I’m three years old. My parents call me outside one day and point at the sky, from which water is falling onto the hard, dirt-packed floor of the Mojave. I can’t imagine where this water is coming from, but it’s everywhere, making the air smell like wet earth. I’m amazed. Later, I’m playing outside, digging earthworms out of the dirt with a spoon, when I spot the biggest earthworm I’ve ever seen. I’m thunderstruck with joy, but as I try to approach, my dog and my best friend, a cockapoo named Gnome, jumps in front of the worm, barking like he’s crazy. I keep approaching when, suddenly, the giant worm lashes out and bites Gnome, who yelps and falls to the ground. The worm rattles off. I run inside to get my mom, to tell her that a worm just bit the dog. She gets to him just in time to take him to the vet and save his life, as he has just done mine. My mom holds me on her lap and we sing my favorite song. “Say, say little playmate – come out and play with me. We’ll climb up my apple tree.” I think about how I wish I had an apple tree with rainbow slides and branches brimming with playmates.
I’m four years old. I’m with my mom in a living room. We’re in front of a black and white television – brown faux wood casing with a knob that you have to turn to clear up the snow on the screen. The news is on. I’m playing, distracted. All of a sudden, I hear my mom scream, “No!” I look. She’s trembling, her eyes are wide, she’s reaching out for the screen with one hand while the other hand covers her mouth. She begins to sob and shudder. I run over and touch her arm. “Mama, what’s wrong?” I ask over and over until, finally, she answers. “That man,” she says through tears, “his name is John Lennon. He was a musician. Somebody just killed him.”
I’m five. I’m lying on my belly on top of pillows, toys, furniture – everything we own – speeding down the highway in a green Dodge Charger. We’re getting farther and farther away from Barstow and closer and closer to some place called Roswell, which I can’t wait to see. My sister, Kim, is next to me, also on her belly, the roof of the car inches from our tiny heads. Gnome is somewhere on the floor. Up front, my mom and my Aunt Sunny are talking grown up talk and smoking cigarettes. Occasionally, they pass a joint back and forth. We drive all through the night, stopping only once to get a few hours’ sleep at a rest stop. Mom and Sunny and Gnome sleep outside, on the roof and hood of the car. Kim and I get to sleep in the front. Otherwise, we drive. A constant stream of music pours out of the speakers as mom and Sunny change out the eight tracks. REO Speedwagon, Eddie Rabbit, Juice Newton, The Moody Blues, and my favorite song in the whole world, “Dog and Butterfly,” fill the hours and miles.
I’m seven. I sit and watch the premier of MTV, fully aware that something has just changed. Then it’s Christmas. I’ve asked Santa for Thriller, which will be my first grown up album of my very own. I want this album so badly that it’s all I can think about for weeks leading up to The Big Day. My grandparents exchange knowing glances with my mom and step-dad every time I bring it up, which I don’t understand, but I just hope that it doesn’t mean that I can’t have it. Finally, it’s time to open gifts. I’m given a small, rectangular, cassette tape-sized package and I’m beside myself with glee. I open up the package and there it is – Michael Jackson wearing a white suit, lying on his side, the words “Michael Jackson Thriller” written above and to the left of his body. I will play this tape so many times that I memorize every word to every song and can out sing that awful Gwen Meyers, who always beats me when we have competitions out past the kickball field.
I’m nine. My mom and stepdad go to a Pat Benatar concert, leaving my sister and me with a known child rapist, who will, nine months later, kidnap, rape, and murder a classmate of mine. Her body, partially buried and burned, will be found by my grandpa on my grandparents’ ranch. Before they leave for the concert, my stepdad pulls me aside and says, shaking his finger in my face and looking stern, “Now, don’t you dare go off anywhere alone with him, do you hear me?” I say I do. Then he and my mom get on his Harley and ride out of town to see their show. Love is a Battlefield will forever have its own meaning for me.
I’m ten years old when my mom introduces me to Appetite for Destruction. I spend all summer listening to it nonstop, especially “Sweet Child of Mine,” mixed in with my New Kids on the Block, Poison, Paula Abdul, and Def Leppard albums. I’m pretty sure that I’m going to marry Jon Bon Jovi one day.
I’m eleven, thirteen, fifteen. I move from New Mexico to Las Vegas, then from Las Vegas to Oklahoma. I grow out of my hair-band phase, though I still love GnR, which is okay, because Axl has tamed his hair. I fall in love with The Black Crowes and Dee Lite. One day, I come home from school and my mom is on the couch, watching MTV, crying. “Look at this,” she says. “Look!” Metallica’s “One” video is playing and my mom, she’s captivated. I learn to head bang. I start hanging out with the skate crowd and discover The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I discover Jane’s Addiction thanks to Brady Dollarhide, who I love more than words can possibly say. He, with his skateboard and aloof art-kid coolness. He, who rushes to defend my honor more than once, then retreats before we can build a relationship. My mom picks Brady up one night when she spies him walking after dark. “Hey, isn’t that your friend that skateboards by our house?” “He’s not my friend, mom, he’s not my friend! Don’t stop! Jesus, mom! What are you doing?” My mom is playing Cat Stevens on the radio. Cat Stevens – another one of those old-timey musicians that my mom insists on playing on cleaning day. Cat Stevens, Janis Joplin, and (“Oh, God, mom! Not country!”) Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Brady hears Cat Stevens on the radio and says, “Oh! Cool! I just heard this guy singing on this really great movie I saw recently. It’s called Harold and Maude. You should check it out.” Harold and Maude becomes my favorite movie of all time.
I’m fifteen and pregnant. I’m in New Mexico. A friend introduces me to Tori Amos and I feel like I’ve found my tribe for the first time in my life. No woman has ever said these words. She is speaking directly to me. I want to take her music out to the world. The whole world needs to hear “Me and a Gun,” and I’m crestfallen and furious when my sister and my cousin laugh midway through the song. They make fun of me, and I decide they just don’t get it – an auspicious leap into a world where I’m going to love It whether people approve or not. At night, when I’m alone, I play Beethoven, Bach, and Appetite For Destruction on my Walkman with the earphones wrapped around my belly.
I’m sixteen, then seventeen, then twenty. I discover grunge and my life changes. Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Mother Love Bone, Nirvana – I want all of it. I want more. I want it streaming ceaselessly, even when I’m sleeping. I want to wear it as my skin. I discover They Might Be Giants, Faith No More, Mr. Bungle. I drive around in the half-dead Ford Grenada that my drug addicted, alcoholic mother has sold to me for my life’s savings, and I sing the lyrics to “Head Like a Hole” as loud as I possibly can. “I’d rather die, than give you control,” I scream to no one in particular. I go to my very first concert – Queensryche, with Type O Negative opening. Alanis Morissette releases Jagged Little Pill. I enter my girl rocker phase and play Bjork, Annie Lennox, Cheryl Crow, Hole, Poe, 4 Non-Blondes, Ani DiFranco – on a constant, endless, estrogen-infused loop.
I’m twenty-one. Then, suddenly, I’m thirty. I begin to experience musical ennui. One day, I take my friend Pat to pick up his car from a friend’s house. Pat and I enter through the back door, walk down the hall, turn the corner into the television room and BOOM! I see the man that will one day become my husband and I suddenly feel like I’ve been kicked in the chest. I lose my breath and am lightheaded. From that moment forward, I’m madly, incurably in love with the man that will teach me more about music than any other person I’ll ever know. We make love to music and we fight about it. He puts on The Grateful Dead and I feel violently, irrationally angry for reasons that it will take me years to explain. (False promises, pretentiousness, fifteen minute drum solos…) I defend Natalie Merchant to the point of argument. I rediscover Cat Stevens and Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Tom Petty, and Dire Straits. I hear The White Stripes’ “Elephant,” The Shins, Death Cab For Cutie, Radiohead, Concrete Blonde’s “Still in Hollywood” and my mind is blown. I learn to differentiate between muzak and proper jazz – and realize that Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is the most perfect album ever made. I learn who Leo Kottke is. We take our kids to a Widespread Panic concert. My husband spends an entire week shifting his brand new speakers a quarter of an inch forward, backward, right, and left – with some mysterious electronic device in his hand. He finds me one day, drags me into his stereo room, and tells me to sit on what is literally a hand-drawn X on the ground. He asks me to pick an album that I know intimately and I choose “Dark Side of the Moon.” He puts it on, tells me to close my eyes, and he hits play. Suddenly, I hear music in three dimensions in a way that I’ve never experienced – not even during a concert.
I’m nearly thirty-five and I still love “Jane Says.” I still scream “Welcome to the Jungle” as loud as I can and I still love to skank to “Birdhouse in Your Soul” with my boys. I no longer want to marry Jon Bon Jovi. I rarely listen to the radio. I’ve finally contracted Beatle-mania, but have never come around to Punk. (However, I do harbor a crazy crush on Henry Rollins, and I love to read Jello Biafra.) I can no longer listen to “Harvest Moon” or “Side of the Road” without breaking down into a wistful, bawling puddle. Lately, I play David Byrne’s “Live in Austin, Texas” album over and over again, as nothing else will satisfy. I stream Pandora all day long at work and sometimes at home, but just can’t find the proper mixture of stations, though I’m close. I go such long periods between having my mind blown by new music that, by the time it happens, I feel like a dehydrated sponge. I haven’t experienced the wonder I felt when I held Thriller in my hand or when I first heard “Hunger Strike” very often, though I have discovered new music that I love (Colin Hay, Sun Kil Moon, M. Ward, The Waifs, Massive Attack, The Flaming Lips, The Be Good Tanyas.)
I’m waiting to find that signature song or band that will become the soundtrack of today and tomorrow. I’m not sure, but it may be that I won’t know what it is until later, when I reflect back to now. Maybe it won’t be any of the music that I love. Maybe, like Juice Newton or Pat Benatar, it’ll be the music that’s playing when the next big thing happens. In the meantime, I’ll just keep listening.
Note: I get most of my new music from Pandora. The stations I play (in different combinations) are:
They Might Be Giants
The Velvet Underground
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Death Cab For Cutie
Iron & Wine