Friday, January 18, 2013

Track 5: Telephone Line

You can probably tell this just by looking at my face, but high school was a weird time for me. Here. Go ahead. Look at my face.

I entered high school at the TURN OF THE CENTURY (awesome that I'm allowed to say that), when big pants and Paul Frank were still a thing. Technically Paul Frank is still a thing, but when they start handing out toys from the favorite clothing line of your adolescent youth in Happy Meals, it's time to hang it up and call it a friggin' day.

(Just kidding, I wish I owned all of these.)

Like a lot of my friends, my musical repertoire was mainly steeped in pop punk and ska, with some "ironic" boy band love thrown in for good measure. In my junior year, I started driving myself to school in my mom's car. Because I didn't have a car of my own, it meant bringing my own CDs to listen to on the way, then bringing them back inside to listen to in my room. On the semi-frequent occasion that I'd forget to bring my own music, it meant listening to whatever my mom had in the car. I listened to a lot of Celine Dion that year. I also listened to a lot of Boston, Styx and Kansas. The more I listened to my mom's music, the more I realized that I liked it. And not ironically.

The CD I listened to the most, though, was a cheap compilation my mom had picked up at Wal-Mart, entitled "18 Rock Classics." I could write blogs about several of the tracks on that album, like how I used to associate Starship's "Sara" with an older lady of the same name who was the treasurer at my dad's church in Alabama; her house always smelled thickly of roses and she used to let us swim in her inground pool and she eventually got caught embezzling from the church. Or how Toto's "Africa" was my number one college karaoke jam. Or how I, like Foreigner, want to know what love is.

My favorite track, though, was number 8, "Telephone Line" by the Electric Light Orchestra. I remember the first time I heard it: I almost didn't get past the (admittedly quite cheesy) synth/dial tone opening. But then a voice came through, saying (appropriately): "Hello? How are you?" in the most fragile tone you could hope to muster in song. I was listening.

What follows, of course, is a musical representation, high in drama, of what it feels like to call up somebody you used to love, somebody you lost. I had almost zero experience with romantic relationships when I was a teenager. Like I said, high school was weird for me. Or rather, I was in high school and I was weird, and nobody wanted to date me. Except other people who were in high school and also weird. I dated one guy because we started a ska band together for about a week, even though it was just the two of us, and we were both trumpet players. Then I realized I didn't really like ska anymore. So we broke up. C'est la vie, and all that.

Even though I didn't really have a point of reference for the lyrics, that chorus used to tear me up: building and swelling, with those strings doing their arpeggios in the background, and the heartbroken voice proclaiming "I'm living in twilight!" I used to sit in the car, singing this song to the top of my lungs, crying. I wasn't sad because I'd been dumped, but because I was sure, one day, I would be.

Which, of course, I was. Years down the road, I came back to ELO. I sat in my car again, in the Taco Bell parking lot, holding a soft taco and singing as loudly as I could: "And I wonder why! The little things you planned ain't comin' true!"

In point of fact, the melodrama surrounding my past break-ups is hilarious, per the aforementioned soft taco. In the present, you're embarrassed at how broken up you got about it, how many people you complained to, how many hours you spent listening to torch songs while eating how much fast food.

One night in the recent past, on the way home from a rare solo movie date, I stopped at Five Guys to pick up some food for me and Anthony. As I was waiting, "Telephone Line" came on over the loudspeaker. For a moment, I was back in the car at Taco Bell.

But it never takes me long to remember: I might be standing alone in a Five Guys eating peanuts and remembering the loneliest time in my life, but I'm not lonely now.

Still, it felt nice to remember that loneliness, that highest of high drama. When was the last time I was able to feel something so frivolously, for all of my thoughts to be wrapped up in myself? Break-ups bring out the toddler in everybody, no matter what side you're on, but as a mom, I'm not allowed to be the toddler anymore. I mean, I'm not selfless by any means, but I don't have time to put on socks sometimes, much less dwell endlessly on my own thoughts and feelings. Maybe I was reveling in something other than happiness for the moment, but at least I was reveling.

The bleak memories, combined with the happy knowledge that, though I'm scatter-brained and perpetually harried, I love my family and (probably) never have to go through another break-up, gave this song a new level of significance that night. I downloaded it to my phone, and listened to it the whole drive home.

Bonus material: here's a cover of the song that I recorded half a year ago, on my iPad, in my closet. It's too fast and some of the chords are wrong, among other things. Enjoy.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Track 4: This Year

This Sunday was my birthday, which marked the beginning of an annual week of birthday celebrations that I like to call "My Birthday Week." My birthday is a mere five days after New Year's Day, which is when everybody calls off doing fun stuff for the rest of the dang year. I always have an understanding with myself that any new year's resolutions, particularly those pertaining to my health and wellness, are effective after the conclusion of My Birthday Week.

In celebration of a new calendar year and the completion of another full year of my life, I've been listening to "This Year" by the Mountain Goats, a track that I've busted out at so many New Year's celebrations that it's now a personal cliché.

I started loving the Mountain Goats in college. I heard my first Mountain Goats song, "Jam Eater Blues," on the FSU radio station on the way to check in at the Tallahassee offices of Cutco, where I, like so many other bewildered students before, had been made to believe that I could hawk overpriced cutlery to my parents and their friends. I was the worst at that job. And I hated it. So when John Darnielle's churning guitar came over the airwaves, telling me in no uncertain terms that "life is too short to refrain from eating jam out of the jar," I knew I was going to quit that job, and then I was going to drive straight to Krispy Kreme. And that's precisely what went down .

It was the early 21st century, but even so, I didn't have Google glued to my fingertips like I do now, so I believed that John Darnielle and company were as new to the music scene as my tastes were. In point of fact, the man had been inspiring fans to make his music the soundtracks of their early twenties for well nigh a decade-and-a-half. Of all the albums that I heard and loved in my collegiate years, it was and will forever be The Sunset Tree, the album on which "This Year" appears, that runs underneath the memory of that time, even though it came out not long before I graduated.

I'm not sure how it's possible, but somehow, my time in college seemed to contain more angst than even my teenage years, possibly because I was pretending to be both a teenager and an adult at the same time. I was, in fact, neither. "This Year" spoke to that reality in a lot of ways: it's a song about looking hard at the present moment, and longing for a different future. It's also a song about recklessness; a very specific brand of recklessness (i.e., stealing your stepdad's car to play video games and get drunk with Cathy), but the spirit of the song was something I could relate to, even if I didn't drink and didn't know anybody named Cathy. I knew a Katie, though. Sometimes we'd get a milkshake. I guess it's not the same thing. In any event, that's the best way to describe how the song sounds: like a nervous kid getting away with something. Didn't we all feel like that the when we first struck out on our own?

Even outside of my personally outrageous angst, it seems like twenty-somethings in college consider themselves to be the most put-upon beings on the planet. To that end, the song's chorus, "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me!", was something I could really get behind back then. That's not to say that I discredit the events of that time in my life as being less mountain than molehill:  it's actually not easy to work and go to school at the same time, and it's not easy to consider your place in your family home now that you don't live there anymore, and it's not easy to try and figure out what to do about your friends and your boyfriend or girlfriend when you leave school, and it's not easy to figure out what the heck to do with your life next. It's just that "making it" didn't really mean anything tangible or even practical. When I lit the sparklers and ran around the yard with my friends singing this song at the stroke of midnight, all I was really hoping for was to attain the kind of happiness I assumed the world owed me.

This year, we stayed in on New Year's Eve. The baby had just gotten over an ear infection, and we didn't feel like waking her up and taking her out in the cold to get to the annual ball drop downtown. Frankly, we didn't feel like going out ourselves, so Anthony cracked open a beer and I poured some Spumante and we watched King of the Hill until it was 2013. Then, I headed off to bed, and the usual pre-sleep worries started to swirl around my head: when do I get paid next, and where will that money go, and is Lucy ready for the potty, and do we damage her psyche when we tell her big girls don't poop the floor, and can I take on an extra day at work, and when will I find time to finish that story I started months ago, and will we ever find a bigger place to live, and why do I feel old now, even though I know that I'm not?

I put on the Mountain Goats, and I felt that same thrill that I do every time I hear this song. Yeah, alright. It's true. I can do this, and everything, probably. I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Track 3: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Well, I had planned to write a post about a different Christmas song every day leading up to J.C.'s birthday, but as is holiday tradition, I did not get jack shee-aht done while on Christmas vacation, with the exception of laying in the hot tub at my parents' apartment complex while watching video of my 11-year-old sister's dance class do "Gangnam Style" and drinking Bailey's.


A holiday well spent.

Although the holidays are over now, I still want to write about one of my Yuletide favorites, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Like every other Christmas song, there's about a billion versions of this one floatin' around. This year, I heard Chrissie Hynde sing it at least 17 times. While her version's not terrible, I absolutely cannot hear her voice without thinking of her mid-'90s performance of the national anthem at a World Series game, which was one of several such performances that were played in rotation on our TVs each morning in middle school. I just remember praying each morning that they'd play the one with Hanson singing, which was always an omen of a good day to come. Hynde's chronically flat, clearly drunk rendition was the opposite.

But I'm not here to insult rock and roll legend Chrissie Hynde of the iconic band, The Pretenders. She is probably an awesome dude.

I am here to insult all versions of the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," besides the one and only true version, which was performed by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical, Meet Me in St. Louis. For those who haven't seen the film, it's a predictably cheery one about Judy Garland and her older, hotter sister finding love in early 20th-century St. Louis. In the background, their two little sisters create hijinks, their mom sighs exasperatedly, their granddad mumbles about the old days, their mouthy cook is mouthy and their dad is kind of an asshole. And also, the St. Louis World's Fair is about to happen. And everybody's totally stoked.


Asshole dad comes home from work to tell everybody he's got a promotion at work, and they're all moving to New York after Christmas. And they all better just suck it up.

Well, needless to say, Judy Garland is not happy, because she's just spent at least the first 45 minutes of the movie seducing the boy next door, and now they're about to skip town. But she tries to keep it together, and after coming home from the Christmas dance (which she attended with her GRANDPA), she goes upstairs to find her youngest sister crying about leaving home and worried that Santa Claus won't be able to find her next year in New York. Judy, who just had to break up with her boyfriend outside the Christmas dance because of the move, tries to cheer both her sister and herself up with a song.

 The first time I saw Meet Me in St. Louis, it was June 10. I know this because it was Judy Garland's birthday, and Turner Classic Movies was playing a day-long marathon of her films. I was sick that day, so I sat on the couch and watched Babes on Broadway, Babes in Arms, Strike Up the Band, Easter Parade, The Harvey Girls, Summer Stock and, of course, Meet Me in St. Louis. I was about 15 years old, and that day I became a lifelong lover of the MGM musical.

I also became a lifelong lover of this version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," for three reasons. The first is that Judy Garland sounds objectively better than Chrissie Hynde on this track (sorry, girl, it ain't personal). The second and third, which are pretty closely related, are that it provided a context for the song, and that its lyrics, though only marginally different, are superior to the ones performed by most artists today.

The song spends most of its time repeating is titular phrase and discussing the various joys of the holiday season, like seeing old friends and being merry and bright and all that other Christmas crap. In the current popular version, the final verse goes like this:

Someday soon, we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough!
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

According to the Wikipedia article for the song, we have Frank Sinatra to thank for this version, who asked Hugh Martin, a co-writer of the song, to "jolly [it] up" for him. 

Before its jollification, the verse was originally:

Someday soon, we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

This one little line changes the entire meaning of the song, especially in terms of the film's context. It becomes, not a jolly song about a jolly day, but a sad song whose singer's life is about to dramatically change, and who is trying to convince herself that things are going to be alright. In this day and age, moving several thousand miles is still a drag, but it's not quite the issue it was then: it probably meant they weren't ever coming back again. Suddenly, "Next year all our troubles will be out of sight...Next year all our troubles will be miles away" sound like what they really are: somebody trying to soothe her little sister's fears and worries, urging her to be happy while she can, even though she's not quite convinced by her own words. In the end, she breaks down a little, and sings that wonderful line, "...we'll have to muddle through somehow," admitting that things are maybe not so great now, and maybe it's going to take some time before they're back to those idyllic "golden days of yore."

Which is why I think it's still appropriate to write about the song today, even though Christmas is over; especially because Christmas is over. I spent a week seeing my family and friends in Florida, some whom I haven't seen in years, and came home to spend more time with Anthony's family, most of whom live far away. Now everybody's back where they came from, and it's all business as usual again. Another year before next Christmas.

Until then, we've got some muddling to do.