We had a hunter green rug in the living room of the house I grew up in. I would find a sunny spot during the winter and lay there soaking up the warm rays while listening to the radio. I heard stories of a girl with a horse named Wild Fire who ran away during a storm, a little boy who flew with a man on the moon wondering when his dad would come home, a mother asking Montana to give her child a home, California girls and Uptown Girls and the piano man. For me, the lyrics are what spoke to me before the rhythm and beat. They drew me in and sent my mind to places I had never been, evoked feelings I had never had, opened doors to lives so different from mine and, at times, was a mirror to my feelings and surroundings. On that green rug listening to those songs, my life’s soundtrack began being composed.
When my mom piled us into the car for the drive to visit Nana and Pop-pop in the Poconos she would have the radio on, same station as what was on at home. We passed the cement factory with the polka-dotted trucks and polka-dotted metal towers that clung to the edge of the upper Manhattan riverfront as I listened the story of a man who walked through the desert on a horse with no name. He was happy to be out of the rain. That memory is lucid in my mind and the song plays to the images I remember of slowly passing through the city to the George Washington Bridge.
I sat in the front seat of my parent’s van, my father in the driver’s seat. It was a rare moment of being alone with him (I am the oldest of four.) I can’t remember where we were going. We passed the remains of Playland Amusement Park in Rockaway and its rickety wooden roller coaster as we drove east. A graffiti covered A train lumbered slowly past us. John Denver’s ‘Leaving, On A Jet Plane’ wafted from the speakers. I sang the words with my dad as planes took off from JFK and, seemingly weightless, disappeared above us into the sky.
Later in life the soundtrack was more one of my choosing. Sitting on the bus on the way home from cross-country practice, walkman in hand and headphones on, listening to Blondie, New Order, Depeche Mode, Sonic Youth, the Pixies, Madonna, the Beastie Boys, Tribe Called Quest, Red Hot Chili Peppers and others. I remember crying during the song ‘Enola Gay’ by OMD as I sat in the way way back of a station wagon on en route to Great Adventure watching the lush green trees blur into the bright blue cloud speckled sky through my tears; Destroyed by the story of a soldier returning home to his wife to find he is a ghost. I remember singing ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ by the Go-Go’s with half the track team on the way to a Fordham University invitational meet and meaning every word of that song. “Pay no mind to what they say, it doesn’t matter anyway. Our lips are sealed.” And I remember belting ‘I Love Rock n’ Roll’ by Joan Jett and the Black Hearts on our way back from a performance of Annie, windows down and the cool November air flipping through our hair.
Once I was in New York music took on another form of soundtrack. At the Fulton Street Station of the 4 & 5 trains I could clearly hear the drum beat of the Red Hot Chili Peppers ‘Breaking the Girl’ as trains pulled into the station. BUM-bada-dum BUM bada-dum BUM bada-dum BUM BUM BUM “twisting and turning your feelings are burning you’re breaking the girl….” I heard that song every day for the year I stood on that platform waiting for the train to my coffee shop job.
There were the smoky cafes playing Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, the bars with the jukebox blasting ‘Sweet Caroline’, book stores playing Natalie Merchant and Tracy Chapman, record shops playing the oldest Sex Pistols LP or the newest Nine Inch Nails release. And then there were the coffee shops like Heaven where I worked with a girl who introduced me to Ani Difranco and Elliott Smith. I returned the favor introducing her to Billy Bragg and Fugazi. I remember the first time I heard Ani Difranco’s ‘Not A Pretty Girl’. The smell of blueberry muffins, nearly finished baking, filled the room and the espresso grinder hummed as I prepped a latte. “…and imagine you’re a girl just trying to finally come clean, knowing full well they’d prefer you were dirty and smiling.” The smells and sounds of that moment will forever be associated with that song for in that moment the story she told changed me and became part of my story.
As I drove home last week with the mid afternoon winter sun bouncing off the snow, NPR’s Studio 360 was doing a story on Nirvana. Instantly I was transported back to Tower Records on Broadway and East 4th Street in the early 90’s. I remember flipping through the rows of CD’s as Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’ blasted through the store. The song seemed to define my mindset, and perhaps the mindset of most of my friends who were thumbing through CD’s with me. It was pure, raw emotion and the story was not an easily understood story, which pretty much summed up my emotional state at the time. Now, hearing Nirvana on NPR as I drove to grab my kids from school, I was reminded how much of my life’s memories are scored to their own extended soundtrack- an eclectic diverse collection spanning decades and genres, involving countless numbers of people who knowingly or unwittingly became part the music. A musical soundtrack that is sometimes dark and deep, sometimes dance worthy and sometimes just a ton of fun.