This morning at my gym class, the instructor’s super-techno dance mix included a mash-up of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts’ classic “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”. After getting over my initial disgust that they had butchered this all-time rock anthem with a computer-generated dance beat, I was instantly swept back in time to July 19, 1982. I was nine years old, and my parents—in a moment of highly questionable judgment—let me, my siblings, and my cousins go unsupervised to a rock concert at the North Dakota State Fair. It was none other than Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, and “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” had just blown up. I was mesmerized by the whole experience, but especially hearing her sing that song live. It was a night etched in my mind forever.
That is how it so often is with the signature moments in our lives: a song is attached. So, when we think back on our history, the telling of our lives emerges from our minds like a movie, complete with a soundtrack. The music playing while we hung out with our friends, stayed up late, kissed the girl, got dumped by the girl, won the game, rebelled, danced, roadtripped, celebrated, contemplated, got married, rocked the baby, and on and on. For most of us, the music tells the story for us. Play the soundtrack, and we could “set adrift on memory bliss.”
My life is no different. When I look through my piles of CDs or through my iPod, it is like my life is flashing in front of my eyes. So, in roughly chronological order, here is the Soundtrack of My Life:
- “Another One Bites The Dust”—Queen. This one starts the album, because I remember listening to the 45—yes, a record—of this in my room over and over with my brothers and neighbors. The other Queen anthems—“We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You”—absolutely belong on this playlist as well, but I will lump them into this one slot so I can sneak other songs in (IT IS SO HARD TO KEEP THIS ALBUM SHORT!!!)
- “Take It On The Run”—REO Speedwagon. This is another vinyl memory. I didn’t own it, but I remember staying up late at my (older) cousins’ cabin when I was a kid listening to this over and over, dancing around on the beds and feeling way older than my 8 years.
- “You May Be Right”—Billy Joel. This is my transition to 8-track. I could not get enough of the sound of that shattering glass followed immediately by the revved-up opening bars of this song to start the “Glass Houses” album. Instant adrenaline!
- “Greased Lightning”—Danny Zuko (John Travolta) & the T-Birds. I have seen “Grease” a thousand times and know all the songs, but this one sticks out so vividly because I remember my brothers and neighbor boys and I standing on our basement sofas performing this song—with all the dance moves, of course—like we were the T-Birds as we watched it repeatedly. (I wish that my parents had recorded more of our nonsense, because I would die to see this stuff now.) Go greased lightning!
- “Roll On”—Alabama. This was the signature roadtrip song for the crosscountry family misadventures (see my post “Roadtrip Down Memory Lane”), since my dear mother only ever brought one cassette for the entire trip. I didn’t know any better. Roll on!
- “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”—Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. Enough said.
- “Cum On Feel The Noize”—Quiet Riot. I have to include this not just because it is one of those quintessential 1980’s rock anthems that got played at every school dance—and still charges me up to hear it—but because of how it fits with my Joan Jett story. You see, at that first concert for 9-year-old me, the warm-up band for Joan Jett was a totally unknown band named Quiet Riot, and they blew us away with all of the material from the “Metal Health” album that would become popular a year or so later. At nine years old, I reached the peak of my interest in metal—ha!
- “Beat It”—Michael Jackson. I am such a child of the early days of MTV, and I could easily produce a 50-song soundtrack of songs that influenced me from those early years of the network (you don’t know how it pains me to leave off this list The J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold”, which threw our whole house into a frenzy every time it got played). Michael Jackson’s brilliance as a performer was perfect for the music video medium, and I was totally captivated. Much like some of the others on this list, “Beat It” is my representative for all of the amazing stuff that Michael put out in those early years, including “Thriller”. When I hear the song now, the dance-off video leaps onto the screen of my mind.
- “Mony Mony”—Billy Idol. I can’t even really claim to like this song, but when I think of high school dances, this song is the first thing that comes to my mind. It was like we all had permission to shout the F-word, and what more does a teenager want? So we shouted!
- “You’re The Inspiration”—Chicago. Roadtripping with my best friend to tennis tournaments, to Chicago (where we actually saw the band Chicago play), and across the American Rockies. The “Greatest Hits 1982-1989” album logged a lot of miles. Lots of sappy love songs—right up my alley.
- “U Can’t Touch This”—MC Hammer. I remember riding in a school bus with a high school girls’ tennis team with this song blaring, and each time it would come to the right parts, we would all shout, “STOP! HAMMER TIME!!!” Pure, unadulterated fun.
- “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You”—Michael Bolton. I am probably supposed to be embarrassed that I was a huge Bolton fan in my late high school-early college years. I remember when my mom first got this cassette before we left for a long roadtrip to a tennis tournament. By the time we returned, I was sold. This song made it on many a mix tape.
- “Summertime”—DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. This was the Summer song for 1991, the year I graduated high school. I hear this and think of my buddies. That was our time together, and we soaked it up. After all of these years, I would still lay down in traffic for those guys.
- “Walking In Memphis”—Marc Cohn. My favorite. I also found this song in the Summer of ’91, and I include it not so much from one memory at that time but for how deeply it moved me—and moves me to this day. Though he is widely considered a one-hit wonder for this song, Cohn sunk deep into my soul with this entire album, and he has remained foremost in my heart ever since. Like some of the others, this spot on my list really represents a lot of songs, including “True Companion”, which played in my wedding. I have sung Marc’s songs to soothe my crying kids on their tough nights, and to soothe myself in the best and worst times of my life. This song, which is about a spiritual experience for him, has become a spiritual experience for me.
- “I Go To Work”—Kool Moe Dee. This was my “pump-up song” to get ready for intramural basketball games in college. I love this whole album, but this song completely brings it. This is good rap. Old school like the old school!
- “Jessie”—Joshua Kadison. This song–and all of the others from his “Painted Desert Serenade” album–is so much about singing my lungs out on solo roadtrips across the land. I love Kadison’s storytelling, and despite a short career, he has always been on my short list of favorites. A wonderful memory is seeing him play live at the House of Blues in Los Angeles.
- “Round Here”—Counting Crows. Their debut song “Mr. Jones” was so overplayed that I didn’t want to get the “August and Everything After” album, but someone dear to me insisted. This is the first song, and I was completely shaken by it. I bought it in Washington, DC September of 1994, and it played in my Discman the entire Autumn and Winter I spent there and New York City. It has played on every roadtrip since, and never fails to move me. I love this song, this album, this band.
- “Mystery”—Indigo Girls. Someone randomly gave me this CD, “Swamp Ophelia”, in L.A.; she didn’t know why she had it and didn’t want it. This is the epitome of “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” I had never heard Indigo Girls before that, but they didn’t leave my CD player for months afterward. This song in particular captured my soul from the beginning, and it has become another roadtrip staple for me. This band is on my short list, and the song is amazing live.
- “The Promise”—Tracy Chapman. I walked down the aisle of my wedding to this song. Though she had put out a number of albums before “New Beginning”, this album is where I discovered Tracy on a camping trip to Montana. I played it nonstop, and this song always hit me right in the heart. It led to a huge collection of her music and eventually hearing the song live in concert while holding hands with my wife. A pretty cool relationship moment.
- “No One”—Alicia Keys. This one is for my daughter. When she was an infant and having a crying fit that could not be settled, this song always came to my rescue. I would put the iPod dock on REPEAT mode with “No One” and sway through the kitchen with her in my arms. It did the trick every time. I love the song anyway, but knowing that my little angel loved it, too, gave it an extra special place in my heart.
There you have it: the soundtrack of my life. As I said, I can think of dozens of songs that are deserving of a spot on the playlist, and it pains me to leave them off. But this list seems right for my journey.
How about your journey? What is on the playlist of your life? Get out your journal and your CDs/cassettes/albums/iPod. Let yourself be swept away. What images come up with the songs? Do you remember the good and the bad times equally? How many images are about love? Who do the songs make you miss the most? Which is your favorite? Do you have, like me, such clear images of the songs of childhood, but fewer standouts from more recent years? I hope you have as much fun dancing through your memories as I did in making my list. Leave me a reply and let me know: what’s on the soundtrack of your life?
Sing out loud & dance like nobody’s watching,