September 30, 2013

Moonlight Sonata- Five Movements

It's Tuesday, and if the last few weeks have been any indication, that means I'm linking up with Jen for Twisted Mix Tape Tuesday.

Jen Kehl

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
Almost immediately, I began to beg for piano lessons. When I was five, I started to play. I was never very good, but I loved it. Each year I insisted I wanted to play the Moonlight Sonata, and my teachers smiled and suggested more appropriate, simple compositions- She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain, or Can You Feel the Love Tonight. When I was twelve I pressured my teacher into working on the Moonlight Sonata with me, and he caved. And then I made the tragic discovery- my hands... my hands are too small. They will always be too small. I will never make the octave two, not on a traditional piano.

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.
I felt like an impostor. Like a fugitive. Like the guy behind the counter would see me with my cassette tape, and laugh at me, because this was rock music, not oldies, not the Beatles, not my parents collection of Beach Boys and Pink Floyd, this music was cool. Too cool for me.

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...
When I was thirteen, my parents let my sisters and me go to the midnight Halloween showing- complete with stage cast. But that night there was a problem backstage. Half the actors were in a car accident, and the director (who normally played Magenta) had walked in on her husband and a sixteen year old girl. But you know what they say, "The Show Must Go On." She saw me sitting in the front row, dressed to a T like Magenta, with my big poofy hair, beaming at her.

"You- do you know this movie?"

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?"

I don't think she figured out how old I was for months. But by then it was sort of too late. I'd ingratiated myself to the whole cast and crew. The Dynamic Tension stage cast became sort of my second family. We practiced our pre-show Thriller dance routine in my parents' driveway. When I needed a ride somewhere, I called my Rocky crew. We partied together, we vacationed together, we practically lived together.

These weirdos were my best friends. Some of them still are.
When I was seventeen I was in college, taking 27 credit hours. I was acting in two plays with the school- La Casa Bernarda Alba and Gypsy, I was applying to transfer to art school, and still doing Rocky.

Each night I got out of class after 7pm, went to a friend's house for rehearsal, then stayed in the basement- building set pieces and sewing what felt like thousands of red velvet corsets for the pre-show Chop Suey routine. At 5am, MASH came on TV, and while my friends watched, I slept on the couch. For two hours I slept, and then I headed back to school. It was one of the best years of my life.

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.
I'm not sure how to describe all the parts of my personality that are what they are today because of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and my cast. My ability to shelve fear and go for it, my jaded lack of enthusiasm for drugs and alcohol, my can-do "The Show Must Go On" attitude, my inability to get ahead of things and not wait until the last possible moment... my undying love of all things theatrical and campy... my understanding of the people who so often feel neglected by society, especially. Dynamic Tension was gender neutral, some years girls played Rocky and Frank, once in a while a guy played Columbia in drag. Some years Janet was black, some years Ola Ray was white, it didn't matter. What mattered was that we loved what we were doing, and we loved each other.

Nobody cared if somebody was gay, or straight, or asexual. Nobody cared if somebody was half naked, running backstage in nothing but a g-string and pasties. For all the worry people have about exposure to sexuality being bad, I have to say... being around all sorts of different people in as free and explicit an environment as that? It fostered nothing but respect and acceptance.

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.
And I know it's cheesy, but maybe... just maybe... the most important thing I took away from those years I took away from the movie itself.

"Don't dream it- be it."


  1. I love this. First - that the Beatles made you edgy :) I grew up listening to my dads two compilation best of Beatle's albums as well before moving on to "real" pop music. Every now and then at family dinners I make a passing comment about how great the Rolling Stones are just to get a rise out of him.

    As for Zombie? I still have that one on my IPod. Such a haunting, beautiful song.

    And Rocky Horror - what a great story you have to go with ... well, such a great story. In high school we use to watch the movie in 30 minute bits over subsequent lunch hours at my friends house. And I dressed up as Magenta for Halloween once (which doesn't hold a candle to this tale - but still loved it). I pull the CD out and play it once in a while still as well. I also remember trying to request the Time Warp from time to time at my university bar and being informed by the DJ that "this wasn't a wedding". No appreciation for the classics!

    1. "I also remember trying to request the Time Warp from time to time at my university bar and being informed by the DJ that "this wasn't a wedding". No appreciation for the classics!'

      That is hilarious!

  2. OK, you are right, this is phenomonal and you should have written my post today! I feel like copying and pasting your whole RHPS thing right in where mine was. What an amazing story! Wow, it really did effect who you would be, Wow. That's all I can say... wow.

    1. Maybe on Halloween you and I can go to a midnight showing. :)

  3. Zombie is one of the songs you simply just cannot get out of your head! Following you on Bloglovin.

  4. Awesome choices with the James Taylor and Beatles. I loved your RHPC story and reminded me of a friend I had in HS that played Columbia in the live cast that played along with the midnight showings every Saturday night. I could see exactly what you described in her.

    1. As weird and socially maladjusted as so many of us Rocky folk are... it's a good group of people. <3

  5. Loved the Moonlight as 'proof-of-lesson', in my childhood piano days.
    It was my choice of music to work at as I learned to play scales! (...this is like, within the first 3 months of lessons...that it was way beyond the reasonable scope of my beginner status? lol nah...)

    Abbey Road totally resonates with my first year of college... takes me right back.

    RHPS? lol excellent story how cool that must have been...

  6. I so love this. That your dad sang James Taylor to you and that now, James never sounds "right" - so perfect. That you went from James Taylor to Moonlight Sonata to Rocky Horror makes you my new hero. The fact that you got to be onstage for Rocky Horror at 13 REALLY makes you my new hero. I don't think I was participating (or watching it) by throwing toast and signing along until I was 16 or so. Excellent post. So glad you linked up today!

    1. Thank you! I've wanted an excuse to write about Rocky for so long, I'm really grateful you finally gave me one!!!

  7. Excellent job! I've been a fan of the Rocky Horror Picture Show since it first hit the states. No, I never performed in it, but I was in the audience doing the moves and singing right along ... "Damn It, Janet!" Your tastes are so varied, much like mine. All genres make us the complete individual, as all offer us another facet for our lives. Great post!

  8. OH MY GOD YOU ARE SO COOL! Great post. Love your choices and how you traced your growth through Rocky.

    1. Cool? Good lord, really? I think I have to put that in my resume. :)
      Seriously though, spend ten minutes with me. I promise I'll disabuse you of that notion in about fifteen minutes. :P

  9. It's a Rocky Horror Week and that's cause for celebration as far as I'm concerned. Also? JT. The original JT. And the Beatles and Beethoven. This list is golden. Let's do the time warp. Again.

  10. I'm glad that you never say give up just to learn that key. My tutor in Phoenix Piano Lessons always says 'try and try until you succeed' that was the reason I'm still loving playing piano. I'm honored to be part of your blog. Cheers!

  11. This was a delight, and your snapshot of the Rocky Horror life was an added treat (one of the things that I was never able to take off my bucket list - you know - years before I knew to acknowledge it as such...) thanks so much for sharing your story =)



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