Essay from Gail Thomas

       Musical Memories                 

Cars are for crying. I’m not sure if it’s the nostalgic lyrics of the songs pouring out of the radio, or the time alone in a confined space that push the tears out of me. Maybe both. But, a silent, tuneless car ride is empty, somehow. My right hand auto-pilots to the radio as I nestle into the driver’s seat. Sometimes I wonder if I choose to listen to songs that will stir up the sadness in my guts. Music connects me to all the dead people. And to the living, missing people.

I don’t think I consciously choose songs to elicit my tears. Music naturally makes me  feel something. Wakes me up. Disturbs memories. I know I’m not alone with the music. Melodies. Lyrics. They stir everyone differently.

In my office, where the Bluetooth speaker is only quiet when my phone rings, the ladies humor me, and try to sing along as Gene Kelly Radio delivers the songs of my childhood. Dad filled our house with show tunes, all day, every day. I smile. A lot. But Tea for Two makes the tears fall as I shuffle ball change, shuffle hop step across terra cotta tiles, cherishing memories of Dad’s fake soft-shoe as he and I performed in front of the full-length bathroom mirror. I can still hear his perfect pitch voice and see his eyes twinkle beneath his wild tangle of eyebrows as he sang Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ through the magical days of my childhood and beyond.

Halfway home on the turnpike last week, I touched the XM radio classic rock icon on the stereo screen. The Eagles’ Tequila Sunrise was just ending, and I heard the unmistakable guitar riff of The Beatles’ Revolution. I didn’t pick this song. The DJ did. Eight words into John’s iconic voice, my eyes spilled tears. I never know when it will happen. I had never been much of a crier. Maybe I cry in the car because I don’t want to do it in front of anyone.

            We played mostly Beatles at Jeffie’s funeral in San Francisco. It’s been six and a half years since my oldest brother left us. It still feels impossible. He went to sleep on a Thursday and never woke up on Friday. I’ll never know what to do with it. It’s pain that doesn’t leave.

            We connected through music. And many other things. But the songs are the glue. They stick to the memories. Keep them alive.

            While my brother, Jim and his acoustic guitar sang me to sleep with Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard and Sweet Baby James, Jeffie introduced me to Pousette-Dart Band and 10cc. He got a mile long lemon-yellow Cadillac with black leather seats when he was seventeen. I was ten. At that moment in time, I’m not sure which I loved more: my big brother, his new used car, its smooth creased worn-in seats, or the 8-track radio that blasted all my new favorite songs. He took me for rides just so we could belt out I hope that it’s only Amnesia, believe me I’m sick but not insane… at the top of our lungs. I could only see out the windshield if I sat bent-kneed with my sneakered feet stacked under my butt. I took for granted the fact that he let me play the song as many times as I wanted. Summer swirled my brown mane across my face as it came in the windows. I didn’t miss a word, though, as I scooped long strands of hair out of my mouth.

            Forty-five years later, I play Amnesia, loudly and mostly with a smile. It depends on the day. Sometimes I cry through it. Sometimes I belt it out. Loud and out of tune. But it makes me feel close to my brother. The songs connect the memories so they can stay in my brain. I don’t ever want to lose them. So, I keep playing them. Even if they take up too much space for new music I could enjoy.

Stuck in music of the past keeps me closer to my best memories. Better times. Easier times. Less sad times. Months after losing him, I allowed myself to climb the spiral wooden stairs to Jeffie’s attic bedroom in my parent’s house. I knew exactly where to find them. His box of records sat, unchanged, in the back corner of the cedar closet with the low wooden door.

I felt ten again as my fingers walked over the top edge of each record, advancing them enough to see the name and art work on the well-worn covers. The Beatles, Steely Dan, Dan Fogelberg, Jethro Tull, England Dan and John Ford Coley, David Bowie, Chicago, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Nicolette Larson. Maybe I’ll be musically stuck in the 70s forever. Maybe the calm of that era that pulses through me keeps me from longing for modern music.

Music flows through our lives all day, every day. My husband, Brian has opened my cemented musical tastes to boatloads of new artists. With my heels still dug into John Denver’s boots, I admit to feeling musically enlightened. Even enthralled by Phish, ALO, the Grateful Dead, the Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails and Goose. I can listen to Pink Floyd. They’re not loud or offensive as I had always assumed. And I don’t have to be stoned to enjoy them. As I had also assumed.

I think I’ll make two saved playlists on my new car stereo: Songs for Crying and Songs Not for Crying.

The car sob-sessions are short-lived and cathartic. The nostalgia of the music fills me up like the chocolate soft serve of my childhood.

5 thoughts on “Essay from Gail Thomas

  1. Fantastic story!, beautifully written! So proud of you ❤️

  2. What a story. I have read this piece countless times and I still get goosebumps. I love that. So proud of you …. Well done. I stand here in complete admiration. ❤️👏

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