There are so many things I remember because of music that I constantly have music from one genre or another in my head. It’s been this way since I was nine, and likely a couple of years earlier than that. Because my mother hardly ever played any music (with the exceptions of Diana Ross, Al Green and Gladys Knight) and my ex-stepfather only liked ’70s funk, I gravitated toward a little bit of everything, from Marvin Gaye to Billy Joel, from Earth Wind & Fire to Frank Sinatra, and from Al Green to Christopher Cross.
I have remembered what happened to me at a particular moment in my life because of music, remembered how my high school’s food smelled because of music, and remembered quotes from textbooks and research studies for exams and my doctoral thesis because of music. I remember Lionel Richie’s abominable “Hello” (1984) because the interlude reminds me of how my father would stumble around in a drunken stupor while trying to cuss me out — all in the middle of another person’s living room. He stumbled forward, backwards, and sideways and nearly fell on the floor before I caught him.
I was reminded this morning how much I rely on music to shape the memories I have of my life to date. Richard Marx’s “Should’ve Known Better” came up on my iPod this morning on my way to work, and a flood of memories from twenty years ago suddenly flooded my mind’s eye. Of course, everything’s contextual. It was a raw, windy and cold morning here in DC and the rest of the Northeast, with windchills in the teens and temperatures barely above freezing. Maybe all of that was the reason why I immediately remembered that “Should’ve Known Better” had been released as a single about this time twenty years ago. I also remembered how much of a fog I was in at the end of my first semester at Pitt, still reeling from my second crush’s rejection. I was ready to go home, to spend time with my mother and siblings, as if home had been my safe haven before I left for Pittsburgh at the end of August.
I remembered how I put myself in the middle of Marx’s lyrics the first time I heard the song, as if I’d been in the middle of some intoxicating relationship gone sourly south. I knew this was silly, that I never had a relationship with this woman to begin with. But I also realized that I needed to find a way to get over my obsession with my second crush if I ever wanted to go on a date again.
Then I remembered the anger and desperation for sanity that “Should’ve Known Better” communicated to me. By the time the song had reached number three on Billboard’s Top 40, I was using this and other music as motivation to keep anyone from ever hurting me in any way ever again. It’s a stupid thing for an eighteen-year-old to think that he can’t get hurt again, especially if he forms any emotional bonds with another human being at all. Still, it was on the lyrics and music of this song that I found myself beginning the process of overcoming my hurt and myself at the beginning of ’88.
I admit that I sang the song aloud as I walked from the Metro in Dupont Circle to my job five blocks away. I did it with a bit of a smirk on my face, as if I couldn’t believe that after two decades that I still liked some Richard Marx. But I did it anyway.
This isn’t the only “soft,” “eclectic,” “weird,” or “un-Black” music that I still listen to. From U2 to Michael Bolton to Howard Jones and Heart, as much as four out of ten songs I listen to today come from the Benetton ’80s. The difference is now I have a song for every emotion: petulance, anger, teenage (White) male angst, lust, romance, love, fear, hope, laughter, grief, pain, faith, determination, happiness, contentment and peace.
Although I’ve found it difficult over the years to explain to my friends and even my wife why I listen to what I listen to long after my need for listening to it has passed, I think after five years of writing, interviewing and revising Boy At The Window (not to mention years of introspection) that I get it. Most of the music I listened to back in the ’80s was meant to provide relief of some kind from the constant grind of poverty, ridicule and the threat thereof, abuse and rumors of potential abuse, even relief from not trusting or understanding myself. Music served even more than sports did as my escape from a cruel and uncaring world. So what if some of it was silly or full of songs written by coked-up singers and songwriters? It was something that I could claim as my own, something that not even my teachers or my former stepfather could take away.
I was the one who got the “Why you listening’ to that?” question, as if I’d violated some cardinal rule, like “Thou shalt not listen to pop music by Whites, especially British Whites.” I’d sometimes say something smart like “Well, what about Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret,’” one of the silliest songs I’ve ever heard. Sure, I liked Run D.M.C., Luther, Prince, Whitney Houston, among others, but if I needed to feel myself soar in the mid or late ’80s, it was U2 or Mr. Mister or Anita Baker or even Richard Marx who usually got me there. The other stuff provided comic relief or was good to dance to or good to listen to late at night. I saw myself as an underclass underdog, one that almost no one had given any chance to succeed. My music often reflected those sentiments. It wasn’t until the end of the ’80s that my music became as much about love or fun or forgiveness as it did about survival. By the ’90s my music was also about knowing that I could succeed in any situation no matter the odds and still have fun while pummeling whomever stood in my way.
I guess that there’s still a bit of underdog left in me. Why else would I be a writer, right? So music that gets me jazzed about me being me is what I listen to, leaving me with a thousand songs on my iPod from 1950 to 2007, the majority of which is from ’87 to ’97. My inner music soundtrack reflects the story of my life and is the reason I understand my life so well. All I hope is that my music tastes don’t make my son gag in contempt in ten years. Even if it does, I’ll listen away anyway.