The Joy Menu #32: Music
Your author listens on repeat to the sounds of his childhood, and a few tracks from later as well.
When my father was happy, he would put an album on the CD player (or shuffle it onto one of the three back iPods into which he loaded his 1,000 CD collection when such technology became cumbersome), and would play it on repeat through the wing-shaped white BOSE speaker he kept above the TV in the room next to the kitchen.
The album, classic country, smooth or Latin jazz, Greek Bouzouki, or deep Spanish Flamenco, usually featured a low, resonate voice, or a sharp, complex rhythm that cut through the entire house, making each song, as he played it again and again, as much a part of our day, our mood, and our sonic biography, as a way for him to relax, or groove, or sooth whatever mood he felt creeping around the corner threatening to disturb his easy breath.
Like a child who only eats grilled cheese, but who loves it, giddily, every time, he often carried his artist-of-the-moment upstairs with him to listen again (a dozen more times) before bed, or into the car to listen on his long drives into LA for work, or around town while he completed the long lists of unsorted errands he loved to do — perhaps simply because it gave him more time to listen, undistracted, to whatever sonic flavor was giving meaning to his day.
I can track periods of my life by the musical love affairs my father was indulging:
The summer of his obsession with the Dead Man Walking soundtrack (mostly in the car, driving from practice to rehearsal). I was 13, and it accompanied my transition to the awkward indignities of adolescence, and from playing multiple sports to an exclusive focus on nerdiness and music.
The months of Nora Jones, when her debut album Come Away With Me dropped (mostly before bed, echoing through the upstairs until 10 or 11pm). It was the summer I came home from studying abroad in England and had no plans other than to play music, to hang around the house, and to watch every Natalie Portman film with two of my closest friends.
The many-year dalliance with John Prine (my father loved to tell the story of his cancer; to explain the mid-career voice change). It accompanied my own slow release from home: the after-college visits, holidays in town, shorter stays before rushing back to New York to my fumbling relationships and misaligned jobs.
And later, his months-long passion for Jorge Drexler. After I returned from Argentina and again had no sense of where to take my life (a new job? a new country? a new degree?), he’d sing each braided verse of Spanish with perfect pronunciation — before asking me to translate every word.
He had bad mood music too. Classical, mostly; the storms of Mahler and Shostakovich; the fluid grief of Bach’s Cello Suites (he had least five recordings by different cellists); the effluviant epics of Haydn, Mendelssohn, Brahms. But those were different.
Those didn’t invite us to join in his revere; were played on days when another house might have been quiet; while he sat still on his chair and read, or wandered listlessly from room to room making noise as if for something to do.
But mostly, music was pleasure. Music was engaged living. Music was the marrow of life. Obsessive. Repeated. Full.
I can still sing every song recorded by Allison Krauss, and it’s hard to hear her voice without looking around for him: his eyes closed as he relaxes into rapture on his living room chair; folding himself peacefully into an envelope of sound; a stray vocalization rise above the recording like a shout; swinging an arm like a part-time conductor; letting the music carry him through the day.
When my father was dying, weeks before he lost mobility, when he could still look around and smile and wink and — we think — understand, one of his closest friends came to play him a concert. We put him in his wheelchair and sat him next to the piano, and Dan improvised across the keys, playing a perfect version of the smooth, meandering jazz my father so deeply enjoyed.
Without the ability to speak, or with no need, my father glowed.
I still can’t think of it without a pain my my belly. To offer someone access to such a personal, sensual experience when their access to sensuality, and experience, is quickly running away.
The night before he died, we put music on — it played on that same wing-shaped BOSE speaker, from the same old black iPod. He laughed, and smiled, waved his good arm around. It was the kind of send-off we knew he wanted.
While he died, my brother put on Mozart’s Requiem, which seemed as good a joke — and soundtrack — as we could imagine.
I like to think he enjoyed it as well.
Onward toward creative joy,