Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Life's Soundtrack

When illusion spin a net
I’m never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free

In the series of books I’ve been reading, the Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer, the author posts a playlist she listened to while writing the book, its “soundtrack.” What would the soundtrack to your life be? Would you play music contemporary with each stage of life? Or something thematically applicable? Instrumental, classical, alternative, pop, jazz, rock?

There are songs that can transfix you. Every element--your environment, your thoughts, the landscape before you, the lyrics, the music, your emotions, your longings—snap into place seamlessly. I suppose these moments are what James Joyce referred to as epiphanies. Life suddenly reveals a deeper meaning, but not one you feel like putting into words. A meaning that doesn’t explain anything or answer any questions.

My parents never turned on the radio when I was growing up, and they never listened to records, either. My mom would sometimes burst into song, but she rarely knew all the lyrics and would trail into humming. I was born in 1966, and there was quite a bit of interesting music, but I rarely heard it. The local radio stations weren’t very current, either. When I was five or six, I was sitting in the front seat of my dad’s car (in the days before airbags and booster seats), and he had the radio on. A song unlike anything I had heard before came on. I thought it was beautiful. The song was Light My Fire by the Doors. I didn’t start begging for an album—I wouldn’t have known there was such a thing to beg for—but I still remember that first encounter with music that made me feel excited and exuberant and different from my normal self.

My musical taste in the 70s was an embarrassment. I wouldn’t listen to any of that stuff now. I even had a Shaun Cassidy record. Sheesh. I didn’t have passionate feelings about music, and I thought most of the bands looked unwashed and unkempt, and not in a cool way, and the lyrics would cut out so you could hear endless guitar solos. I mean, Lynard Skynard seemed to be the soundtrack of Albany GA. I got so sick of hearing Free Bird.

On one trip, our car broke down in Dade County, Alabama. Some local law enforcement fellows had mercy on us and brought us in to the sheriff’s office to make arrangements. It was getting very late. My dad called one of my brothers to come get us, but he lived some distance away. So we waited and the sheriff talked to my parents. I had never seen anything quite as unsettling as that sheriff. He was portly, and he talked a lot about his big house with a fountain. He wore large gold rings on his fingers. As inexperienced as I was with the world, I was very uncomfortable and glad to get the heck out of there when my brother arrived. It was very late at that point, and I lay down in the back seat to sleep. As I was drifting off, Hotel California came on the radio. I had never heard it before. I ever after associated it with that ride through the dark, away from the probably corrupt sheriff.

Then came MTV. By the time it hit us, punk was just a memory, a bit of background noise to the New Wave, New Romantic sounds. Oh, man, British music floored me. Where has this been all my life, I wondered? And alternative music—whoa, no more Free Bird, no more KISS, no more AC/DC, hurrah! I chuckle when I hear our local station play retro 80s music. I’m already a has-been. And now the music does sound a bit quaint.

Since then I’ve gone through a jazz phase, a classical and opera phase, and a world music phase. And then I finally discovered the Beatles, the Stones, The Band—all the music I didn’t hear growing up and which I could finally enjoy now that I know longer had to be hip.

And now, I don’t know. I like to pick up the new U2 albums when they come out. I listen happily to samplers from Paste magazine, but I don’t think I’ve purchased a CD in over a year. Every now and then I will hear a new song that startles me. Or I hear an old song that I had forgotten and that still has the power to lift me above my everyday concerns.

The lyrics above are from Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel, one of my all-time favorite musicians. I did not hear this song when it first came out, but much much later, after the Shock the Monkey album and So. I don’t remember what was happening the first time I heard it, but from the opening bars, it had me. Something about this song makes me tense up expectantly. Expecting what I’m not sure. It’s liberating and joyful, looking out over life’s possibilities.

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