My own upbringing was a tangled web of music that no doubt shaped my future as a lover of genres one wouldn’t typically see cohabitating in one person’s collection. My mother filled our home with warm, crackly, hiss-and-pop vinyl--The Chieftains’ amazing and seldom heard “The Year of the French” bursting from the speakers with such force it rattled the single-pane windows. Peter, Paul, and Mary, The Rolling Stones, anything from Motown Records--that was her soundtrack. It was my mom who took me to Seattle’s Folklife Festival, and the Symphony, and to hear The Messiah echo through vaulted cathedral ceilings.
My Dad was one of those early adopters of the compact disc. He bought a cd player the second they were available, and hooked it up to two tiny speakers in his apartment. The man didn’t own a proper bed and used an industrial wire spool as a table, but he soon had a massive music collection to replace the records he had lost or discarded in his transient migrations. Every Saturday, he would take my older sister and I to Silver Platters, one of the first cd stores in the country. Back in those days you could flip through these books of catalogues, pick which cds you wanted to listen to, and bring your request to the counter. You could listen to anything in the whole store. The three of us would sit there for hours and hours, just listening to music. Each week we would take turns picking the next cd for my Dad’s collection. My sister, at 11, picked The Sonics and a few years later, The Pixies. My Dad grabbed Jimmy Cliff and Dire Straits. I picked Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode, and Leonard Cohen.
We’d head back to my Dad’s apartment after our music adventures and lie around reading “The Weekly World News” while we ate Pringles and listened to our new album. We didn’t always agree on each other’s picks--my sister couldn’t get behind my choice of UB40, while I thought Van Halen left something to be desired (I came around). My Dad was less than enthusiastic about both of his daughters wanting The Beastie Boys. But we all agreed Joe Cocker was a good choice, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” was a winner, and The Beatles “Abbey Road” could definitely stay.
No matter what we listened to, though, my Dad would launch into some rapturous discussion on the chord structures, the rhythm, or the bass line. “Can you hear it, Cedar? Can you hear that bass line?” he’d shout with the fervor of a true believer. Sometimes I could, sometimes I couldn’t. But damn, if I didn’t want to. “Many people can’t hear bass lines,” he said, with the tone of voice usually reserved for discussing the horribly maimed. I didn’t want to be one of “those people.” “Oh, I can hear it,” I assured him, straining so hard to make out the underlying lines the veins in my neck stood on end. “Meh, whatever,” my sister said, returning to her article on “Bat Boy! Found in a Cave!” and her bbq-flavored Pringles.
“Whatever” wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to be a music afficianado. A music snob. An effete purveyor of musical goodness. I’d struggled through a year of piano lessons at six, but the teacher had irritated me so much I begged to quit. Taking a decidedly more DIY approach, I plunked out compositions on our old upright that sounded like a bastardization of Enya and Philip Glass.
Much of my early music education came from MTV. My Dad didn’t own a TV, but he would escort us to the Clubhouse of whatever apartment complex he was living in, and deposit us in front of the big screen while he went to work out. I am not exaggerating when I say that we sometimes watched upwards of 12 hours of MTV in a single weekend, absorbing practically every video that made it to the screen in the 80s and early 90s. My sister loved the metal, the rock, and the first nascent grunge. I loved the pop, the British imports, the dancey party music like Deeeelite and B-52s. Hopped up on Dr. Pepper and freedom, I’d perfect my A-ha Molly Ringwald dance while my sister learned to head bang. I fawned over the men who looked like they might be gay (or actually were) while she raved about the unwashed, burly types with contractor arms.
My music appreciation extended far beyond the confines of my parent’s respective homes. I made sure to be the teacher’s assistant in orchestra, and hung around the jazz band like a middle school groupie. Years of audition-only choir and a somewhat obsessive need to know every word to every musical added up to an impressive percentage of my life spent singing.
“I’d rather be blind than deaf,” I told people. “I’d die if I couldn’t hear music. Die, I tell you!”
After college, I went to work in the music industry. I hopped on board at an interesting time--the last gasp before the rapid decline. This meant the industry vets were still there, with their crazy stories about hot-tubbing with Poison, and snorting lines with rockstars. They had their battle scars--hepatitis C, younger wives, bottles of O’Douls drunk with furtive glances at the young folks’ Jack and cokes. But sober and not-so-sober, we partied at night and pushed records by day. It was a pretty great gig.
But even though the epic evenings were built in, and the perks were insane for a twenty-something, the fundamental nature of making my living off the commodification of art chipped away at my psyche. It hardened me. I stopped being able to hear music the same way. I’d get my weekly pile of promo cds--a stack sometimes taller than my computer monitor, and impatiently tear through them--keeping my finger firmly on the forward button as I sped through the tracks, listening to each song for seconds. “Nope, no, god no, ummm, this one’s ok, no, really? Oh hell no.”
Sad, too, was the way I came to feel about musicians--those crazy-eyed desperadoes who would corner me at shows, pumping me for specific information on sales, calling me from Wichita, Kansas to ask why some Indie record shop didn’t have their album. I didn’t want to watch an artist I adored corner my husband outside the bathroom to tell him about the eight-ball of coke he snorted with a buxom actress the night before. I didn’t want to see the incredible orangeness of a singer who’d spent too much time in a tanning bed. I didn’t want to have the famous grandson of a famous country artist grab my ass in a crowded tour bus hallway (well, actually, that was kind of funny). Musicians became altogether too real when they were chewing noisily over meet & greet Indian food. I crossed their fourth wall, and I never went back.
Years went by. I left the industry and returned to civilian life. The jaded layers peeled away and I went back to hearing music like a normal person. I had a baby. I got a mandolin. I crept back to shows and took to haunting record shops again. I became obsessed with French music and developed a taste for big band jazz. Folk, alt-country, old country, anything old, really, marked me--my soundtrack a scenescape of road-trip, wide-angle, sepia-toned tunes.
Whole days pass now where I don’t listen to anything at all. No radio. No music. Desperate for quiet, I often spend what little alone time I get in absolute silence. But then, when I remember to put something on, I am shocked every single time by the effect it has on me. Suddenly, I’m dancing--my awkward, 30-something, white girl moves blessedly shielded by curtains as I rock on my heels and flail purposefully. Sometimes I sing too--the cobwebs of my once bell-like soprano voice charred and lowered by age and disuse. Music rocks me to my core and I find myself feeling--tearing up or funneling joy, my neck tensing under the effort of releasing emotions I’m so careful to control most days. It frees me, fuels me, takes me somewhere else. But most importantly, it reminds me who I am.