“Your dad used to sing this song to you all the time when you were a baby.” Every single time my mom hears “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder she says this to me.
Music has always been especially important to me. It’s in my blood perhaps. My mom can’t walk from one side of a room to another without singing her way there. She’s been like that my whole life. Pull any home movie out of the (giant) box of tapes in my parents’ garage and you’ll hear my dad, from behind the camera saying “Sing me a song!” And I would start singing at the drop of a hat about whatever was around me, or whatever popped into my imagination.
I remember sitting in the backseat of my mom’s car next to a little girl my age, probably 5 or 6. I barely knew this girl, but our moms were friends and we were forced to spend a certain forgettable afternoon together. I don’t remember her name or her face or where we were going or even whether we eventually became friends. But I just remember so clearly sitting next to her in the car and watching her sing along to every single song that came on the radio – song after song – without missing a beat. I was in awe. I remember thinking she must be the coolest girl in the world.
Somewhere around this time, a babysitter canceled and my dad had to drive me in his truck to a school gymnasium to play a gig. I’d seen him play drums in church my whole life, but this was the first time I’d seen him play with a band. I watched him in adoration all night and told him on the way home, “I’m going to be in a band too, you know.” And that’s about the time the piano lessons started.
There was a mirror right above the piano for a while. I would sit down to practice every single day and look at myself in that mirror. Half the time I would be daydreaming and half the time I’d have tears running down my face from frustration. “You’re not going to quit,” my mother would say. “Play it again.” For the next seven years she would say that to me. The mirror wouldn’t stay up for long.
I was in 2nd grade when I discovered that my little cassette player had a built-in mic. I was home from school on a snow day, bored and goofing off when I accidentally pressed record and play at the same time. It was the discovery of the year. I took old cassettes from my mom’s room, ones that had church sermons on them because they were easy to erase. I stayed in my room for days recording my own DJ show and even made my little brother Luke pretend to be celebrities I could interview. We only played country music on my radio station.
Then one day a few years later my dad set up his record player. I’d seen his record collection rotting away in our garage for years, but I’d never heard him play a single one. For some reason on that day, the record player appeared in the living room. I didn’t know how to use it, but I went out to the garage and picked out a stack of Beatles records. I stayed awake and snuck out to the living room once my parents fell asleep. When we figured out how to make it work, my brother and I laid down on the living room floor next to the speakers and played the records so quietly, flipping them over and over for hours.
This started a ritual between my brother and I. From middle school until I moved away, we would stay up late and listen to music after everyone had gone to bed. Sometimes we would talk, sometimes we would just listen. As time went by, we got really into showing each other new things. We were becoming friends, I suppose, and were bound by these discoveries and this understanding. All the other sweet and early memories of music would soon be obliterated in this setting.
The first time music really broke my heart, I was 15. It was almost Christmas and the tree was glowing, the only light in the room. Luke came home, told me it was snowing and pushed play on a CD that his older friend had just given him. It was “Rehearsals for Departure” by Damien Jurado and to this day, every single time I hear it, I think of this snowy night.
“Remember that live Pedro the Lion song where he says ‘Jurado’ at the end? Well, I found out that Jurado is his friend’s name. It’s this guy.” He put the CD on and the song “Ohio” started with a harmonica that did a freight-train number on my heart. He started talking, told me it was a concept album and told me part of the story behind it. I could only sit and listen, the first note to the last, on repeat until I became obsessed.
Now I’d heard emotional music before. I’d been moved by other songs. Hell, I cried every time I heard “When You’re the Best of Friends” on my The Fox and Hound cassette tape. But this moment – this was where my part of this insane journey started. I hadn’t heard anything like this before or if I had, I wasn’t able to understand what it really meant. And this particular album was full of stories, complex and gut-wrenching, broken up into little acts. Every single song was so perfect to me. More phases and loves would come, but the force behind this one really set me off. And for better or worse, it turned me into a junkie for heartache.
It was at once sweet and uncomfortably honest. It felt like the gross part of growing up – like cigarette stink on the sides of your fingers and catching someone you love smiling at someone else in a way only you understand. And it felt like winter, like the ice cold gravel of our driveway burning under my bare feet. It was a shattering and a heavy weight all at the same time and I had to live out 15 whole years before I could even feel that way. And I just knew I’d be chasing down that feeling like a bloodhound for the rest of my life.
Out from my window, please hear me Ohio
Your daughter wants to come home
She longs to be with you, to hug you to kiss you
To never leave her alone