Music is so powerful in evoking emotions. During a recent visit, my Mom and Aunt Diane were recalling times when a piece of music brought tears to their eyes. Not tears of sadness, but tears inspired by the beauty of the sound. Aunt Diane recalled a time when she was driving home from work, on the FDR Drive, when she pulled her car over to listen without distraction. They were talking about classical music, identifying particular works of Bach and Beethoven that triggered the tears.
I have had occasions, especially with a live performance, where I have gotten shivers down my spine and my scalp prickled upon hearing something that touched my soul. Most often, for me, I’ve had that happen when voices harmonize and I feel uplifted. But even when I don’t have that physical reaction, I almost always have a response to music.
As a teenager and young adult music was central to my life. I think many people share that experience during that time of their life. Perhaps there are those for whom that isn’t true – my brother Mark comes to mind, but I think, not surprisingly, he may be the exception rather than the rule.
In high school, I have vivid memories of putting an album on my turntable, in my room the size of a closet, lying on my bed, and letting the music take me away. I didn’t do anything while I listened. Occasionally I may have read or done homework, but mostly I just listened…to Simon and Garfunkel, Seals and Crofts, Carole King, James Taylor. I put on my headphones, turned up the volume so that my head was filled with their voices, their melodies, their poetry.
The combination of the music and the lyrics in songs like Fire and Rain, The Boxer, Only Living Boy in New York, America validated my own feelings of alienation, loss and sadness. Sometimes it felt good to wallow around in my loneliness – I may have overdone that a bit as a teenager. But, the music could be hopeful or soothing, too. You’ve Got a Friend, Beautiful and Bridge Over Troubled Water reminded me that I did have connections, there was another way to look at the world.
Somewhere along the line I stopped doing that – just listening. Of course, life intrudes, especially when you work and have a family. But, I waste plenty of time – there could be time to do it. Concentrating fully on music, other than when I am in the car or at a concert, is just not something I consider doing anymore.
Music was a significant part of bonding with other people, too. We took it quite seriously. I remember going to my friend Cindy’s house (not the Cindy I played hooky with in elementary school, for those of you keeping track) to hang out. We weren’t long out of high school. She put on Turnstiles (Billy Joel) – a newly released album at the time. As she was setting it up on the turntable she turned to me and said, “Let’s not talk during it, ok?” I nodded in agreement. “And, I hope you don’t mind if I sing along to some of the songs, I really love James.” Cindy had already listened to the album many times over. It was still new to me. I was fine with her singing, she had a good voice. If we wanted to discuss a song, she paused the record so we could talk – we wouldn’t think of talking over it. This was one of many times that I bonded with someone over the shared experience of listening to an album.
At college, especially freshmen year, this shared ritual was an important part of establishing friendships. Merle introduced me to Jackson Browne and Dan Fogelberg. I remember sitting on her bed in her dorm room, we weren’t roommates yet, and she handed me the album Late for the Sky. “You have to listen to this,” she said. The evocative photograph on the cover, a solitary old car parked in front of a house as a day draws to a close with a still bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds, set the stage for the intense, searching songs that followed. We sat together and listened, cementing our friendship and a shared love of Jackson Browne. The same thing happened with Fogelberg’s Home Free. I heard the first notes of To the Morning and knew it was special to me. We eagerly awaited the release of their new albums, hoping one of us had the money to buy it.
Alison introduced me to Joni Mitchell. Aside from listening to Ladies of the Canyon, Alison played the guitar and we sang the songs. Again, a bond was formed that has withstood the test of time.
Music had another role in that time and place (the mid ‘70s). It was often used as a complement to getting high. I managed to make it through high school without trying pot. At times, I felt literally alone in that status. In college, I decided to relax my rules a bit and experiment (thank you, Merle, for getting me to loosen up!). One friend, Rob, fashioned himself as a kind of pied piper for those getting high for the first time. He liked introducing people to weed and I was one of his subjects. I went to his dorm room, where he had created an appropriately mellow environment with low lighting and wall hangings. He put on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and we rolled up. I admit it was kind of pleasant and relaxing. I remember walking back to my dorm in the dark and feeling like I was watching a movie where I could see the campus scenery as frames of film. Fortunately, it didn’t freak me out, I just took it all in. Although it was a positive introduction, I never fully embraced getting high. It was fine now and again, but not something I wanted to do regularly. I wonder if my feelings about pot relate to my failure to embrace the Grateful Dead, though that may be a ‘chicken or egg’ thing. Did I not like the Dead because I didn’t love getting high? Or, was it that I didn’t love getting high and therefore didn’t love the Dead? Either way, it wasn’t my scene.
Music was also an important part of my relationship with Gary. In our first year together we spent time listening to each other’s favorite albums. I had heard Bruce Springsteen before, but I didn’t fully appreciate his artistry until I listened to it with Gary. Our taste in music overlapped quite a bit, but Gary tended to like a grittier sound. I was drawn to prettier, more melodic songs. I remember playing James Taylor’s You Can Close Your Eyes for him, expecting him to be similarly moved. Gary said something disparaging about it. I’ve blocked out what he said – but he made fun of it. I nearly broke up with him right then and there! His dismissive attitude cut me to the quick. We had a real fight (maybe our first?). We had to learn to respect each other’s taste in music – this was serious business. Clearly, we figured it out or we wouldn’t be here almost 38 years later (34 married).
There is one thing that remains different about Gary and me and our attitude toward music. Gary is happy to listen only to music from before 1980 – unless it is Springsteen or Jackson Browne. He listens to their new music. If something that sounds remotely like rap comes on the radio, he immediately changes the station or turns it off. I, on the other hand, like to hear new things, new musicians. While I’m not particularly interested in Top 40 or hip-hop, I do like trying out new artists. I listen to an alternative radio station. I’m still drawn to singer-songwriters, but I’m open to hearing new people. I listen to my old favorites, too, but I’m curious about new stuff.
As I write this and reflect on what music has meant to me, I have made a decision: I want to devote more time to listening, without distraction. Maybe I’ll borrow a page from my teenage self: Put on a CD, lay on my bed and let the music envelop me.