It is my first record, a 45 single bought at Montgomery Ward with allowance money I’d saved over the course of a month. I am eight years old. I am a huge fan of the television show S.W.A.T., which follows a special tactics police unit as they go about the business of blowing things up, shooting people, and generally foiling bad guys in super awesome ways.
My friends and I all want to be S.W.A.T. officers when we grow up. In particular, we want to be T.J., who is some kind of sniper. Or something. Actually, all we know is that he gets to turn his baseball hat backwards, climb up into trees, and shoot people. At eight, in the safe bubble of our neighborhood in rural Pennsylvania in the Seventies, there is literally no cooler idea in the entire world.
The theme song is a funky, bass-heavy descendant of “Machine Gun” by the Commodores. For some reason, most likely T.J. and his backwards-baseball hat and his steady trigger finger and the way the members of S.W.A.T. tend to jump out of things just before they explode, I’m obsessed with this song.
So, on the agreement that we can do this while running other errands, my mother takes me to Montgomery Ward’s record department. I spend my money, clutch the single to my chest, and we go about the rest of our errands. When we get back from the grocery store, I find the 45, warped, bubbled, in the back of our VW Squareback.
This is inconceivable. Something I want, something I had, has just gone terribly wrong. Moreover, this is my fault. I left the record, for some reason, in the back of the car, sun shining down upon it. I have ruined my own record. Theme from S.W.A.T. Theme of explosions and climbing up something and shooting people.
I’m overcome by an immediate and all-consuming desire for this to be somebody else’s fault. I want to yell at my mother. I want to smash the stupid warped 45, to climb up in a tree and shoot a gun at bad guys. This is a feeling—anger, frustration, and the resignation of knowing it was all my fault— that I’ll feel for the rest of my life. It will never get much easier, and I’ll never replace that 45.
Crazy Love, by Van Morrison
It is late afternoon, the sun slanting through the trees of the Gettysburg battlefields. I’m driving my roommate’s car, a late model station wagon with fake wood trim and gears on the wheel. A blonde sits in the passenger seat. This is all going to end badly, but right now, in the early blushes of freshman year, curving in loops and waves past Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, past the tourists who stand on the old landmarks and point out to scrubby fields where thousands died bloody, sudden deaths, everything feels perfect. I have only just discovered, among other things, Van Morrison’s Moondance, a fact that sounds so impossible to me today—some twenty years and countless hours with Morrison’s music later—that I wouldn’t believe it myself, if I didn’t remember this one afternoon in such indelible, embarrassingly gauzy detail.
Van sings “she give me love love love love, craaaazy love…” and I steal a glance at the girl to my right. We have been flirting, moving ever closer, for the past few weeks, and I feel like this is the point in the movie where we turn to one another and kiss, where everything goes fuzzy and the soundtrack turns up and the narrative morphs into a montage of us skipping on beaches, sharing Deep Thoughts, splashing each other while washing cars for charity, holding hands while ice skating.
In real life, some of these things will actually happen, eventually, in the fleeting moment before everything goes bad. For now, Van sings and that wagon lolls along the battlefields.
Whipping Post, by The Allman Brothers
We hire a hippie band to play our wedding. We’d seen them at our friend’s wedding a year earlier, but when we approach them, the singer, a Mama Cass type named Linda, cautions us that things have changed. “We’re a lot different now,” she says. “Not at all the same band you saw last year.”
“What’s that mean?” we say, thinking, Shit. Thinking, This is pretty much our only choice for a band to play at our wedding.
“We’re funkier now,” she says.
“Okaaaay,” we say.
“We play more Little Feat,” she says. “Less Grateful Dead.”
Later, when we’re making final arrangements, the question of the first dance comes up. “We don’t really know a lot of slow songs,” Linda says.
“Well, what do you know?” we ask.
She thinks. This takes a while. “Whipping Post?” she says, finally. “Whipping Post is pretty slow.”
We consider the idea of swaying back and forth in front of our friends and relatives while Linda belts out “I’ve been tiieeeeeeeed…to the whipping post! Tieeeeeeeed to the whipping post! Oh lord, I feel like I’m dyin’!”
To another prospective bride, another potential life partner, another person, this might seem terrifying and insulting. Lori looks at me, and we laugh. “We’ll come up with something,” she says.
Stay Positive, by the Hold Steady
My father in law is badly sick. He has been fading for months, literally turning gray, slowing down, losing weight, sucking into himself like a houseplant that needs to be watered. It took the doctors months to figure out that an infection had settled in his heart. My wife has been away for days, escorting her parents through the impossible process of getting ready for very serious surgery, a surgery during which, at one point, the doctor will instruct the family to pray.
But now I’m driving my three-year-old son to preschool. We moved to a new town six months ago, and we both work out of the house. We don’t know many people. So it is my son and I, alone in the car, driving from the house to preschool, from preschool to somewhere for dinner, from dinner to somewhere else—to the mall, to the bookstore, to Target—driving somewhere, anywhere, driving most of the time just to kill time, driving to run out the clock from preschool until bath. Driving to avoid thinking.
We listen to one CD, one song: “Stay Positive” by the Hold Steady. This is overly obvious, but Ben is three and he likes the “uh oh oh!” chorus and I am alone and scared and past forty and fucking drowning in mortality, so we drive around our adopted town, and I wait for the phone to ring with good or bad news and we sing “Uh oh oh! Uh oh oh! Uh oh oh! We gotta stay positive!”
House on Pooh Corner, by Kenny Loggins
“Let’s try something different tonight,” I say, leaning over toward the light blue boombox. “How about the piano lady?” I reach for the Norah Jones CD.
“No!” Ben says.
“The blue guy,” I say, referring to the dark blue CD of Nick Drake’s greatest hits.
“Pooh!” Ben says.
“The trumpet guy,” I say, holding up Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
“Pooh,” Ben says. He rolls over, pulls the comforter over his head. “Pooh,” he says, with finality this time.
My son is six years old, and he has terrible taste in music right now. His favorite album is Kenny Loggins’ House on Pooh Corner. His second favorite album is nothing. He is six and musically limited. He is six and prone to obsession, and we’ve been listening to House on Pooh Corner since he was four.
I thumb through the CDs. Maybe the acoustic Grateful Dead album. When he was a baby, I sang “Cassidy” to him constantly, whispered it into his little ear, sang it off key while he wailed or cooed. That was when I thought I had some kind of control.
Now he shouts “Pooh!” again and I know I’m going to cave. I know I can fill up his room with Miles Davis and Alexi Murdoch and basketballs and James and the Giant Peach and all of the other things that I loved when I was a boy, and he’s going to do with them whatever he damn well pleases. I can buy him a Drive-by-Truckers t-shirt, but he’s going to listen to House on Pooh Corner. He is six, and it makes him feel good. He is six and he likes it, and that’s all that matters.
I put in House, stack the Miles Davis and Nick Drake and Norah Jones and Grateful Dead on his dresser, where they’ll sit, untouched, for years. This is not about me. “Goodnight,” I say. I kiss his head and he squirms.