For some people, smells evoke strong memories. If I ever come upon the scent of stuffed cabbage, I will instantly be transported to my Nan’s 3rd floor apartment in Sunrise Lakes, just outside of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Decked out in a colorful cotton house coat and white pleather slip-ons, my Nan had her hair and nails done every week. She was beautiful. I used to look forward to seeing her all year long.
I couldn’t wait to go to the flea markets with her to find small glass animals for our collections, or wool for a new sweater she wanted to knit for me or my siblings. My vegetarianism used to drive her crazy. “Broccoli and pineapple? What kind of a dinner is that? Skin and bones that’s what you are.” Nan insisted that the grass in Florida was poison; and that you could die from eating raw cookie dough. I thought she was zany and funny and often didn’t know what the heck she was talking about. But I loved her like crazy.
But I diverge.
As you can probably observe from the diet referenced above, I’m not much of a foodie. It is music that really affects me. Here is a piece that I wrote for an early version of Saving Henry, some of which made it into the final book.
It wasn’t just the rainbow on the cover art, which matched the one on my bed sheets and comforter, and was painted across two walls of my childhood bedroom, or the big, bold bubble letters, which I had recently become proficient at writing, that led me to purchase “Magical Mystery Tour.” It was that it was the mid-70s and, despite the fact that they had broken up, the Beatles were still so cool.
I held that album, my first, close to my chest, its sides buried in the notches of my elbows, all the way home from Brentano’s record store in Chevy Chase, MD. I put it on the turntable in our family room, lay with my back to the floor, closed my eyes, and listened to it over and over again. With that, my mind wandered from the comforts of my suburban life to the unknown excitement of a world I had yet to contemplate, let alone discover. I had no clue what or where Penny Lane was, or what “I Am the Walrus” was all about–I just knew that rock ‘n roll opened my mind to things I had never before imagined. Within days, I was back at Brentano’s, adding “Abbey Road” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to my collection.
In addition to learning the blessings and my torah portion for my bat mitzvah in 1978, my preparation for the party consisted of a trip to Peaches Record Store in Rockville, where I stocked up on Commodores and Earth, Wind and Fire LPs, nearly guaranteeing an awesome dance party to go along with the six-foot sub in the basement that had been newly fitted with orange linoleum floor tiles. By the time I made it to Ann Arbor, Michigan for college in the fall of 1983, my love of music led me to don a hairnet in the University of Michigan West Quad cafeteria to finance my weekly purchases of Elvis Costello, REM, U2, The Clash, and other 1980s phenoms at Schoolkids’ Records. Each new artist and new album opened my mind a little wider. With keys and the title to a previously-owned Toyota Tercel, I could go on road trips to Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg and U2 concerts, listen to whatever I wanted to on my tape deck, and dream.
The 1980s and 90s were the eras of the mix tape. I captured some of the best dance tunes–from The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23” to The Bar-Kays “Holy Ghost “ to Elvis Costello’s “Mystery Dance” and The Talking Head’s “Burning Down the House” on the multi-part Sly Eu’s Party Crib dance tapes that drew throngs to the dance floor of my Ann Arbor group house. Each April brought a birthday mix, and December was marked with an end of the year “Best Of” mix tape, whose criteria was that the songs were my favorite that year, regardless of when they were released. That explains how Ryan Adams’ “When Stars Go Blue” or The Gourds’ “Gin and Juice” made it on the Best of 2003.
From the beginning my boyfriends knew that music was the key to my heart. When my boyfriend Matt Eskey made me a birthday mix tape in April 1986 which included an original recording of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” on which Matt performed the vocals and piano and customized the ending with the Beatles’ line “In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make,” I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world.
I knew I’d met my match when Allen popped the specially-prepared “Laurie Will You Marry Me” mix tape into the tape deck on October 26, 1992. Side A, “Please Say Yes,” featured Bruce Springsteen’s “I Wanna Marry You” and The Platter’s “With this Ring” among others. Side B, titled “Baby I Can’t Wait!” continued the theme with Rickie Lee Jones’ “It Must Be Love” and Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage.” He had me at mix tape. A recent Valentine’s Day mix featured Lucinda Williams’ “I Just Want to See You So Bad,” Bob Dylan’s “I Want You,” Springsteen’s “She’s the One” live, and Van Morrison’s “You’re My Woman.” Allen knows how to woo a girl.
For some people it’s food, but for me all it takes is a few bars into a song to transport me. Whenever I hear “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which isn’t often, I’m back at Wolf Trap, giggling under a blanket with my brother and sister as one of my parents’ friends competes with Pete Seeger by singing “a-weema-weh” at the top of her lungs. John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” takes me to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where my family spent many weekends camping, singing, and skinny dipping with the group of families that shaped my childhood. When I hear The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” I’m on the battlefields of Gettysburg where my 10th grade class spent a few days learning about the Civil War and how to kiss. “Always and Forever” by Heatwave takes me back to the same family room on Beechwood Drive in Chevy Chase, MD, where I first listened to “Magical Mystery Tour,” but this time my boyfriend Larry and I are slow dancing for hours and hours, powered by first love. Grandmaster Melle Mel & the Furious Five’s “White Lines” takes me to The Bagel Factory, a restaurant I managed in Ann Arbor, where, after the restaurant closed, my future sister-in-law Tracey and my roommate Jane and I mopped the floors and did the dishes. When I hear anything on U2’s “Rattle and Hum,” it’s all about me and Allen.
By the time Henry was born, mix CDs had replaced mix tapes, but the effect was the same. Among the things Henry inherited from us was a love of music. Henry’s first playlist featured two songs often played on repeat: The ever popular “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and Carole King’s “Pierre.” A few notes into “Twinkle, Twinkle” and I’m instantly transported to Captiva, Florida. It is December 1997, right around the time I took my first shot of Lupron, and I’m in the car with Henry, Jack, Allen, and my parents, also known as Nana and Papa Sy. Henry started singing one of his favorite songs:
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star….”
Over and over again he sang. About five minutes into it, Allen, my parents and I started laughing hysterically. Eventually Henry caught on–the song would never end. He was singing and laughing until the laughter won out and the song faded away. For now.
When Henry was three, we bought him his first boxed set, the four-volume “Nutshell Library” by Maurice Sendak, and the CD that accompanied it, Carole King’s “Really Rosie.” Bedtime featured “Pierre,” Henry’s favorite. Allen and I would lie in Henry’s bed, singing the story with Henry as he turned the pages. We all yelled “I don’t care!” as loud as we could along with Pierre and Carole. Well after we hugged him, exchanged butterfly kisses with a flutter of our eyelashes on one another’s cheeks, and left his room, we would hear Henry shouting “I don’t care!” until there was silence.
Henry’s friend Simon introduced Henry to yet another favorite song on the way home from a play date. “Homemade Lemonade” by Tom Chapin is an ode to the tasty superiority of the fresh squeezed, straight-from-trees variety and the financial return associated with one of childhood’s biggest pleasures, the lemonade stand. Henry’s first lemonade stand, which he managed with the help of Jack and his friend Jacob, featured a homemade blend and fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. Advertised at 25 cents per cup and per cookie, the boys often got paid more. Over the years, I have noticed that there seems to be a correlation between the number of letters written backwards on lemonade stand signs, and overpayment for the product. The elder of the crowd and originator of the idea, four-year-old Henry manned the table while Jack and Jacob ran up and down our street recruiting customers. “Lemonade for 25 cents… or if you don’t have any money, it’s free,” yelled Jack. A couple of hours later, the kids had divided up all the money (Jack was not penalized for his socialist ways) and we went to celebrate their commercial success with ice cream cones at Max’s Ice Cream in our neighborhood.
“Homemade Lemonade” was but one of a whole category of food and drink-related songs that Henry liked. He learned to spell a couple of new words through his repetitive listening to Todd Snider’s “Beer Run” which goes like this: “B-double E double R U-N beer run. B-double E double R U-N beer run. All we need is a ten and five-er, a car and key and a sober driver. B-double E double R U-N beer run.” Some people may find these lyrics to be inappropriate for a six year-old, but at the time our concerns were focused on life or death issues – and besides, the song rocks. That is the same reason that I was not horrified when Henry returned from a pancake breakfast with my college friend Mark, exclaiming, “Mommy, Mommy, I got to sit in the front.” Mark wanted Henry to have the benefit of close proximity to the speaker as he blasted Bob Seeger. As you can guess, Mark didn’t have kids yet, but, with the death his own brother, he had had his own heartbreak and with it, the benefit of a life experience that taught him to seize the day. Henry liked Bob Seeger, but he loved the front seat.
Henry liked songs like “Krusty Krab Pizza” and “Ripped Pants” featured on SpongeBob SquarePants, “If I Had a Million Dollars” by the Bare Naked Ladies, and “Pierre” because they are funny. He liked “Brick House,” “Out of Habit” by BR-549, and Smashmouth’s “All Star” because he could sing them while swinging his hips and dancing. He liked the songs written especially for him, “Henry You’re Our Superhero” by Caron Dale, the music teacher at his pre-school, and “Dance with Henry “ by the Songs of Love Foundation because…well, they were about him. When Jack was younger, he liked Aretha Franklin’s “Hit the Road, Jack,” and Joe, our third child, still likes Jimi Hendrix’ “Hey, Joe” for the same reason.
Now, at age 13, Jack listens to AC/DC, Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream, favoring songs with awesome guitar jams. Joe, just eight, prefers hip hop stars like Lil Wayne, T-Pain, and Jay-Z. Since he has a long life ahead, we buy the “clean” versions on iTunes.
In the final weeks of 2002, when Henry and the rest of us were stuck in the hospital in Minneapolis, Allen brought some new music and with it, new cheer into Henry’s room, compliments of Dan Zanes’ “Night Time!” With songs like “Smile Smile Smile,” about how just thinking of a special someone makes you smile; and “Firefly,” about how those little bugs bring the magic of summer to the air; and “Side by Side” about how none of the bad things much matter whenever we’re together; it was as if Dan Zanes wrote the whole album with Henry in mind. Dan Zanes calls it “night time music, firefly music, shadow music, rainstorm music, bat music, streetlight music, dinner music, moon and stars music, flashlight music, or dream music.” I call it “Henry music”–and whenever I hear it, I cry.