Growing Up Backwards, or, An Apology to My Friends for My Musical Tastes circa 1992

Thanksgiving weekend, 1999: My brother and I are sitting on the couch, my father fully reclined on the La-Z-Boy in a tryptophan-induced coma, snoring wildly.

The television is on. Sergio Garcia, the Spanish teenage phenom, is playing in his first Skins Game. It’s a golf tournament, a friendly.

“This kid is just nineteen,” the commentator says. “Just think about that. Think about what you were doing when you were nineteen.”

My father, who we might have presumed dead were it not for the vigorous snorting coming from his side of the room, pops up out of the La-Z-Boy, bolt upright.

“When I was nineteen, I had my head up my ass!” he announces.

My brother and I look at each other, agog. Dad is not given to voluntary autobiographical revelations, and while it’s possible I have heard him use it of me before, I have never heard him use the expression “head up your ass” of himself. We look back at dad. Is he sleep-talking?

He goes on to tell this amazing story to illustrate the point. It’s like something you might hear on Snap Judgment or Moth now. It comes out fully formed, perfect, as if it had been waiting for decades for just the right moment to be made public. And this instant—Sergio Garcia walking the fairway of the 13th hole of the 1999 Skins game—is its moment. When it is over, Dad thrusts himself back into the recliner again, and is soon snoring rhythmically.

* * *

I was 28 when Sergio was making nineteen-year-olds everywhere rethink their priorities, when Dad popped up from the La-Z-Boy. At that stage, I had mostly recovered from a period of musical profligacy for which I feel compelled to apologize.

But when I was nineteen, I had my head up my ass too.

I can’t explain entirely how it happened.

In the mid-1980s, I had been obsessed with Motown, and at one point thought I’d like to write a book about it. A pastel drawing I made then of the Motown logo still hangs in a gold frame somewhere in my parents’ house. The rolling double drums, the snare on every beat, the ever-present tambourine—I ate up everything Holland-Dozier-Holland and The Funk Brothers touched. Little Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Four Tops. I don’t know what my peers were thinking about in early April of 1984, but when I heard the news that Marvin Gaye had been shot and killed by his father, I was devastated.

I had been listening to his 60’s Motown stuff constantly then—“Can I Get a Witness”, “I’ll Be Doggone”, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, the duets with Tammi Terrell—it would be a few years before I would come to appreciate the later work. “What’s Going On?” was released the year I was born, but you grow up backwards.

I loved the early David Ruffin-era Temptations stuff, but I liked the Dennis Edwards-centric “Psychedelic Soul” from the 1970s even better, from “Cloud Nine” to “I Can’t Get Next to You” to “Ball of Confusion” to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” It was in constant rotation circa 1989. My best friend in high school was into the same stuff. We’d listen to it on the hifi at home after school. We are still friends, but there was a time there when he had every reason to give up on me. We both sang second bass in the chorale in high school. Melvin Franklin, the bass for The Temptations, was my hero and model. But there came a point sometime in that era when he was replaced by Richard Sterban from the Oak Ridge Boys.

I guess that sort of sums it up. And the band played on.

Sometime in the late 1980s, I began listening to country music. I know it was post-1986, because I was still listening to Motown then. That summer I became smitten with a girl three years and several hundred SAT points my senior. She was way out of my league, but I can’t hear “Baby I Need Your Loving” without thinking about those sun-warmed summer afternoons when we were on the same coast at the same time, when I was Standing in the Shadows of Love.

I may have turned to country music because it’s what you do when you experience your first break up. Or did then. Except it wasn’t really a break-up at all, since only one of us knew we were dating.

A neo-traditional wave was in vogue then, a reaction to the sappy, string-heavy stuff coming out in the seventies and eighties. It was when Garth Brooks released his first album, which was celebrated a return to the sources, a righting of the ship, putting the keel back under country music. I was suddenly listening to this stuff all the time—Clint Black, Randy Travis, Alabama—right up into college. I subjected my friends to insanely loud renditions of “Shameless” on the stereo of my 1989 Ford Taurus station wagon on trips to Waffle House, with my unsolicited vocals and hand gestures as accompaniment.

I don’t know why those people even still talk to me.

Somewhere near the beginning of this phase, as a senior in high school, I made fun of my friends who liked REM’s “Stand.” It signified for me then everything that was wrong about their musical tastes: adolescent, saccharine, goofy. I grew up in Georgia an hour away from Athens, but REM mostly passed me by, until later.

When I was nineteen, I had my head up my ass.

The low point came around 1992, when I was a sophomore in college. It was an historic event, although there is no bronze plaque to commemorate it. A long argument broke out in Luter Hall on the campus of Wake Forest University. I actually argued with a friend that Alabama was a better band than U2. And this was 1991 U2, Achtung, Baby! U2. The best rock and roll album anyone would make for a while.

You grow up in reverse.

I don’t know where the turning point came, but it wasn’t long before I was wearing out Achtung, Baby! and Zooropa, and then Radiohead’s The Bends and OK Computer, discovering Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan.

But I returned to something before all of that, before my wastrel years in cheesy pop-country, before all my musical wanderings were mostly dead ends. I returned to the music that my dad played for us on 8-tracks on camping trips to Lake Lanier, on father-son fishing trips to Homosassa: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash.

That music was the soundtrack of my early years, when I was too young to know how good I had it with a father with good musical taste, and too slow and stupid to appreciate it.

When I was in Cambridge as a graduate student, my future wife and I became fast friends with another couple from Arkansas. We remain friends, but he never had to endure my musical tastes circa 1992. I knew there was something to our friendship that was buried deep in some primordial history neither of us chose, some accident that was too weird to be just an accident.

Years later, after we had both returned to the United States, we discovered that both of us had been at the same concert years before: Merle Haggard at the Grandfather Days Rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1979.

It was the first concert I had ever been to, when Mom and Dad took us on a Western tour. I looked a sight in my fresh-of-the-rack straw cowboy hat, unscuffed Durango boots and blue-trimmed white Izod shirt. According to my mother, we saw The Hag twice on that trip. Not that she’s not a fan, but it’s not what she would have chosen.

* * *

I have to be honest. There are moments of unrepentant self-indulgence when I listen to that country-pop stuff from the late 80s. There is one Alabama album in particular that, whatever its artistic merits, transports me to a time in my life, an amber-lit autumn in Georgia when I was in love, and happy. Begrudge me the musical choice, I won’t blame you. But you don’t choose this sort of thing.

If parenting teaches you anything, it’s that some patterns repeat themselves.

“I look at my children and am terrified by what I have perpetuated,” my dad has told me a few times. He attributes the zinger to a friend of his, but I know what he means now. It’s true of every parent.

I’ve tried to atone for my own musical profligacy by doing what my own parents did for me: expose them to music that will last them a lifetime. Some parents may beam with pride when their kid wins a little league baseball trophy or kicks every other kid’s dad’s ass at the Pinewood Derby. My proudest days as a parent, however, are when my kids ask me to play Paul Simon or James Brown or Antonin Dvorak on the way to the grocery store. Parenting, for me, is an attempt to give your children something to grow back into.

My mother used to play ABBA 8-tracks in the Ford Econoline van on the way to Pop Warner football practice. I had take a chance take a chicka-cha-chance ringing in my ears for the endless hours I stood on the sidelines watching my hopes of an athletic future slip away andante, andante. I would be no Sergio Garcia.

Dad didn’t have especially promiscuous musical tastes, but he exposed me to things I should never have left behind. My mother’s taste have always been more wide-ranging, but in those years of ferrying me hither and yon to and from little league football practices for which I was supremely ungifted, it was occasionally “Hooked on Bach” but mostly ABBA on the in-dash 8-track. I’d climb over the back seat of the big two-tone green Ford Econoline van and hide in the way way back, in ill-fitting padded football pants, singing

Super Trouper lights are gonna find me
Shining like the sun
Smiling, having fun
Feeling like a number one

I returned later in life to the forsaken albums of my youth. But ABBA has never left me.

Mama tried.

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