In my head, my grandfather sounds like Paul McCartney.
I know it’s true without remembering it: my grandfather used to sing to me. Because I can’t remember, what I have to go on is the word of others, telling me that my grandfather used to sing to me. He used to sing “Froggy Went A-Courtin’” and I have no recollection of it whatsoever. I wish I could at least remember what his voice sounded like. I have a recording of Paul McCartney singing that song, and sometimes I listen to it, trying to pull the sound of my grandfather’s voice from the recesses of my memory, but I can’t do it. All I hear is Paul McCartney. And yet I must carry the memory somewhere, even if I can’t drag it to the surface, because whenever I think of my grandfather, I hear this song. (I know Dylan also does this song, but in my head, my grandfather doesn’t sound like Bob Dylan.)
He was a musical man, from a musical family. I sort of wish this musicianship had rubbed off on me somehow, but it didn’t. I can plink a tune on the piano and despite how much I say I am, I’m not actually completely hopeless at singing, though I doubt anyone is going to offer me a recording contract anytime soon. Or ever, for that matter. Maybe I had a chance when I was a kid and would sing “Purple Rain” (really, Prince… when I was 4) to strangers, I don’t know, but in any case, these days I am left with being a fan. This isn’t a bad thing. I like being a fan. I’m almost always listening to something, and I’m pretty opinionated about what I listen to, though, perhaps oddly, I don’t like to listen to things with other people. It’s one thing to have background music at a party or on a roadtrip, but to listen feels intensely personal to me, and I’ve never exactly felt comfortable sharing that. (Also because other people always start talking right when the really good part is coming up and that is apparently not a valid reason to get mad at them.)
“You seem like the sort of person who lives life to a soundtrack.” That’s probably not an exact quotation, but it’s close enough. I never thought about this before it was said to me, but maybe it’s true. All my moments have songs that go along with them, sometimes because those were the songs that were playing at the time, and sometimes because when I think of them, the songs are what those moments wind up sounding like in my head. I love everything and I hate a lot. Being asked what kind of music I listen to is a nightmarish question, because there are so many kinds, but I will usually say “I’m a little bit country, and I’m a little bit rock ‘n roll.” (And then I’ll say “Ha HA! I quoted Donny and Marie! What does it all MEAN?”)
I know that it really is possible to go from teetering on the edge to falling completely in love with someone in the span of time it takes to listen to an Interpol song. It really is a singular experience to drive to the office in a snowstorm, and have that storm turn into a squall, and be more concerned about being late to work than dying in a crash because I can’t see and then realize that the song “How to Disappear Completely” is playing and think “Nice one, universe.” Experience has taught me that Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago may be the perfect accompaniment to a lonely January Sunday afternoon after your latest relationship has fallen apart, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best possible choice. I mean, unless you want to feel like slitting your wrists. (But what a fucking great album.)
Of course, none of this really tells you anything, but that’s because I can’t possibly explain. It’s like what what Emily Dickinson said about poetry: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” It’s like that. Like something is so great that you can’t contain the experience. Like feeling the most alive you can possibly feel. There are other things that can incite that feeling, but for my part, I know that if I need to find it, all I have to do is listen to a great song. But I don’t live in music. To say so would be painfully pretentious. And while I’m all for pretentiousness, I don’t see any reason to be painful about it. I love music, though, and when I talk about it, I tend to get really intense and fiery and I’ll wave my hands around a lot. (But not in the air, not like I just don’t care. Because I do care. I really care.)
I have a soundtrack, and it changes all the time, because every day is full of moments that belong to songs. I live in a small room in a small house in a small town, and I like to listen. Maybe someday I will be able to remember the sound of my grandfather’s voice, but until then, it’s okay that he sounds like Paul McCartney. He died when I was 7, and I sometimes wish I could’ve known him now that I’m an adult. I would’ve gotten him into Wilco.