Here is my earliest recollection of having my own taste in music:
My biological father and I are driving through the desert in his Ford pickup truck that, as my memory recalls, is constantly in need of new spark plugs. I can barely see over the dashboard as we make our way to Durango, a town that I have never heard of, from where we live in Las Vegas. He is exuberantly pounding on the steering wheel in halfcocked rhythm.
“Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhwannaknow!” he is also singing and I am enthralled by this. He never sings. He makes jokes- well, really just one joke- about being paid not to sing, but he never sings. Not at the top of his lungs as the windows are rolled down and his ponytail is whipping around in the rushing wind like a rat tail from underneath his trucker cap. “Hee-yave you evaaaaaaah seeeeeeeen the rrrrrrraiiiiiin!!!!”
I cannot help but laugh at him. His eyes are closed and he grimaces with each syllable. His drumming has moved from the steering wheel to his thigh. He whacks at his leg vigorously, as though he is somehow angry at himself, and it makes a loud clap that pierces the wind and road noise. Emboldened by my laugher, he reaches over and takes a few whacks at my own small leg using the same vigor. I try not to wince.
The song ends with a final coda and cymbal crash. With his eyes half open and his smile liquid, he looks like he does after Thanksgiving dinner when he has eaten too much. He tousles my hair and presses REWIND on the tape deck in the stereo without bothering to press STOP first. The singer with the gravelly voice becomes a chipmunk in reverse and he squints, listening for the beginning of the song.
The song crescendos and decrescendos in reverse and he mouths the words, barely looking at the blisteringly bright desert highway.
I rub my leg where it has begun to sting a little bit.
“Can we listen to another song now?”
“You don’t like this one? I thought we were having a good time!” He releases the REWIND button, but hasn’t quite queued up the beginning of the song. He mutters a curse word under his breath and jams his finger on the button again.
“Oh yeah, no, I like it. I like- I like it a lot. But we’ve listened to it a lot, too.”
“It hasn’t been that many times,” he releases the REWIND button again and has managed to find the silent spot between songs. He smiles broadly, surveys the highway, and his fingers begin their steering wheel drumming again.
The desert stretches for miles as the electric guitar begins to strum.
“We’ve listened to it thirteen times,” he turns his attention from the road to me very slowly, his head cocked to the left. I am worried that he’s going to be angry with me.
“What,” he scowls. “Did you count or something?”
The singer starts up again.
“Yeah,” I look down at my leg where it has begun to turn pink. “After the first few times.”
Here is an admission:
To this day, I cannot listen to Credence Clearwater Revival, Elton John or The Eagles. While I am aware of their necessary contribution (well, at least CCR and Sir Elton- The Eagles never really did anything for me) to the rock canon, Alan ruined these bands and their catalogues by listening to them on constant, unrelenting repeat throughout my childhood. He diversified with Garth Brooks during my adolescence, but who really wants to listen to Garth Brooks?
Here is the thing- both parents did it:
My mother had a more versatile ear. I knew that your momma don’t dance and your daddy don’t rock and roll* by three, considered talking to the man in the mirror and asking him to change his ways as a four year old and I really wondered just what in the blue hell happened in Monterey a long time ago at five. When my parents split up, the tape deck was freed from the tyranny of Don Henley and John Fogerty. Instead, Harry Connick, Jr. crooned to us over macaroni and cheese-making parties, Paul McCartney and the Wings were the mild, polite and restrained soundtrack to many a Saturday morning spent begrudgingly cleaning the house. When my mother, sister and I took road trips- and we did fairly frequently, looking back- The Judds became like a comfortable pair of old blue jeans. I’m not proud of it, but I can still sing “Rockin’ To The Rhythm Of The Rain”. Paired with The Judds was the worn old boots of James Taylor’s cloying, saccharine acoustic renderings. Thankfully, The Beatles came into vogue when my mother noticed that I was really listening to music and I cut my teeth on their earliest hits and B-sides.
I needed a little Help! and The Beatles were there.
My mother loved vocalists of any kind. More than that, she loved any song that she could sing along to, so my sister and I never had the slightest inhibitions about singing along with her in the kitchen, in the car, in the yard- anywhere, really. Much of the music she had on in the background of our home as we grew up were voices who wouldn’t become names until I began to listen to CD’s at the library for hours and spiraling down the rabbit hole of the internet as a teenager searching for more and more music: Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, Jackson Browne, Nat King Cole, and Louis Armstrong.
Oh, and Shania Twain somehow made it onto that list.
Here Is Are Two (2) Embarrassing Stories That I’m Not Thrilled To Tell You:
1. I’ve been carless for the last month. When you’re carless, you sometimes have to borrow vehicles. When you sometimes have to borrow vehicles, you’re sometimes forced to listen to the radio. When you’re sometimes forced to listen to the radio, you spend a lot of time scrolling through the dial. This is precisely what I was doing when I came across a song that I LOVED (yes, capitalized, italicized and bold love) during my freshman year in high school. A song that I swore I would LOVE forever. A song that I looked forward to one day showing my children so as to teach them about GOOD music. A song that I unequivocally knew would shake their world as it once had shaken mine. Yes, I was certain that the very heavens would open wide when my hypothetical progeny heard “Pardon Me” by Incubus for the first time.
I was wrong, of course. And embarrassingly so. To my adult ears, the song is an absolute coat hanger abortion. I listened slack jawed for all of thirty seconds before violently swinging at the radio’s control panel for the OFF button and cursing 14-year old Cyle vehemently- if only because I still knew each and every word of the song’s insipid and limp-witted lyrics that I believed so “poetic” at the time. Each note of the oppressively compressed and nasally distorted riff still so familiar and ringing in my ears.
Of course, I do have an excuse. High school is a particularly hazardous time. You’re figuring out who you are and how you want to be and you’re doing so with a frightening lack of both self-awareness and self-confidence. Not to mention a deeply seeded desire to be cool. So you and your friends eat Snickers bars and wash them down with Mountain Dew****, you wear baggy jeans and skinny t-shirts, and you love Incubus*****.
Oh, that I would have been listening to Led Zeppelin instead. I’d even settle for Buffalo Springfield.
2. While we’re on the subject of high school, you ought to know that it can be split into two distinct sections for me: Before Steve (BS) and After Steve (AS). In the BS era (and it was BS, looking back), I listened to Incubus. Incubus and a whole swath of other horrible “modern” rock***** bands that filled the Aughts******* with angst and self-loathing. This, as it turns out, is a near perfect soundtrack for freshman boys, because they require an outlet for their endless self-pity and desperate need for catharsis- if these things can happen together, all the better.
In the AS era, which began at the start of sophomore year when Steve was hired as the new music teacher, my ears were again released from tyranny. A drummer and excellent musician, Steve quickly became the hero of my adolescence. He inspired me, challenged me and, through patience and a steady hand, made me a better drummer and musician than I could have ever hoped to have become otherwise. It was Steve who opened my ears, who showed me Miles and Thelonius, Bird and Coltrane. It was Steve who, for Christmas, bought me a subscription to a monthly drummer magazine that opened my eyes to Afro-Cuban polyrhythms, heavy metal blast beats, odd time signatures and interviews with drummers of bands I would have never heard of otherwise.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that he could totally eradicate the teenager in me. My friends had progressed into screamo (and, to a lesser extent, it’s sissy cousin emo) and, well, so did I. Ah, but I fancied myself more mature than my peers, my palate more subtle and refined. Yes, I told them, Finch does have a few really good tunes, but have you listened to Thursday? No, of course you haven’t. What about At The Drive In? No? (sigh) You’re really missing out. Their last EP was sick. What about- what about Joy Division? Sunny Day Real Estate? (exasperated sigh) The Juliana Theory?! Jesus, you guys. Okay, I’m going to make you a mix tape. Oh, have you heard the song “Screaming Infidelities?”
It was in the grocery store, of all places. I’m rounding the aisles and straining to remember all of the things on my list when some vaguely familiar acoustic chords ring out from the grocery store’s tinny speakers. I hum along, trying to place the tune. Humming turns to singing under my breath as I remember that I need peanut butter.
“I’m missing your bed, I never sleep,” A jar of blackberry jam that’s on sale catches my attention. “Avoiding the spots where we’d have to speak and this bottle of beast is taking me home,” I freeze, my basket in one hand and the jar of blackberry jam in the other. Holy shit. Is this Dashboard Confessional?! It’s been years since I’ve heard this tune! I listen closely and let the wet wool blanket of nostalgia and guilt hang heavy on my shoulders. Though I would have vehemently disagreed as a teenager, my adult ears shudder and realize why most music critics said that Dashboard suffered from a perpetual case of PMS.
I put the jam in my basket and round the corner of the aisle. A stocking clerk wearing a vest and skinny jeans puts boxes of cereal on the shelves. He’s got his back to me, but he’s moving in time with the music, each box set down on the back beat. He’s about my age and I wonder if he’s experiencing the same vintage of nostalgia, guilt, irony and embarrassment that I am.
The chorus hits, and I don’t have to wonder any more.
“But as for now I’m gonna hear the saddest songs,” He stands, turns so that I can see his profile, and throws up a power fist, bending his knees and thrusting his pelvis. “And sit alone and wonder how you’re making out!” He sings into his clenched fist for the last line, his eyes closed and his face in full grimace. I cannot help it. I laugh out loud. He turns, still holding his fist near his face, and smiles with only the slightest hint of embarrassment.
“You too, eh?” I say.
“Do you see this power fist? This only happens- well, happened- for Dashboard! Saw ’em in ’01.”
I put up a fist of solidarity, grab a box of Frosted Flakes and as I walk away, he begins singing again. I may or may not have harmonized with him under my breath. He wasn’t a bad singer.
Here Is An Interjection:
My friend, Jennaye, has just walked into the coffee shop where I am writing and asks me about what I’m working on.
“The hopelessness and shame of once loving Dashboard Confessional.”
“Oh. My. God,” she says, smiling with her whole face. “Oh. My. God!”
“Can you not even?” I sip from my iced Americano.
“I can’t even,” she fans her face with her hands furiously in mock panic. “Oh. My. God,” she laughs. “My mom brought two boxes with her when she came to visit me last week. One had old books and the other had old CD’s.”
“Holy hell!” I choke a bit as I swallow. “What was in there?!”
“Well, Dashboard for sure. And lots of other bands who I didn’t remember until I listened to a few of them- and then it all came rushing back.”
“Oh yeah. All of the self consciousness and weirdness that goes with it, too. God, I thought I was so cool listening to bands that no one else knew about. So cool!”
“Oh, me too. And you listen back now and they’re garbage.”
“Yeah! But I felt so cool.”
Here Is The Story That All Of The Other Stories Are About:
A few friends and I went camping for the Fourth of July. The vast majority of us have a light footprint when it comes to camping: tents, a stove, a fire. Tyler and Darlene, who are expecting a child and already have a toddler, are the necessary exception. They brought a truck camper and I was in awe as Tyler rolled out a shower, an awning, a playpen for the baby, as well as a rug and chairs.
The coup de gras was a solar-powered speaker system that quickly filled our little campsite with the bands that have been the soundtrack of our twenties: The Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Death Cab for Cutie. Songs that we know like the backs of our hands, songs that have molded and shaped us. With each one, we reminisced about where we were when we had first heard it, when we had seen the band in concert, something that had happened while the song was on. When the delay-ladden intro of The Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition” came on, we all stopped what we were doing to croon along with the drawn out vowel sound that begins the verse. A neighboring dog howled. The sun was setting when Sufjan Stevens’ song, “Chicago” came on. No one could tell if our sighs were for the sunset or the song’s orchestral swell.
Night dropped onto the campsite, so my friend Jake and I broke twigs and crumpled newspaper to build a fire when we heard Tyler and Darlene’s baby, Aiko, squeal with delight from the ground where she had been laid to look at the grass and wildflowers. She’s able to push herself up onto her forearms while laying on her belly and she squirmed in time with Band of Horses.
“She’s going to be crawling soon,” Jake said as we built up a teepee of twigs around the newspaper.
“Yeah,” I said, shaking my head and looking at this miniature human being.
Soon she’ll be crawling. Crawling leads to tentative steps and those tentative steps will soon have her walking. She’ll get taller and her hair will get longer and she’ll start saying words. Words will soon become phrases and phrases will become half-organized sentences. Those half-organized sentences will soon assert that she can dress herself and she will pair cowboy boots with frilly skirts and dirty t-shirts that are beset with yesterday’s food stains. It won’t be long before half-organized sentences become fully formed opinions and thoughts.
Thoughts like, “Hey dad? Can we listen to another song now?”
These Footnotes Brought To You By The Influence of David Foster Wallace and Chuck Klosterman
* “Your Momma Don’t Dance And Your Daddy Don’t Rock’n’Roll” Loggins and Messina
** “Man In The Mirror” Michael Jackson
*** “It Happened In Monterey” Frank Sinatra
**** I only did this once and it was during middle school. I don’t exactly remember the result- and that tells me everything I need to know.
***** Which is not something that ought to be done.
***** Other notable bands include Chevelle, Tool, A Perfect Circle, Linkin Park, and System of a Down. Many of these bands are still active, proving that young adolescent angst transcends time and space.
******* A few friends and I are still wondering what we ought to refer to the last decade (2000-09) as. The 0’s? The Thousands? My vote is the Aughts and I’m sticking to it.