Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Speech of Angels

I had a friend that used to facetiously say that there are three kinds of people in this world: those that when they walk into an empty house or room immediately turn on the TV or radio to hear voices talking; those that turn on music; and those that welcome the silence that greets them, thankful for a moment of quiet.  That might be a bit simplistic, but to some degree it has its certain element of truth. I am of the second variety.  Given the chance I would listen to music non-stop if I could.  I don’t judge people who like TV, who like to watch shows, the news, sports, and turn it on when they first get home because it is a welcome distraction.  I think there are a lot of great things on TV that are really entertaining and if you’re lucky make you think. If I’m alone in the house, however, I’m listening to music. We have no radios or stereos on the main floor of my house, so I usually just do what I have to in silence and then bail as fast as I can for the garage studio where we have radio receivers, CD-players, vinyl turntables, and multi-use amplifier speaker towers.  I can’t fill the void quick enough with music.

Even though my wife, Karen, is not a person who listens to music as constantly and obsessively as me and our children do, she does like it a lot, and I have to give her great credit in being a moving force in cultivating a love of music in our family.   When I was deeply lost in my job, and away all of the time, she was signing the kids up for instrumental and voice lessons, and serving as the voice of encouragement to them.  She is an excellent singer, and I  believe a great pianist, although when we were early on in our marriage she was so self-conscious that she made me stand in the other room while she played and we sang songs together.  As a result her efforts Ben became an awesome stand-up and electric bass player, Matt is a virtuoso drummer and continues to learn new instruments, and Meredith is a wonderful musical actress who has studied flute and piano but mostly has fun on the ukulele.  I use to sing a lot in high school and some for bands in college, but now days the joke is “Dad only knows how to play the radio.”  Awhile ago a friend gave me a mandolin as a gift, so I’m trying to change that.  We’ll see.  Hopefully it doesn’t go the same way my attempt to teach myself French went.

When it comes to music maybe the greatest value I have to give to my children and the folks who hang out in the garage studio during the summer and when they aren’t off studying or exploring the world is that I will listen to just about any kind of music with an open mind.  Consequently, on any given day or night you may hear anything here from  Bill Evans to the Eagles;  Debussy to Depeche Mode;  Billie Holiday to the Beastie Boys, or Led Zeppelin to Leonard Cohen.  We have a posted rule in here that “If there is nothing playing, then play something, anything. We hate dead air.”  The other rule is that if you play music you must honestly share why it is you love that music.  Very fun arguments often ensue.

I think for me the most poignant things I have heard, from young people and parents alike, are the stories they tell about how certain music or songs evoke certain  feelings in them, or that make them think about  certain events or times in their lives.   I know that is how I feel about music too.  Like certain smells, certain vistas, music is a trigger to emotion and memory for me.

One of my favorite stories about the power of music to drive emotion is about two close friends of mine.  I have known Cheri for what seems like my whole life.  Ours and her family grew up as brothers and sisters and have always operated on certain special plane that I can't describe.  When Cheri met the man that would become her husband, it was through music.  He was a teacher and a clarinetist.  I liked him.  How could you not like a guy who digs hockey and is willing to put down what he is working on to play you snatches of Rhapsody in Blue on command.  One night I was in the car with Robert going to the store and he  told me that he knew that Cheri was the girl for him because every time he thought about her he would hear Mahler, who he loved.  “When we have a special evening together,  I always hear Mahler on the way home.  When I have doubts or fears, Mahler lifts me out of it.  It’s how I know I love her and she’s the one. It is as if Mahler was placed there for me when I was younger so that when I was older he would always be there for me and speak to me.”  I always liked the quote from the British philosopher Thomas Carlyle, “Music is well said to be the speech of angels.”

When my oldest, Ben, was born I started the practice of giving away songs as gifts.  His is “The Circle Game,” by Joni Mitchell;  Matthew’s  is “I Am a Child,” by Neil Young, and Meredith’s is, of course, “My Girl,” by the Temptations.  On my wife’s 40th birthday I gave her Billy Joel’s “She’s Got a Way About Her.”  I have given songs to other people I care about through the years.   Giving a song to someone might seem like a cheap and easy gift to give like naming a star after someone, but it really forces you to dig deep and choose something that is so right for that person and that they will treasure it.  It also requires you to look at yourself and think about how best to say something of true meaning to that person.   Giving songs away is something I like to do and it is not something that I have ever necessarily wanted or expected to get in return.  That’s not why I do it.  I just really like the way it feels when you do it and what to means to others.   Unexpectedly, though, a couple of years ago I did receive a song as a gift from a certain person I randomly met just going through life. 

She is someone that I haven’t known all that long and I don’t know that I know all that well.  She's of a different, older generation than me. We run into each other from time to time, and when I do we always take awhile to sit together and to talk.  We discuss all of the things that are happening in our lives, both the things that give us joy and the things we struggle with.  We talk about the things that are most important to us.  I once told her about how I give songs to people.  I didn’t see her for awhile after that but the next time I did she handed me a card for my birthday.  In it were best wishes and also fragments from a song by the Grateful Dead, who I love. Above the  lyrics she wrote, “This is yours. It makes me think of you.”  The song is called “Box of Rain,”  and it goes like this.
Walk out of any doorway, feel your way, feel your way like the day before. 
Maybe you'll find direction, 
Around some corner where it's been waiting to meet you…
Look into any eyes you find by you, you can see clear to another day… 

Walk into splintered sunlight, 
Inch your way through dead dreams to another land. 
Maybe you're tired and broken, 
Your tongue is twisted with words half spoken and thoughts unclear

What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through? 
A box of rain will ease the pain, and love will see you through. 

That was one of the nicest gifts I ever received and it meant a lot to me at that time in my life when the world suddenly started radically changing on me.  Every now and then, when I feel a certain way, I pull that card out and I put my vinyl copy of American Beauty on the turntable and I think about her.  I hope I get to see her around town again someday.

I’ll bet that many of you have songs that stick in your mind, that remind you of times and places in your lives, or that you treasure as gifts given or received, or that you just love.  If you’re so inclined, please comment on this post and share.  Your favorites will probably trigger a lot of others for other people.  That’s the beauty, power and magic of music.