Sunday Longform: We Built A Road In Gold

 

Built A Road In Gold

 

My father is not a musician. He did not play an instrument. He would sing at church, and sometimes he would sing at home or in public; not the whole song, mind you, but a line he may have just referenced. As a kid—and into adulthood—his breaking into song annoyed me. Not because his voice was bad—it wasn’t—but because, well, he’s my dad and when it’s your dad, it’s embarrassing. 

Yet his inability to perform did not stop him from developing a love for music. Nor did it stop him from teaching me about the intricacies of music production, what instruments were what, and why we liked what we liked. For instance, he’d say, strings would be added to give intensity, to get the listener’s mind working, or to give the song a hurried feel. We  were addicted to Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk and The Muppet Show, and he never passed up a teachable moment. 

When my father would break down a song, he’d really break it down. He would talk about what the lyrics meant. He’d talk about the arrangement of the song. He might not know the names of the people playing the music, but he would always say when it sounded good, and when it sounded real good, you knew to take notes.. He also would say, in Texan drawl, “that don’t moooove me,” and he meant it.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

One morning, on the way to school, Lynn Anderson’s “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” came on the radio “Listen closely,” he said, “because I’m gonna tell you about why this song sounds like it does,” in a suddenly serious voice.  He turned up the radio and shushed me. He pointed out the the string section, stating that the song’s tempo was based on the strings, that while Anderson’s singing was the reason we were listening to it, it was the opening string section that made us want to listen to it. I watched with amusement as he conducted the string section from our crappy little Vega, enjoying every minute. As I was young, I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the experience is one that has never left me.

He spoke of the music we were listening to with such love and respect. “Listen to those strings,” he’d say. “They’re soft. But they’re moving fast. You are probably too young to know why, but one day you’ll understand how it feels to have your heart and soul fluttering for another,” he said–and he was right, it felt exactly like those strings.  He told me to listen to the very quiet drum pattern going on underneath the singing and the strings–that was supposed to be a heartbeat, quiet, unobtrusive, but there to give the song life–and to give the listener something to relate to.

And the lyrics! Always with the lyrics, he’d get happy. He’d love to pontificate about them, one line in particular: “So smile for a while and let’s be jolly, life shouldn’t be so melancholy,” made him especially happy. “Son,” he said, “do you know what jolly means?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It means happy. Like the Jolly Green Giant and Santa Claus.”

“Very good,” he beamed. “Now, do you know what melancholy means?”

I sat there, quiet. “Uhhhh,” I stammered.

“It’s okay,” he reassured. “It’s a big word for a little guy like you. But it means sad.”

I still did not understand.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “What makes the line great is that she’s taking two opposite concepts–happiness and sadness–and finding a way of rhyming them, while contrasting them at the same time. It might be a little difficult for you to grasp, but when you’re older, I hope you will appreciate.”

 

When Lynn Anderson died in 2015, my father cried. He cried in a way he never did for a celebrity.

Ever since childhood, “Rose Garden” has been one of my favorite songs.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

On more than one occasion, I would return from running errands and would hear the sound of Blondie coming from my dad’s bedroom. I would quietly peek in and see him smiling, enjoying videos of Debbie Harry and company playing their heart out. He quite liked “Dreaming,” but also other hits, too. He liked “Atomic,” “Heart of Glass,” and “The Tide Is High,” and others. Only once did I hear him listening to their post-reunion recordings. Like me, he prefers the classic era. This secretly watching videos thing didn’t just happen, either; I remember more than once coming home and finding that someone had been watching my copy of The Best of Blondie.

I understood his fascination. Sometimes I have wondered if we share the same condition. I have a condition known as Aspergers, and one of its manifestations is a habit called stimming. It is the repetitive action of a movement, a word, a sound, or of music, often as a response to overbearing and scary stimuli around them. For me, when my mind goes into a stressful place, I tune out the world and tune in to a particular song in hopes that it will give me peace—or, at the very least, get my mind focused elsewhere and stop my mind from racing. (Before I started writing this essay, I’d listened to the song we’re about to discuss 23 times in a row. That’s 70 minutes**.)

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

Two weeks ago, my father turned 93 years old. 

Last Thursday, my family placed him in hospice care. 

I will miss him very much.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

Setting: Interior bedroom, 2020

I walk in on my dad watching Blondie videos.

 

In the jump edit (sorry about that), I made a comment about Blondie and him having a crush. Sternly, he corrected me to say that Blondie was a group, man.  (Major kudos to my pops for doing that!)

 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

A few weeks ago, I told a dear friend of mine that Blondie’s “Dreaming” is perhaps the perfect pop song. Being a little bratty, she suggested maybe I should write her a book report or something on it and get back to her. Never one to turn down a beautiful woman’s request, here’s my remembrance of the conversation we had shortly after the video above.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

Setting, Interior Bedroom, two hours later:

Me: You know, dad, I think “Dreaming” is the perfect pop song.

Dad: Why’s that? Tell me why you think so. Break it down.

Me: Well, for one thing, it’s relatable. Relatability is key to good pop.  Good pop music takes one topic and stays with it. It doesn’t offer anything but itself. If in the song, you’re happy in love, you’re happy in love. You keep things positive, and even if you get negative, you keep it upbeat. Why? Because you want the story to be acceptable to the guy who’s down on his luck, the teenager who’s experiencing new things in life, or the wealthy suburban mom. You want each one to say, “I know how that feels,” and mean it. You can’t do that by being specific. Singing about your yacht is fine, but you have to understand that a poor person can’t relate to it.

Dad: How is it relatable?

Me: Well, superficially, it’s a love story. The first verse goes something like this:

When I met you at the restaurant
You could tell I was no debutante
You asked me what’s my pleasure
A movie or a measure
I’ll have a cup of tea
And tell you of my dreaming

 

The scenario comes from Beautiful Stranger, written by Noel Coward. Yet the song isn’t about the movie, not really–the bit sets the scene for what’s to come. In the dating game, everyone has to have first meetings. They can be terribly exciting–or nerve-racking. The gentleman has asked her what she’d like to do. He’s proposed two things: a movie, or a concert. She, however, has decided on getting to know him better, so she says she’d like to have some tea and visit.

Dad: Very relatable.

Me: Indeed. And it gets better in the next verse, where she sings

I don’t want to live on charity
Pleasure’s real or is it fantasy?
Reel to reel is living verity
People stop and stare at me
We just walk on by
We just keep on dreaming

Dad: I like that line.

Me: Me too, and it adds that second element to a good pop song–literacy. It’s a very intelligent, clever verse. I love the wordplay. Contradictions abound. The play between the words “real” and “reel,” and not just in a homophonic way. She’s saying, “is pleasure real, or is it fantasy,” which is saying that is what entertains her real, and then she turns around and says “reel to reel is living verity,” which is implying that the fake–or pleasure–of cinema is, in fact, the truth. She then turns around and makes a comment about her fame. I’ve often wondered if she finds her superstardom unreal, and this is her talking about it? Who knows. But then again, there’s another fantastic play on words in there: “verity” as a cognate for “Cinéma vérité,” which makes the fairness of the reel to reel not only real, but also a cinematic style.

But dad, the song’s denouement comes in the bridge. In it she reveals that the guy she’s met….she’s not met at all! “I never met him, I’ll never forget him,” she sings, and it’s like…what? She then sings that she’s been filling up an idle hour. I love the plot twist!  It all comes together in the end, though:

I sit by and watch the river flow
I sit by and watch the traffic go
Imagine something of your very own
Something you can have and hold
I’d build a road in gold
Just to have some dreaming

 

So what we have is a pop star, sitting in some riverside cafe, taking a breather. It seems as if she’s happy in the moment, one where she’s able to be human again and not Debbie Harry, pop star. Yet she coats it in enough mystery to leave you wondering. Plus, I gotta hand it to her for doing something really phonetically superb. When she sings “sit by” I swear she says it to sound like “said bye,” creating even further confusion.

Dad: So what do you think the song means?

Me: Well, I was getting to that. Sometimes, I think one can read way too much into a simple pop song. But then again, the best pop songs aren’t so simple. On one hand, it’s about a woman daydreaming as she sits at an outdoor cafe. But on the other hand, it’s about a pop star dreaming of the freedom from being famous. Either way, it’s a complex little jewel of a song, and with its catchy melody, it’s certainly a fun, innocent number. But maybe it’s best not to focus on meaning, and just enjoy the song for the song’s sake. You don’t overanalyze ice cream and cake–you eat it. What do you think, pop?

Dad: Very good, son. I think you learned well.

 

 

Indeed I did. I learned from the best.

Post Script: My father died eighteen hours after this was posted. He was 93. If so inclined, please donate in his name to the National Math & Science Initiative.  The Recoup will be going on hiatus as we deal with family issues. 

 

 

**Fun fact: I listened to “Dreaming” 93 times today, for a total of 288 minutes.

Tagged as: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: