Our home was always full of music when I was growing up. As an adult it has continued to be such at my home.
I was raised on classical music. My mother dreamed of being an opera singer when she was younger. She was a soprano with a three octave range whose voice instructor insisted on telling the surgeon how to remove her tonsils without threatening her career.
Mother used to encourage her mother and father to take the rest of the family out for picnics on Sunday after church. She would rush home, with the promise to clean the house and do the ironing, if she could only listen to the Sunday opera broadcast on the radio in peace.
Sometimes reality gets in the way of dreams. Mother married and had a family, but she never lost her love of music.
To her way of thinking, a cup of tea, a piece of classical music and a long chat could solve any problem.
She loved the power of Beethoven and Bach, the playfulness of Mozart, the commanding voice of Mario Lanza or Caruso, and the playfulness of Jeanette McDonald.
By the time I was in my teens I could hum along with most classical pieces from heart, but never bothered to learn the composer’s names or the names of the compositions. When I left home and become a writer, I found myself listening to classical music. Unlike music with lyrics, it was not a distraction while I wrote. Later, when my mother passed away, I started to listen to the classical station on the radio. It brought back fond memories of her and our lives together.
I longed to have some of the pieces mother had. When I would hear one I recognized on the radio, I would often sit in the car until it was finished, even though that might mean I was late to work. I would write down the composer, take the information to the local music store and ask one of the staff to suggest the best recording of that piece.
I found out two of my favorites were Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov and Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. Both of these pieces transport me into an almost ‘out of body’ experience. I can visualize the action. The storyteller of Scheherazade in the Arabian tent of the Sultan appears before me to weave her story and prolong her life. The swans effortlessly glide across the lake of my imagination in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake until confronted by the hunter.
And during both pieces I can hear the click of the spoon in mother’s cup as she stirs her tea and her soft voice smoothing the wrinkles out of my current problem. They call it ‘classical’ for a reason. It is timeless and oh so memorable.
When my two older sisters were teenagers, they rebelled in every possible way: moderate drug use, immoderate drinking, various unsuitable boyfriends. When my parents were home, they engaged them in melodramatic screaming matches. When my parents were away, they threw wild parties. They bought electric guitars and motorcycles. One of them even spent a night in jail.
Even so, I think my parents were completely unprepared for the level of my adolescent insubordination, because my mode of rebellion was far more troubling and difficult to understand than any they had yet been forced to deal with.
It involved 20th Century classical music.
If you’re not familiar with the music of Henry Cowell, he was the composer who pioneered the use of what came to be known as the tone cluster. Playing a tone cluster involves hitting a group of piano keys with a palm, a fist, or sometimes an entire forearm. The sound is dissonant and jarring and for many headache-inducing. This is partly why I liked it.
My classmates in high school either got into Punk, or Goth, or New Wave. In my mind, I mocked the punks with their torn t-shirts and safety pins for romanticizing anarchy. I scorned the Goths and their black lipstick for romanticizing death. And I reviled the New Wavers and their complicated hair styles for romanticizing their cans of mousse. But a special place in my own particular “worst dressed” line up was reserved for the Hessians
—the Heavy Metal fans with long scraggly hair and seemingly endless supplies of identical-looking Iron Maiden t-shirts. Where the other groups were simply misguided, I believed the Hessians were willfully stupid, spending all their time playing air guitar and banging their heads and making “shout at the devil” hand gestures.
My own hair cut and style of dress were carefully chosen to betray no persona whatsoever within my slender financial means other than that of Conscientious Objector in the Style Wars. I think I was smart enough to realize that choosing one’s mode of rebellion from a culturally-sanctioned menu that may as well have been laminated and posted in the school office was not true rebellion. Unfortunately, I was too stupid to realize that rejecting all socially acceptable forms of rebellion would leave me eating my Hostess Chocolate Frosted Donette Gems alone in front of the school library, while the Hessians played air guitar in front of the Career Center, and the punks smoked cigarettes in the Large Quad, and the Goths re-applied their black lipstick in various abandoned bathrooms.
My aloneness, I reasoned, was not without precedence. Although Henry Cowell has his admirers, he is not wholeheartedly embraced by Classical music aficionados. He was an adamant modernist, but with a wide Romantic streak. Those who enjoy “classical” music because it is soothing and euphonic dislike the tone clusters and other discordant elements in Cowell’s music. Those who enjoy modern atonal music find in it too much melody and not enough intellectual rigor. He was caught between two camps. He stood alone. This is why his music spoke to me.
One piece in particular caught my fancy. It utilized a variety of tone clusters, including a series of arpeggios in which the performer is required to hit a low note with the elbow of his left hand and pivot the forearm down onto the keys, hitting all of the notes on the way up in succession. The right hand, meanwhile, plays a fragile, vaguely ancient-sounding pentatonic melody on the black keys. To me, this piece epitomized the state in which I found myself. The cacophony of the left hand was the noise of the world around me. The purity of the right hand was my embattled interior self, struggling to be heard.
I had to play it at the school talent show.
What I hadn’t counted on was the drum solo.
School talent shows were generally pretty predictable. Kids with every talent imaginable excepting the social performed. Accordions were involved. This year, however, there was a guy playing a drum solo. A Hessian. And he brought his own fan club with him.
So after the incessant pounding of the skins concluded and they cleared the twelve-piece drum kit to the screaming of the Hessian hordes, I went out onstage in a silver smoking jacket—a misconceived wardrobe choice, I now realize—and took my seat at the piano.
The first thing I heard was, “Hey, it’s Liberace!” I mentally gave the heckler points for being culturally literate enough to make that connection.
The next thing I heard was “Hey, it’s a fag!” I gave this heckler no points.
This was the eighties, and being called a fag didn’t carry even a smidgen of the hip cachet it might today. It was an outright slur. The best response, I reasoned, was to wow potential detractors with talent. So I played.
Even as I played I think I realized what the audience must have been witnessing: a gangly, pimply teenager in a silver smoking jacket pounding indiscriminately with one hand and tinkling a fey melody with the other.
And it didn’t rock like the drum solo had.
I left the stage to scattered, listless applause and more than a few intensely focused jeers.
I didn’t win a prize.
The next day, I was back to eating my Hostess Chocolate Frosted Donette Gems alone in front of the school library, my interior self feeling more embattled than it had before. The Hessians were over on the brick wall by the career center, playing air guitar. The guy who had won first prize was playing air drums.
I was puzzled by the world’s indifference. Something had struck a chord–or perhaps a dischord–in me, and I was hoping that same something might resonate with someone else.
Could it have been that the entire world was composed of idiots? Even I could see the flaw in that theory.
Yet I felt as if I had remained authentic to myself. I think that’s why teenagers rebel: they sense some inauthenticity in their surroundings and are drawn towards something they consider to be more authentic. This was why the Goths put on black lipstick. This was why the New Wavers adopted hair styles approximating the shapes of manta rays. This was why the Hessians wore the same ripped Iron Maiden T-shirts day after day.
And this was why I loved Henry Cowell.
I remember, at the time, trying to equate the percussive cacophony of the drum solo with the percussive cacophony of the Cowell piece. Could it have been that Hessians were not complete idiots? That there was some merit to head-banging? At some point I realized
that the arm motion I used to play that rolling tone-cluster arpeggio looked an awful lot like the arm motion used in hitting a snare, or a hi-hat. My drumstick was a half-eaten package of Hostess Chocolate Frosted Donette Gems. And my right foot, pedaling the piano, might as well have been playing a kick drum. And I remember opening my eyes to see the leader of the Hessian Hordes making approximately the same motions I was.
Was he looking at me? It appeared he was.
And was I playing air drums?
It appeared I was.
And when he signed “shout at the devil” at me, was I just a little pleased?
Does it say something about me that I hate love songs? That I hear the death knell of a relationship tolling when a partner suddenly announces, “This is our song!” That the roller coaster ride of emotions that a love song is supposed to present only leaves me queasy and barfing up cotton candy and popcorn by the port-a-potties?
Does it say something about me that this song, instead, with its lyrics of I hope when you think of me years down the line/You can’t think of one good thing to say and its refrain of I hope we die/I hope we both die! brings tears to my eyes?
I am not a cynic. I believe in love. I was in love, deeply. It was a fever which made my eyeballs burn and my synapses twitch.
If I were to admit the amount of times I called her a bitch while screaming at the top of my lungs, I might be sentenced to state-sanctioned anger management training. But it could never equal the amount of times she called me “asshole”. Not by a long shot.
At the time, I thought I was in hell. But sometimes when I look back at it I wonder if it was just a rage-fueled version of heaven.
At any rate, she knew me better than anyone else has before or since. I want to say that she was my equal, but that’s not true. She was clearly my better. I liked to pretend I was smarter because I had been to better schools, but she had been to the school of hard knocks. The way that she would call me on every iota of bullshit, anyway, was worthy of a doctoral thesis.
But we were made of sandpaper. You rub two pieces of sandpaper together, and what do you get? A pile of sand.
I repeat, I am not a cynic. The reason this song moves me in a way that the “every night in my dreams I see you I feel you” drivel does not is that you get the sense that this couple really knows each other. They are either going to destroy one another, or spend the rest of their lives together. Maybe both.
We did not destroy one another. We never had the chance.
The reason she left had nothing to do with us, really, except it had everything to do with us. Her father lived on the other coast and was sick, and there was nothing to tie her here. Nothing, that is, except me. Which should have been enough.
But on the other hand, there was nothing to tie me here, either.
At any rate, she left and I didn’t. And that was the end of it. We didn’t try to continue the relationship; I for, one was too exhausted to try. Our last screaming match wore me out. She laid bare all of my faults with terrifying accuracy, but I could see in her eyes that she still loved me, despite them. Or maybe because of them.
Maybe that final screaming match, if we could have gone one step beyond it, maybe that would have been the last one, because we had exhausted ourselves into a kind of understanding.
But I was too terrified to take that step. I was no longer sandpaper, I was the worn and wrinkled husk after the sanding has been done. Fragile to the point of translucence. Coughing up dust.
Which is what I’ve been trying to get at. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. I’ve been in a lot of indifferent relationships. I’ve only been in one which made me feel this kind of intensity.
And, ultimately, “No Children” is a song of hope. Almost every line starts with the words “I hope.” It doesn’t matter that what he’s hoping for is to cut himself shaving, or for their friends to desert them. He’s still hoping for something.
I guess I still hope that someday I’ll see her again, and that when I do I’ll be strong enough to take that next step.
I grew up Catholic. My South Side Chicago Irish mother had an uncle AND a brother who were priests, so family gatherings were especially holy. My Uncle John, the priest, once said Mass for us privately, in our home. I watched, amazed, as he took out his vestments and Mass supplies from his regular old suitcase. Shouldn’t they be in a tabernacle or something? A vault?
Catholicism for me wasn’t just a Sunday thing.
I went to parochial school, with the black-watch-plaid jumper and crisp white shirt with a Peter Pan collar. I absorbed the ritual of the Church with fervor; the incense, candle-lighting, First Friday Mass and the absolution of being chosen the bearer of the Gifts. It was as close as this young girl would ever get to being an altar boy or (my true wish) a priest.
The music at church was the beginning of my musical life. My mother skipped all the post-Vatican II guitar-music “crap”, instead singing all the traditional songs in her glorious voice. She drew stares that made me embarrassed; I didn’t want anybody looking at us for any reason. But the music breathed into m; it was the connective tissue that held all Catholics together in their joy and fear and wonder at God’s creation. I would come home on Sundays and pick out on the piano the songs we’d just sung. My mother got me in piano lessons right away.
Christmas was a time of particular musical glory. The methodical ticking off of days during Advent urged us toward the Big Day with even greater anticipation than Santa, who was an ancillary figure in my early childhood. The real deal was baby Jesus and getting ready for his awesome birthday celebration in the Church. The sanctuary and the priest were festooned in Advent purple, the parish Christmas tree decorated with ornaments made by my classmates and me, Jacob’s ladders and construction paper Coats of Many Colors, the sacred tulle frothing our anticipation of the appearance of baby Jesus. A wooden crèche with its empty manger stood at the side of the altar, handmade by the father of one of my classmates, each figure a sculpture lovingly shaped by the hands of an appliance repairman.
The church rang with the haunting music of waiting, the sound of the entire Church aching for the arrival of the Savior. Advent music moves at the pace of a slow trudge through the desert, riding a donkey, thirsty and cold and looking for shelter. Much of the music reveres Mary, as she prepares to become the Mother of God; Ave Maria, Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming. My mother, who believed that singing is praying twice, would sing in her spinning soprano, eyes closed, lost, I suspect, in memory and longing not for the Christ child, but for her own child self singing songs in Latin now lost in the post-Vatican II purge.
Of the songs of reverent longing, O Come, O Come Emmanuel was the most sacred and haunting. A voice crying out for relief for a people lost. I had a vague understanding that it referred to the Jewish people lost in the desert, but as a child I knew only that we as a people were waiting for Emmanuel, and that singing would draw Him closer. With its minor key and antiphonic sway, it felt close to my mother’s Latin Mass music, the Gregorian chant that echoed through monasteries as the monks and friars walked through their daily duties, which involved gardening and cleaning and coloring in pages of sacred text.
Just like those men of God, we sang and prayed twice for the coming of this Savior.
One year, my priest-Uncle John took me—and only me—to Midnight Mass. I was the youngest child, the protected baby of the family, and allowing me to stay up so late was an honor. That I was attending church with a priest, a real man of God, made me feel holy, as if his study and devotion were conferred upon me just because I was around him. We sat near the front, down the left aisle, near the Christmas tree. As darkness fell and candles were lit, I knelt next to this priest, the “inside man” who had a key to the mysteries of the Church that was my mother’s sustaining breath. Four weeks’ anticipation of Advent collected in the cold air of the church, heavy with incense and aftershave and a fresh spritz of perfume, the one present opened before coming to Mass.
And we sang, my priest-Uncle’s wobbly tenor glossing over notes and words I knew by heart. He wasn’t the singer my mother was, but I could stand in for her, my 10 or 12 year old self only now exploring my singing voice. We sang the songs to call Christ near to us, to let Him know we were ready for Him to bestow His grace upon us for another year. “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captives,” we captives, we who spent the whole year trapped in our humanness and frailty, but four weeks before Christmas, we got our acts together and look! We’re ready now!
At the stroke of midnight, we were allowed to sing the glorias announcing the birth. Joy to the World! Go Tell it on the Mountain! Hark the Herald Angels Sing!
But that exultation was hollow for me, less invigorating than the longing that marked His approach. We would all go back to normal now, to “ordinary” time in the Church, to music meant to beat us into compliance, not for elevating our thoughts God-ward. No music for the rest of the year would come as close to touching God as Advent music, none as full of the purpose of calling Him close to us. On Christmas, that purpose was discarded like crumpled wrapping paper, an empty box to be reused next year.
I am now a faithless, Godless heathen in my adulthood, having left the Church and then Christianity and then belief in God in progressive stages. But the effort of straining God-ward left in me a sense memory, like swinging a baseball bat or jumping off a raft: I can still feel it, even if I don’t do it anymore. The strings of Advent-music melodies pull me back into the place of longing, o come, o come Emmanuel, disperse the gloomy clouds of night,and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Once again, I want to sing to draw Christ near, if only for one dark sparkling night.
Talking my atheist parents into buying a Christmas tree was an endeavor that seemed doomed from the start. We didn’t celebrate this most commercial of holidays that the “hoi polloi gushed so foolishly about”–my mother’s exact words—not with carols, not with presents, not with cookies.
It was all utter foolishness.
The Canyon in which I grew up was an unusual place, and within that place, we were an unusual family. For the most part we were a typical Eisenhower-era family, dragged into the late ’60s. My father wore button-down shirts and a sport coat to work every day. My mother was a housewife active in the PTA. She made my breakfast every morning, packed my lunch, and drove me to school. But they had been closet Communists at a time when it was the most dangerous thing to be, and were devout atheists in a country steeped in baby boomer Protestantism.
The Canyon wasn’t Christian; it was Pagan. There were the satyrs: horny old goats with connections to the record industry. There were the sylphs: groupies and junkies—often both—with long hair and flowing clothes. Every post-puberty man imagined himself as a Jim Morrison-style Dionysus, and every night was a bacchanal set to fuzzed out electric guitar, tablas, and harmonium.
But this was in the other houses. At our house, things had stalled out in 1961. Though my parents were tolerant of the general canyon culture, even as it became more and more hedonistic, they were never friends with most of our neighbors. We would loan them a cup of sugar or flour; we even once babysat a dog for a whole week. But my parents would never leave me with them; the one time this happened the girl they had hired to babysit ended up dancing naked in our living room after she thought I was asleep. Though dancing naked was okay in pagan rituals, it was not okay in a babysitting context. Still, my mother preferred the Pagan to the Christian.
But neither moved her when it came to getting a Christmas tree.
Her fatal mistake came through a choice of friends. My father was in a branch of the Industry, and was friends with a lot of the people in the Industry. I only met June Christy once, when I was about five. I remember her as being funny and beautiful, with a mischievous sense of humor. Because I only met her once, I thought that out of all my parents’ friends she was the most intriguing.
A few years later, when lobbying for a Christmas tree, I searched my house high and low for incriminating evidence that my parents, deep in their hearts, harbored that little twinkle of Christmas that the “hoi polloi gushed so foolishly about” every December. The one crumb I was able to find was this album. And because June was a friend, I was allowed to listen to it.
The fortress had been breached. I was next able to convince my mother to make cookies (oatmeal raisin, a most un-Christmas-like cookie, as if even my mother’s baking were bearing a grudge against rampant consumerism and shallow religiosity). Then I was able to get her to buy me a gift—the Little Golden Book version of The Little Red Hen, because she liked its socialist message. Finally, I convinced her to bring a tree in from the back yard—a scrub pine I decorated with paper chains.
For that one year, I was satisfied in believing that we were just like everyone else.
I want to say that my mother’s heart grew three sizes that day. But instead she moved around the house like a caged thing, confined by the trappings of popular culture which had invaded our home. I still remember that tree as the bitterest of victories. And I also learned that there was very little—not a carol, not a cookie, not a tree—that could make us just like everyone else.
My mother stuck with the Canyon for the rest of her life, and she never fit in. But she wouldn’t have fit in anywhere. When she died I realized I could have resented her for imposing her way of life on me, but somehow I never did. Somehow I appreciated this perspective of difference, even through the bleakest years of high school.
As I was clearing out her things I found June Christy’s album. I listened to the song again for the first time in nearly two decades.
I’ll take the sorrows of last November Make them a part of Christmas Day Color them shiny, bright and gay And hang them on the tree…
I still don’t have a tree in my house at Christmas—except for that one disastrous year when I dated a Pagan, which resulted in a number of broken hand-fired ornaments and a backyard bonfire—but I do have June’s song. It helps me to put the year, and the life behind me, in perspective.
When I was a child I believed in Santa Claus. Didn’t you? I also believed that I could be a circus veterinarian who doubled as an acrobat when the regular acrobats occasionally broke their legs. Oh, and a singer/songwriter, selling out packed houses and doing the Mike Douglas show in my spare time. I sang about my cat, my dog, my bedspread, how much I loved pancakes. Somehow my songs, though carefully recorded on a Fisher Price cassette tape recorder, never made it onto the radio.
If you haven’t ever heard of MSR there’s a good reason. The acronym comes from one of the biggest labels dealing in “song-poems”, a loose, semi-professional recording scheme popular in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, whereby patent amateurs would submit their song lyrics to a company, along with a fee, and a few weeks later be presented with a recording made by “professional” “studio” “musicians.” I hope the liberal use of quotation marks will not be overlooked.
Some of the musicians working in the shadow industry of song-poems had skill, even talent. Rodd Keith is revered in certain circles. Teri Summers stands out as a vocalist who could imbue even the most hackneyed sliver of a lyric with an air of gravitas. But where the real frisson occurs in these songs, what gives them their unique savor, is usually the collision between the relative amateurishness of the lyrics and the relative slickness of the musical productions. Listen to Snowbows, below. (It’s mistakenly titled Snowballs, I know. But such a mistake is entirely in keeping with the spirit of MSR.
The rhythm track is scattershot, at best, the electric piano solo meandering. But Stan Beard could have given Pat Boone a run for his money, and the melody is as lovely as anything the Carpenters ever put out.
When I was a child I believed in Santa Claus. Didn’t you? it’s a ridiculous concept by any stretch of the imagination. Or is it? Now that I’m an adult I still believe in concepts like Democracy. I believe in World Peace. I still believe in True Love, despite the evidence to the contrary.
What I mean to say is nothing that hasn’t been said before: we are dead without a dream. And what better dream than the one that a couple of lines, scratched out on the back of a cocktail napkin and recorded by “professional” “studio” “musicians,” can rocket you to immortality?
By nearly all metrics, Snowbows is a terrible, terrible song. And yet when I listen to it, I begin to dream. I dream of the lyricist, who may very well still be alive, keeping the 45 rpm vinyl in a special place in a heavy oaken sideboard of early ’70s manufacture, and getting it out once a year to listen to it in solitude. And listening to it unironically, as I do. And the snow begins to fall, and there is the sound of hooves on the rooftop, and for a moment everything works the way we always wanted it to. Then the record ends, and we put it away for another year.
Everything you ever wanted to know about song-poems on Wikipedia.