Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

early influences

I'd been pondering the link between music and writing when Murakami beat me to the punch. Murakami writes of how jazz affected his sentences and pacing. I was not influenced by jazz or even the cadences of the music I heard as a child. What influenced me were song lyrics.

While always an avid reader, I can't say Nancy Drew or even Sidney Greenstreet's All of a Kind Family series, which I loved, ever made me wake up one morning and decide to become a writer. I fell into writing much later, almost accidentally. But my childhood was filled with Proustian moments, almost all muscial.

I come from a family of music lovers. My father, dissatisfied with our home stereo system, built a Heathkit in the basement. Then he built some speakers, an amplifier, and a pre-amplifier. I may be getting the order of these wrong. What I do remember is turning on the stereo in my home entailed a specific order of switches I never mastered. Turning things on in the wrong order meant one might "blow something up." We took this quite seriously. I would sooner have piled up the family station wagon than turned on the stereo, though looking back I have no idea what it was we would have exploded. The amplifier tubes? The wiring? The house?

All this tinkering meant much sound testing, usually using Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," a song notable for its extended synthesizer solo. My father and his buddies played this song repeatedly, listening closely for something--I know not what--as the notes blared between the speakers.

I had--and have--excellent hearing. It is the bane of my existence. I know when my neighbors eat, shower, run their dishwashers. It's hell. For all that, though, I have a tin ear. While my siblings went on to become musicians, one professionally, I couldn't pick out middle C at gunpoint.

It may be that my tin ear led me to listen to words more closely than music itself. When we were very small, my parents had an eight-track tape player. They played music before out bedtime: Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, the Tokens singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." At three, I loved the Supremes. I was also fond of Melanie's "I Got a Brand New Pair of Rollerskates," a song I recently heard covered by Melora Creager on the Rasputina remix "Transylvanian Regurgitations." It's safe to say that at three, I had no idea what Melanie meant by inviting her friend to "get together and try them on and see."

I remember hearing "Big Yellow Taxi" while in the car with my mother. I was beside her in front, big enough to be out of an infant seat, but still too small to see over the dashboard. I remember my feet in their Buster Browns, which did not reach beyond the edge of the car's vinyl seat. I hated Joni Mitchell. Her voice drove me crazy. This amused my parents. Only when Adam Durwitz, another musician whose voice drove me crazy, covered the song, was I able to appreciate the lyrics.

Other memories include Gary Wright's "The Dream Weaver." Besides being the first time we heard Moog synthesizers, it was the first time I saw a man wearing eyeshadow. I was seven. My parents were also early BeeGees fans, listening to "Children of the Night" and "Main Course," albums that unfairly faded after "Saturday Night Fever" came out. "Wings at the Speed of Sound" was big in my house. I was especially fond of "San Ferry Anne" and "Wino Junko."

Cat Stevens, Carole King, Neil Diamond, Andy Williams, Dionne Warwick ("Do you know they way to San Jose" took on a whole new meaning when I moved to Los Angeles, at age seventeen). America, The Doobie Brothers, Carly Simon. Motown, of course. My mother's elementary school classmate, a motherless girl named Aretha. Stevie Wonder, still referred to as "Little Stevie Wonder" by some when I was growing up.

My first real memories of understanding lyrics are associated with a few records: the Eagles' first release, particularly the song "Earlybird." ("The Earlybird will wake one day to find his life is gone.") Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," the song "Time" being especially nightmare-inducing:

"Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun."

This song scared me senseless; it was arguably a driving force behind the frantic studying of my high-school and college years, words that sent me into overdrive. I was somehow certain that if I did not apply myself relentlessly, I would be that person. I would miss the starting gun.

"Wish you were Here" also had a strong impact. I was too young to remember Syd Barrett. I wasn't, alas, too young to have experienced loss. And songs like "Welcome to the Machine" and "Have a Cigar" were wryly comforting as I grew older and increasingly disenchanted with my peers. Pink Floyd's lyrics were able to articulate something I could not, and offered great succor: somewhere out there, far away, were other people who thought like I did. "The Wall," released in 1979, cemented this notion at a time I needed it most. I was twelve, in the throes of middle school, watching my peers with amazement. They were so...stupid. So worried about blacking out the waist sizes on their Levi's. Carter was finishing up his term, Detroit was a smoking economic ruin, and the nation was about to elect an actor who called his wife Mommie to office. Things were not exactly great, and here was this wonderful, soaring indictment of almost everyone around me. It was simultaneously exhiliarating and depressing. I listened to the entire double album every day after school for a year. My record player was a 1956 RCA Victor with tubes, four record speeds, and a metal tonearm that chewed vinyl. I destroyed my first copy of "The Wall" and had to go purchase another, which I still have.

There were two other lyrical bombshells in my childhood: Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" and the first Dire Straits album. Obviously, I wasn't the only person deeply affected by these records, and likely not the only one to pull out "Rumours" during a bad romantic spell and run the emotional gamut from "Go Your Own Way" to "Songbird." (Though I am far less able to forgive than Christine McVie, who is clearly a better person than I am.)

Dire Straits was a different story. I have never been to London, and in fact understood nothing about East End life at age eight. But Mark Knopfler's lyrics are so evocative that even an urban American child could get a feel for being young, poor, and hungry in a freezing European city. "Down to the Waterline" was an early favorite, a song that would haunt me years later, after a comparable experience:

Sweet surrender on the quayside
You remember we used to run and hide
In the shadow of the cargoes I take you one at a time
And we're counting all the numbers down to the waterline

Near misses on the dogleap stairways
French kisses in the darkened doorways
A foghorn blowing out wild and cold
A policeman shines a light upon my shoulder

Up comes a coaster fast and silent in the night
Over my shoulder all you can see are the pilot lights
No money in our jackets and our jeans are torn
Your hands are cold but your lips are warm

She can see him on the jetty where they used to go
She can feel him in the places where the sailors go
When she's walking by the river and the railway line
She can still hear him whisper
Let's go down to the waterline

There was also "Sultans of Swing," of course, and "In the Gallery"--songs that, nearly thirty years (gulp) later, have lost none of their power.

There were other band that imprinted themselves--Led Zeppelin, J. Geils, Boston, Queen, The Cars. But these came later, when I was a teenager and beginning to read the adult literature that would shape me in turn.

---

I do not mean to imply utter indifference to music: I have a vivid memory of listening to WRIF one winter afteroon; the disc jockey, a woman named Karen Savelley, announced "a band from Canada called Rush," The opening chords to "The Spirit of Radio" blared through my bedroom. I was ten.

I also remember the first time I heard the Police. The song was "Walking on the Moon," and in my naïvete, I thought maybe they were a punk rock band.

---

The impact of hearing music like this at an early age led me to utter impatience with bubblegum. When MTV appeared, I was hooked, but found much of the music trash. Toni Basil, Madonna, Haircut One Hundred, A Flock of Seagulls: drek, par excellence. The musical equivalent of Judith Krantz and Danielle Steel, both beginning their repsective literary ascents at the time.

As the eighties became the nineties and Alternative music became popular, I began losing touch. I hated early REM, with its indecipherable lyrics, and could not understand the appeal of bands like Sonic Youth or Meat Puppets. Clearly I am in the minorty; that's fine. I don't have to get it. But I think much of my not getting it was not getting the lyrics. What in hell did Michael Stipe mean when he sang about throwing the chairs into the fireplace?

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I began writing seriously in my mid-twenties. Like every other person my age, I was hard under the sway of the Vintage Editions writers. We all wanted to write like Amy Hempel, or, even better, Raymond Carver. But as I have grown older, and written more, I find myself looking back to those early songs: they way they encapsulated a feeling, moment, place, or, at their best, entire stories in just a few minutes. "Down to the Waterline" is three minutes and fifty-five seconds. "Earlybird", three minutes. The stories they tell are no less captivating for their brevity than "Today will be a Quiet Day" or '"A Small, Good Thing."

So even if I don't hear the rhythms as Neil Peart does, or am unable to hold a note like Joans Obsborne or Baez, I can return to their music not only for the pleasures they bring, but the lessons they impart.

"Earlybird" is by Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon, Kicking Bear Music.

"Time" is by Roger Waters, TRO-Hampshire House Publishing.

"Down to the Waterline" is by Mark Knopfler, Straightjacket Songs, LTD.

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