Beginning this ode, I’m reminded of a scene in Almost Famous, when the budding young rock journalist sits down at last with the elusive guitarist, asking first, “what do you love about music?” to which the answer was “to begin with, everything”. Yes.
My first awareness of music is in my parents’ house in Middlebury, Vermont, where they played records at top volume in the evenings and I performed in my diapers. (Hooray for growing up in the pre-cell phone camera, social media age!) I remember the Starry Night painted soles of Cyndi Lauper’s shoes on the back cover of Shes’ So Unusual and understanding I needed heels to perform her songs. I remember thinking in my three year-old brain that the “instrumental” of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun sounded a lot like when a structure made of my painted wooden blocks crashed over. It made sense to put on my mom’s heels and strike the cylindrical pieces of wood together for my Cyndi impersonation. The title track sounded like the way Betty Boop looked. These are my earliest experiences of music.
I was lucky to have youngish parents who were into New Wave and MTV, the hallmarks of 1980s popular music. They may has listened to NPR in the mornings, cursing every time Ronald Regan’s name was invoked, but the weekends and evenings were all about playing records. We lived in L.A. in the summer of 1984: the Summer Olympics, KROQ, Woody Woodpecker cartoons. All Night Long (All Night)! My anthems as a four year-old were Walking on Sunshine and the Pointer Sisters’ Jump (For My Love). Both made my little heart beat faster, and both were about falling in love, and looking back, developmentally speaking, my little brain probably responded to the game-like commands of walking and jumping.
We’ve talked about Bowie and Prince. Both visionary, utterly original artists ran my little imagination with their eerie, other-wordly, eccentric voices, the fantasies their lyrics spun. Let’s Dance and Purple Rain are two of the very first records I remember, and for that I’m privileged.
Soon, I tumbled headlong into the (forgive me) magical mystery tour that is The Beatles. I held my parents’ LPs from college with reverence, imagining I had been alive to purchase them, during the time. There was a summer, I think I was eight, when I got up with my dad every morning so he could drop me off at daycamp on his way to work. I remember him singing me awake, “here comes the sun, little darlin’…” which would wake me with a smile and we would finish the verse together. I can remember he and I grinning at each other, going through our morning routine, saluting the sun those bright Seattle summer mornings. Good Day, Sunshine!
My best friend in the neighborhood was a real Beatles fan. An aficionado, really. Her dad had been in a band in the 60’s and did LSD. He had a tattoo on his forearm of a butterfly. So obviously at ten years old she had the chops, being his daughter, this man whose collection of literally all formats was esoteric and arcane and absolutely fucking legit. She blasted Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey and Glass Onion and Cry, Baby, Cry and talked about their hidden meanings. We were a little young yet to realize the meaning of every far-out song on the White Album is “drugs”.
We spent hours in her room, lying on her big four poster bed, listening to the Abbey Road medley on repeat. Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through The Bathroom Window captivated us, two girls on a raft, swept down a river of sound, lyrics weaving idyllic or disturbing imagery, depending on which psyche you were inhabiting (mine or hers). Rubber Soul was the soundtrack to our short lived Monopoly games, where once Park Place and Boardwalk were purchased, (immediately by the first person to land on them), we lost interest. The music was always there, waiting to whisk us away.
When I rediscovered Revolver during graduate school, I could never listen to Tomorrow Never Knows because its haunting mystique had dissipated years before, on that same four poster bed, when my childhood best friend was going through that special teenage brand of depression, and I lay quietly next to her as she reached for her stereo to hit repeat at the final strains, again and again and again, weeks on end. I can’t listen to it now because its haunting power has been restored, reminding me of that sad, drawn young girl who grew out of loving me just a few years ago.
I sat on a steep grassy hillside on a baking hot Central Washington May weekend, gazing down at the stage there, the Columbia River Gorge wending its exquisite way across the state behind it. It was a terrible time, the early stages of a post-crisis life. The beginning of a reconstruction era, when everything was exposed and vulnerable and new. Animal Collective’s chirping, bright, Beach Boys-esque My Girls floated up to me, and transformed the scene in front of me to my coronation. The sun shone more brilliantly with every line, the haze in the air increasing with every note. A shimmering crown lowered itself from the center of the sun, filling my body with light and warmth as it came to rest upon my head. I understood with perfect clarity that my low self-esteem was a self-imposed prison I could choose to free myself from at any time. My Girls had played nearly every morning I awoke alone in my friend’s parent’s basement, tinny sounds issuing from a cheap, hand-me-down radio. What had born radio witness to my isolation, live became an elevation of my personhood. It changed me. Yes, it was very spiritual. Yes, I was high. It means just as much to me seven years later, and my mood instantly lifts any time I hear the beginning notes of that song.
I hear Mariah Carey’s Dreamlover and feel adolescent sexual longing in the pit of my stomach. I have an exciting summer crush who I may or may not ever see again, and I want him so bad! The chorus, so pleading, such longing, is the exact feeling of thirteen year-old yearning. CeCe Penniston’s Keep On Walkin’ is an anthem of feminine assertion of independence. It’s the feeling of lying on the futon in your room that’s just been “remodeled” to suit the tastes of a twelve year-old, not a nine year-old. Paging though Seventeen, peach paint softly glowing on the walls, CeCe’s directives coming from the latte-colored DreamMachine clock radio, KUBE93. Very chic. Very adult.
I love the way music is strung throughout all the days of my life, weaving the sum of my experiences into a cohesive, collective whole. It brings all the parts and iterations of myself together, drawing the inner family close, a celebration of every moment, every feeling. Even the moments of crushing loss, of utter existential loneliness, of rejection and unrelenting depression become transcendent against the backdrop of music’s astonishing nostalgic power. It’s all so beautiful.
You were wondering when I would get to Nirvana, right? Well, the tone and feeling and mood changes, the moment I type that name. Nirvana is my soul. And I don’t care how adolescent and way deep and poseur-ish that sounds. I know what Kurt Cobain means to me and we don’t need your validation. See? I’m defensive, even. OK, well, for those of you who don’t know, I grew up in the city of Seattle, right in the city, during the Grunge era. I was too young to go to the rock clubs, and I will always lament that, but I was old enough to listen to the radio every waking moment. I was in a friend’s basement rec room watching MTV when an intensely saturated color palette of a video came on. The song had these zinging chords I could feel vibrating through me. The singer widened his eyes, training them directly into the camera, a cobalt blue, searing themselves into my soul. This is how we met.
You have to understand why it’s significant. For those at my middle school, you liked a certain type of music, which then dictated your social standing. I hate even admitting that there was a time I didn’t listen to music for joy or exploration or transcendence, but to fit in. If you listened to rap and R&B you were cool, and therefore popular. If you listened to 60s and 70s era rock with your parents, that was pretty cool and you could be popular. If you listened to alternative rock and grunge, you were an outcast. If you didn’t listen to music, you were no one at all. So I was all the way into rap and R&B and still trying to figure out how to break into the popular girl clique when I saw the Heart-Shaped Box video that afternoon. I was in no mood to change my musical proclivities, risking everything I’d worked so socially hard for.
Sure I knew Nirvana. For years everywhere I turned, there seemed to be a poster of a naked baby boy swimming after a dollar bill on a hook. And there was that song about the deodorant brand no one would ever use because the name was so dumb. I just needed a personal audience with Kurt Cobain to get it. A friend used to have this quote hanging in her room, “Eddie Vedder makes an emotional connection with his fans that Kurt Cobain simply won’t allow”, against a shirtless picture of Eddie performing inside a crowd of fans. Please. Kurt was the very first person with whom I felt an emotional connection, and he managed to project that through a screen, via a previously recorded video. Talk about ahead of his time.
It is very difficult for me to put in words what the experience of discovering Nirvana and losing Kurt mean(t) to me, other than to say not one ounce of my emotional fervor has lessened in all these years. The monuments of my sorrow and my love have not diminished with time.
I’ll do Pennyroyal Tea, OK? I’ll tell you how that is my favorite song, on my favorite record and it evokes the color violet, deep violet with fields of sunflowers. There’s a live version, too, from MTV Unplugged. The rest of the band stood, empty-handed, while Kurt struggled through the intensely personal lyrics, no backup, just him and his guitar. Just how he ordered it. Vulnerable and tyrannical. The terrible contradictions of the human soul, the human experience, wrapped into a single person, illuminated through his work.
The current, KEXP-driven era began a decade ago, when unemployed, paralyzed and stunned, my boyfriend and I sat around the apartment, not looking for work, listening to the radio for 10 hours a day. I knew I’d missed out on a precious resource by never using KEXP, opting for illegal downloads and C89, the local dance station, during college and beyond. I was bound and determined to make KEXP a guiding force of my taste, and the long months without work certainly enabled and nurtured that relationship. Aside from Nirvana, I owe the station everything I have. Their DJs were with me when I was a newly-minted master of counseling with no prospects, no ideas. They provided the soundtrack to my house parties. They drove everywhere with me, they woke up with me, they were my source of company when I lived on a mattress on the floor in my friend’s parent’s basement. They set the mood for nights in with friends, the low-lit living room vibe where the best conversations happen.
Music enchants me, shaping my sense of self, enhancing my moods, collecting and storing sense memories it so generously renews on demand. I press play and at once I’m in that hazy art deco club downtown, Hot Chip leaping around onstage, segueing No Fit State into New Order’s Temptation. How is it even possible, this magic, my favorite songs of both bands becoming one? A song comes on and there I am, in that dark, gritty little neighborhood place, packed in against the wall as Ratatat blows my house down with Wildcat. I click the link and I’m on that grassy hillside being crowned, sun glowing on my face. Or that other time, years later when the frontman asked for the stage floods to illuminate the top of the hill, so he could see me. I just about rolled down that hill from sheer ecstasy (no, I wasn’t high) when he launched into Reflektor.
The very essence of these times envelops me, and I can choose, on demand (what a privileged era indeed, I grew up you used to have to hover by your stereo, blank tape cued up, ready to push record the moment the radio put on your song) which memories to access. The soundtracks are there, all of them, inseparable from my life.