In the buildup to this weekend's gathering I have been thinking about music a lot. Too often I feel like I have lost track of the world around me. In an effort to exert some small amount of control I've decided that I am going to pick the music playlist for Saturday rather than leave it to Pandora. I've elected to do a deep dive through my 35k+ song music collection and the 40 or so mix tapes I made for Mel over the years. This may result in everyone being forced to listen to They Might Be Giants and Tom Waits. I will do my best to keep it recognizable.
We all have that one friend or family member that is a 'music snob'. If we are lucky, they will let you in on their collection and turn you on to some truly wonderful stuff. I have had a couple such people in my life but the true credit goes to my friend Matt. He of the Ken Griffey Jr. pilgrimage. When I first met Matt, way back in 1996, I was a top 40 and 'alternative' kid. Really in to Soundgarden, Blues Traveler, and Hootie and the Blowfish. There is nothing wrong with that per se. I was happy, but I also didn't know any better. As the saying goes, "ignorance is bliss". Shortly after Matt and I started hanging out I was introduced to Frank Black, The Tragically Hip, The Meat Puppets, and several others with names that sounded made up. My life would never be the same. Those initial forays led me to our local indie record shop, Gopher Sounds, and soon every paycheck was disappearing so I could complete my Man or Astroman collection. As I matured, this thankfully turned in to Radiohead and U2 records.
I talked about my first date with Melissa a few days ago. I didn't go into too much detail, but rest assured I spent the day agonizing over picking the right album to be playing in my car. Something fun, with a good hook, but also something that said, "hey, I'm not just another guy". So, in other words, no Dave Matthews. In the end I settled on Elvis Costello's My Aim is True. The first song we heard together? "(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes".
Like the dogs, music became a central part of our lives. A true soundtrack to all our experiences, good and great. Within our first three months or so together I made Melissa an incredible six mix tapes. At the time, before iTunes and playlists, everything had to be burned one song at a time from other CDs. This was a time investment. As John Cusack so succinctly puts it in High Fidelity, making a mix tape is a "subtle art". I spent hours each time sequencing the songs in the correct order, actually taking the time in a sound editor to remove crowd noise or to fade one song in to another. These were highly thought out works of love and devotion. And of course Melissa would get them and play them on shuffle, or skip songs altogether because they were too slow, or she really just wanted to hear track four.
I figured those early CDs were lost to the ages. To my great joy I found them about a week ago in a box at the back of her closet, along with several of our early letters. It seems that despite only playing them on random, she cherished them as much as I did. It was such a nice surprise. I have spent the past several days listening to those early mixes, along with a couple of tapes she made for me. Hearing them brings me back to that those early feelings. Its helping me remember.
With all of this in mind I embarked on my new project to make the playlist that would form the backdrop to our celebrations this weekend. Music can be an incredibly personal thing, and can provide so much solace. It is a love letter, it is a motivator, it is a healing endeavor.
I have been down this road once before, under very different circumstances. For those of you that remember our wedding, you may remember that we did not have a DJ. Rather the roughly six hours of music, through the service and the reception, was all provided by one epic iTunes playlist. I spent weeks leading up to that big day picking, tweaking, fine tuning. Some songs were just for us, Frank Black's "Atom in my Heart". Some songs were inside jokes, Frank Sinatra's "The Summer Wind". Some because they are universal, The Beatles "In My Life". Each song had a purpose. Each song was a specific message of love aimed at Melissa, family, and friends.
I am probably building this up too much. Chances are that the music will not be noticed this weekend. As long as I don't hit any sour notes (get it?) and put something completely inappropriate on then it is a success. But we need to aim higher. We need to recognize that music sets the tone. It is an expression of purpose. We spend our days surrounded by noise. And sometimes by quiet. I had lost sight of the value that a well-chosen album can bring to your life. It can rise above the din.
This weekend's playlist is almost complete. I've got roughly six hours of music set up. I've learned from my past mistakes. I will probably put the songs on shuffle, come what may. There are actually more important things to worry about that sequencing. In case these songs don’t come on, or if you can’t make it, here are a few that were especially important to us and why:
The Beatles – I’ve Just Seen a Face:
When Melly and I first met I had just finished a college class on The Beatles (300 level, no less!). It’s not the best the Beatles ever did (“A Day in the Life”, as if you needed to ask), but it is one of my favorite Beatles song. It captures that moment when you fall in love at first sight. I still remember that first time seeing her. And yes, this song popped in my head.
Ben Folds Five – Jane:
This was the closing track on the first mix tape I made her. The message being ‘just be yourself’. There is a line about two minutes in that says “it’s your life, you can decorate it as you like”. Over the years this evolved in to a shorthand. Whenever one of us did something the other disagreed with the simple answer became, “It’s your life…”. You had to be there.
The Byrds – Nothing Was Delivered:
I am so cliché. I listened to old school country for two straight days after Melissa passed. Lots of Willie Nelson and Hank Williams. And this song. Virtually on repeat. For 48 hours. There is so much about what happened that is random and unexpected. Nothing is better, nothing is best.
Vince Guaraldi – Christmas Time is Here
This is the default “disappointment” song. Someone drank the last of the milk, cue Vince Guaraldi. This, along with the closing scene of the movie La Bamba, were our shorthand for melodramatic sadness. Bonus points: It wasn't Christmas until Melissa was able to watch the the Charlie Brown Christmas special. We own it on iTunes, DVD, AND VHS. Beat that.
Guided by Voices – I am a Scientist
I am so proud that we included a Guided by Voices song in our wedding. Only someone who truly loved and understood me would let me get away with it. Expanding minds. Bonus points: the last concert we went to together was GBV.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Simply, the most beautiful song I know about love, loss, and remembrance.