The Song That Changed Everything

Venus and Mars were all right that night.

Venus and Mars were all right that night.

In July of 1994, I was a young lady in the latter half of her 20s building a career, hanging out with friends, playing volleyball at North Avenue Beach and packing up her apartment to move across the alley from a studio to a one-bedroom.

One Friday evening that month, I took a break from the boxes and newspaper to meet a friend whose friend’s band was playing at a bar two blocks away. Something felt very different about that evening. I told myself it was buzz about the move.

At the bar, I was introduced to a guy who was cute, seemed nice and was a friend of a friend of a friend, which was considered something along the lines of an endorsement. We struck up a conversation that was very much like many others I’d had in bars on Friday nights… until a song came on that I would never expect to hear in a crowded Halsted Street drinking establishment, “Listen To What The Man Said,” by Paul McCartney.

In that moment, when the bouncy beat launched into, “Anytime, any day, you can hear the people say,” something changed. We were no longer two kids in a bar in Lincoln Park having a superficial conversation about how much we liked the Bulls. We connected on a deeper level.

I felt safe revealing my music nerd self and told him how much I loved Paul McCartney. He said that although he wasn’t a Beatles fan (I made sure that changed), he did like songs from Wings because they reminded him of his childhood. Was this love at first sight?

Maybe it was love at first discussion about rock music, a pastime that continues to this day. One of my favorite things is to talk about music with my husband. It probably always will be. The other day I asked if I was really going to be 72 years old sitting around listening to 1984 and talking to him about Van Halen. He confirm that, yeah, I probably would.

When we married three years later, we actually chose different McCartney songs for our first and final dances. This one was too tied to the magic of that first chance meeting. There was something so spontaneous about how it happened, and it is at its most perfect left as the song that brought us together.

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My Walkman, Eurail Pass and Depeche Mode

The soundtrack for GenXineurope.

The soundtrack for GenXineurope.

I did a study abroad semester while in college with old friends and new, but my constant companion that term was a cassette tape I picked up in Cambridge, England, that featured two albums by Depeche Mode… Black Celebration and Music for the Masses. Not everyone is moved by such a thing, but I couldn’t imagine a more amazing possibility – one cassette, two albums. It was maximum use of Walkman capacity in an era when all my possessions needed to fit into a backpack light enough to drag around the Continent for a month.

Music for the Masses was a very big release at the time, and the songs seemed to be everywhere inside and outside of my headphones. It was played often at the pub where we hung out, and I sometimes can taste the combination of salt & vinegar crisps with lager & lime when I hear “Never Let Me Down”. We all have those albums that serve as a soundtrack for a time in our lives, and this was it for my first stint in Europe. I spent a lot of time on trains and buses that term, and I never left our house without my Walkman and Depeche Mode. It was essential as bringing your own sheet to the youth hostel and wearing comfortable shoes.

At one point during the semester, I was in Paris. It was a week of emotional ups and downs. I was staying with my “French brother,” the exchange student our family had hosted just a few years before with whom I was close. I was also waiting for a letter that never came from my boyfriend at the time. A trip to Brugge was in order.

As my train pulled out of Gard du Nord, a man sat next to me who looked and smelled like he spent most of his time in places far less luxurious than Paris’ least glamorous train station. The stench was overwhelming. On my Walkman, “Black Celebration” began. I stifled tears.

By the time we rolled into Brugge, the man had been ushered along, and things were looking better. I met a fellow American (he spotted my shoes), and we spent the afternoon and evening comparing notes on our study abroad experiences. I missed my hostel’s curfew and ended up throwing stones at the window for someone to come down and let me in. It was an interesting evening.

One of my favorite things in the world is the idea of music as a time machine. Those two albums definitely bring me back to 1989. But the timeless quality that is woven into just about anything Depeche Mode does keeps them as two of my favorite albums to listen to anytime.

Where would I be without the Columbia House Record Club?

In the 80s, Columbia House Record Club was God’s gift to young music fans interested in building their libraries. I remember those card stock ads falling out of our weekly TV Guide and bothering my mom to let me spend my babysitting money on signing up for those 12 albums for a penny plus a bonus. All I had to do was purchase a certain number of additional albums over the course of 12 or 24 months, and I would fulfill my contractual obligation and pack my record collection full of the day’s favorites.

Some summer during junior high, I wore her down and received her permission to sign myself up. It was one of the headiest days of my life.

I had never paid close attention to what was offered by Columbia House, so filling out that first form was difficult. The Club offered mostly selections from the Top 40 lists of recent years, like Air Supply and Carly Simon. But there were enough gems in there to satisfy my taste for new music and add to my collection of the classics.

Prince CharmingOne of those was Adam & The Ants’ Prince Charming. It was the first album I opened on that auspicious day of my inaugural delivery. I can still remember Stuart peering at me all war-painted wearing pseudo-military garb in ruffles and the flashiest colors imaginable. The band was absent from the cover. Didn’t matter… Adam was the man. “Don’t you ever stop being dandy, showing me your handsome.” INDEED!

It didn’t take long for the needle to hit the record and blast those tribal beats out of the speakers my dad constructed to match with my hot pink and French Provincial décor. I wonder if my mother regretted her decision to let me join the club as much as I doubted my sanity for downloading Katy Perry’s “Firework” onto my kids’ iPods. But that album, and the dozens of others that followed, brought me tremendous pleasure for years to come. I still own all of them. (It took two weeks for my kids to dismiss Katy Perry.)

A couple of years ago, we had guests over for an impromptu “afterparty,” and I boasted that I could offer our guests anything they wanted to hear. One of them thought he was putting me to the test when he asked for Adam & The Ants. Of course, I delivered …as did Adam & The Ants …as did the Columbia House Record Club.

The Columbia House Record Club is a dinosaur now, distinct for more than a decade and probably irrelevant long before it folded. I was still a member in the early 90s when CDs replaced albums and cassettes. I’ve got to say that I prefer the immediacy of the iTunes world. How else could I download Andy Gibb for an instant New Year’s Eve devotion? But I will always have fond memories of Columbia House and the joy of getting all that great music for the price of a few albums and a penny.

In the beginning, there was a kid, a Classic and Croce

This week I step further into the mysterious world of midlife. And to celebrate, each day, I will post a song that holds significance from my past.

Let’s start with my first love song… Time In A Bottle by Jim Croce

I first learned the true meaning of love in the back seat of a Malibu Classic.

I was five years old, a passenger on the weekly journey to the A&P and Ben Franklin Five-and-Dime, along with my younger brothers.  My mom, who patiently endured the back-of-the-car antics of the five-and-under crowd, always had the radio on.  Time In A Bottle was in heavy rotation on our town’s biggest AM radio station, and just hearing the song in my head brings back the sensation of looking out the window watching life go by at 30 miles per hour.

I can’t remember what intersection we were at, but I can picture the stop sign, the crossroad and the overgrown grass around the old bungalow that occupied the corner lot amid the new houses surrounding it.  The theme from M.A.S.H. was ending and Time In A Bottle began.  By the closing notes of the song, I realized that love was more than just a word.

If I could make days last forever… if words could make wishes come true… I’d save every day like a treasure and then, again, I would spend them with you.

It dawned on me… each moment that passed, I was getting older.  Each moment that I aged, my parents were aging too.  I panicked at the thought – kids make parents grow old.  By having us, they were committing to a life limited by the passing of time.

So, for the next several months, I thought about how I could stop myself from growing up.  By doing so, I would keep my parents young.  But despite actually thinking something as crazy as being childless would stop time for them, I knew that not growing up, for a child at least, was impossible.  These were the sands of time, slipping out of my desperate little hands, and I was helpless to stop them.

And I have never been able to listen to Time In A Bottle without feeling the twinge of regret I knew as a small child.

Ironically, Jim Croce died shortly after releasing this song.   I knew this as a child, because the DJ often said, “That was the late Jim Croce…”  His death brought even more meaning to the lyrics.  It was a reminder that I would not be the five-year-old in the back seat of the Malibu Classic forever, just like Jim Croce wasn’t a recording artist forever.

Now, I realize that my reaction to this song was right in many ways, aside from the idea that people won’t age if they don’t have children.  Parenting is a sacrifice. Moms and dads commit their lives to their children.  Raising a child speeds up time immensely.  Jim Croce was right that there never seems to be enough time.

Years later, I have kids of my own.  My youngest is seven, and he has inherited my sensitivity to sad songs.  Even those that don’t have heartbreaking lyrics speak to him with their melancholy melodies.

I told my son this story about Jim Croce’s song.  I laughed when I told him about my strange first reaction to the lyrics, hoping that he would find this silly.  Like many children, he says he wants to stay with me forever. But I know that I will hang on to him much longer than he will need me.  He and his older sister will never fathom how much I love them until they become parents themselves.

There is something about the vulnerability of love, whatever form it takes or relationships it creates, that ties back to Time In A Bottle.  Love can be sad, like the melody.  It can be sweet, like the lyrics.  It can last forever and not long enough.

A couple of months ago, I heard the chiming first notes of Time In A Bottle while switching radio stations in the car.  In the back seat of our MDX, my son listened for a bit, frowned and, in a sad voice, asked me to turn off the song.  Then, he turned toward the window and watched the world go by at 30 miles per hour.

I know how I got here, but now what?

40 sign

The number may change but the forces of change do not.

This general topic has been in my head for about a week, and I wanted to write about it but couldn’t find an anchor for the concept. There’s that great line from the Talking Heads song that goes, “How did I get here?” But what I’m experiencing is slightly different from that.

Today I saw this piece in the New York Times about the difference in how people remember themselves from the past and how they perceive their future selves. It’s interesting, though probably not surprising, that studies show that people tend to have a better handle on who they used to be versus the person they will be. The gist is that people underestimate how much they’ll change over the course of a decade, even into their 60s, after they’ve had several decades of experience as an evolving adult.

Here I am at midlife, and I’m a bit baffled by the idea that, like I did when I was nearing my twenties, I need to consider what I want my future to entail. When I was decades younger, I didn’t really think much about being in my 40s, but when the fleeting thought did pass through my mind, I pictured a fairly static and stable lifestyle that I could ride out through my remaining years. Now I realize that this isn’t the case.

For example, as a 40-something, I need to think about my lifestyle (career, educating kids, geography and a whole bunch of other stuff) and how I want to guide it as I become more “mature.” There is the whole retirement thing, but there is also the idea that perhaps I don’t need to be tethered to a particular market (or climate). My concept of the best kind of lifestyle has changed as I’ve worked a family into the mix and developed richer personal interests. My values have also changed, and I want those to be reflected in my life’s work, both the paid and unpaid.

I had a similar decision to make when I chose a college major, and my parameters were different… and so were my influences. I had fewer responsibilities to others, but I also came of age in the 80s, when opportunity had a different ring to it. My parents played a big role in guiding me, and their own experiences colored their perception. Like many people, if I was sitting in front of that book of majors right now, I’d probably make different choices. But given the input I had back then – from myself, my family and the world around me – I can see how I came up with what I did.

One of the points people make in the comments following the New York Times piece is how personality doesn’t change over time. How does that account for the development that takes place in people over time? I think it’s all about context. The core of my values were the same, but how they manifest themselves in my life has changed over time. So, it’s possible that I am made of the same “raw materials,” but time puts us in different situations, teaches us, provides us with different experiences and brings different influences into our lives.

Every generation blames the one after

Courtesy of Time Magazine from 1990

Do you remember being called a “slacker?” Maybe no one used this term to describe you personally, but if you are a GenXer, I’m sure someone said this in reference to one of your friends, roomies, co-workers or classmates.

I’ve noticed a number of reports popping up about the current generation of 20-somethings, and so many of the complaints are identical to the ones made about us 20 years ago.  Young adults are returning to their parents’ homes to live.  The 20-somethings, pampered and coddled as children, and unprepared for life.  This new generation doesn’t have the same work ethic as the previous — they want everything without having to earn it.

A recent post in the New York Times blog Motherlode from a 20-something sets us straight.  These comments cannot be applied to everyone in her generation.  And, I’ll take that a step further… these comments can be applied to any generation.

Twenty years ago, GenXers frequently were cast as a woeful lot.  Kids who should be adults doing things like living in mom’s basement apartment, taking a lower paying day job because it freed up time to play in a band at night and squandering a bachelor’s degree on a job at a gas station in order to escape Midwestern winters.  Two decades later, where are these people now?  Of the three referenced here, two are successful entrepreneurs and the other has advanced significantly in her chosen career.  I know many other stories of humble and questionable young adult beginnings.  From what I can see, how one chooses to spend their years before 30 has less to do with their success afterwards than we sometimes fear.

My guess is that similar comments were made about Baby Boomers in the late-60s and early-70s, kids who spent their time partying and protesting the war when they should have been working in responsible jobs with respectable haircuts.  A walk through The Haight in San Francisco echoes of young adults who eventually moved on and out, creating lives that measure up to the standards of adulthood that we use to judge the generation behind us.

Based on what I’ve seen as a middle-age GenXer, I’m not too concerned about this “entitled” generation.  I worry about plenty of other things in our future, but very little of it has to do with a minority of people who will probably make it okay in the end.

Treasure lies in wait in my basement

Remember this?  It’s a 45… a single… a record.  I found a pile of them in my basement shoved in a milk crate packed too full with my father-in-law’s albums.  I was thrilled to be reunited with my old friends.

The time I spend in my basement is a disproportionate pie chart with very large slices being served for laundry, sweeping up sawdust and sighing about the number of unused “items” that create a continually narrowing path past the treadmill on which we park our bikes through to the storage room where 40 gallons of the previous owner’s paint waits for the trip to the recycling bin.  There are mini morsels for being the singer in our basement band and finding cool stuff that I had forgotten about.

Like my 45 collection that used to reside in a vessel that looked like this…


And there were loads of them.  They were the fruits of my labor, purchased with allowance money or birthday funds.  Sometimes I received them as gifts.  I can’t remember all that I had.  Now, the pile includes about 10 or so, all from 1979 through 1983, including “My Sharona” from The Knack and “Genius of Love” by the Tom Tom Club.  These songs are on my iTunes now, but I love that I still have them on 45s.

I wish I could remember my first 45, but it was likely some well-crafted pop masterpiece by The Partridge Family (I started young) or the Jackson 5.  Whatever it was, it is long gone.  I probably sold it for ten cents at a garage sale ages ago.  Perhaps it’s in some record bin in an antique store right now.  Apparently, when I was 11, I had no idea that finding these bits of treasure would make my night in my 40s.