I don’t remember ever listening to ‘children’s music’. The soundtrack of my childhood consisted mostly of blues and rock & roll. My father, with his insatiable hunger for music and impeccable tastes, kept our home alive with records, cassette tapes and cd’s constantly turning.
I was infatuated with his record collection from a young age. I’d spend hours huddled over the large antique timber chest that housed them, tracing my fingers over the artwork and intently reading the inside covers looking for clues. Clues to what? Their secrets. I wanted to understand those records and the people who made them, to somehow comprehend in my young mind the great mysteries hidden in the imagery and the words.
The old chest was full of vinyls but I gravitated toward just a few.
Perhaps my favourite of them all was Led Zeppelin IV. Something charmed me about the unassuming old man on the cover, bent over carrying a bundle of sticks. I liked the neutral, textured background aroud him and the absence of text was interesting. Once inside, I became entranced by the mystical hooded hermit with a lamp eerily lighting a passage of lyrics from Stairway To Heaven:
“And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll”
I always wished the rest of the lyrics were printed there too. I read those words over and over, trying to decipher their clandestine meaning. Robert Plant’s vocal range and lyrical subject matter hypnotised me. The desperately emotive wail of Jimmy Paige’s guitar fascinated me. I was echanted by Led Zeppelin IV.
I remember feeling scared of Black Sabbath’s self-titled record, specifically the witch-like figure haunting the Mapledurham Watermill on the cover. The sound of the storm and church bells filled my tiny body with dread every time the record began – but I always went back for more. Osbourne’s supernatural modulations, the way he begged “Oh no oh please God help me”, pulled at me. The climax during the 5th minute left me stunned. The howling solo captivated me.
Fear and excitement are closely linked in the brain and the two emotions can be easily confused. Black Sabbath’s record was my first clear memory of experiencing that confusion.
My dad still tells the story of my begging to listen to Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Why’d Ya Do It?” We had an uncensored culture in our home, few songs and artists were off limits when I was young, but each and every time Broken English would near it’s grand finale he would lift the needle.
“Okay, time to choose the next one,” he would say and gesture toward the collection of vinyls “take your pick.”
“Why can’t I listen to the last song?”
“It’s not for children.”
“Well, she was very angry during that song and she uses words that are not allowed.”
I’d narrow my eyes at him. “Why was she angry?”
“Apparently Mick Jagger really messed up.”
“Hm.” With my eyes still squinted defiantly I’d concede…for the moment.
For years I pleaded to hear that song. It wasn’t about the music, I never listened to Marianne Faithfull. I wanted to hear it because it was forbidden. Finally, when I was about 14 years old, my father gave in to my demands. I felt him clench his teeth as the needle dropped, still worrying I was too young for such profanity and vulgar lyrical content.
I didn’t feel much when I heard it, only curiosity about the inner workings of Mick and Marianne’s relationship and a pang of sympathy for her brutal heartache.
I spent hours sitting silently on the floor by the stereo as Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds played on a loop. It was a compelling combination of story and soundtrack – I could see it unfolding in my mind. I didn’t know then if it was real or fake, I didn’t understand that it was an adaption of a novel. I was young, my imagination wildly active, and I thought perhaps it was a broadcast of real events unfolding somewhere.
Cd’s filled draws and cupboards or they were stacked high in random piles around the stereo. As with the records, the cd collection was broad but I had my favourites.
I’m surprised that Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads and Let Love In weren’t worn out completely. Cave was the unsuspecting voice of my lullabies. At night dad would pop in a Bad Seeds cd before preparing my sister and I for our bedtime. We’d crawl into the covers with the faint echo of Stagger Lee, Where the Wild Roses Grow and O’Malley’s Bar in the background. I loved O’Malley’s Bar – it rang out like an ominous bedtime story. Reflecting now it seems mad to let a child fall asleep to such music, but I was never afraid – only inspired by the clever and fantastical composition of music and lyrics.
Tom Waits’ Heartattack & Vine and Blue Valentine featured heavily in the regular rotation. When I first heard Waits’ dry gravel croon on the title track, I didn’t believe that the man on the cover of Heartattack & Vine was the same man making those sounds. I thought he looked like Edward Scissor Hands and the unexpected severity of his voice was intriguing.
Waits’ story-telling and wordplay delighted me and stretched my small mind like putty. His characters came alive on tracks like Romeo Is Bleeding. Waits’ delivery hooked me. I recall listening carefully, leaning into the speakers, during Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis trying to discern the trickery of a male vocalist reciting the words of a female protagonist. It was a new concept for me and at first I couldn’t grasp it.
Chris Isaak’s Forever Blue mentored me on love long before I would experience it for myself. I’d listen dutifully to his tales about the complexities of relationships and take notes for the future. I got the sense that his troubles were caused by his own emotional limitations but I was always on his side, never the side of the women he hurt. I had a particular admiration for Isaak – he might have been the first man I was sexually curious about when the age of such interests inevitably blossomed. Long before that, my parents took me to see him live in concert. I was very young. I will always remember two things about that show – my mum sneaking me down the aisles and past the crowd toward the stage so I could get a closer look, and his silver sequined body suit à la Elvis Presley. At the end of the night we waited on the street to catch a glimpse of him as he ducked through the hysterical hoard toward his limousine.
Jimmy Buffett’s Volcano interested me. There was no other music in our house with that same ‘Hawaiian island’ mood, and Buffett’s preoccupation with escapism spoke to a part of my personality that was yet to fully develop. Treat Her Like A Lady held my attention hostage – the gentle affection in his voice and the loving praise in his lyrics fascinated me because I could hardly believe someone should feel so passionately about a boat. I was completely obsessed with the French lyrics, female opera vocals and the adventures of Mr Moon and Magnus in Chanson Pour Les Petite Enfants. I’d often search tirelessly for that cd among the masses only to play those two tracks on repeat.
My mother had a much smaller and more refined selection of cd’s including exceptional artists with rich cultural roots like Yothu Yindi and Enya. It was from my mother’s collection I later discovered a love for Elvis, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin but it took time to develop my appreciation for them. The influence of my mother’s music was predominately subconscious, flourishing as I matured in my teenage years.
The exception is Tracey Chapman’s New Beginning. When I listened to the songs of New Beginning as a young girl my heart would hurt. I felt the pain and joy of experience very clearly through her songs, her voice, her words. I was profoundly touched by Chapman’s tender reminiscences of the human condition.
What’s the point of this exploration into the past? Simple reflection? Die hard nostalgia? I’m not sure. I am certain of one thing though – I’m eternally grateful for all of the music in this world…and my exposure to it as a child.