almost every formidable musical memory i have involves being in the car. music was the fabric of my family – my parents both played music and met on the music scene in santa fe in the 1970s. music literally made me; without it they would not have met and i would not exist. one of the fonder memories i have of my mother is her story that she used to place her mandolin on her stomach and play it when she was pregnant with me, and i’ve always held that as the reason i so love the sound of the mandolin more than any other instrument. i believe, though, it was my dad’s savant-like mandolin playing that really shaped my ear for it.
the car was where life happened for us in rural new mexico in the 1980s. it was 20 miles ‘to town’ from our house, a little three-room adobe mud rectangle sat squat on the middle of 80 acres of land. the dirt driveway was a mile long and led out to another dirt road, which led to a small paved road, which led to highway 14, the main route into santa fe. sometimes we drove straight up cerrillos road – santa fe’s main drag – to school or my parents’ places of business. other times we veered onto I-25, up the on-ramp that took us past the odd sculpture of a brontosaurus family that some guy had erected there for totally inexplicable reasons. looking this up later, i find out the man’s name was larry wilson and he owned a foam installation business.
for years, the music we listened to came in two types, depending on which parent’s car we were in:
1) dad: a penchant for tom petty and all americana, oldies, the beatles, the kinks and other classic 60s stuff. i first heard the indigo girls in the backseat of my dad’s AMC eagle wagon. we sang at the top of our lungs to ‘won’t back down’ by tom petty and i felt like a real rebel shout-singing the word ‘hell’ out loud.
2) mom: singularly listened to contemporary christian music and fostered my love for amy grant by constantly playing her early ’80s albums straight ahead and unguarded. i’d handle the cassettes with care, gently tugging the sleeve out and unfolding it, making sure not to tear the perforated edges apart, pouring over the lyrics. when lead me on came out in 1988, it soundtracked my young life for years after, and we’d wait in line at tingley coliseum in albuquerque to see her concert. afterwards i went to the merch stand and bought a white t-shirt with the album cover on the front that i wore so much it got holes in it.
at some point, my classmates pushed me into listening to country and western radio, which in the late 80s and early 90s was still tolerable to my dad and therefore he’d allow us to put it on, especially when we picked up friends who also lived out highway 14 and carpooled together. we’d sing at the top of our lungs the lyrics to the judds and george strait songs, alabama, kathy mattea and tanya tucker.
one morning on the way to school, my dad had tuned in to the oldies station and we were cruising up I-25 when the song changed and something happened. the iconic twanging first four bars of the byrds’ ‘turn, turn, turn’ resounded through the speakers and my dad turned the volume up full blast and sang along. we were stunned into silence. though he often drummed on the steering wheel (sometimes so hard we wondered if it might fall right off), he sang rarely, and it was special when this happened.
we listened, rapt. he sang the whole thing, then shoved the dial back down to a normal volume.
one thing you might know, if you’ve ever met my dad, is that john egenes can spin a good yarn. he knows the art of hooking you into a story and then drawing it out for as long as possible in great detail. after the song ended, he started in on a story about how the first time he heard those first four bars of turn, turn, turn, with their telltale rickenbacker jangle, it changed his life. he was hooked on the atmosphere of the song and how it was like nothing he’d ever heard before.
this sunk in. until that point, my life had been so saturated by enforced musical surroundings, i’d never contemplated the idea of music changing something in me, or of being overcome by a sound so new you remembered it your whole life.
on another morning drive, we were flipping through the radio channels and had one of those moments where you tune into a station just as your favourite song (i guess it’s called your jam now) is ending and we all shouted and moaned from the back seat that we’d missed it.
then my dad launched into story, and another thing you will know if you know my dad is that he’s a real sci-fi nut and more than a little bit prescient about technology.
you know, someday, you’re gonna be driving along in your car and you’ll be able to just press a BUTTON on your radio and, bam, you’ll buy any song you want and it’ll shoot straight into your radio from a satellite.
some years later, in the weeks after my parents split up, my dad got a new place up and across highway 14. it was temporary, and definitely weird when me and my sister first got dropped off there. i can only imagine how weird it was for my dad. he’d made a big stew in his crockpot and there were boxes all over the living room filled with vinyl records. i’d never seen any of them before – they’d always been secreted away in his little recording studio, a tiny concrete square that he’d built himself from the ground up (just far away from the main house to provide refuge) and spent most of his time in.
i’d never handled a vinyl record before – it was the end of the tape era and the start of the CD era, and i was aged 13 and lived and died by my walkman. seeing me idly scanning the boxes of records, he pulled a bunch out and showed me how they worked, popping open the scratched up plastic cover of his record player, lifting the needle and gently laying the big disc in.
the record was the 1966 stephen stills single ‘for what it’s worth’, by buffalo springfield. maybe i’d heard it before, but i’d never really heard it and the richness of those first four notes still warms me up from the inside out. bun. bing. bun. bing.
over the years, my mind has conflated the two memories, so that sometimes when i hear ‘turn, turn, turn’ by the byrds, i think of that first night as a divorce-kid, the smell of beef stew and the first feel of a dusty record sleeve in my hands.
post script: there was one other moment in my life – this time in my 30s – that i heard music so different that it changed things forever for me, and that was the ethereal, spiritual sound of ‘lorelei’ by the cocteau twins, recommended to me by someone that cracked my heart wide open and let my soul out. liz fraser’s breathy, unintelligible vocals and robin guthrie’s sparkly guitars a form of jangle from the beyond, and i would not be the same after that.