My autobiography in song, part 1: the early 1970s

I’ve mentioned my autobiography playlist numerous times, and I said yesterday that I’d have more to say about the playlist soon. This post represents the first of a series in which I will give a brief overview of the first 35 years of my life as told through the songs that remind me of events in those years.

So what exactly is this playlist? As it currently stands, it is a list of 193 songs, totaling nearly 15 hours of music. I have a very specific memory for where I first heard a song, or an event or feeling a song reminds me of. It is a weird, almost emotional attachment to the song that when I hear it, I’m instantly transported back in time. Because of this, the songs that are on the list are there because of an emotional attachment, not necessarily because I like the songs. In most cases, I do like the songs, but in some cases, I have some ridiculous songs that I don’t really like, but which invoke powerful memories in me.

Keep in mind that in the very early years, I had no control over the music I listened to. I wasn’t until I was about 8 or 9 years old that I had my own radio and tape player and could listen to what I want. That means that the music I listened to in the first 8 or 9 years of my life was completely dependent on my parents.

With those caveats in mind, here is part one of my autobiography in song, which covers the early and middle 1970s.

1. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart — Elton John & Kiki Dee
This is the first song I ever remember hearing on the radio. At the time I probably didn’t even know what a radio was, and more than likely, I heard it in the car going to my grandparents house. I believe this song is circa 1976 so that tells me that I became conscious of music in a way that stuck with me when I was 3 or 4 years old. This song epitomizes the 1970s for me, for some reason. When I hear it, I can picture being in the car, or sitting in the front yard of our house on Buttonwood Drive in Somerset, New Jersey.

2. Rhinestone Cowboy — Glen Campbell
I learned early on that I had a very good memory for song lyrics. I didn’t always get the lyrics right because often I had no idea of the meaning of the words being sung, so I sometimes filled them in with my own words. But sometimes, I got it mostly right. “Rhinestone Cowboy” was one of those songs that I got right. And I sang it constantly. My parents probably remember. I sang it so much that they would have me perform for friends and family who visited. The song is circa 1975 so again I was 3 or 4 years old. I can remember singing the song, but I can’t hear it. Of course, back then, I would have had a cute voluble voice and must have been adorable trying to sing this for a small audience.

This song reminds me of the swingset we had in our backyard. For some reason, when I hear this song, I can see that swingset on a particular spring day, with a clear blue sky. I’m almost certain the song attracted me because it was about a cowboy and I was in my cowboy phase. I had no idea what rhinestones were.

3. Love Will Keep Us Together — Captain and Tennille
Some songs produce less specific memories than others. “Love Will Keep Us Together” is one of those songs. I’m sure I heard it on the radio but it doesn’t evoke a specific memory. Just lots of general memories: driving to New York City to visit my Grandpa at his gas station. Or tagging along with my mom when she went to see her doctor when she was pregnant (and sitting in the waiting room for her). I never even thought about what the song was saying, I just liked the tune.

4. Do You Know the Way To San Jose — Dionne Warwick
The first 45 I ever had was “Do You Know the Way To San Jose” and I have no idea where I got it. But I can clearly remember playing it on a record player at my Grandparents house in Spring Valley, New York. I have no idea what the B-side was. I played the A-side over and over and over again. I never got sick of it. Hearing it right now, I have a near-photographic image of exactly how the living room in my Grandparents house looked at the time. This may have been around the time my uncle had a ferret in the house. In any case, I can’t hear this song without being instantly transported into a sunshine-filled apartment at 7 Lunney Court. There was a kid who lived upstairs–I can’t remember his name now, but I used to look forward to playing with him when I visited my Grandparents, and this song reminds me of him too. I think his name might have been David.

5. Games People Play — The Spinners
And then there are songs that evoke very specific, albeit odd, memories. This song reminds me of my dad driving me to a birthday party. We went down our street to JFK Drive, made a right until we got to a light, then we made a left and eventually we made another right. Along this street there was a line of trees to the left. I swear that the birthday party took place in the basement of what must have been a mortuary, although I could be imagining this. I remember we played musical chairs in the basement–my first introduction to that game. But the thing that stands out most is the part of this song where one of the singers, with a very bass voice, sings “Twelve-forty five…” The song was on the radio and we were at a stop light when that part of the song came on. I remember thinking I’d never heard anyone with such a deep voice before.

6. Tin Man — America
I don’t know when I first saw The Wizard of Oz, but it must have been before I first heard this song because I remember recognizing the references to both Oz and the Tin Man in this song. At the time, of course, I thought this song was about the Wizard of Oz, which is perhaps why it stuck with me.

7. Welcome Back Kotter — John Sebastian
I used to do impressions of the characters on Welcome Back, Kotter. I did them at my Grandpa’s gas station. I’d do Vinnie Barbarino, marching about the gas station, saying “Up your nose with a rubber hose,” to anyone who would listen. Or I’d laugh like Arnold Horsshack. People always laughed. But what this song actually reminds me of is return from a New York Mets game with my Dad. I have an image of my mind of crossing a bridge and of passing the site of the 1969 World’s Fair grounds.

8. Afternoon Delight — The Starland Vocal Band
I loved fireworks and I had a general understanding that 1976 was a big birthday for America. I remember being out on the driveway on July 4, 1976 and watching fireworks in the distance. This song reminds of that time. I remember hearing this song when I was a kid of four year old and thinking that it was so cool that someone wrote a song about fireworks. After that summer, however, I never heard the song again until… flash forward to the 2004 baseball season–nearly 30 years later. There was a Yankees/Red Sox game on and the camera was panning around the stand and found a couple, one a Yankees fan, the other a Red Sox fan, and started playing this song. I hadn’t heard the song since I was a kid, and I immediately thought of fireworks. I immediately downloaded the song and listened to it–and discovered, much to my discomfiture that it was not a song about fireworks. Sometimes, youthful naivete is a good thing.

9. December 1963 (Oh What A Night) — Four Seasons
I could be wrong about this, but I can remember my parents have dinner parties at our house in New Jersey. I don’t know why, but this song reminds me of those dinner parties. We went to Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, and shortly thereafter, my parents had one of their dinner parties. I don’t remember who came but there seemed to be a lot of people there. To this day, I will swear that one of the people at the party was Buddy Hackett. I remember he sat on one of these red swivel chairs we had. Why should I make this up? The only other possible explanation is that I may have recently seen Herbie the Love Bug and perhaps saw someone at the party who looked like Hackett, although who that might be I have no idea.

10. Cat’s in the Cradle — Harry Chapin
My parents used to read to me and among the things they read were Mother Goose and various nursery rhymes. I fell in love with this song for two reason. First, I could recognize some of the characters from the nursery rhymes in the song (“Cat’s in the Cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon…”) I felt like I knew exactly what he was singing about. Second, I recognized that this was a sad song, about growing old, and that was when I was still young enough to be afraid of growing old. In fact, there was a tinkertoys commercial airing around this time that used to frighten me to death: a boy went upstairs to play with his tinkertoys. His mom kept calling him but he never came down. When he finally did come down stairs, he was an old man with cobwebs in his hair. This song was a milder version of that but it still troubled me. I could not imagine myself ever moving away from my parents, having children of my own, or anything like that. All I could think about was the realization that occurs at the end of the song–that the boy grew up to be just like his dad. That seemed like a good thing to me.

There you have part 1. Expect part 2 when I can carve out another chunk of time. Part 2 will cover what I call the “Garden State Parkway” songs; song that remind me of the drive to and from my Grandparents house, when we’d take the Garden State Parkway. It’s the first set of songs that remind me of specific drives, but not the last.


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