Childhood In Song

As soon as my body registers an outdoor temperature ranging above 80 degrees, the opening riff to “Surfin’ U.S.A.” starts flickering through my mind.


Something bizarre happens to me at the beginning of every summer, and I’m curious as to whether it happens to anyone else: As soon as my body registers an outdoor temperature ranging above 80 degrees, the opening riff to “Surfin’ U.S.A.” starts flickering through my mind. I hear it in the unlikeliest of places, like at the grocery store when I’m busy pulling wheat bran from the cereal aisle shelf and suddenly this do tootle tootledy tootledy tootle do! explodes in my head. It’s like my body has been eternally programmed to understand summer only as a Beach Boys–inspired prototype full of boardwalks and surfboards, even though neither of these things ever made an appearance at the neighborhood pool when I was a kid. I can only attribute this association to having grown up with my parents’ records, an impressive collection that included not only a steady rotation of Endless Summer but a number of other albums that have likely molded the way I continue to understand the world.

I know there’s some truth to this, because two of my earliest memories involve the Who. And while guitar solos from their albums don’t invade my thoughts like the Beach Boys tend to do, those memories count for something. In the first, my father is trying to teach my sister and me the lyrics to “Boris the Spider,” and he keeps returning the record player needle back to start position so that we can hear the words again. We’re trying to sing along but we keep giggling over John Entwistle’s booming baritone (honestly, he does sound like a trash can Oscar). Our giggles are compounded by the fact that every time the chorus comes on, our dad’s face becomes cartoonishly grumpy to accommodate the low registers. To this day, I can’t listen to this song without trying to test the deepest reaches of my vocal capacities. In my second Who-related memory, we’re all standing around the stereo listening to the opening bars of “Pinball Wizard,” and my dad is crouched over in anticipation waiting for the first roaring guitar riff. As soon as it comes, he explodes in a windmill air guitar, yelling, “See, girls! This is how Pete Townshend used to do it!” and in a matter of seconds, both my sister and I are throwing out windmills, too.

These are what I think of when someone mentions the Who, and all because my father so purely and wholeheartedly wanted us to truly grasp the greatness of his generation’s music. And it certainly didn’t stop with the Who, nor was my mom innocent in leaving us free to enjoy our NKOTB and Marky Mark, she none the wiser. Both parents ran the gamut, from my father clarifying the subtle differences between Cream and Derek and the Dominoes to my mom teaching me a rockin’ version of “Stairway to Heaven” on the family piano. And although I used to wonder which albums belonged to which parent, those answers became abundantly clear once I learned how to read and noticed that my mom, being the more systematic of the two, had printed her name on each of her albums in neat, college-aged handwriting. (This, incidentally, is also how I learned that people’s names change when they get married.)

Of the many albums that my parents introduced us to, there are certainly a few that stand out. The entire Beatles collection is an obvious frontrunner, and my sister and I spent one creepy summer looking for hidden clues on the Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper’s album covers. We also tried to play the albums backward without killing them entirely, and while we didn’t find much, I do know that I distinctly heard someone whisper “I buried Paul” at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” After that, the Beatles collection was put back on the shelf in favor of more pleasant albums, like Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel. Of course, what probably surpassed the Beatles in its disturbing quotient was Bert Sommer’s Road to Travel—does anyone else remember this guy? I looked him up on Amazon, and there isn’t a single comment written about him, which leads me to believe that my father was his only fan. At any rate, the album contains “A Note That Read,” a track detailing a son’s suicide letter to his estranged father. Talk about depressing. At least my dad waited until our teen years to introduce that one to us, but suicide wasn’t such a shocker by that time anyway, considering Kurt Cobain’s untimely demise.

My parents’ interest in shaping our musical tastes obviously paved the way for the future, because now not only do I make the connections between every modern album and its forerunners, but I also find myself gathering digital recordings of the albums I grew up with so that I can keep this music far beyond when the original records become too scratched to play. Of course, this might be an unnecessary endeavor considering that the Beach Boys do just fine keeping their songs on my mental playlist, with or without a tangible recording. But it’s kind of comforting to know that I have my own copy of Dark Side of the Moon, along with every other album my parents are responsible for introducing me to, so that one day maybe I, too, will be teaching my kids how to throw out a windmill that would make Pete Townshend proud.

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