I have often heard friends discuss how their parent’s taste in music created the foundation for their own musical appreciations. They would say, “My parents would listen to Jazz and it really helped me appreciate it.” or “Every time I hear this country song, it makes me think of my father.”
Growing up and even to this day, I can’t remember any music ever being played in any of my parent’s homes. (They divorced when I was very young and both remarried.) Looking back, I don’t remember us having a stereo or record player. The radio only made an appearance when there were tornado warnings or possible snow days and even then it was always tuned to an AM station.
Nope. When I think of home, I don’t think of any music ever being played.
Let me stress…. there was no music in my home but there was music in my life. I can say with a great deal of conviction that my father owned exactly one cassette tape his entire life. He only played it when we were riding in his car and he played it constantly. How he came to posses it, I do not know. Did he buy it? Was it given to him? To this day, it’s origins remain a mystery to me and while I could simply ask him there is something wonderful about not knowing.
As I type this out, I am listening to that album. (I am playing it through Itunes, rather than on a cassette tape but it takes me back to my childhood.) That album… Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show – Revisited. Not familiar? You are not alone. They hit their height of success in the 70’s. The songs of this particular album are all about drugs, venereal diseases, prostitutes, homeless, drugs, broken dreams, sexual “deviance” and more drugs. Not the type of subject matter one would expect a young child to hear on a constant loop. What I found mind blowing as an adult, when I tracked down the album to give to my Dad a few years ago, was that the majority of the songs were written by Shel Silverstein. Yes. THAT Shel Silverstein.
Last week, I was thinking about the album and purchased it online. I hadn’t heard it in years and discovered something else listening to it again. It is one of the greatest inspirations of my life. When asked why I make short films, I discuss how much I enjoy short stories by Vonnegut & Salinger. But now I can trace my love for short narratives even farther back. Back to a time a young boy sat in the backseat of his Dad’s car, listening to songs with words and themes that were beyond his comprehension. But he did know one thing. These songs had an effect on his father. They made him smile. They made him laugh. And if he was distracted, forgetting to “fast forward” through a song, they made him look embarrassed at the words his kids were singing out loud. As an adult, I have looked to my father hoping that he will react similarly when watching one of my shorts.
This album is a wonderful collection of short narrative stories. Each are about the length of one of my short films.
Carry Me Carry opens with, “Second Street and Broadway. Sittin’ in a doorway. Head held in his hands. Looked to all the world like he was prayin’. Foot wrapped in an old rag. Bottle in a brown bag. I saw him try to stand.” Later there is the haunting lyrics, “Well, he struggled to his feet. And staggered down the street. To the window of a five and dime. He stood and laughed a while at his reflection.” Growing up in a small town, I had never seen a homeless person. I didn’t understand the concept of what it meant to be this man. I did, however, understand that this man was broken. I understood that he wasn’t always the man he saw reflected back to himself. How did he get here? What happened to him? The song doesn’t answer these questions. Then and now, I see this man so clearly. But more importantly, I feel his pain. In just over four-minutes, I am invited into a world that lights up my imagination, while breaking my heart.
The Queen Of The Silver Dollar, “She arrives in all her splendor, every night at nine-o’clock. And her chariot is a crosstown bus that stops right down the block.” then “And her scepter is a wine glass and a bar stool is her throne.” Again, we are welcomed into a beautifully tragic world inhabited by fractured characters.
I could go on and on but you get the idea. These songs humanized individuals that I had no contact with growing up and I didn’t even know that they existed. As I grew up, I found that the need to love and be loved, even though we are all cracked and some of us are broken, is a universal need. I hope that I treat all of my characters with the same love and empathy that these songs treat their characters.
Maybe that’s why I don’t ask my Dad where the cassette came from when I was a kid. I don’t want to know. All that matters is that he had it. He loved it. He played it all the time. And I am sure he had no idea how much those songs would influence his young son sitting in the back seat, looking out the window and hoping that the people in the song…the people that were as real to him as his friends, his family, his teachers…that these people would be OK. Listening to the songs as an adult, I still believe in those people and it breaks my heart each time I hear their stories. That’s what great art does. It touches people and we carry it with us through the years.