The Music of My Life

“In memory, everything seems to happen to music
—Tennessee Williams

Like many people, certain songs are tied to memories of specific places or times in my life. When I hear the music, I remember what happened and, in my mind’s eye, I see how things looked when it occurred. Sometimes I remember the weather, or smells, or feel the emotions I had at the time. Sometimes, the memory triggers the music and I hear it in my mind.

Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I remember my parents played their collection of 78s(!), 45s, and LPs as background noise. I grew up listening to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Pedro Infante, and a bunch of other artists whose names I can’t remember (and I really didn’t like any of it—it took years for me to appreciate Mexican and country music!). I liked it much better when they played the radio and we got to listen to different styles of music. When I think of my parents, I see them sitting together, listening to Perez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.”

I used to sing a lot and had an OK voice. I’d sing washing the dishes, doing my chores, or pretty much whenever the radio was on. In elementary school, singing was a part of the curriculum. Each grade had their own song books and we all learned “This Land is Your Land,” “America The Beautiful,” “Erie Canal,” and “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” (I’m always amazed that I learned this religious song at public school…). I can remember sitting in class (feeling very pious) singing “Jacob’s Ladder,” and moving my hands up an imaginary ladder when we got to “Every rung goes higher, higher…”

Our elementary school had a huge auditorium where we held the Christmas play and assemblies. Periodically they’d gather all the classes into the auditorium and have school sing-a-longs. In addition to the songs that we sang in class, we’d sing “Tammy,” “My Country ‘tis of Thee,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “From The Halls Of Montezuma,” and “The Caisson Song.” (I know, quite an interesting collection of songs for elementary school kids to sing!) Anytime I hear one of these songs, I am transported back to that huge auditorium, seeing rows and rows of kids, singing our hearts out, and wondering what the heck a caisson was anyway!

Then it’s hi! hi! hee!
In the field artillery,
Shout out your numbers loud and strong,
For where e’er you go,
You will always know
That the Caissons go rolling along.

—John Philip Sousa version

In junior high, music appreciation was a required class and we sang in there, too. The teacher was big on musicals, so we learned songs from My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, and the Music Man. I learned the songs from these musicals long before I ever saw any of the movies! The first time she played the movie soundtrack from Music Man and we heard “Gary, Indiana” sung by that cute little kid (Ron Howard!), all the girls went “Awwwww!”

It was in junior high that I first joined a chorus. I had to learn the alto part instead of just singing the melody with the group, so it was a challenge in the beginning to learn my place. Our music appreciation teacher was also the chorus director, so naturally we sang songs from musicals. My favorite song was “June Is Busting Out All Over” from Carousel because it was lively and fun to sing. But the song that puts me back on the risers, standing with my fellow altos, is “Silver Bells.” Why? I think it’s the one song where we truly blended as a chorus.

The Beatles debuted as I was making the transition from junior high school to high school. The first time I heard “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” I was in the kitchen, listening to the radio that was on the top of the refrigerator. I was immediately taken with the song and with them. We regularly watched the Ed Sullivan Show, so I saw their first appearance on our black-and-white TV. It was an amazing performance and I was hooked, along with 50 million other girls! (Yes, I’m a Beatlemaniac, and proud of it!)

High school was all about trying to fit into a new school—we lived 30 miles from school and I had to make the long trip to and from school every day. Music helped me through the difficult adjustments and the long trips. Besides the Beatles, I loved Sonny and Cher, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys. I’d listen to the radio or my records for hours late into the night, singing along. There were Beatles pictures on the walls and my dresser was covered with stacks of binder paper listing song lyrics that I carefully copied as I heard them on the radio.

When I hear “Yesterday,” I see that tiny bedroom with my reflection in the dresser mirror as I dreamed about someday seeing the Beatles perform, thought about all the cute boys at school, and wished for things I didn’t have.

Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” brings back the pain of having few “real” friends and the feeling of not belonging, not being pretty enough, or skinny enough to hang out with the cool kids. (Ahhh, teenage angst—there’s nothing like it!)

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth…

—Janis Ian

When I hear the Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” I see every turn on Highway 1 for the 30 miles from Gorda to Cambria—the five of us sitting in that station wagon, listening to the radio, madly trying to finish any homework that we’d left to the last minute.

And “Sounds of Silence” brings back stargazing on a summer’s night in Gorda. You could see more stars than you ever knew existed, shining brightly in black night sky. It is hard to find a sky like that in the city—obscured by buildings and washed out by lights, you can barely tell there are stars.

We moved to a different town for my junior year, so it was a shorter bus ride to school. The radio was always playing then, too. Songs by the Monkees remind me of the bus stops along the route from Cayucos to Cambria. “Devil with a Blue Dress” and “Under My Thumb” bring back school dances in the darkened multipurpose room with crepe paper decorations and the local bands trying hard to imitate the popular groups.

“Light My Fire” will always bring back the memory of sitting on an auditorium floor, listening to Jim Morrison and Doors sing it live! At one point during the concert, he came out into the audience and danced with some of the girls (not me). Everyone was moving in time to the music. It was an incredible experience!

I was still singing in my senior year, this time in the school chorus. Unlike my earlier chorus experience, we did not sing a lot of popular music. However, for Baccalaureate, the chorus sang “The Impossible Dream.” Granted, it’s not a song you hear very often, except maybe in elevators, but when I do hear it, I see the polished pews of the church where the ceremony was held. I hear our voices blending:

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause!

—Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion

When I went off to college, Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles were still with me, but I also listened to anti-war songs—it was at the height of student strikes and demonstrations against the Viet Nam war—and Judy Collins. I was part of a campus tutoring program and when we weren’t class, we would get together and sing. As a group, our favorite song was “Edelweiss” from the Sound of Music (learning all those songs from musicals came in handy…). I can see Brian with his bushy brown beard and deep blue eyes, playing his guitar and singing with me as we sat on the lawn outside of Morris Daily Auditorium enjoying a beautiful spring day.

It was in college that I had my first serious relationship, serious enough where we were unofficially engaged. The biggest obstacle was that I lived in San Jose and he lived in LA, and I didn’t have a driver’s license (much less a car). I’d fly to LA or he’d drive to San Jose—it got old quickly and the relationship was doomed. We parted as friends, both understanding that it was no one’s fault. I have many wonderful memories of that time, but two stand out. The first was being taken to see the dress rehearsal of Hair! before it opened in LA. This was the first professional theater performance I ever attended and it was amazing. Each song from the musical brings back the image of the cast on stage and the excitement I felt. The song “Aquarius” reminds me of how happy we were that night.

The second memory is a Thanksgiving I spent with my almost-fiancé. He made dinner reservations at a Lake Arrowhead restaurant and took me on a driving tour on our way there. His little Fiat had a tape player and he played his favorite albums by Iron Butterfly, Judy Collins, and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. By the time we were driving up the mountain road leading to the lake, night had fallen. The long version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is forever tied with that winding highway, the road illuminated only with our headlights or those of the traffic around us, as we climbed up the dark mountains towards Lake Arrowhead.

Music played a small part in my relationship with my first husband. Early in our marriage, we decided that college wasn’t working for me and I needed to work. So I got a job, got my driver’s license, and we bought a second car so I could commute. Of course, I played the radio or taped music and sang along as I went back and forth to work. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver and “Witchy Woman” by the Eagles remind me of those commutes, the work lunches at a local pizza parlor, and the friendships I shared with my co-workers.

When our daughter came along, we needed my income so I continued working. I’d sing her all the way to the babysitter’s house in the mornings and all the way home in the evenings. Sometimes I’d make up songs for her, but mostly I sang along with the radio. She really loved it when I sang to her. I can see her smiling face whenever I hear “Just the Way You Are” by Billy Joel.

I said I love you and that’s forever
And this I promise from the heart
I could not love you any better
I love you just the way you are.

—Billy Joel

As my marriage deteriorated, I stopped singing at home—I only sang to our daughter. “It Don’t Matter to Me” by Bread and “Longer” by Dan Fogelburg both bring back the incredible pain and heartbreak of that time. It’s amazing how much these two songs still affect me because it is now over 28 years behind me and I really wouldn’t have things any different than they are now. It’s just the power of the music.

Once I got past the hurt and I realized that the marriage was dead, I resolved to move on. And just in time there was Gloria Gaynor with my new anthem: “I Will Survive.” I sang along with the radio, but I never returned to singing at home.

I dated a bit for the first year after the breakup but it wasn’t until I met John (my second husband) that I really felt like singing again. He introduced me to Phoebe Snow’s music (which I love), Los Lobos (which I also love), The Blasters and rockabilly (yes!), jazz (uh, no), and the blues (way too depressing). Before we met, I had started listening to Latin music and was learning to appreciate it more. As it turned out, he loved the Latin music too, so we enjoyed an eclectic mix of music at home.

There are many artists and songs that we both love. When it came time for our wedding, we played a Vivaldi concerto during the ceremony. At the reception, we played some of our favorites, including “Marie, Marie” by The Blasters and “Always” by Stevie Wonder. But John will forever be my “Poetry Man” and “The Spy Who Loved Me.”

Music is very much a part of my daily life. I work best when I have music to keep my momentum going, so I’m usually plugged into my iPod when I have a client project. I have the best workouts at the gym when they placy lively or Latin music. While I no longer listen to the radio, I am introduced to new artists or songs by listening to movie soundtracks, hearing interesting songs on TV shows, or having my daughter recommend something. I also track our favorite artists and will buy new CDs or iTunes when they come out. My iPod song library is what you would call eclectic: Vivaldi concertos, the Black Eyed Peas, the Beatles, Christina Aguilera, Billy Joel, Lila Downs, Queen, and the Doors, just to name a few.

On road trips, my husband and I have dueling iPods. If I promise to listen to some of his blues and jazz music, he has to listen to some of my girl-angst rock and Shakira. Occasionally, I’ll sing, but I’ve pretty much lost my voice from disuse. There are two songs, though, that are guaranteed to make me sing out loud: “Luz de mi Vida (Light of my Life)” by Los Lobos and “In My Life” by the Beatles.

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

—Paul McCartney and John Lennon

Yeah, I got the music in me…

– 4/17/2008

Leave a Reply