Part I can be found here. I’m all over the place with my writing here…chalk that up to exhaustion, which gives me a rather cavalier attitude towards expressing myself coherently or well. I’ll keep rewriting it as the year goes on. The thing I most loved to tell my students was that “good writing is never finished, it is only surrendered.” This is a partial surrender. I’ll take this piece back and fix it up. That’s allowed, right?
The whole iPod world, of course, is new and young and was unfathomable in my younger years. No iPods to disconnect us from the world. No Walkman, either, until we were well into our teens. But it all started with a Fisher-Price record player…
My parents got us a whole library of albums, mostly from the record section of the not-so-local Toys-R-Us. I know they also had an elaborate collection consisting of a hodgepodge of genres that would make anyone hard pressed to come up with a listenable and representative playlist for my parents. A Chorus Line. Barbra Streisand. Sousa. Streisand singing Sousa marches would be a hoot, no? The only “pop” music I recall stored in the slats adjacent to the turntable was The Ventures. No Beatles, no Stones. Yes, Peter Paul and Mary. I don’t recall my parents listening to music often, but we could borrow the albums any time we wanted. (Those times were few and far between, although I enjoyed the Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball…yeah part of “I Can Do That.” )
I recall the few cassette tapes in the house tethered inexplicably to the Bicentennial Hooplah of 1976 and the Neils: Sedaka and Diamond. The notable exception being a recording of “Three Little Fishes” (Boop Boop, Ditum Datum, Watum Choo! Were those the names? Was it nonsense? Does anyone care?) that to this day makes me giggle. Mostly, though, my brother, sister, and I listened to our own albums. My mother was comfortable purchasing lots of Sesame Street LPs. They were pre-Elmo, therefore absolutely tolerable and with the glory better shared among the monsters. (That album costs almost 90 bucks now, and I wish desperately that we’d been better hoarders in my house.) The album is mostly solos, but I practically wore a hole in “We’ll Do it Together” and “Fur.” The monsters sang harmonies in these two ditties.
Harmony opened my world. It was evocative. It made my chest plate vibrate. I always sing along with the harmonies, not the melodies,which is more than a little annoying to most people who hear me, particularly if I get ’em wrong. I knew from an early age that I would never be a lead singer in a show (save for the more altotastic supporting roles, which fortunately are also usually comedic rather than romantic in nature.) I knew my voice would never float lithely in the rafters, but could not only provide a solid springboard for someone else to take flight, but could find tricky, winding paths to get to the last note. You can fly, I’ll take the subway. See you at the Coda.
From an early age, I created elaborate scripts to accompany any album I heard. I pieced together a story from the songs. I rarely gave myself permission to change the order of the songs to fit the needs of my story. (In my own way I was trying to honor the musicians.) Each album yielded a mini-to-full length musical. Obviously, I rarely had large casts for these mental shows (there were, after all, only Peter, Paul, and Mary on the albums. That’s it. No sharing. Only one woman could sing Mary’s parts in the songs), but I had plots and sub-plots, supporting characters, non-singing roles, twists and intrigue. Yes, I cast them with famous performers who would be able to meet the demands of my imaginary show. Michael Jackson got a lot of roles, as did Carol Burnett (I’ve loved her for many years.) Some of my classmates were cast. I usually played the lead, although sometimes I’d be generous and just take the part with the one killer song that went with all of the funny lines (I always gave the good songs to the part with the funniest lines.)
I’m not the only one who’s ever created a musical out of an album. I’m just the first, as far as I’m concerned. (If you’re concerned, well…..that’s sad.) They did it. And these folks. And the lovely people here, although there isn’t as much plot as I had in my pretend shows, which of course won pretend Tony Awards..
(Here is something cringe-worthy parenthetical: My biggest challenge in the Make A Musical Out of an Album: Mousercise. I can still rock to “Keep on Trying.” Albums like this, with Disney characters, I turned into assembly, preachy, with a message and cool dance routines, loosely based on a theme. No story or plot, just happy kids teaching other kids to do their best, eat their vegetables, be good sport, say no to drugs, or other similar unicorns-farting-rainbows messages given to kids while they’re held hostage for an hour in the Multipurpose Room and the faculty all run out for a smoke. It was never just a concert mode. I was performing to an imagined audience of my (adoring) peers. I would dance…sticking of course to the choreography in the booklet accompanying the album. I would gesture and wink and nod to the audience like Sarah Palin what I’d seen performers do when a sitcom would hit the inevitable “Let’s Put on a Talent Show” episode. I’m looking at you, Facts of Life, Brady Bunch, Gimme a Break, Fresh Prince. I’m looking at you, too, 60 Minutes, but I’m not sure why.
I didn’t stop turning my albums into mental musicals when I reached the age of Cool (what we would call ‘tweens ): that snarking time when the sarcasm comes out and the training bras come on. The music got more raunchy and had a harder bass line, and my scripts got more elaborate to match the ever-so-deep lyrics of The Go Gos or Adam Ant. I would actually turn off the record/cassette between songs to work on the script in my head. I never wrote it down, and would get very frustrated when I couldn’t recall the really good idea I’d had the last time I’d listened to “Beat My Guest.”
My librettos tried to stay faithful to the lyrics, incorporating the changes in emotion and tension and, of course, lead singer. The perkier music of the late 80s made my creative (and up until now, private) pursuits tricker. What kind of emotional roller coaster could The Outfield take someone on? Yet, I wrote imagined and reworked my “scripts,” saved by Morrisey and the primal scream therapy duo Tears for Fears. No big comedy scripts to go along with those blokes, but at 16, I wasn’t feeling funny anyway.
In college, I came ear to headphone with The Bobs, my true music soul mates. A cappella, new age, hilarious. Self-described Vocal Pyrotechnicians. If you have 20 bucks to spend, see them perform with the ISO (“Psycho Killer” is brilliant.)
Brilliant, silly, clever, witty, musically nimble, sharp. The songs were each their own show, start to finish. They didn’t need my help. They had their own theatricality. An album was an entire night of one-acts. I loved it and just dreamed of being on stage with them. No story needed. I gave up creating any sort of book for them because they’d already written it. I didn’t want to add a thing to their music. I just wanted to be in the band. I wanted to replace Jane. Her voice, deep and distinctive, not pretty, raw, expressive, and full of charm and humor. That? I could do that. I was less thrilled when Jane retired and after a few filler-gals, Amy joined. I read, sadly, that all the music was reworked to accommodate Amy’s soprano range. I started singing along with the tenors, but they were better than I. I appreciate sopranos, but I’d like the altos, the real altos represented up and down the dial. Toni Braxton can’t be the only one.
Somewhere along the line, I stopped making up libretti. It seemed a silly waste of brain cells, which I needed to focus on teaching and worrying about how I was going to go on now that pantyhose were definitely déclassé. The times I used to listen to music I now used for silence. I didn’t listen to music if I needed to focus on anything else. I can’t hear music without devoting a majority of my decreasing braincells to it. It’s never background for me. That’s a blessing and a curse, particularly in a bar or restaurant where it’s background. Hearing it from a neighbor can drive me to distraction, even when I like the song being played.
Soon, the plots and twists and characters were lost. I couldn’t tell you anything of the hundreds of stories I’d once had at my fingertips, instantly recalled at the first strains of the first track of an album.
The other day, I did something rare in the day of shuffling. I listened to an entire album, in order, in a row, nonstop. The Roches. Folksy. Three sisters. I love them. I identify with them. Solid singers, strong, not beautiful. Witty to the point of pain, particularly in their latest works. also listened to the Roches album all of it. Painful for some. Amazing, since iPods we don’t do that much.
Something wonderful happened. After years, perhaps over a decade…a little narrative began whispering. I was so excited, I played the entire album again, letting myself create and weave, rather than try to use the music to just pace my dish washing and chores.
It was glorious. Quiet, but glorious. It’s a ping of creativity, a voice I thought was silenced. The album nudged me, tickled me. It was, exquisite torture. I paid attention to the story and the characters that wouldn’t leave me alone and laughed because I was dominated. (This was a paraphrase a Wikipedia article on tickle torture, although I left out the parts about abuse because they didn’t lend themselves as well to my little metaphor.)
I may have something here. Something strong. Something I won’t just ignore because it can’t be done, it’s been done, it’s too hard.
I cannot wait to listen to the Bobs again. I’ll let you know how it goes. Something’s there…something’s there.