Sing Us A Song
My childhood with my father was defined by music. The soundtrack to our life was a slim, worn plastic cassette slipped into the car’s player. Then the notes would overwhelm us, my siblings, my father, and I with the music that wrote our time together, our lives together.
It’s difficult to connect to someone that you barely know. Sure, we knew what he did and we understood that he was our father, a man who was once married to our mother, so we had some sort of automatic, biological connection to him, but the real basis for our connection was the music.
Whether it was a drive to the local zoo or a trip to a chain restaurant where the neon signs on the sides of the buildings blared even louder than the tunes breaking their way through the speakers, we listened.
We never did much talking beyond the usual, “How’s school?”
“How’s baseball/dance/cello practice going?”
And then we hit play. When the basic questions were answered, when we knew the minimum possible amount of information we needed to know about each other, we listened to something else entirely.
We would go through phases where one genre or band would trump all other options. For a while it was “Walk Like an Egyptian” by the Bangles. We practically wore through the tape. Every time we’d get in the car, we’d beg and beg until the cassette was pushed into the player. Then we’d channel our inner Cleopatra and rock out like the 80s bands we weren’t even alive to see in their true glory. We were in our own kind of glory in that car. The tiny little maroon impala with the soft felt roof that slowly caved in over the years and the scattered loose change and Coke bottles on the floor just became part of the scenery. It was like we were on an adventure, even if it was only to the most mundane of places.
And that was how we spent our time. Jumping in the car as he’d arrive and honk the horn, wondering what the soundtrack would be for our day, or our weekend, if we were lucky. Whatever it was always seemed to define the mood of our time spent with him. Sometimes he’d yell, frustrated from a long day of work, but we always had the music to fall back on as the calm in the storm, despite most of our musical selections being loud and boisterous. It’s hard to yell at anyone when you’re singing at the top of your lungs.
For a while, it was the “Phantom of the Opera” soundtrack. Blasting at full force, us belting out the notes we could barely reach, especially with our prepubescent vocal chords. But belt we did. We always liked to sing, all of us, my brother, my sister, my father, and I. It was what bonded us, what kept those sporadic day trips and weekends interesting.
Belting “Phantom” meant we were serious. At least as serious as each note that the Phantom crooned to Christine, at least as serious as the love she had for that mysterious, confused, deformed man. We were a mini-cast in our musical bubble. We cast ourselves in every part and it wasn’t even pre-assigned. There was no discussion, it’s like we knew where we were supposed to fit: my father, the Phantom, my brother, Raoul, my sister, Meg, and myself, Christine. Some days we’d switch it up or the girls would sing all the girl parts and the boys would sing all the boy parts. And then there were the days where we sang it all. I longed for the power, the desperation of the phantom, screw all gender conformity. I would get to be him, even if it killed me. And some days I did and the music of the night would overwhelm me.
The music sort of grew with us. We’d go through moods, periods of listening to the same soundtrack or album over and over and over again. As if each note, each lyric must be memorized or we would fail. To be accepted, to be cool in that car, meant you knew it all; you were more than a fan, you were an aficionado. You knew every beat, every moment.
This was especially true when it came to our real obsession. One that took us out of our own generation and placed us firmly in a generation of the past: Meat Loaf. Whether it was the “Bat Out of Hell” album or “Bad Attitude”, we knew it all, every word of every song – the longer they were, the better. Ten minute jam session? No problem – we had it down. Blaring the rock through the giant speakers of my father’s new Yukon SUV, we felt invincible. Anything could be possible in those notes, those lyrics.
The music got us through some tough stuff. It was always the subject that grounded us, whether it was a full-on rendition of “Piano Man” or “Tiny Dancer” – we hooked right onto it, somehow expecting that this foray into the past with these men and their music, might somehow bring us closer to the man in the driver’s seat, right there in the car with us.
It wasn’t always easy. It wasn’t always an epic jam session, but it was when it needed to be. On the road trips to meet a new girlfriend of his, in the car on the way to the local science museum or Discovery Zone, complete with giant men’s sized gym socks out of the trunk of his car of course, because sneakers are a no-go in such an establishment, we found a way to make it through it all.
And in the years that have passed, as we have all grown up and life has moved on, the car rides have become practically nonexistent. As people situated firmly in our 20s, we all drive now, have our own cars, and visits with him get harder to plan as time marches on and we have our own lives, our own jam out sessions, our own girlfriends or boyfriends to go meet. But one thing never changes: we always have the music. Whether it’s a visit to his house where our stepmom, stepsiblings and half sister reside, or a trip to a concert together, we find a way. It isn’t often, and sometimes the sessions have changed into a complete rendition of the Frozen movie soundtrack, due to my elementary school-aged half sister, but they’re still there. Sometimes it’s a long drive up from NYC, complete with a discussion about how to turn The Prince of Egypt into a full-on Broadway musical that ends with us driving an hour and a half past our exit. Sometimes it’s a Billy Joel concert at the Syracuse Carrier Dome, where it feels like we’re meeting our ‘other father’ as “New York State of Mind” blares through the loud speakers.
There’s always something. And that’s important because without the music, without this bond over the notes, the strum of a guitar, or a series of piano licks, we wouldn’t be a family, not really. Families have to find something in common other than DNA in order to truly survive. For us, it was the music.
So, no, I don’t regret the fact that most people look at me funny when I ask if they listen to Meat Loaf, or when I belt out every note of “Walk Like an Egyptian” in the parking lot of a mall, much to the chagrin of my friends. I don’t regret it because it’s so much more than that at the end of the day. It’s us; it’s our bond, however small. Each of those notes got us through – carrying us to each destination. It’s something that the whole world owns, but we’ve somehow made it ours. It’s the music, our music. And, with it, we survived.
Jessica L. Folk is a professional writer of many genres. She received her M.F.A. in Screenwriting from Chapman University in Orange, CA and teaches fiction, screenwriting and media courses at various universities. She dreams of publishing Young Adult novels and having feature-length films produced in the future.