Saturday, September 7, 2013

Background Music

I don't remember a time in my life, even as a very young child, when there wasn't music playing in the background.  Music in the car and in the house - 33 and 45 records spinning on the player.  Little transistor radios blared through the neighborhood as children rode bikes and caught lightning bugs. 

Music filled my grandpa's kitchen from an old clock radio that sat high on a shelf.  I remember him sipping coffee, beer and whiskey - yes, one right after the other.  He was hunched over in his chair, elbows on his knees as he lit one cigarette off the last.  His kitchen was the scent of Pall Mall smoke and the best soup ever made, simmering on the stove.  My grandpa always looked like he was somewhere else, far away from that little room as the music played.  I remember standing quietly in a corner of that kitchen and listening to Queen - We Are The Champions as I stared at my always silent grandfather and wondered what he thought about hour after hour. 

All of us remember historical events whether bad or good and what we were doing or where we were when they happened.  I can't speak for everyone but I know that so often, a song or an artist is attached to not only those historical events but the personal memories as well.  Music has been the constant, soothing soundtrack to my life.

When I was seven years old, I came downstairs one morning to find my mother kneeling on the floor in front of the TV.  She was crying, sobbing really - great big hiccuping sounds of grief.  Of course it frightened me, wondering if she were ill or hurt.  "What's wrong, mommy?", I asked.  She finally managed to stutter out, "Elvis is dead."  I suppose that seems like an overly dramatic response to a celebrities death but he was Elvis and he belonged to all of the fans that loved him.  Maybe that's why he died so young.  Too much love.

My dad liked to watch cowboy and Indian movies when I was just three and four years old.  He would lay on the floor in front of the TV and I would sit on his back and watch too.  The Indian music fascinated me.  The war dances, the guttural chanting that could turn into beautiful rain dance singing.  There was something brutal but poetic about the native American voice and its cadence.  I have Indian blood so feeling that music means a lot to me.

My mom liked to watch the Sonny & Cher show and my dad watched Hee-Haw.  Every Sunday we went to my grandpa's house for Kentucky Fried Chicken and he let us kids put up TV trays so we could eat and watch the Lawrence Welk show with him.  We, my two brothers and I, were exposed to all genres of music.  I didn't like the Lawrence Welk music at all.  It was painfully boring for a child and I assume for many adults at the time as well.  But, getting to eat in the living room was fun so I suffered through it.

When my older brother was a toddler, he would sit on the floor, swaying and wiggling his fingers as if playing a guitar.  My dad tells that story and says that Doug had music in his head before he was out of diapers.  I remember when I was nine years old, Doug would use a broom as his guitar and a Lite-Brite as an amp to give us concerts.  Now, many years later, he owns too many guitars to count, has played backstage with Randy Rhodes, opened for Night Ranger and others, put out a CD with his band that sadly wasn't very successful.  But he still continues to play in venues like Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas.  He never made it 'big' but his love for music is intrinsic.  He writes and produces music and lyrics every day.

When I was a little girl I would play in the mud with my patty-pans, content to make mud pies while listening to 'Rock The Boat' or 'Afternoon Delight'.  I had no idea what either song meant but I liked the beat to both and would wiggle my scrawny butt in the dirt as I sang along.  I cried each time 'Wildfire' by Michael Martin Murphy played on the radio because somehow, I could understand what that song was about.  My dad would sing 'Brown Eyed Girl' to me and I would smile big and spin around in circles. 

I have very few memories with my mother and the ones I have are mostly bad.  But, I remember how beautiful she was when she was a young woman and how she loved to dance.  Both of my parents enjoyed dancing and were quite good at it.  They taught me how as well.  One night, my mom was getting ready to go out to a disco club with her sister and friends.  All of the women were in my mom's bedroom, doing their hair in hot rollers and putting on makeup.  I sat quietly on the bed and watched them, fascinated.  I wanted so much to be a woman making herself pretty for a night of dancing but I was only six years old. 

The song, We Are Family by Sister Sledge came on and all of the women stopped what they were doing to disco dance together.  My mom grabbed my hand to pull me off the bed and they taught me the steps of the dance.  I felt loved by my mother, included in her life, for just a few minutes.  The memory has remained with me for years.

My dad taught me many of the dances from the 50s and 60s - the stroll, the twist, the bop, hand jive and the mashed potato.  My mother is Swiss and one cannot be a proper Swiss child without learning how to polka.  Dancing just feels good, whether you're young or old, talented or not, you just shake your butt and sway, snap your fingers and shimmy.  Dancing is joyful.

I remember being about 13 and reading Stephen King's book, Salem's Lot by flashlight, under the covers in my bed.  The little clock radio was on low since I was supposed to be sleeping.  Come On Eileen by Dexy's Midnight Runners played while I was reading a particularly scary part of the book and to this day, I cannot hear that song without shivering and thinking of vampires.

We lived on a farm so there was always a lot of hard work to be done.  I danced and sang as I cleaned the house, picked vegetables in the garden and helped feed the cows and pigs.  Like my brother Doug, music was in my head even when it wasn't playing in the background. 

When I became an adult, I continued the tradition of playing music all day.  A radio was on or my computer played mp3s far more often than the drone of a TV could be heard in our house.  Our children were exposed to all genres of music.  My husband, John, loves classical music.  I don't, though I can respect the genius of the music.  Our children don't care for classical either but at least they've heard it often and know some of the composers.  They heard a lot of classic rock, 80s music (as that was mine and John's generation of teen years), country, classic country, pop, blues and R&B.  Later on, our son introduced rap into our household listening and as parents, we even came to not only appreciate the genre and it's worth to the history of music but also to pick our favorite hip-hop artists and listen to it often.

I've found that I'm a person that listens to music by mood.  I have playlists for joy, rage and sadness.  Songs for when I feel introspective and quiet, songs for when I feel sexy.  I have a disease that greatly affects my life every day.  One of those ways is sensitivity to noise.  It doesn't have to be loud or an irritating noise.  Often times, I find myself turning the volume very low and only listening to soothing music.  But I miss my wild jam sessions, head banging to Metallica, growling along with Texas Hippie Coalition and feeling the vibration of drums and bass in my chest. 

Music is, as I said, the background of my life.  It always has been and it always will be.  I need the instruments and lyrics to keep all of my memories as vibrant and alive as when they were made.  I need music to heal me.  I need it to bring me off my chair and already dancing before my feet touch the floor.  I need it to go to sleep.  Music is my friend and companion even when I'm alone.  Music is medicine.