The older I get the curiouser and curiouser I find it how certain tunes follow us as we hurry down the rabbit hole of life. These tunes may be of our choosing, or not. They may reappear to us in meaningful ways at any time under any circumstances, and often in different forms. We may feel we can’t shake them. They may catch us by shocking surprise, or they may bring us deep comfort.
Among the tunes that have chased after me is one strange animal. As a boomer kid growing up in Norwalk, starting about age ten one of my primary chores was to mow the front lawn. That was my Saturday morning, Dad close behind me with the edger. Once the weather got warm I also mowed on Wednesday. You may find twice a week excessive, but whatever Dad did to that lawn to make it grow it worked in abundance. In the summer you could sit on the lawn in the shade of the magnolia tree with your neighborhood buddies, talking passions and confusions, and after an hour the grass felt perceptibly higher and lusher, I’d swear by it.
So I was out there a lot with the mower, a loud, smoky machine; powerful, too. Once you opened the throttle you had to hold it back. An angry attack dog on a stiff leash, belching gas fumes. The thundering beast also continued to idle as you emptied the canvas catcher in mid-mow. Then when Dad added the high whine of his edger, I knew I had several minutes during which all sounds on my periphery were mute, for they could not penetrate the mower’s roar, and likewise whatever noise I made (if I kept it down) could not be heard by Dad, or for that matter anyone within reach of our peace-disturbing din.
I began to hum to myself. Mostly I hummed the usual popular stuff of the mid&late 60s, spiced with Sinatra, a favorite of Dad’s, and the new and faintly naughty sounds I heard coming from Brasil ‘66. But eventually I began to concoct my own tune to hum. It was slow at first, just a phrase or two, but I would remember it with the next mow and build upon it.
Striding across the lawn, griping tightly, arms vibrating, I hummed my tune again and again up to the point where it gave out, then I would test another phrase to hear how well it followed, and after much trial and error (mostly error) I found it and moved ahead. At the edge of the lawn I pivoted and swung the huffing-puffing monster around and headed back down the lawn, overlapping the last cut, all the while humming my tune, my very own tune.
Years passed and I stopped mowing the lawn when I moved to USC, and without its twice-weekly repetition over time my tune slowly faded from my consciousness. Well, imagine my shock and confusion when a couple of years later, in the first weeks of my new job as a classical DJ at the just-emerging campus station KUSC -- a job I landed without a shred of experience with classical music beyond a brief flirtation with The Grand Canyon Suite at age eleven -- when I played a recording during my off-hours weekend shift of a piece chosen because I could pronounce the title and composer, Pavan for a Dead Princess by Maurice Ravel (though some members of the announcing staff expressed their insistence at meetings that the work must be announced by its French title, Pavane pour une Infante défunte, so as to give the proper nuance of meaning), there it was coming at me through speakers in the cramped studio: my tune!
I listened, thinking surely the similarity would stop after a few seconds, but the Pavan, that is, my tune, continued phrase by phrase by phrase. I sat dumbfounded as the piece ended and I should have been back-announcing the work, and the needle on the LP moved to the next track, which was Bolero, thus giving me a quarter-hour to collect myself. To this day, Ravel’s delicate and stately Pavan speaks to the summer in me as surely as the roar of a lawn mower and the acrid-sweet smell of gasoline.
Speaking of Bolero, and recurring tunes, I see where recent research at the University of Cincinnati, home to a renowned music school, found that nearly all of us, 98%, get earworms, tunes that stick in your thoughts inexplicably, incongruously, and eventually disagreeably. Women get earworms more often, as do the worry-prone, and musicians, among whom I do not count myself.
Still, I once suffered from a most disagreeable earworm by the name of Fifty Nifty United States. I was in high school, as it happened the class president, and my friend and vice-president Stan convinced me to use what precious funds I had at my disposal (allocated for the purpose of enriching the senior year of my fellow classmates) by hiring an ensemble sponsored by Stan’s newly-discovered Mormon Church, The Grand Land Singers. I cannot recall the first time I heard Fifty Nifty United States. No doubt it was on a cassette tape Stan pushed on me as part of his sell. But I recall the second time, as I sat in a near-empty auditorium alongside my parents and girl friend, having been ridiculed and shunned by nearly the entire senior class, in ways only ruthless teenagers can do, save for a handful of curious concert-goers. It’s a harmless enough tune, I guess, a chance to hear the name of each individual state. But this performance was galling to me, and besides I instinctively recoiled at the scent of jingoism, as the red-white-&-blue clad Grand Land Singers swayed with conventioneer grace on stage, all white teeth and jauntiness.
Fifty Nifty United States, catchy tune that it is, got caught in my head for weeks as I endured the shame of squandering my administration’s budget. And as you know, it can be hard to escape a tune like Fifty Nifty United States. It’s part of the American Experience. Sooner or later, if you travel far and wide across our grand land, you will hear it, and each time over the years I heard it my hatred for the tune wormed its way deeper inside my head.
That changed in an instant, the instant I heard Fifty Nifty United States sung by a third-grade class choir, including our oldest daughter. Suddenly Fifty Nifty United States sounded to me like a perfect test of memory and articulation. Try it yourself and see how difficult it can be: “Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii” and all the way to “Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming,” which as a DJ again at the all-grown-up Classical KUSC I can tell you is one tongue-twisting set of W’s. What I mean to say is that in an instant I became grateful for Fifty Nifty United States, and in the following weeks I asked Colette to sing it numerous times.
Even tunes that meant very little to you can suddenly step from the shadows, grab you by the shoulders, and shake you. A few years ago I was washing dishes and listening to a home-made CD my wife had compiled. On came (They Long to Be) Close To You. You remember that sticky sweet Carpenters’ pop tune ubiquitous around 1970? However charming Karen Carpenter’s throaty vocal, back then the song just blew past me like Santa Ana winds, irritating today, forgotten tomorrow. I’m not knocking the song; I no longer knock anyone’s song. It just wasn’t for me. Now, here was (They Long to Be) Close To You in my kitchen, this time performed by Bare Naked Ladies, a band I’d dismissed for their self-conscious, sophomoric irony. But this time they gave a sincere rendering of the old tune, respectful and heartfelt. They were not making fun, they were making music. I turned off the faucet and turned to face this new music, and was overcome with emotion. I quickly began to cry uncontrollably. Erin happened into the kitchen and hurried over to console me. “What is it?” she asked. I could say only this: “The song,” before succumbing to sobs.
Why was I weeping? Was it nostalgia over a song that was once popular but meaningless to me? What it felt like at the time was that I got all choked up over the long ago loss of my youth, and having it unexpectedly flood back upon me (inexplicably and incongruously), and finding that it lives in me yet, however changed, all in the same tune.
Somehow, in ways mysterious to me, music can inflame passions to the point of tears, as surely as it can unravel confusions and set off sparks of enlightenment. One of those sparks occurred for me the first time I heard – or the first time I truly heard – The Firebird. I had never known such sounds in my life, was amazed that such music existed. It was as disturbingly whacky as Alice in Wonderland. If this was possible, what else lay before me as I traveled through a life of sound? That moment I’ve come to call musical ecstasy. I hope I never forget it, and I am sharply reminded of it with each new hearing of Stravinsky’s balletic masterpiece.
Recently, I was listening to an MP3 of an L.A. Philharmonic recording of The Firebird, not the suite but the entire ballet, in a snorting, loud, smoky performance conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, live at Disney Hall. I wanted to tell our second child, eleven-year-old Celia, about my ecstatic experience with The Firebird, how it had seized my mind and taken it to where it had never been. I wanted her to know that musical ecstasy exists. We listened to the music together, then after a few minutes I went into the kitchen, where the speakers were vibrating out “Infernal” sounds, and began to clean up after dinner. I peeked in on Celia as she continued to listen. She was up on the marble mantle before the fireplace, dancing, seemingly lost in the music, pivoting on her bare toes. I left her to her discovery, but later that evening I could not resist asking her as she cruised quickly through the kitchen, “Did you like The Firebird?”
“Yes, Daddy, but which was the ecstasy part? I didn’t hear it.”
I laughed, “You will.”
Photo credit: Erin Kyle