. She favors cat’s-eye glasses and bright floral dresses that are like Rousseau paintings come to life on her body. We have a secret game—we give each other small love bites on our arms in greeting. It seems strange to me now from this distance—oral sadism as hello. But at five, it is magical—improper, impulsive thuggery sanctioned with a wink and an agreement that it is our bonding ritual. Mrs. Haffner (my parents would never allow me to call her anything less formal) towers over me on the back row. “Elizabeth,” she says, using my full name. “Come with me.” She takes me by the wrist into the bathroom where just last week, Donna Hoffman taught me to play Bloody Mary by saying that forbidden name into the mirror three times until I am afraid to pee alone in that place, certain Mary will reach out from the glass and drag me in to wherever it is rebellious girls go. “I’m going to pull your tooth. It won’t hurt. Now hold still,” Mrs. Haffner says firmly.
I am too afraid to say no to her. The dread is overwhelming. And then, the tooth is in her hand. The blood loss is minimal. She wraps it gently in a square of toilet paper and tucks it into the pocket of my shorts. “Put that under your pillow for the tooth fairy tonight.” And just like that, fear is transformed into expectation and delight. I will have my quarter tonight. I am no longer a baby, like Victor across the street who hasn’t lost any teeth yet. The ladies of the church gather to admire the space where my tooth used to be. My father gives me a dime for the Coke machine in the kitchen. The bottle thunders down the shoot like a promise.
I might tell you that “Galveston” makes me think of my mother’s presence in the kitchen, doing whatever it is that mothers do when you are four and uninterested in and impatient with the tasks that take her away from you. She listens to a white Westinghouse radio that sits on the kitchen counter beside the breadbox. She likes this song, which we heard Glen Campbell sing on “The Smothers Brothers,” a show my parents watch religiously, laughing uproariously at political comedy that is years beyond me. I just like the sound of their laughter while they watch, the way they are together in that moment. I like the way they look in the darkening kitchen, the TV’s small light illuminating their smiles, the sound of the cicadas on the other side of the sliding glass door. Sometimes, my mother plays songs like these on the piano, teaching me to sing harmony. It is and will remain my favorite thing we do together, especially when I am a teenager and it is one of the only times we seem ever to be in harmony.
There is music in the house always. Bach. Handel. Scott Joplin. The Kingston Trio. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. The Beatles, whom I love because they sing about such silly things like walruses and yellow submarines and ladies named Lucy who sparkle in the sky with diamonds. Next door, my neighbors watch “Hee-Haw” and listen to the twangy sounds of Hank Williams. It mixes with the bright, horn-drenched rhythms of Tejano music, which plays at nearly every party on my street, while the teenage girls who babysit my brother and me favor Three Dog Night and The Who. Sometimes, while riding in the big blue Chevrolet on the way to the grocery store, my mother lets me choose the radio station. I have my favorites: “Spinning Wheel.” “Both Sides Now.” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Some nights, my father sings Tom Lehrer songs to my brother and me in his sweet Irish tenor. Our favorite is “Riggity Tiggity Tin” about a girl who murders her family in interesting ways. We giggle and demand more until we feel that he sings with proper bloodthirsty gusto.
A few years later, in a different house, my brother and I spend a rainy afternoon in his room. The room is red-white-and-blue with blue shag carpet, and if I stay in there too long, I get a headache. He plays with his little green Army men while I read the collected adventures of Buck Rogers, marveling at the futuristic ray guns and 1930’s fashion. We listen to Kasey Kasem’s American Top 40, counting down to number one, hoping it’s one of our favorites, booing when it’s something clearly not worthy of its spot on the charts. Today, the #1 song is one we love: Cheech & Chong’s “Earache My Eye.” The song is funny, and we only halfway get the veiled drug references, but we enjoy the shared experience of loving a song our parents hate. It will prove to be a bonding experience for years to come. My entire relationship with my brother seems to be set to music:
*The two of us listening to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in bedrooms covered in rock posters.
*The outrage when our mother makes my brother take down his illustrated poster for Jethro Tull’s “Too Old to Rock N Roll, Too Young to Die” because she deems it, with its naked groupie, “obscene.”
*The concerts we see together: Bad Company, Rockpile, Cheap Trick, Journey, Bowie, Guns N Roses. Small bands who become bigger. Promising bands that go nowhere. Venues where he mixes sound or hauls equipment for other acts or plays his guitar like his idols Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jeff Beck.
*Sitting in his car with its bitchin’ sound system, the hour late, my brother explaining to me how this new technology, the compact disc, works. In truth, we’re high—eyes shining, skins tight, lips stretched into unnatural smiles—and when I lean my head back against the soft leather and look out the windshield at the night, I imagine the sound waves oscillating there, the stars surfing on their backs in smaller and smaller beats until the sky is a storm of sound that will drag me under and spit me out, baptized.
*Sprinkling my father’s ashes in the mountains of Colorado—in the car after, the stereo blares Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” Robert Plant filling the space we cannot seem to close.
When my father was dying, wasting down to bones in a small bed in the only nursing home that would take a man with his disease, he liked to listen to Judy Collins, “Amazing Grace.”
“When I listen to this, I know it’s all going to be okay,” he’d murmur, more to the room than to me. Unable to think of anything to say, I would look out the window at the enormous tree near the parking lot. Over three months, I’d watched its leaves shift from green to golds and reds and then to a stark nude, a touch of snow inching up the bark from the ground. He’d ask me to play that song again and again, and he would close his eyes and give a small smile. If this is what music can do, if it can ease the passage into death, it is more powerful than both morphine and denial.
This past Sunday, I rehearsed with Tiger Beat on the top floor of my house. The rain beat softly against the window. Through the glass, I could see the row houses snaking up the street higgledy-piggledy, the satellite dishes and electrical wires forming crosses against the sky. Our neighbor’s tree was suddenly green, the newness of the leaves shockingly bright against the gray clouds, and I could not remember when it had happened that it had turned spring. We played songs that mattered to us—Prince, Led Zeppelin, The B-52s. Songs that form the ongoing soundtrack of our lives, songs we wanted to share, because music, like story, is a way of being in the moment, of saying, “Be here now. Here is good.”
That night, I lay on my bed, slipped my headphones over my ears, and listened to Richie Havens’ urgent, soulful voice reminding me that, “The mocking bird sings each different song/Each song has wings—they won’t stay long…” The notes soared and quieted, full of promise and regret, the light from the stars of memory long since dead but never forgotten. Like us, the song lives while it can; it bursts forth, flares, and fades. It reminds us: You are here. Here is good.
“And close your eyes, child, and listen to what I’ll tell you
Follow in the darkest night the sounds that may impel you
And the song that I am singing may disturb or serve to quell you
If all the sounds you hear ain’t what they seem,
Then don’t mind me ‘cos I ain’t nothin’ but a dream…
And you can follow…”
So. Play your song. Tell your story. Find your truth.