Thanks For the (Musical) Memories

Certain songs just take me back.

The author with his music collection. Photo by Michael Ventura

My life has always had a soundtrack.

The greatest gift I ever received came from my beloved aunt when I was a preteen: a portable AM-FM radio. I spent countless nights after lights out with that radio, listening to the glorious and life-changing sounds that came in from far-off places.

Growing up 40 miles outside of New York City on Long Island, my favorite station was WABC-AM, a 50,000-watt behemoth that blasted Top 40 music and slathered its DJs with a coating of gratuitous reverb. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was feasting on a well-balanced musical diet—pop, rock, R&B, country and soul, all played back-to-back, hour after hour.

Today, with the advent of satellite radio station playlists and MP3 players that allow us to program only the songs we choose to hear, such a broad musical palette seems strangely quaint and foreign. But the 12-year-old me listening under the blankets late at night didn’t give it a second thought. It was all wondrous and magical. Those songs became intrinsically entwined with the life experiences (and my memory of them) that shaped my long and winding journey toward adulthood.

When I hear Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia,” I am back in sixth grade, counting down the minutes until recess and dodgeball.

“Falling in Love,” by Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds, transports me to a time when I was doing just that for the very first time.

Daniel J. Levitin, director of the McGill University Laboratory for Music Perception and author of This Is Your Brain on Music, has posited that age 14 is the sweet spot for the development of musical tastes. At that point in life, the sudden surge of hormones and the rush of first love makes everything seem brand-new and vitally important.

I’d concur with Dr. Levitin. I am a child of the 1970s, and the music of those years—between the Beatles’ breakup and the disco onslaught—continues to shape me to this very day.

Back then, there were three essentials to bring to the beach: a towel, a blanket and your radio. (We were young and invincible; sunscreen was optional.) In an amazing display of cultural unity, every radio lining the shoreline was tuned to WABC. You could literally walk from one end of the beach to the other and not miss a single note of a single song. Even today, I can hear The Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” during a February blizzard and be instantly transported to the Long Island Sound.

In middle school, realizing I possessed a remarkable tolerance for self-imposed pain, I went out for the cross-country team. Heading out on my daily training runs, I would invariably find a particular song running through my head, over and over. I never consciously chose the song—the song would choose me.

While the music in my mind didn’t make me any faster, it did serve as a distraction from my body’s discomfort. I will never forget the time I finished first in a dual meet, to the internalized strains of Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be.” (I still recall that sweet moment of victory whenever I see an eHarmony.com commercial on TV.)

I’m still running today, with my trusty MP3 player clipped to my shorts and a mix of ’70s AM radio hits and near misses in my ears. My middle-age body is considerably slower and creakier than its teenage counterpart but in my mind, I’m sprinting up hills and unleashing my finishing kick. (And if you happen to see me out on the Custis Trail, remember—I’m not really there. I’m somewhere back in 1978, training for the upcoming season.)

Music also played a huge role in other coming-of-age rituals. In high school, the graduating class ahead of mine inexplicably chose as its prom song Kansas’ morose “Dust in the Wind,” a paradoxically pretty song about death and decomposition. My class had the good sense to select Dan Fogelberg’s considerably more romantic “Longer.” And the song that my wife and I chose for our first wedding dance—Ray Charles’ version of “Come Rain or Come Shine”—will forever take me back to that joyous day.

Speaking of my wife, she sometimes likes to use me as a human party trick. If somebody throws out a song title from the 1970s or ’80s, I can almost invariably identify the artist and the year it hit the charts. While some may think I’m some kind of savant, there exists a simple explanation. Each of those songs reminds me of a specific point in my life—a torturous grammar school teacher, a girl upon whom I suffered an excruciatingly unrequited crush—and I can thus pinpoint the time of that song’s popularity to within a few months.

Even though my tastes were more or less cemented decades ago, I continue to seek out and collect new music. (Let’s just say I’m on excellent terms with the good folks at Falls Church’s CD Cellar.) Recently, it occurred to me why: Like a drug addict, I am constantly trying to recapture that euphoric feeling I get the first time I hear a song that truly touches me. It’s a strange, subtle fluttering in my belly and a swelling of my heart that tells me a song has hit its target. It’s like falling in love, over and over again.

Like most people of a certain age, I am fully convinced that the music of my childhood is far superior to any music being made today. I wonder if, years from now, my children will ever hear a song from their personal wonder years and find themselves transported back to another place, another time. For their sakes, I truly hope so. n

Rick Schadelbauer is an Arlington-based freelance writer who listens to 40-year-old episodes of Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” every weekend on Sirius XM. He can be reached at schads@verizon.net.

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