Tucked away in some dingy back corner of my mind sits a jukebox. It’s well-worn given the 37ish years of constant use and abuse. Sporadic synapse firings provide just enough neon glow to read the pairs of song titles neatly arranged in seemingly infinite rows. It’s a forever fluctuating catalog of the songs that have soundtracked my life. New 45s are added daily while older unimportant ones fade into the brain-ether. (Maybe to snap back down the road during one of those deliciously nostalgic “Duuude-I-completely-forgot-about-this-song!” moments).
The tracks in the far left-hand column are permanent though. Those first selections weren’t added by me. They were put into rotation before I had control of the radio dial.
The people who raise us are, by default, our first DJs. The audio they love becomes our first musical frontier ripe for exploration. You could say that throughout our childhood years they hand us our very first metaphorical mixtape full of the music of their lives. And, in my truly humble opinion, a mixtape is among the greatest gifts one can receive.
My dad was the first person I can recall connecting with musically. Every place he spent any amount of time had a boombox with a stack of tapes next to it. One on the garage workbench, one in his little weightlifting room, a tape deck in his bright cherry red Jeep Renegade. This was the late ’80s during the first sunset days of the cassette empire, right as the compact disc was poised to grab the baton and go gangbusters.
As a wee one, any father/son time came with a steady audio diet of golden oldie classics with a firm emphasis on Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys and the Beatles. It was never forced or even seemingly intentional, but it was always in the background air. As if my dad’s own mental jukebox was tucked in the corner of every room of my childhood home, innocuously pouring out the sounds of the ’50s and ’60s. The sounds of his childhood ringing in my young ears.
I can point to my dad’s musical influence in that ever so important life test: the first music purchased with your own cash. My first cassette tape was a sundrenched ’60s surf rock compilation. I was probably drawn to the supercool cartoon eighth note surfing on the cover. (Woah! Hang 1/8th, brah!). My dad assured me that I had a winner when he saw the tracklisting populated with The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and the Surfaris. I slammed that sucker into my shiny new red Walkman and put foam to my ears as I burst out the door to run amok in my very non-beachfront Midwestern suburban cul-de-sac.
No matter what category you classify it (good, bad or ugly), your parent’s music preferences impact you in an important way. In the best possible circumstances, your parents’ tunes become a foundation to construct your own musical identity. I’m lucky enough to find myself in this category. Those childhood building blocks of resonating sounds helped form a path pointing me in a certain direction.
If you’re on the other end of the spectrum and consider your parents’ musical tastes to be a deplorable scourge on the inhabitants of planet Earth, you have still been given a noteworthy gift. You learned early what sounds don’t bring you joy, which is an important first discovery in finding the ones that do. Even if it takes some blatant rebellion and extreme/questionable audio phases to get you there.
As I hit my preteen years, our father/son audio selections changed alongside my awkward prepubescent body. I’m always amazed how one song can completely alter your musical identity. Certain sounds lead you down a previously undiscovered rabbit hole full of new artists and soundscapes. For my dad and me, that one song accompanied Arnold Schwarzenegger as he stepped out of a biker bar sporting “borrowed” leather duds in Terminator 2. George Thorogood’s signature slide guitar riff cut through the silence and hit us in the collective gut.
It was around this time that ZZ Top also caught my dad’s ear via a flashy electronic cover of Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas.” Through those two serendipitous song encounters these artists became central to my youth. We dove into George and ZZ with aplomb and for years they were passengers alongside us in that aptly named Renegade Jeep. We were two dudes who were light years away from living any sort of “bad” lifestyle but were deeply drawn to the music of two groups who purported it. With the doors off the Jeep in the summertime, the wind would spill in as dad thumbed the steering wheel and mimicked Thorogood’s machine-gun stutter: “Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bad!”
It’s always fascinated me how music and memory intertwine until one does not exist without the other. My dad would probably never describe himself as a musical person, and yet my memories of him will forever be populated with our shared musical experiences. How we both would crack up listening to Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling.” My own childish glee coming from the fact that it’s still a hilarious song even if you don’t yet know the meaning of the word “innuendo.” My dad’s laughs were on levels that only made the song more funny as I aged.
Or I think of how we couldn’t figure out what crime was committed in the opening line of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” For years we only had Buddy Holly’s version of the Chuck Berry song. Holly’s Texas drawl slurs the line to be: “Oh, Arrested on a-charges of Awning Plomb.” Total gibberish. This was a simpler time when we couldn’t just pull out our phones and instantly receive lyrics. Our Encyclopedia Britannica was also sadly lacking such crucial info. So instead we pressed rewind several hundreds of times, trying to crack the mystery. (The answer ended up being the heinous crime of “unemployment,” which can easily be deciphered on Chuck Berry’s or any other version).
Now that I’m a father myself I think a lot about how my music will impact my two little girls. Their own jukeboxes stand shiny and new with infinite space for content. Although my own journey has led me mostly away from my dad’s golden oldie roots, I can still hear his musical legacy in my parenting. The satisfaction of coaxing my newborn to sleep while softly singing the classic Beatleian lullaby “Yellow Submarine.” The slight twinge of pride when my 4-year-old can identify Elvis by his swaggering tell-tale timbre.
I’m lucky enough to still have both of my parents around. We get together often and the music still remains in the air though the medium has changed. The cassette tapes and LPs have been replaced with Pandora stations but the memories remain intact with the tunes. The unexpected twist in the tale is that the music I discovered after leaving home came back to influence my dad. I filled him in on an appreciation for Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash that he mostly missed the first time around. One of those oddly satisfying circle of life things.
It’s days like today that I’m thankful for those first entries in my mental jukebox. Those permanent tracks became a baseline for me to judge all the sounds that would follow. Drop a coin in and press one of those first few buttons and I’m reminded of my dad, my growing up, and all the joy sounds have brought me since my young ears first discovered his music.