Filling my life with song
For my father’s 37th birthday my mother recorded me, then three years old, singing “You Light Up My Life” from beginning to end, word for word. That is the first song I have any memory of, and that cassette tape proves that my flair for the dramatic started perhaps a little too early. By the last line of the song I was feeling it so deeply, wanting so badly for someone to sing me his song, that the breath I took between words made it sound as if I was putting the entire tape recorder in my mouth. If you listen closely you can hear in the background the dread in my mother’s gut at the prospect of my eventual puberty.
The only other music from my early childhood that I have any memory of are a few songs from ABBA and everything the Bee Gees ever recorded. That’s all my parents ever played in the house, those two groups, and whenever I hear just a few notes from “Super Trouper” I’m reminded of the endless hours my siblings and I would dance in the living room next to the eight-foot-long console that housed the record player, and how I would giggle to the point of exhaustion that these women had devoted an entire song to poopers, extraordinary poopers, super poopers. My parents never corrected me, and now that I have children I can understand why: leverage. They would need that story in the following years to embarrass me into submission.
My father was the Bee Gees fan, loved the rhythm and the falsetto that often made me wonder wether or not the person singing would make it out of the song alive. I used to sit and look at the album covers, particularly the cover of Best of Bee Gees Vol. 2 released in 1973 where all three brothers are wearing shirts with collars cut so low that their overgrown chest hair has no choice but to tumble out, like a kid on a roller coaster who can’t hold down his soda and barfs all over the front of his body. Instead of feeling repulsed I imagined that a man who looked like that could go out and kill a boar with his hands, and so I have always been attracted to men who, in the event of a natural disaster, could keep the family warm with their facial hair alone.
I was later introduced to Air Supply during my parents’ separation and divorce when my father, sitting for hours in his dark room, would get up only to turn the tape over. Every Air Supply song seemed to be written for my father during that period of his life — lost love, love, more love, love and then love, and finally, love — and in fifth grade while we listened to “The One that You Love” before school, he would hold me in his lap and ask why she wouldn’t come back to him. Since I was the youngest child my parents kept me in the dark about their problems, but I always knew something was horribly wrong when in the mornings I would watch my mother stand in the bathroom and cry while she washed her face with an assortment of cosmetics. I cannot hear a single Air Supply song without being reminded of the smell of Pond’s Cold Cream.
Around the same time I became a huge fan of Madonna and her fingerless gloves, her ratted hair, and her wardrobe of layered lace and leggings. What I loved most, though, was the beauty mark that mysteriously moved around her face in different videos, videos I watched only at the neighbor’s house because my parents refused to subscribe to cable in hopes that doing so would protect us from images of exposed bra straps. That beauty mark would move up and down with every word she sang, and I used to draw one on my own face with the tip of a mascara brush making certain that I put it in the exact same place as hers. But my less gullible best friend was certain that Madonna’s mole wasn’t real and to prove it showed me one picture where it was on the left side, one picture where it was on the right. I can remember every detail of those pictures — how her hair curled upward, the white top she was wearing — because it blew my model of the world into a million pieces. I had believed in that mole, and it wasn’t true.
During my freshman year in high school I bought second row tickets to a Milli Vanilli concert, and that night would unknowingly become the explosive farewell to a lifetime of musical tastes that weren’t my own but those of my family and the program director at the local top 40 radio station. The show was less a rock concert and more an elaborate work-out video, and because my mother was sitting next to me I wasn’t even paying attention to whether or not they were lip-syncing (they were!). I was worried that someone I knew might see me there with my mother. Later that night when we got home and I was left alone with my anxiety, I remember thinking that nothing I was listening to reflected how I was feeling, that no part of me wanted to blame it on the rain. Within two years I had bought every album by The Cure.