there's only one place where this road ever ends up. and I don't want to die alone. let me down, let me down, let me down gently. when the police come to get me I'm listening to dance music. dance music.
-- The Mountain Goats "Dance Music"
When my siblings and I were young my father liked to play a game with us whenever we were driving in the car. He would start a song on the stereo and ask okay, what is it?and we would scramble to be the first to shout the song and artist, and start to sing along. The game was impossible to rig or predict; my father's taste was eclectic and mercurial: he was as likely to play the Smiths as Ella Fitzgerald, as liable to pick out a Johnny Cash song as an aria from Madame Butterfly.
I grew up able to identify any version of Thelonious Monk’s “'Round Midnight” within the first few notes and sing every verse of “Losing My Religion.” I knew REM had formed in Athens and that you could hear Country in their Rock 'n' Roll, but that if you wanted real Southern Gospel, you had listen to the Blind Boys of Alabama. I could tell you that Prefab Sprout’s “Cars and Girls” was a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to Bruce Springsteen and "Born to Run," and that the girl in "Thunder Road" was Angelina before she was Mary. Once, in fifth grade, I threw a Halloween party at which I tried to seem cool by playing Elvis Costello's My Aim is True. It was a rude awakening.
Pictures of my father's childhood are few and far between, and he rarely talks about it much detail. Largely, I construct an imagination of it from the pieces of his writing, the particular memories he sometimes lets slip as long as I don't ask him too many questions, and the stories he tells about the songs he loves. I make up my father playing basketball with his siblings in the eye of a hurricane in the driveway of their house on Chatham Drive. I make him up calling in to the radio station at ten years old and winning that first Bread album on vinyl. I make him up coming home to find his mother conducting church groups on their couch, speaking in tongues, and going upstairs to listen to the Cat Stevens albums he inherited from his older brothers. I pretend him sneaking in and smoking in New Orleans jazz clubs in the French Quarter, and I call up a baby-faced teenager with a filched copy of Grapes of Wrath or a paperback of Leaves of Grass creased from too much time in his back pocket. He's walking around outside Jesuit High School thinking about Hurricane Carter the year Bob Dylan put out Desire. Over and over again I play "Wasted Lives and Bluegrass" and imagine my father alone in North Carolina before graduate school, in those big round glasses he wore.
I have one strong memory of being on the coast in England with my family. It was misty, of course, and we were looking out over the water for barking seals. My father was a little ways off from the rest of us, walking farther down the cliffs with his hands in his pockets, not looking back. Your father is sad, my mother said. I was not to follow him. He has a thing for fado music: this horribly beautiful Portugese wailing, fated and long. He has a thing for the recordings Billie Holiday did near the end of her life, when her voice grew coarse and started to fail.
In another memory from the same trip, my father and I go out together every morning before everyone else. At the little cafe in Tolosa we drink café con leche and eat chocolate croissants and watch the city sky get bright. He makes the young women who run the bakery laugh. He has brought a beret and fallen in love with José Saramago and the hard cider from the Hotel Oria and flamenco. He loves the pageantry of it, and can never clap on the beat.
The first time I hear a song that feels like mine I am in seventh grade. It is 2004 and I am newly old enough for contemporary literary fiction. I've just finished Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House and Myla Goldberg's Bee Season. I climb into the car after school one day and my father says: Molls, I found this band that wrote a song about Bee Season. All of a sudden Colin Meloy is singing:
Still now you're waiting to grow
Inside you're old
Sew wings to your pigeon toes
Put paper to pen
To spell out "Eliza"
Sew wings to your pigeon toes
Put paper to pen
To spell out "Eliza"
He had a weird, whiny voice and a fake British accent, and I have never loved anything more in my entire life, this song like a book, this pinched, sad shanty. It can't have begun this cleanly, but in my memory this is the beginning of our love affair with indie music. In the next few years my father and I would discover Neutral Milk Hotel and Joanna Newsom, the everybodyfields and, yes, The Mountain Goats. We would drive to the 9:30 Club in the middle of the week to see the Decemberists play and follow Anais Mitchell to hole-in-the-wall shows all over Virginia. We made friends with the guy who ran the independent record store near our apartment in Charlottesville, and we bought The Crane Wife there the day it came out while we talked to him about Tom Waits. During my loneliest adolescent years, we'd leave the house in the evening after dinner and drive into Lynchburg with the windows down and Hymns for the Exiled pouring out onto the highway in the heat. As I recovered from yet another surgery the summer before ninth grade, we played "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" again and again and again.
One year, I am in high school, we go to hear Marshall Crenshaw play in a tiny little club in Virginia. We are inches away from the stage. He is seated, close to the microphone, balding and wearing a fedora. He sings mostly new songs, but also a couple old hits the crowds knows and buzzes for. When he sings "Mary Anne" it is beautiful and weirdly devastating. This is the first time I realize my father is getting old.
These days we live across the country from one another, and still he is the source of every song that I have ever loved. Right now, we're obsessed with that particular kind of alt-country sung by newly-sober or just-can't-get-there southern men who've read too much Faulkner and spent too many nights in rattly old motels. That beautiful ring in the voice. Jason Molina, John Murry, Jason Isabell. It's hard to hear. It is the greatest thing.
I am my father's daughter. In shorthand, this means I am prone to excess, obsession, and introspection to a fault. It means I am performative and shy, all bluster and volume, deep sadness, and boundless joy, that animal thing you can't help but feel welling up when John Darnielle sings "No Children" and bangs on his guitar. That kind of love song.
Sometimes, even now, in the hardest moments of my life, my father will call and apologize for the difficult pieces of the legacy he's passed to me, for the fact that I can't stand the goddamn clouds. I wish I was always good enough to remember to tell him: I have never wanted anything else.
Love what you love unashamedly; take equal joy in the highbrow and the low, at McDonald's and at the Opera. Never say that a song or a painting or a book is bad, only that you don't like it, then talk about why. Pretension is worthless. Almost anything can give you pleasure; the world is wide, after all, and full of things you haven't found yet. I will always be cooler than you. These are the best things I have learned from my father.
One afternoon I get into the car and he is playing Taylor Swift's first album way before she is famous. Don't judge, he says; It's great! He's right. We sing along to "Tim McGraw." I still know all the words.
And still, about half the time we talk, he tells me like it's news, like I don't know, like he's discovering it all over again: Man, Molly, I really love Rihanna!