Under The Influence
Billy Joel’s “An Innocent Man”
Music and stories are more than entertainment to me. I’ve read books that seemed to express my deepest self better than my own words ever could. I’ve heard songs that somehow captured years of my life perfectly in under four minutes. In this series, which I’m calling Under the Influence, I will explore the creative works that have touched my life the most.
Keeping The Faith
Gonna listen to my 45’s
Ain’t it wonderful to be alive
When the Rock ‘n’ Roll plays
When the memory stays
I’m keepin’ the faith
Yeah, yeah, yeah, keepin’ the faith
When I was a kid, my dad owned one of the coolest inventions of all time: a Panasonic microcassette recorder/boombox. You could carry it around and use it as a portable radio, but you could also pop out the microcassette recorder and conceal it in your pocket–you know, for those important spy missions in which every ten-year-old boy eventually becomes embroiled.
I have a distinct memory of using that very device during a Father/son camping trip at Joshua Tree National Monument (still my one of my favorite places in Southern California.) We must have gone in early March or late October, because it was colder than a Swedish gravedigger’s belt buckle, and by sundown we were sequestered in our tent, huddled in sleeping bags, listening to music and trying not to freeze to death. My dad had brought along one album, copied meticulously from his early model Discman (which ran on roughly three dozen D-cells): it was Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man. From the huge, halftime bridge of “Easy Money” to the a capella genius of “The Longest Time” to the muted, upstroke Stratocaster blips on “Keepin’ the Faith,” every moment of that record is burned into my neurons with the fire of a thousand suns.
The camping trip was rained out. We spent most of our time in the tent, listening to that record–at least, that’s what I remember about it most. That, and my father’s looping, irreverent writing on the tiny cassettes, which he let me eject and flip over when Side 1 ended.
I have one other (now mildly humiliating) memory related to that record. My parents used to host old-fashioned Christmas parties, the kind where you invite your coworkers and their wives, and some guy named Dick drinks his body weight in eggnog and winds up horking on the bathroom floor and then taking a cab home (at the insistence of his wife, whose name is invariably Peggy or Dot or Barbie.) But my father, being the ham that he is (like father like son), only threw parties with a caveat: guests had to perform.
On the year in question, my dad’s boss brought a 3-foot by 3-foot plywood dance floor and did a tap routine. My cousin brought her cello and performed a Bach prelude. My sister and I, not to be outdone by a bunch of inebriated adults, fought our way onto the bill. I sang “Uptown Girl” while my sister danced an interpretive ballet. We’re probably lucky my father can’t find the VHS footage.
I’m sure there’s a scientific reason why the music we love as young people is so inexorably tied to memory–it’s probably something to do with neuroplasticity–but all I know is that from the moment I hear the syncopated triangle pattern on “An Innocent Man,” I have to play the whole song, or I’m left with that “unscratchable itch” feeling for the rest of the day.
Damn it. Now I have to go play the whole album, start to finish.
So should you.