“Okay, ‘More Than This’ or ‘I Confess’?” I asked my wife Laurie.
“What are you taking about?” she answered with a question.
“I mean, you know, Roxy Music or The English Beat?”
“Oh God, Ronnie, not this again. I honestly don’t know if I can take it anymore.”
“Please—you’ve read the chapter already—just listen.”
“Oy… whatever…okay, play both of them for me.”
And so it went for the better part of two years as I wrote the manuscript for my upcoming book, The Frontman, a fictional rendition of my life as a seventeen year old growing up as the only Jewish kid in my high school class from my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. I would finish a chapter, consider its theme, context and style, and attempt to place two strikingly appropriate lines of a US Billboard Hot 100 Song from my high school years, 1980-1983, as its preface. At first, I would sit in the family room and compare songs by listening to them without headphones on Spotify, but as time went on, Laurie’s patience, and the patience of my two sons, Ethan and Matthew, wore thin; I had to pick my spots. I therefore eventually sequestered myself in my bedroom, and plugged in Matthew’s BeatsTM to surf Billboard’s website, Wikipedia and songfacts.com to create a round-robin tournament between competing tunes. I often couldn’t complete the championship match with confidence, so I solicited Laurie’s help, and sometimes I solicited the assistance of my boys.
Perhaps because of shared nostalgia, and perhaps to simply get me off her back, Laurie was, in reality, sympathetic to repeated trips down memory lane and the music of our coming-of-age decade. She would usually render an opinion that matched my own inclination. In retrospect, I think she knew me so well after over twenty years of marriage that she may have deftly read my mind to shepherd me gently toward a finished manuscript (that’s true love). Even if more than one song could be appropriate for a specific scene, it turns out that I’m a little nuts, and I sometimes need positive reinforcement to assuage my neuroses. Laurie would, at one point, reassure me that Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” was indeed the perfect breakup scene song (and her all-time favorite), and that I would indeed find an equally suitable spot for The Cars’ “Since You’re Gone” somewhere else in my book.
The boys were not so delicate; instead, their brutal honesty led me to self-doubt and even occasional embarrassment. How could I possibly place A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran (So Far Away)” ahead of Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” in the category of “best love song by a band whose members have awesome hair?” At least I was comforted by the fact that my kids were actually familiar with and had an opinion about both bands; I did something right in raising my children.
Let’s be clear: Though my book is semi-autobiographical, I wrote a novel. The more salacious parts of the story are largely fictional. However, I found myself, on more than one occasion, shedding a few tears (please don’t tell my family). Though the details of The Frontman are often fabricated, the emotions behind them are absolutely real. As I am a deliberate and plodding writer, getting through these moments was sometimes a bit excruciating… but always cathartic. With exactly ninety-nine songs referenced in the book, I feel as though I’ve now completed a lifetime of very inexpensive therapy sessions.
Each song conjures a memory. Scientists have actually studied and mapped areas of the brain responsible for “autobiographical memories,” and, not surprisingly, have determined that musical cues are much more powerful at eliciting them than visual ones, and that these memories are evoked most strongly during our adolescent years. Some of you may recall what song was playing during that first kiss, during that first ride alone in that beat-up car, or during that epic party at your friend’s house when his parents were out of town. For the most part, I recall high school as three continuously awkward years of painful shyness around girls, unstylish glasses, and acne. Don’t get me wrong; I did actually have some fun during that period of my life. I did experience a variation of that kiss, that ride and that party, but they just happened to have been accompanied by or overpowered by every emotionally painful moment from every John Hughes movie. Yeah, I was that kid.
So next time you step inside your car, steer clear of the guaranteed depression-fests that have become of our news networks. Instead, tune in to that satellite “decades” station that best suits your age (or at least your maturity level), and listen to some of the music that shaped your life. Create your own “Battle of the Bands,” and don’t be afraid to get lost, not on the road, but in your mind.
What songs take you back?