I’ve always felt sorry for people who do not regularly listen to music. Very rarely does one encounter situations which wouldn’t be improved if accompanied by a song. I find music can turn simple contentment into unbridled joy, especially when I dance and/or sing along. Heartache becomes more poignant, but also somehow more bearable, when you listen to break-up songs, as does sorrow when you listen to sad songs. The universal language of music communicates our common human condition, and reminds us that our vast range of emotions are shared and, for the most part, relatively fleeting.
Certain individual songs have punctuated the music which forms the soundtrack of my life, and these songs stand out in my memory because they accompanied and enhanced seminal feelings and experiences. The first time I remember hearing a song which became emblematic of an important incident in my life occurred in the basement of my childhood home when I was no more than 9 years old. David and Lisa, my two eldest siblings, are respectively nine and seven years older than me, and when I was a girl they seemed like beings from another planet. David had extremely long hair which he tied back in a headband like Jimi Hendrix, and he sported bushy muttonchops which in retrospect look ridiculous, but at the time were groovy, man. Lisa was super pretty, had about a million friends, and was extremely independent. She and my mother regularly had major yelling fights, and although they were scary at the time, I still couldn’t help but admire Lisa for standing up to the titanic force which was my mother.
David and Lisa both took on almost mythical proportions in my young mind because although I lived with them, they had virtually nothing to do with me. Younger sisters are at best a nuisance and at worst an embarrassment to most teenagers. Lisa always babysat me when our mother worked the evening shift at the hospital, but even then we went our separate ways. We had an understanding that I could do pretty much whatever I wanted as long as I didn’t tell Mum what Lisa was doing. I got to stay up as late as I pleased, and she got to have over any number of friends. This agreement suited us both down to the ground.
There was one afternoon, however, when for a fleeting moment the dynamic between us changed. I was in the basement doing a jigsaw puzzle and could hear Lisa and Mum going at it upstairs. Eventually the argument died out and Lisa came storming down the stairs in a great huff and threw herself into the overstuffed green chair. She sat there fuming for a bit, no doubt feeling put-upon and misunderstood, while I quietly went about my business hoping that she wouldn’t take her bad mood out on me. The basement in our house had been designated by our parents as the kids’ area, and our dad had bought us our own TV and a very mod record player with a cool clear blue plastic lid. Lisa got up after a few minutes and put on the album Beatles for Sale. She, along with almost every other teenager in the western world, absolutely loved The Beatles, with her particular favourite being Paul.
The music filled the room and Lisa’s mood began to visibly lift. By the fourth song she was swaying and quietly humming along, and drifted over to the table where I was intent on my puzzle. We always did jigsaws on my dad’s poker table – an ugly, round monstrosity with a brown formica top and collapsible legs. I was studiously working on one side of the table while Lisa was on the other. Now and then I would tentatively steal a glance at her, hoping she had put the argument behind her and was feeling better. I looked up at her just as The Beatles’ cover of Little Richard’s “Kansas City” came on, and Lisa smiled back at me and started to sing out loud. I sensed that this was an invitation to join in, so I did. Pretty soon we were both singing along and circling the table, ostensibly doing the puzzle but really just dancing around and around in a joyous moment of synchronicity. I’m not suggesting that we became the best of friends after that, but the rhythm of the music and Paul’s gritty voice allowed us to elementally connect, however briefly, as sisters.
When I was 14 I had my first celebrity crush. This is going to sound weird, but I absolutely loved Richard Dreyfuss. I had first become enamoured with him in American Graffiti, and then fell head-over-heels when he appeared in Jaws. There was just something about his manner that really captivated me, and his laugh sent me over the moon. There were many more conventionally attractive actors I could have fallen for, not to mention scads of super cute teen idols, but for me no one held a candle to Richard Dreyfuss. What can I say, I was a queer duck. There was a song on the radio at that time called “Magic” by a little known group named Pilot. You might know it if you were alive then, otherwise you probably don’t. Somehow this song became fused with my love for Richard Dreyfuss, and every time I heard it it would elicit fantasies of him pledging his undying devotion and the two of us running off together. I listened to “Magic” before writing this article. It is a pretty crappy song, but it still makes my stomach a little fluttery.
The musician who really stoked my adolescent yearnings was Barry Manilow. The aching desire in “Could It Be Magic” fed my romantic dreams of one day finding a great love, and the remorse in “Mandy” and “Looks Like We Made It” stirred up images of an invented future lover who would heartlessly spurn me and then forever lament his decision. Sigh! I was listening to my Barry Manilow Live album one day when my middle sister Susan came downstairs. She was 19 at the time and had just enrolled in the three-year Theatre Arts program at Ryerson, studying stage management. Susan was always an artsy and affected person, and she became exponentially more so now that she was in theatre school. She seemed suddenly world-weary and condescending, rather like Margo Channing in All About Eve. “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy three years.”
I was so entranced by the music that her entrance barely registered on my consciousness until she let out a derisive laugh. So this was the romantic tripe I listened too, she said with a condescending sneer on her lips. Well, she was saddened by my bad judgement, but not entirely surprised given that I was still a dewy-eyed 14 year old who had yet to develop good taste. She then turned on her heels and headed back upstairs, leaving me to feel thoroughly admonished and questioning my loyalty to Manilow’s music. The instrumental introduction to “Looks Like We Made It” came on when Susan was about halfway up the stairs, and she noticeably slowed her ascent. She reached the top just as Manilow began to sing, and while the basement ceiling blocked her body, I could still clearly see her feet on the landing. She stayed rooted there for the entirety of the song. I could have called her out at any time during those three and a half minutes, but I chose not to. It was nice to know that buried beneath my sister’s sophisticated, snooty veneer there still beat the gooey heart of an adolescent girl susceptible to the power of a sappy song.
The disco era was in full swing by the time I was in my late teens, and my girlfriends and I all got fake IDs so we could go dancing. Say what you will about disco music, but it was absolutely fantastic before it got hijacked by the crass commercialism best exemplified by the horrible and annoying song “Disco Duck.” The music of The Bee Gees, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and Donna Summer was joyous, catchy, and compelled you to dance. This presented me with a problem because I was a very insecure dancer. Many of my peers at school dances had amazing John Travolta-like moves, and I figured the number of skilled dancers would only increase at an actual dance club.
I was incredibly anxious the first time my friends and I arranged to go to a disco. We were set to go out Friday night, and earlier that day I had a spare period at school so I wandered outside to the area students jokingly referred to as the smoking lounge. This was not a lounge at all, but rather the dark and dirty alley which ran between the two wings of my high school. I was standing by myself just outside the smokiest area when a girl I barely knew named Grace walked up to me. There were two scholastic streams in high school at that time – the four year program which prepared students for college was called academic, and the five year program for university-bound students was called advanced. Grace was in academic and I was in advanced, meaning we didn’t share a single class, but we had a passing knowledge of each other because my brother Michael and her sister Shirley were dating. She asked me what was wrong, and I explained my trepidation about making a fool of myself at the disco. Someone had brought a radio outside and just then The Commodores’ song “Brick House” came on. A few of the smokers started dancing, and Grace, who I knew was a very good dancer, said she’d be happy to help me if I wished. She then taught me several really good go-to moves which I used liberally on the dance floor later that night and on many subsequent occasions as well. Michael and Shirley are still together over 40 years later, and I occasionally see Grace when she comes to visit her sister. I inevitably think of “Brick House” whenever I see her, and know that I’ll always be grateful for her spontaneous kindness on that day so many years ago.
My brother Michael had two fast friends all through his teen years, Brent and Douglas. For years I had a raging crush on Brent. He was cute, blond, and friendly, but what really drew me to him was his kindness. On one occasion Brent and I ended up alone in the furnace room in the basement of my childhood home. I think we were in there on a dare because I remember we were expected to stay for a certain amount of time. I desperately wanted Brent to kiss me, but he didn’t. He explained that he thought it would be wrong because he was three years older than me, and because he admired me too much to take advantage of the situation. I was heartily disappointed, but understood that he was motivated by respect, which in the end only made me like him more. I knew that our age difference was sure to become less important as we reached adulthood, and that then we would be together.
Two events transpired when I was 17 which made that future impossible – Brent got married, and Douglas began to show a romantic interest in me. I was heartbroken by the former, and incredibly confused by the latter since Douglas had barely even acknowledged my existence before that time. He liked me fine in a peripheral way, but there was never any question that I was just his friend’s little sister. When I started grade 13, however, he suddenly started calling and asking me out. I was flustered by his advances, but I went out with him just to see what would happen. We had been dating for a few months when I realized that I was in love with him. He was smart, funny, and attractive, and his laser-sharp attention swept me off my feet.
Douglas was in his first year at U. of T. at this time, and shared a house with several other students near the downtown campus. I came into the city to visit him often, and one day when he let me in I felt a new and exciting energy in the room, and noticed that he had a look on his face I’d never seen before. We were both big fans of Average White Band, and once I’d taken off my coat and settled in Douglas put on one of their albums. He cued up the song “You Got It” and approached me singing the opening verse, “Well you’re making a big mistake girl trying to hold back your love from me, ‘cause there’s nothin’ I can’t do for you. Sure got the lovin’ you need. Everything, anything, in the world, if I can be your man.”
That was the first time I slept with a man. It wasn’t seamless like they portrayed in the movies – it hurt a bit, there was blood, and at one point as I was undressing I accidentally kneed him in the face – yet despite all that it was somehow magical and otherworldly. I was in a daze when I sat down on the subway to make my way home later that night, and I remember thinking that my life had just elementally changed. That I had been one person up to this point, and that I would forever after be someone else. I was a woman. I kept taking surreptitious glances at my reflection in the subway window to see if my face had changed, and wondered if the people around me could sense the monumental thing that had just happened.
Douglas and I eventually got married, and I have written at length about his mistreatment of me, but one song in particular reminds me of all the good times we had. “Chloe” is a jazz standard from the 1930s which was most famously recorded by Duke Ellington and his orchestra. Douglas and I regularly listened to a longtime CBC radio program called Eclectic Circus hosted by Allan McFee, and the theme for the show was a lively country version of “Chloe” arranged and performed by Ry Cooder.
One time when we were having a calm and connected day, “Chloe” came on the radio and Douglas came over to where I was sitting on the couch. He bowed and offered me his hand, saying, “May I have this dance?” I immediately agreed and he pulled me to my feet. We took the pose couples traditionally take when doing an old-fashioned dance, with his left hand on my lower back, my right hand on his shoulder, and our other hands clasped in the air. We then began dancing around the living room, and I let Douglas lead. It was magical. I felt afraid, unhappy, and uncertain for much of my marriage, but there were occasional times when Douglas and I got along like a happy couple. I have been single for almost a quarter century now, with Douglas dead for nearly 23 of those years, and I’ve found as time passes that my memory is more likely to land on happy images like the two of us joyously dancing to “Chloe” than on sad or upsetting ones. This is a very good development.
Yet another song helped propel me out of my relationship with Douglas after 18 long years. Shawn Colvin is a contemporary singer/songwriter who was particularly active in the ‘90s. Her album A Few Small Repairs contains “Sunny Came Home,” her most famous and only Grammy winning song. “Nothin’ On Me” is the last track on that album, and it became both an anthem and an inspiration as I finally found the courage to leave my marriage. I attended a weekly playgroup at that time, and although the gathering served mostly to provide our kids with playmates and to give us all a break from parenting, it often ended up being a group therapy session. We shared all kinds of intimate details with each other (as women are wont to do), and my playgroup companions were the first I told about the difficulties in my marriage. They, along with my therapist, gave me a new perspective on my relationship, and made me realize that there was no truth in the negative things Douglas regularly said about me.
All of these elements were beautifully mirrored in Colvin’s song. My playgroup and therapist were reflected in the lines, “I got friends uptown and they don’t talk down. They’ve been keepin’ me safe and sound. We got somethin’ to be.” : my new perspective on Douglas’s criticisms morphed into, “So don’t you try to save me with your advice, or turn me into somebody else, cuz I’m not crazy and you’re not nice, baby keep it to yourself.” : and my final decision to leave became, “I’m not gonna cry and I’m wavin’ goodbye, and I know this time you got nothin’ on me.” It was exactly the right song at exactly the right time. Thank you Ms. Colvin.
There are myriad other songs which immediately take me back to important stages and events in my life. When anything from After the Gold Rush by Neil Young comes on, I’m transformed into my 15 year old self feeling helplessly out of my depth with my first serious boyfriend. If a song from Rumors by Fleetwood Mac or Breakfast in America by Supertramp plays, I’m suddenly sitting in my high school cafeteria, eating fries with gravy and playing euchre with my friends. Or when I hear the lullabies “Little Green” by Joni Mitchell or “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor, I am once again a young mother perched on first her son’s and then her daughter’s bed, rubbing their backs and singing them to sleep. Listening to music is an immersive experience, and the impression it leaves is both highly evocative and extremely visceral. I can’t wait to hear the new songs which will enrich and inform the rest of my life.