This week is an interesting challenge. The five songs which made me who I am today. This is less of a mix tape, and more of a musical biography.
When I was small, so small to only have the vaguest, faintest memories, the strongest memory fragments are of my father singing me lullabies. He sang some traditional Hebrew folk songs, some Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel tunes, and the occasional traditional lullaby or camp song... but far and away the bulk of his lullabies were James Taylor songs. To me, the sound of James Taylor singing will always seem somehow wrong. His inflection is always off. His timing is always oddly rigid to me. To me, the only way to sing his songs is the way my father sang them. Slowly, clearly, sitting in the dark of the attic bedroom I shared with my older sister, with me laying in the top bunk- peering down at him.
So why has this song made me who I am? Because I'm fundamentally a family person, because nothing says "family" to me so much as a parent singing lullabies to their kids in the dark, knowing that the other parent is beyond the glowing rectangle of light that leads downstairs again. If I had to pick a song that embodied security and safety and love, this would be it.
My family lived about five hours away from my grandparents. Every so often, we'd pile in the car and drive up to their house. One snowy night, we arrived late. My parents were exhausted, but my sisters and I- aged 3, 4, and 5- were wired. We bounced around the kitchen, ran circles through the living room, and no doubt screamed our heads off. That was when my grandfather sat down at the piano and began to play- the Moonlight Sonata's first movement.
My sisters and I curled up on the couch with my mother to listen. I watched Aunt Genocide and Aunt Something Funny drift off to sleep, but I stayed awake, rapt. It was the most amazing piece of music I had ever heard, coming from my grandparents' incredible piano. My grandfather didn't speak much, but he played music as though it were conversation. I had seen him play the guitar, the mandolin, and I had tooted on his recorder many times, but to watch his hands drift over the keys and hear the rhythmic, lilting sounds... so sad, yet so uplifting...
|That's me in the foreground|
I cried many bitter tears over it. I never really got over it. And once upon a time, I did learn to play the whole thing, flubbing the octave two.
But the Moonlight Sonata taught me about the dedication you need to turn passion into reality. About how cruel the world can be that some things are simply impossible, but that it doesn't diminish them. I still love the Moonlight Sonata. I have never begrudged it my stubby fingers.
Everything instilled in me about the futility of desire... that stems from the Moonlight Sonata.
It may not seem it to you now, but when I was seven years old, Oh! Darling was the epitome of rock and roll. Keep in mind, my general association with music was with James Taylor cum lullabies, school songs, and classical piano. Listening to Paul McCartney's guttural screaming fundamentally changed me. I remember spending whole afternoons standing in the living room alone, playing the song over and over and screaming as I flailed and spun in circles. I loved the way my throat felt as the words tore their way through, I loved the rawness- it excited me to giddiness. Singing along with Oh! Darling made me feel... well... like a rock star.
Oh! Darling gave me an appreciation for things that aren't pretty. That gritty and raw are good, and not only in music. My newfound appreciation for Oh! Darling surfaced around the same time as my addiction to horror stories.
Without Oh! Darling, I would never have gravitated towards the beautifully ugly. To disharmony. To the appreciation of a certain kind of pain. If anything about me is edgy, I owe that, strangely enough, to the Beatles.
I wish wish wish I could embed the official video, because for the sake of this theme, it is relevant.
I was ten years old, and my older sister had started watching MTV. I didn't get it. I didn't get Beavis and Butthead, I didn't get Nirvana (yet), I didn't get any of it. And then came... The Cranberries.
Again- I was ten. I didn't know anything about the IRA. I didn't know that there were wars happening all over the world. I was oblivious. I didn't understand half the imagery in the music video. But it spoke to me. And the next time my family went to the Green- the town commons- I followed Aunt Something Funny into the Sam Goody and I bought a cassette tape of the Cranberries, No Need to Argue.
|That's me in the hat.|
As you can see I was VERY cool.
But I bought the tape with my allowance, and I listened to it thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of times. When I got my first CD player, one of my first purchases was Everybody Else Is Doing It Why Can't We.
Over the next decade, my sisters made fun of every single music choice I made. Always mocking the Cranberries. And why wouldn't they? My sense of self consciousness must have been utterly palpable to them. If I felt like an impostor, I must have been one- and they were more than happy to point it out to me at any opportunity. I wasn't cool, The Cranberries were proof of that. But I never wavered. I loved them, and one day, when I was eighteen or so, my younger sister came up to me and said, "You know what? You were right- The Cranberries were a pretty awesome band. I have no idea why we gave you such a hard time about it."
Zombie was sort of my rite of passage into adolescence. Finding my own sense of identity, of what I liked and didn't like, and asserting myself- experiences fraught with self consciousness and fear- that's all tied to this song for me.
I know, right? How on earth can this be one of the most formative songs of my life? It's not- the whole score is.
I'm going to tell you a story now, and you have to understand that nothing about this is as bad as it seems.
I developed breasts early. And thoroughly. For Halloween the year I was twelve, I went as Jailbait- in a tiny cocktail dress with a sign that said "Jailbait" taped to my back. The Rocky Horror Picture Show didn't exactly scandalize me.
|Jeepers, creepers, where'd you get those peepers...|
I'd been watching the movie religiously all week. All year. "Yes!"
"You ever been onstage before?"
"Get the fuck up here."
She didn't ask me how old I was. Why would she? So I scrambled onstage, and the lights dimmed. I stripped to my underwear in the darkened backstage, where nobody seemed in the least perplexed by my presence. I put on the costumes, I improvised the blocking around the set pieces, I hardly fucked it up at all. And at the end of the show, the director walked up to me. "You want to do this again tomorrow?"
|These weirdos were my best friends. Some of them still are.|
I performed in Rocky every Halloween for ten years. Ten years. I was Magenta, Trixie, Janet, and once
even Frank N' Furter. I danced to Thriller, to Stay, to Chop Suey, every year. Whenever stores start laying out their back-to-school stuff, I start rehearsing the Thriller dance in my sleep.
|I do a mean zombie.|
Nobody ever pressured me for sex. Nobody ever made me feel less-than. Nobody ever treated me as though my body were a commodity, or a weapon. As a teenager? Hanging out with twenty five and thirty year olds in next to nothing was liberating, and judgement free.
And prancing around onstage in your underwear? It does wonders for your self esteem. I knew I would never be rail thin, I knew I would never be tall, or have long legs, or a particularly nice butt... but when you're standing onstage- rolls and all- and the audience is cheering for you, you can't help but love your body. To this day, the only person I know I need to please when it comes to my appearance is me.
I owe so much of who I am to those years, which never would have been but for Rocky. Science Fiction Double Feature will forever bring to mind the best times of my youth, and my early adulthood.
|"Trixie" is the Lips, or an usherette in the stage show.|
"Don't dream it- be it."