“I learned more about life from a three minute pop song than I ever did in school.” Bruce Springsteen
Songs teach us what textbooks never could. The only teacher more qualified than music is experience and she’ll hit you with a ruler. Play an old song and see what comes to mind. These are lessons you’ve learned by heart. The great moments I’ve shared with other people have almost always involved music. These five songs are bound up with some of my fondest memories of friends and family singing with me in the car.
“Hey, Good Lookin'” by Hank Williams
Me, my old man, and his old man were riding around in an old pick-up truck. I was four or five years old then. We were on our way home after an afternoon trip to Donalsonville, Georgia. In town, we had picked up bread and bologna from the Pig and had ourselves a picnic at a nearby park. On the ride home, I sat between them on the bench seat. This must have come on the radio because I was singing my own version of it all the way back. Paw Paw got a big kick out of my singing. He even liked the other song I made up, “Home Cooking” which had been inspired by an IGA commercial. He died from throat cancer when I was seven. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, I called the old-time radio program to request this Hank classic. The saddest part of that story was that after a couple years, the station stopped having the song on hand. When they could no longer fulfill my request, I stopped calling.
“Proud Mary” by Ike and Tina Turner
Me, my old man, and my mom sang this in our ’89 model Dodge Caravan on many occasions. I had already been familiar with the original by way of CCR’s Chronicle. This version was on a 60’s compilation cassette Dad picked up from somewhere so that he could relive his teens. I don’t remember any of the other songs. We just kept rewinding back to the start of this song. That was its own funny aggravation since it was on cassette. Ike and Tina’s version of Proud Mary starts out slow and builds to a rapid pace. Dad played Ike and I was backup Ike and we all three sang as Tina. I have no other recollection of the three of us singing like that. I was fourteen. Soon enough, my taste would not be directed by theirs so much. My parents were tolerable of my developing tastes, but we would never join together in song like we did then.
“Don’t Go Away” by Oasis
Me and Chris played Oasis at full volume on the way home from a night out at the skating rink. We were seventeen. We hadn’t gone there to skate but to meet girls. This was a rare intermission Chris would have between girlfriends when we’d get to hang out more. Chris let me have my delusions. The girls I went for thought themselves too good for me and socially, I stumbled in every possible way. In the company of others, I didn’t always feel so cool. I faked the funk anyway. When it was just me and Chris zipping along the highways in his Mustang singing to the top of our lungs in faux-British accents, I doubted not my coolness. High on the emotion of the evening, alive with the magic of adolescence, and fueled by the adrenaline of music I stood out of the open T-top and yelled out a marriage proposal. My humble, if ill-advised, request was addressed to the girl who had won my affection that week. Chris knew, in the technical sense, that I had embarrassed myself but he was not embarrassed of me. He had come to expect as much from me. He laughed and took the CD back to track 8.
“Brilliant Dance” by Dashboard Confessional
Me, Jeff, and Justin had to get out of town. September had been intense to say the least. The 11th day had rattled the nation, stirring fear, fervent prayer, and fevered discussion. Even down in Northwest Florida, we were affected. Only twelve days later, the nightmare came to us. Three of our friends had died in a van accident. They were on their way back to school after having lead a youth event in a neighboring town. A dozen other students had been in the same van.
We were all connected. It was impossible not to be, the college was that small. Classes were canceled that week and groups of students and teachers traveled in caravans to where our friends would be buried. On this day, there had been a memorial service. News cameras greeted us at the exit. I resented that they would turn our tragedy into television. If I had not felt so sad, I might have given them some unexpected opinions about their unwelcome presence. We were in the cafeteria afterward when Justin told us that he had to get out. He wanted to go to Dothan to visit the music store in the mall. I trashed some re-heated turkey and gravy and we were gone. Justin’s banana-colored Geo Storm was like a sanctuary. There we thrust ourselves into the music of Dashboard Confessional and pretended that girl problems were the only problems in all the world.
“Somebody to Love” by Queen
Me and Donna were riding in a ’94 Nissan pickup from Nashville to Jackson as we did most Friday nights. By the time we moved from Graceville, most of our friends had gone ahead of us. That city was empty without them and so it was our time to go. Awhile back, realizing that this era was coming to a close, that the people I loved were leaving, I got serious about Donna. I loved her more than them and didn’t want her to leave me too. She was my somebody to love. I didn’t hear that song until after we were engaged. However, the song captured the spirit and mania of my quest to find true love so perfectly that if that quest were ever turned into a movie, this song would be the opening track.
There we were, mere months into our marriage and we were chaotically stretched between two cities, trying to manage our life in Nashville and her mom’s care in Jackson. It was a mess and yet we were together. I won! Whatever hardship or struggle we encountered was worth it. I was with the girl I loved. That truck of ours was in rough shape. The engine squealed a frightening squeal and the windshield leaked but it had a tape deck. The only tape we had then was Queen’s Greatest Hits. We played that tape till the ribbon inside it melted. No lights in the dead of night, sharp curves, and the promise of deer running into the street made the last 15 miles of our trip the scariest. My job was to keep Donna awake but I couldn’t keep my head up. Every time she took one of those turns, I thought we were goners. Donna was wide awake and had everything under control but from where I sat, in my condition, the universe was shaking loose. So, we sang our hearts out and lived.
I have this theory: if you can sing your heart out with someone it means you love them. In fact, I know this to be true.