Some people move through our lives and then they’re gone like the morning rain.
Some stand with the stillness of a soldier at their post and never change.
Some dance along the waterline like waves against the coast.
Some forever haunt you like a ghost.
Amy Speace, Ghosts
Oh, give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away
Oh, give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away
Mentor Williams, Drift Away
I have no idea who it was that first said life is a layer cake. When you Google the phrase, you get a million hits, none of which purports to trace the phrase to a specific source. Or, if there is such a hit, I don’t have the patience to wade through all of the resulting mess to find it. I suspect it’s one of those phrases that has existed for a long time, the person having had the original idea lost to history. It doesn’t really matter in any event, since the notion possesses just enough truth to have the requisite staying power necessary to make it a cliché. But I don’t much care for this sweet and sugary image, for not all of us live happily ever after.
We are all the creatures of both our genes and our experiences. There is a great philosophical debate as to which of these ingredients provides the greater part of who we are at any given moment, but, in the end, does it really matter if it is a 60/40 split or a 50/50 one? For me, the debate is not very useful and amounts to little more than a philosophical pissing match. It is clear that both effect who we were and who we become. It is probably not even safe to say that at the moment of birth only our genes control who we are, because there now is evidence that things going on in the world surrounding the fetus in a womb affect that fetus in a variety of ways. Suffice it to say that whoever we are at any particular moment in time, we are a mixture of our heritage and our experiences, a mélange of life, culture, and chromosomes.
It is more interesting to me to think about which of our experiences have more input into who we become over time. In my case, I am certain that music has been the primary input, the primary leavening agent. For music has always been a part of my life, even if I don’t play an instrument, even if I no longer sing in a choir as I once did. Whenever I am taking a walk – whether on a crowded downtown street, or down a private country lane with only the wind and birdsong for accompaniment – there is always music playing in my mind. Always. While natural occurring sounds are evident to me during my walks and may inform my choice of internal melody, there is music playing in my head and my memory is at work recalling appropriate lyrics.
Music became important to me as a young boy in the small eastern Washington town where I grew up. I was never happy in the town, for it was too restrictive, too confining, too controlling. The town wanted me to be and act a certain way, a way it determined was appropriate for me, taking into account my parent’s background, our family’s relative wealth (or, better put, our absolute lack of cash), and our relative newcomer status in a town whose older families could trace their presence back over 150 years. I didn’t understand why these constraints were appropriate, for they felt like shackles. After all, I was young and full of the American spirit. I believed in their preaching that I could be whomever I wanted to be if only I had the necessary gifts and if only I worked hard enough. So why they were busy trying to shut me into the box they wanted me to occupy? That they were constantly doing so was a mystery to me and a direct, head-to-head challenge to my survival instincts.
Music freed me from the town’s restraints. Initially, it provided mental freedom from the confining world a child inhabits, the kind of freedom that sometimes comes to long-term, unjustly confined prisoners through means of reading or of meditation. Songs do have wings, after all, and on them I flew away from my constraints. I can recall working in the pea fields and mentally hearing Bobby Rydell’s version of Volare (Franco Migliacci and Domenico Modugno) as I rode a loader pulled behind a Caterpillar tractor. The song freed me from the drudgery of a repetitive task, while allowing me to pay attention to the needs of the job. It wasn’t love that gave me wings at the age I then was, for the very idea of girls scared me to death; it was the song’s melody and the notion that one could rise and fly away up to the clouds, fly away from the Valley in which I was then trapped. This song, among many others, provided a pathway to a future that didn’t include the boxes that others insisted I occupy.
I grew up in an age when music was changing. I was born in the mid-Forties when big bands and crooners held sway. By the time I entered junior high school, early rock-and-roll, doo wop, and pop music were coming into prominence, and their youthful exuberance helped me cope with other’s expectations, helped free me mentally from the chains others attempted to forge for me. Dion helped me understand that I could wander if I wished (The Wanderer, Ernie Maresca), whiled Frankie Ford invited me on a Sea Cruise (Sea Cruise, Huey P. Smith). Martin Denny took me to a quiet village somewhere other than my valley (Quiet Village, Martin Denny), and Ricky Nelson preached the power of becoming a Travelin’ Man (Jerry Fuller). Along with Fabian, I crooned “turn me loose, turn me loose I say” (Turn Me Loose, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman) as I headed mentally for the exits from the valley that would only open for me after I’d turned 18 and had graduated from high school.
And along with these mental images, music eventually gave me the necessary energy to fly free when the valley’s gates opened at last, gave me the beat to which to live my own life, gave me the creative rhythm needed to fashion a life of my own devising.
Then music changed again, becoming the Voice, the anthem of an angry generation haunted by Vietnam, haunted by the stupidity of those in authority who insisted young men of my age should fight and die in a war devoid of purpose, devoid of meaning. Bob Dylan helped me ask the necessary questions, telling me that the answers were blowin’ in the wind (Blowin’ In The Wind,Â Bob Dylan); Gene Pitney invested in me the concept that a law book might be the answer to the point of a gun, and helped power my efforts to go east to attend law school (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence), Burt Bacharach, Hal David). Barry Maguire and P. F. Sloan reminded me that we were on the eve of destruction (The Eve Of Destruction, P. F. Sloan) and helped give me the incentive and the courage to fight an unlawful draft order in a federal courthouse in Detroit, Michigan; Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang my song, the song of a poor boy who hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest (The Sound of Silence, Paul Simon). Pete Seeger reminded me that we were waist deep in the big muddy and that the big fool, Lyndon Johnson, was pressing on nonetheless (Waist Deep In The Big Muddy, Pete Seeger); Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers reminded me that despite everything life threw my way, I should stay forever young, I should always be light of heart, my heart should always be joyful, a song should always be sung (Forever Young, Bob Dylan).
And so I still sing music in my head as I walk down life’s streets, both the music of then and the music of now. And every once in a while, one of the gods of my youth returns to remind me that he or she isn’t done yet, to fill my life with yet more music. Dion did so in his 2000 album, Deja Nu, reminding me through the strains of Shu Bop (Dion Dimucci) of the first time I heard doo wop sung, of its power to make my heart ache with longing. In a single album, Dion returned doo wop, at his then-current age of 61, to an art form, an art form no longer restricted to groups of young men singing on the stoops of 1950s Brooklyn.
And just last year, Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys returned, reminding me that rock-and-roll has a place for people my age, reminding me that old bands can have staying power, reminding me that old voices can still be heard as if for the first time and not just through the constant repetition of their old hits, reminding me that:
Old friends have gone
They’ve gone their separate ways
Our dreams hold on
For those who still have more to say
Brian Wilson/Joe Thomas, Jon Bon Jovi, Summer’s Gone
Music has played a seminal role in who I’ve become and will continue to help fashion who I’ve yet to become: always present; integral to my thinking, my education, my experiences, my walks down life’s roads; constantly thought-provoking and always soothing. While new friends may be made, and old friends may go in the passage of fickle time; while old friends may metamorphose into someone other than whom they once were, and old friends may die: the music will always play on. For friends are transitory and music is not.
And so, while I don’t particularly care for the notion that life is a layer cake, I don’t mean to imply, instead, that life is always dark. For I believe that we should not look askance at whatever dark surprises life delivers; we should embrace them instead. Everything we make happen, everything that happens to us, can have a positive side, even those events that mark our darkest hours. All we have to do – hard as it is to do – is to first discover and then learn the lessons taught by our darker moments. In so doing, we will improve our futures, especially if we do so to the strains of music.
Accordingly, I prefer to think of life as a casserole of scalloped potatoes rather than as a layer cake: as a basic, life-sustaining mélange of starch, improved by the spices, the cheeses, the ingredients we add to it by means of living a long, eventful life – in my case, a composition heavily spiced with music in all of its magnificent variety.