Thursday, August 25, 2011

Take a Sad Song and Make It Better

When I was a teenager, my life was defined by music and words. And these two forces culminated in a special sort of ecstasy every time I bought a new record album.

Each step of the ritual remains as engrained in my memory as the grooves in the now dusty and warped vinyl disks.

I cradled my new record between both hands. Gently placed it on the turntable. Dropped the needle. Rushed to sprawl across my twin bed in the room I shared with my older sister, and picked up the stiff cardboard album jacket.

Only then, once the music began, did I allow myself the magic of studying the album's back cover and--if I was particularly fortunate--the lyrics printed on the liner. A song never hits its mark, never fully transported me from my parochial world, until I read the lyrics.

My friends and I listened to all the popular rockers. My first concerts included Aerosmith and the Stones. We all had our favorite Party Music and later, our favorite Cruising Music, enjoyed on tape by the lucky few with an eight-track or cassette deck in their car.

But at fifteen, I envisioned myself a poet. And, especially when I was home--alone in my room--I gravitated toward the musical poets: the brooding deep-thinkers, the songwriters who wrote of soul-searching, lost love and loneliness.

Not that I personally knew much of those emotions, except a bit of youthful discontent and rebellion. I'd been enveloped within a safe harbor, with loving parents and a secure neighborhood. I was never sexually abused nor truly socially maligned. The worst horror I'd experienced was the betrayal of a teenage boyfriend.

So what drew me to these types of songs? Did I simply want to open my arms to the shower of all human emotions? Was I under the power of hormonal overdrive? Was I suppressing a buried sadness I wasn't willing to acknowledge or admit?

Even at those occasional moments in which I did feel burdened by some teenage angst or weepiness, I immersed myself in it. I listened to my old favorites: The Beatles, Bob Dylan or Neil Young. I'd hear Cat Stevens' Father and Son, and know my feelings were universal. Or read the lyrics to The Needle and the Damage Done, hug myself and hold out hope that my life would end less tragically. I'd drop the needle on the stereo a second time, a third.

I'd listen and sing along, until feeling worse somehow made me feel better.

Later, I'd find myself writing my own poetry. I configured pieces of my emotions into rough words I might decide to submit to my high school paper, but more often than not would just hide in a notebook under my mattress.

I haven't written a poem in thirty years. My writing has changed, as have my reading tastes. Yet nothing still touches me more than a melancholy melody or an introspective tune.

Oh, how I still love a sad song.

It's not the same now, of course. I seldom buy a CD. When I do, I don't sprawl across my bed, pull out the paper insert and attempt to memorize every tiny printed word.

If songs still came embedded in scratchy 33 1/3 rpm disks, with full-size graphics and lyrics, I wonder how music might affect me now. Would it still encourage me to dig deeper within myself? To try to connect with others through their musical words? To live fully--for a few moments--within someone else's soul-searching short story?

Or do we view the world in a whole different way when we're young?

All I know is I never felt so sad, so often, as when I listened to music at fifteen.

Man, did it make me happy.

What kind of music moves you? Does a sad song make you better? Do you still hoard all that vinyl, inside dusty boxes in your basement?


  1. Prompted to post this due to a Facebook message. Every bit as good as the vinyl version of Father and Son. If I've failed to link it, copy and paste in your browser. Well worth it:

  2. I don't know why, but this,from the 1:05 mark, is trying to say something to me. Maybe I need to dance more?

    I have a collection of vinyl, LPs and 45s, but most of 'em were released right after video killed the radio star . . .

  3. Oh wow. You really captured that moment of the new record. What a wonderful feeling that was. Sigh. The only Cat Stevens I own is a cassette purchased while I went to school in Dijon. Even now those songs transport me, even if I'm listening to them on youtube.

    Milk crates full of albums sit gathering dust in the basement. Herbert Von Karajan mashed together with The Smiths. A lifetime of vinyl. My kids think the album covers make great wall art. I agree.

  4. Sarah: Loved that movie! Don't remember much about the music in it though. Good excuse to watch it all over again. I definitely need to dance more...

    Lisa: My oldest has started his own vinyl collection. He would covet your Smiths albums. And damn, why didn't I think of album jackets to cover up all the dings and holes in the walls? I wouldn't have had to repaint.

  5. Our vinyl is still on the shelf, the turntable is still plugged into the sound system, and occasionally we play one of them. We are diehards, no question. My husband's favorite college memory is the day the Beatles' White Album came out, he waited in line outside the record store until it opened, then they all sat on the floor in the store listening to the whole thing, reading the liner notes, while new customers stepped over them to buy their copies. They stayed all afternoon and the store sold every copy they had. I wish I could've seen his young self there marveling over those poetic lyrics, but no, I was off being a stupid sorority girl. Glad I got over that.

  6. Mary Lynne: Fabulous story! I was ten when the Beatles broke up, so all my "new" Beatles album excitement came way late in the game... Thanks for coming by! BTW, what kind of dog is Quinn? She's a beauty.

  7. Ohh, Quinn, the best dog in the world. He is a Great Pyrenees. Or I should say was. He died last year at the distinguished age of 13 but I leave his photo up there as an homage to a dog I won't be able to replace. There are two others living here now, two Newfoundlands, sisters who are going on 7 years old. They are sweet girls but Quinn was the best ever. Nice blog, Sherry - I followed you over here from Betsy's.

  8. Sweet memories. My very first LP was Carpenters - by the Carpenters. It was almost bigger than my "portable" record player. And boy did I belt out the sadness along with Karen and Richard.

    And thanks for reminding me about Cat Stevens.

  9. God dammit Sherry... I've been meaning to write this exact same post but you've beaten me to it. There was nothing like cracking open the cellophane on that brand new record album. I'd also pore over every detail of the liner note and dream of one day, appearing in there. CDs have no where near the aesthetic appeal. And don't get me started on music downloads.

    Sad songs? Hello? I'm the bluzdude. The blues is nothing but a sad song wrapped in a shuffle beat. I loved the tragic songs that had nothing to do with my real life.

    Case in point,my all time favorite song, Bat Out of Hell. I never felt the need to escape my humdrum life by jumping on a bike and screaming out of town. Yet I was still taken by this powerful song of release and escape. Maybe it was just the rock and roll...

  10. Mary Lynne: I saw a Great Pyrenees on a rescue website recently and almost called about him. He was gorgeous, too. Good thing someone beat me to it, because I'm already over my pet quota.

    Downith: I need to go search for my Carpenters album right now. Seriously great singalong songs. And their Christmas album is one of the best. "Little Altar Boy..." Sigh.

    Bluz: Ah, go with your own version of the topic. Different take, different audience. And Bat Out of Hell is a tragic song? Hmm... gonna have to give that a closer listen.

  11. what an absolutely beautiful blog. i took me back. love the way you write, sherry (and your sister too).

  12. This is really spooky.Sherry, you just climbed into my head and expressed everything I ever felt from "back in the day". Never had the ability to put it down on paper. I think we're about the same age ( 1/8/59 ), and you just knocked it out of the park. I've met my soul-mate! Thank you. Sherry, my name is Mark Dinehart, and could you please friend me on FB. Thanks

  13. Great Blog. Put into words exactly my teenage years, right down to the Cat Steven's Father and Son reference. My emotional music or the time, along with Cat Stevens, was Carole King and Joni Mitchell. I'm still that way about music, the songs that "get" me are the one's with the truly emotional "hooks". Thanks for taking me back.

  14. Nikki: Thanks much for reading and sharing this. You're quite welcome for the flashback. (It wasn't acid-induced, was it?) We love your stuff, too!

    Mark: Yep, I'm just a couple years behind you. So glad you enjoyed, and thanks for your kind words. See you on Facebook!

    Anon: Sounds like we were made from the same mold. I just saw Carole King with James Taylor last year. Her voice is getting rough, but man could she write the songs. JT could, too (and his voice is still smooth as chocolate). Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Beautiful writing, Sherry.

    When I was little I went to bed every night listening to Free To Be You And Me. I studied that jacket just as you describe. Later it was Annie with Andrea McCardle and the soundtrack to Grease. I always imagined myself as the girl you were but somewhere along the way our turntable was lost and never replaced. I think listening to music in the way you did might have helped ease some of the troubling times I had. That, and, of course, a room of my own.

  16. MSB: I would have gladly shared my record player with you--although my singing may not have helped ease your troubling times. Hope you found that the sun truly did come out tomorrow...

  17. Sherry,
    I am so with you. I can't get behind the sugary sweet. Give me the down, the depressed, all of it, and I am happier than happy.
    I think when I was a kid it helped to be allowed to feel it vicariously in a song when I had to put on a happy face in real life.
    Still though, I gravitate toward the same songs except mine are the angsty female singers. Adele is my new love, than began with Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah MacLaughlin, the Indigo Girls...the list goes on, and on...

  18. Lyra: Great point about allowing yourself to feel through the music while putting on the happy face in real life. And a friend just got me into the Indigo Girls in the last few years--I saw them in concert last year. Fabulous stuff!

  19. My mom got me hooked on 'torch' songs. The drap yourself over the piano and sing your heart out ones. Leaving all the emotion on the stage.
    My dad would play his records every night after we 'went to bed' Nothing like falling asleep to the tunes of Three Dog Night, America, Guess Who, Harry Chapin and Harry Belafonte. Loved the slight scratching sounds of the record player lulling me to sleep.
    I also love that they each shared music with me. It has made a huge difference in my life.
    Thank you for enveloping me in this memory. You are a talent!

  20. Anon: I've never heard of "torch" songs, so I just Googled it and found a few Amazon listings among the results. Wow! I'm with you at that piano, sister! Thanks for your great comment--as well as my edification.