Is there a song that reminds you of that last, awkward Halloween when you were too old to Trick-or-Treat but unwilling to give it up? Is there a piece of music that reminds you of that snowed-in, boozy weekend in December with your then girlfriend and her annoying brother?
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When I was fifteen I became obsessed with Jazz music. I had taught myself to play piano a few years earlier, and I finally had the faculty and rudiments of theory to begin appreciating jazz on a deeper level as both a listener and a fledgling student. While most of my peers were listening to whatever forgettable bubble-gum spewed from the Top 40 circa the late 90s, I was lost in my own world of post World War 2 era Bebop. I loved the frenetic tempos, soaring horns, the endlessly complex lines weaving snake-like through dense harmonic changes. I loved the combative one-upmanship of the soloists, the “oh yeah you can play that, well check out this phrase” attitude. If you know anything about that era in Jazz, you know it starts and ends with the king, the legend: Charlie Parker. Or simply, Bird.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Charlie Parker occupies the same place in music history as giants like Bach, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong. He changed the way music was played forever after his short sojourn on earth. His fleet playing was oft imitated but never replicated. I also loved his compositions. Even with his ability to play anything that
popped into his mind, he always wrote very memorable, singable melodies. One of my favorites was the song Billie’s Bounce. This was the leitmotif of my Bebop studies, the song I kept coming back to and practicing obsessively. It was my vehicle for improvisation. I would spend long stretches of time walking a bass line in my left hand and working out phrases in my right hand over the bass line.
Thinking back to half a life ago and this song still bring up a host of crystalline memories. Getting my driver’s license, having a tape player in the car where I would listen to Bird’s solos over and over until I could sing along with every note. In my mind it’s always a sunny day, somewhat incongruous considering it was the Willamette Valley. I think I wore out that tape. Another memory is of deciding I needed the family piano in the basement, where my room was, so that I could play later into the night without keeping my parents up. I enlisted the help of friends to help me get the piano down the basement stairs. Even though it was small, the hallway was so narrow that I’m amazed it fit (I don’t think it’s a good idea to put a piano down on it’s side though). This was the age where I started to become a night owl, and having the piano downstairs really helped my late-night musings. It was in those late hours I think I played at my most inspired. Although I knew little about the jazz world, I knew for sure that both Jazz and everything else that was fun in life happened late at night.
One of the most important things I learned in my discovery of jazz was that you’re never “done” with a song. Songs are templates for your improvisation and musicality, in a way that’s different than playing classical. With studying classical, at some point you finish your song and move on to the next, ideally retaining each in your repertoire. In my tidy world of being a good student and going through the Syllabus program, both grades and songs were benchmarks to be achieved and completed, only to move on to the next set. I find jazz to be so much more nebulous a discipline. One only hopes that from year to year your solos become hipper, more coherent, and ultimately closer to conveying your own style, finding your voice. It’s been 16 years or so since I first learned Billie’s Bounce, and I still play it regularly, hopefully much better than in my teenage years. In fact, I think I’ll go play it right now…
I used to work at a clinic that was frequented by the used condom wrappers of humanity. You know the type, torn and scummy and spending most of their time in the gutters. Because I’m a non-judgmental person, it never bothered me, except for the time when I had to get rid of the dirty men’s underwear someone had wedged into the mail slot overnight. Or the time when a woman puked on the hood of my Honda Civic parked out front, a puke so saturated with whatever drugs she’d been taking that it ate right through the candy-apple red paint, leaving corroded shape that in certain lights looks just like the Virgin Mary.
It never bothered me much. But dealing with the condom wrappers of humanity really ate into a lot of the employees. Especially my manager.
He would spend his days practicing all of the slang words he could think of: freak, boof, e-tard, perma-fried whore skank kimchi towelhead beaner. One day as a form of protest I told him that he should just call me a Block Hopping, Shemale Watermelon. I even drew a picture.
But I didn’t call him a wop, even though he earned it.
He was Italian in the way that a Hawaiian pizza is Italian.
That is, he wasn’t very.
But he paraded his Italian-ness like a Hawaiian pizza, big chunks of ham and pineapple and a whiff of garlic. Lots of cheese. I guess the same way I parade my trans-genderedness, if you want to really pick a fight. But do you? I’m pretty tough. I can hide razor blades in my hair.
Anyway, one day the little Honda Civic with the BVM on its hood broke down. The clinic had just closed and I had spent the last twenty minutes kicking Magic Marker, a regular, out of the office. He was harmless but exhausting, and it was raining and I had no cash on me.
Who steps in but Mr. Italian-American Hero?
Now, being someone who’s still got a perfectly intact hyphen, I understand hyphenates. I’ve actually got several intact hyphens. I’m Puerto Rican American (no hyphen in English, but one in Spanish: puertorriqueño-americano). I’m Guatemalan-American, I’m pre-op transgender. I’ve been known to be obsessive-compulsive, but I’m non-diagnosed. I’m often hot-to-trot, when I’m not feeling like a stick-in-the-mud. And I understand how important those little hyphens are. You’re not one thing or the other, you’re both. And you’re not beige, you’re café-au-lait.
So I get it. But I was skeptical about Mr. Italian-American and the ride home.
He was big Springsteen fan.
Being someone who came of age in the Outkast and Ludacris era (I lost one hyphen to the track “Humble Mumble”), I always lumped Springsteen into the same pasty white category as Simon and Garfunkel, or Crosby, Stills and Nash. Yawn. Why don’t you just set the table with a big old bowl of mashed potatoes?
So, Born in the U.S.A. and all that. I mean, really, do I have to listen to it to know what it’s about? Flag waving, shotguns and rednecks.
But I was desperate for a ride. And he had a truck. With a cassette player. And guess what was playing?
When we got to the song “American Land” my heart froze in my chest. Did he even understand what he was listening to?
What is this land America? So many travel there I’m going now while I’m still young, my darling meet me there Wish me luck my lovely I’ll send for you when I can And we’ll make our home in the American land
This sounded like a letter my grandfather could have sent home to his amor. The song went on, reporting on the experience of an immigrant in a way that I recognized from my grandfathers stories.
I won’t say I was happy to be forced to change my view of this slab of provolone. I tried to watch his face as he mouthed the words. Did he even understand what he was saying? He seemed to.
When I got home I Googled Bruce Springsteen, just to check up. Turns out his mother was Italian-American. Birth name Zirilli.
A little more Googling led me to this:
Give me your tired, your poor Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
But the part that we don’t hear as much struck me even more:
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome.
Hey, I’m no poet. The only thing I slam is my two-inch nails in the car door, and that’s by accident. But it sounds to me like Bruce, maybe our most American singer ever, and Lady Liberty, are in agreement.
I know I’m not the only one whose very hyphenated person is at odds with our currently elected leader, but it seems to me that if Bruce and good old copper tits are in agreement, there’s really nothing to argue with. If Mr. Hawaiian pizza can understand, what’s keeping Middle America?
One of the great mysteries of my adolescence involves a book. Not a musty, leather-bound book hidden away in some cloistered library, but a cheap, mass-produced hardback. It was one of these so-called “Adult Books” referenced by John Doe and Exene Cervenka on their album Wild Gift. The song itself was not the instigator of the mystery, but rather an artifact around which all of the other mysteries of adolescence began to coalesce, and a confirmation that if you wanted to, you could categorize the things of the world into Child and Adult.
Never mind the fact that adults often behaved like children, and children very often behaved like adults. Never mind the fact that most movies labeled “adult” were in actuality the most emotionally immature movies in existence–though I had no direct experience of this at the time, I did know, based on a free adult newspaper that a female friend brought to school one day when we were much too young to be looking at such things, that naked women seemed to enjoy lollipops every bit as much as my friends and I did. And I don’t mean that as a double entendre. This was clearly part of photographic procedure for this particular newspaper.
I don’t think my experiences in first learning about sex were any different from anybody else’s of my era. We were clearly moving out of the sweet, innocent phase of notes tossed across the classroom when the teacher wasn’t looking: DO YOU LIKE ME? CHECK ONE. YES. NO.
But we were clearly not adults. And what did adultmean? And why were all the adults so secretive about it? The only straight answers I got were from other adolescents, and these sounded patently ridiculous: You put WHAT WHERE?
Due to the uniform silence of the adults, things began to take on a sinister sheen, like in a sci-fi movie where the protagonist suddenly uncovers a vast conspiracy. Where aliens have taken over the world and everyone is complicit, and every child is doomed to be indoctrinated into the conspiracy and there’s no going back, ever.
This song came out when I was about eleven years old. My sister, who was then seventeen, played it all the time and ran around the house singing the lyrics:
They’re all in a line, like
I don’t understand Jackie Susann…
What did it all mean? I didn’t understand it either. Even more puzzling, my grandmother had a copy of a Jacqueline Susann book–DOLORES–on her book shelf. My Grandmother, who lived by herself in a little house in Long Beach and only rarely dated. (When she did, it was usually a guy named Dick Tracy. If ever there was a reason to believe that adults were just putting us on, that name had to be one of them.)
So when John and Exene sing Clifford shackles Jane, throws her on the floor she says no, no, yes, what was my eleven-year-old mind supposed to make of it? And was my seventeen-year-old sister now an adult, or what? Did she “go for Tomata?” Whatever that was supposed to mean? Did my grandmother? Did Dick Tracy?
I never really received satisfactory answers to these questions. And now that I’m older and have children of my own, at about the same ages, I really have to wonder if it all seems like a vast conspiracy to them. That sometimes, at night, adults slink around in the darkness and pull off their masks and do depraved things to and with one another.
And even if they asked me point blank whether or not this was the case, I’m unsure whether my answer would be YES or NO.
When I was very small–maybe three or four–I often had the unsettling feeling that I was standing at the precipice of sanity, just about to fall into a bottomless chasm of crazy. At least that’s how I characterize those feeling as an adult currently wading through middle age. At the time, it simply felt like I was being chased by big scary emotions–happy, sad, scared, angry–that were waiting to swallow me whole.
Now, of course, I have come to the conclusion that all toddlers are mentally unhinged. Part of the human growing and learning process, I guess? So I was normal. The only part that probably wasn’t normal was my self-awareness of said toddler insanity. Am I crazy? I would think, as I was carried out of Bambi or Charlotte’s Web, sobbing inconsolably as if the world had ended. My mother soon put an end to movies— “Until you’re older”–and also the Sunday night Disney shows about wildlife families (wolves, bears, deer, whatever) in which a baby was separated from its mother, then reunited a commercial-break later. It was Just. Too. Sad. Even Sesame Street had to go.
But here’s what couldn’t go: music. Music was the only thing that was everywhere, back in the day. You didn’t see movies playing in car DVD players. You didn’t see television blasting in every waiting room or nail salon or store window. But the radio was always on: in the car, in the coffee shop, at home. And I soon became obsessed with a song by John Denver called Sunshine on my Shoulders. Here is the first verse:
Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry Sunshine on the water looks so lovely Sunshine almost always makes me high
John Denver was pretty popular in the 70s (even before he was on The Muppets). I think my mom might have had a t-shirt with his face on it. He looked like a pretty nice guy to me: sweet, smiling, with straight blonde hair that was a little long and cut like mine. When he sang, he sounded like he understood me. Also: I liked anything that had to do with sunshine, since that was my last name (close enough). But what I liked most about the song was that it made me cry. But not uncontrollably. Just enough to be enjoyable. That little swell of the heart, that tiny tear falling from the corner of my eye. Every time I heard it on the radio, I would press myself up against the speaker, basking in the melancholy of the song. And finally, I asked my mother if I could HAVE THIS SONG. I needed it. I needed to hold it close and let it be all mine. And for some reason, she agreed. Maybe because it was so damn cute, but probably because I wouldn’t stop asking for it.
This was a big deal. We lived in a tiny town. I’m not even sure there was a record store. We had to drive to the nearest big city (Chico, if that tells you anything) and go to the mall. There, my mother bought me the 45 of the song. I don’t remember what was on the B-side. I’m sure it was my first record that wasn’t a read-along story or Captain Kangaroo collection of songs and jokes. A real single. All mine. Little kids had record players back then. Even three year-olds. And once we bought it, I had to wait the rest of the day AND the 35 minute drive home to listen to it.
But once I put it on the turntable and lowered the needle, it was just as wonderful as I remembered it from the radio. John Denver was singing this song about me. To me. I started to cry. I probably listened to it until my mother wanted to hurl the whole damn thing into the garbage. But a funny thing happened: the more I listened to it, the less it made me cry. There was something about listening to the sad song over and over again that gave me the power to control my emotions. I didn’t feel so crazy anymore. Eventually, I got bored of Sunshine on my Shoulders. I put it next to Captain Kangaroo and moved on to another obsession: a weird cover of the ballad One Tin Soldier.
Recently, I heard Sunshine on my Shoulders. It came up streaming in my Pandora station: singer-songwriters of the 1970s (an excellent station, by the way). It was amazing how moving the song still is. Sweet and sad and simple. It took me back to that record store in the mall, holding my mom’s hand as we walked through the aisles in search of my treasure. I still love things that make me cry. I still love that song. And when I heard it, out of the blue, I might have cried. Just a tiny bit.