In 1966, my brother Art had a red Alfa Romeo. I’m told it was kind of a crappy car, really, and I remember its ignominious final days in his possession: a scarlet husk parked, prone, lying in state beyond the shed at the end of our back yard. Collecting dust, collecting rust. A tow truck ultimately came to whisk this luckless red Alfa Romeo to the promised land.
But my prevailing principle memory of this doomed vehicle is a happy one. I believe the memory involves the consumption of Royal Crown Cola, or possible a root beer at the nearby A & W Drive-In. The memory absolutely involves the car’s one true immortal virtue: its radio.
That radio? When I was six years old, I may have thought that radio was magic.
I mean, it must have been magic. There were songs I heard on that car’s radio that I never seemed to hear anywhere else. I should ask Art if he listened to Syracuse’s 1260 WNDR in ’66, or if it was WOLF instead, or even the less-fabled WFBL. Whatever it was, it played “I Like It Like That” by The Dave Clark Five, a record that–to me–only existed on the AM dial of Art’s doomed Alpha Romeo. Even better, it played–often!–another irresistible exclusive: “I Fought The Law” by The Bobby Fuller Four. To this day, more than five decades later, my visceral memory of that terrific song is inextricably linked to those moments in my brother’s Alpha Romeo, of drums, guitars, and a singer bemoaning his fate of Breakin’ rocks in the hot sun, all pouring forth from the little car’s speakers as my big brother cruised suburban streets with his pesky kid brother on board. It’s indelible, and I embrace and cherish its vivid image.
Involuntary Memory #4 by Nicole
In the early months of 2014, I had an internship at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. When I applied, I didn’t think I’d be accepted, but I was, so off I went. Like a lot of people that spring, I was astounded by a clip of the band Future Islands performing on David Letterman’s show. That gravel-voiced singer with the slick dance moves and wild eyes, so recklessly earnest… It seemed a direct rebuke to the ruthless cynicism that often dominates online pop-culture ‘discourse’. I knew I had to investigate them further.
“Tin Man”, from their 2010 album In Evening Air, pulled me in immediately. It starts off with bouncy synth notes that sparkle like sunshine on the water, but the lyrics are jagged with grief. It mirrored the push and pull of that spring—the weather that went from blue and balmy to sideways sleet and back again, the way my “job” made me feel like a child playing dress-up in adult clothes, the yearning to go back to New York (where I’d gone to college) and the terror of not knowing what I would do once I got there.
But there was a certain freedom to that time, too, especially once spring arrived for good. The apartment I was staying in had a balcony, and I used to sit outside in the humid air, overlooking the maze of hotels and highways near Reagan National Airport. In the chorus of “Tin Man”, Samuel T. Herring sings, “And time goes by/and you’ve got a lot to learn, in your life…” Those words became a kind of mantra for me. I have a diary entry from that period that reads, in part, “I’m ready start my own life—my real life.” I decided to move back to New York, feeling like if I didn’t do it then, I never would. I knew it would be hard, but I also knew it would be worth it.
In 1969, I passed up an opportunity to attend a music festival in New York State. It seemed too far to travel in an old beat up station wagon to see bands perform in the hot summer weather.
Later that fall, my friends and I travelled to downtown Pittsburgh via public bus, as we did often, to hang out and visit some of our favorite stores which included National Record Mart. We loved sifting through the newest albums by artists we heard on what was considered “underground” radio on an increasingly popular FM station.
That day at the Record Mart, my friend Michael and I debated about whether or not to purchase an album recorded by a new band that performed at the little concert I missed in August. I heard their pulsating Latin rock song “Jingo” on the radio, and hoped there might be more of the same on the LP. The artwork on the cover lured me in as well. Neither of us had enough money to buy the album so we split the cost and bought it together.
Back in our neighborhood, we all went to a friend’s house to listen to our new purchases. First up was side one of our choice pick, Santana’s debut album. Frankly, I was blown away! I couldn’t believe the shear energy and pulsating beats that seemed to match my own high energy personality. After we finished side one, Michael turned to me, stated that he hated it, didn’t want to listen to side two, and I could have it.
Well, I still own that album Carlos. It’s not in very good shape anymore since I literally wore it out playing it over and over again in my black lit bedroom, replete with glowing posters and burning incense.
I listened to plenty of rock n roll back then. My mother exposed me to ‘50s rock n roll in the early ‘60s, on nights my father wasn’t home. Then there was the British invasion lead by my beloved Beatles. But this was different. Your sweet guitar playing had me mesmerized—my mind absorbed the notes you so elegantly and precisely played—while the percussion kept my heartbeat at a rate that intoxicated my body.
I found music that touched me in a way no other had. At a time when my home life was filled with strife and misery, I stumbled on an artist that could help me endure and keep my head straight when I needed an interlude from my surrounding life. Following that first album came four more that I bought, listened to and wore out as I had the first.
After that, my life became busier and more complicated as I graduated college, began a career, married and started a family. Some of the albums became eight track tapes played in a device mounted under the seat of my Volkswagen Beetle and, after that, cassettes in my van. Of all the music I listened to, it was your albums that I first purchased in the latest technology so I could listen to them as best as they could sound. They accompanied me from one state to another via car or plane so I could listen to them whenever I needed a mental boost or simply wanted to hear some comfort music. I have listened to all of your other albums, including the more recent collaborations, and enjoy them as well.
Over the years I’ve listened to plenty of other music, and tend to judge albums by how many of their songs I truly enjoy. There have been a scant few that I enjoy 100%, and your earlier albums make the list. After all these years I still listen to them, now on an iPod. In fact, today I listened to Abraxis while taking a jog.
By the way, I have only had the pleasure of witnessing you perform live once. I brought my wife to see you at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. At the time, she listened to the Eagles, James Taylor, Van Morrison and similar artists, but went with me anyway (I think) just to keep me company. Before you began, I explained to her that if she wanted to better understand my infatuation with your music, to try to focus on your guitar playing while the rest of the music fills in as background. Guest what? Two songs into it, she looked at me and the only thing she said was “Wow!”
Carlos Santana, your music has helped me through the harder times of my life and inspired me during the most wonderful times of my life. Thank you for being there for me.
As all “good” music obsessives know, there are many, many factors that cause a song to really resonate with a listener. If we can momentarily suspend the fact that any given song will or will not appeal to any given listener based off of a myriad of human factors which are too amorphous and varied to even attempt to quantify such as; life experiences, quality of hearing, interest in particular topics or themes, recording quality preferences, size of ear holes, etc. etc. etc. then for the sake of this letter please just allow me to focus on two factors, the song writing and the recording.
This letter is addressed to the song writer (Leon Russell) and the performer (Karen Carpenter) of one version of “A Song For You.”
The Carpenters: A Song For You
Those of us who voraciously devour music know that sometimes amazing songs are written but that often recordings and/or artists are fallible which results in the recorded version of a song somehow just missing the mark. Conversely, sometimes the actual song writing quality is questionable but with cool production tricks it suddenly morphs into something really great (think songs being played on Top 40 radio at any given moment in any given decade). “A Song For You” as covered by The Carpenters is, in my opinion, a grand slam, because the recording/performance is so beautiful (dare I say perfect?) and the songwriting is so strong. With no further musical nerdiness, here is my letter to Karen and Leon.
I am so embarrassed. I didn’t know who you were until I listened to “A Song for You” and then read the liner notes. I’m so ashamed because as someone who has been obsessed with music since childhood, and particularly older, less modern, music it seems that I most certainly should have known about you. Oh! But! Leon! I bet you already know this, but this is one of the joys of being obsessed with music. You can constantly discover new artists, who actually aren’t new at all.
So, now I know who you are, and you can’t escape me. I have yet to delve into your recordings or discography because The Carpenter’s cover of your song “A Song for You” has been more than enough as of right now.
When I talk about music with people who really like to talk about music I have certain preferred topics that I believe never get old. One of these topics is the concept that if a person writes one good song in their lifetime that this might be enough. Maybe not enough for them personally as an artist, but enough in terms of contribution to the world. I’m sorry to even have to write this next line Leon, because clearly you already get this, but there are other people who will be reading this letter so forgive me. MUSIC IS POWER. One song, one recording can have so much impact. I truly believe this. And again, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but once a song is recorded and distributed there is no limit to what it can do. In some way, songs are like viruses, they could lie dormant and undiscovered for years, but once they are revealed there is no controlling the impact they might have.
We are so lucky to live during the age of recorded sound Leon! Do you agree?
Ok, I need to focus here. I don’t want to waste too many words on the glories of recorded sound (save that for another letter). I want to acknowledge to you that I am blown away when I think about the art of being a song writer. I like to imagine song writers as conduits for THAT SOMETHING that is transcendent and bigger than all of us puny humans. When it comes to serving as a dowsing rod for that unspoken/unseen magic in the world, you’re a darn good one Leon!
I feel both envious of and sorry for the person you were focusing on when you wrote “A Song for You.” The lyrics are so honest, a real heart snatcher. If I imagine I’m the focus of the song I don’t know if I can even tolerate listening to it. Too many feelings! You manage to capture a combination of self-deprecation, nostalgia, regret, indebtedness, love, an acknowledgement that life is time limited, and the experience of being in the moment/connected to someone else in less than 200 words. How Leon?!?!?!? This is magic Leon!!!!
I’m going to reign in my wonderment for the sake of sanity and trying to be succinct.
You did it Leon. Per my perception, you wrote a song that would win a gold medal if writing songs was an Olympic sport. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but you cracked the door between the mundane human world and transcendence.
I’m in awe, and I thank you.
I’ve been interested in you as a person and have enjoyed your music since the age of 10. You see, in 1989 they released a made-for-TV movie about you called The Karen Carpenter Story and I watched it with my family.
I don’t remember full details of the plot, but I do remember the feelings I experienced during and after the movie. Per the events depicted in this film (and perpetuated in popular culture) your story is tragic. Here is someone young, talented, and driven who has one of the world’s best singing voices and yet she cannot accept herself. This lack of acceptance manifests as an eating disorder which eventually kills you. Sad, sad, heartbreakingly flawed human stuff here. We want you to be as perfect as your voice. Maybe you wanted to be as perfect as your voice too? Did you even know how good you were? But, you’re a human and therefore you can’t be perfect and therefore you’ve got a level of darkness that eventually takes that voice away. There are certain moments in the lives of those of us who ravenously consume music, movies, art, and other pop culture that are light bulb moments. Seeing your story was one of these for me. At 10 I began to realize that you could be supremely gifted and successful but that didn’t mean what people saw on the outside matched what was going on the inside. I was shocked. You, and your story, broke my heart even though you had already been dead for 6 years when I first learned about you.
Well Karen, your capacity for heartbreak is, ironically, still alive and kicking some 27 years later. This summer I bought your album “A Song for You” on LP for 50 cents at a used media sale. Side one, track one is the title track and oh, it’s a killer! I almost hesitate to say this out loud, for fear that it sounds melodramatic, but I want to be honest with you Karen. You deserve honesty. When I heard this song it was a good thing that I was laying down on my couch because otherwise I feel like I might have fallen down. There are so many things that make it good. The production, the studio musicians playing on the track, the song progression, the lyrics, but the best part of course is you, or to be more specific, your voice. Smooth, sad, and in this particular case there is a tone (maybe real, maybe imagined on my part) of presage. There is something about your annunciation on the line, “And when my life is over, remember when we were together,” that is too much to take. The sound is beautiful, the sentiment is nostalgic, but the feeling…goosebumps.
I will tell you that I’m really sad that you’re gone, but that’s also just me being selfish, wanting more of a good thing. I will also tell you that I am so happy that you ever existed. Not only that, but you existed at a time when recording sound was possible. What if you had been around pre-recording technology? Your voice would have been heard by so many less people, if any at all, and that would be a crime. Furthermore, you were recording music post-Les Paul which meant that your brother was able to use the technique of overdubbing to really capture and highlight the beauty of your voice.
Anyway, I’ve been really obsessed with “A Song for You” for the past couple of months. I think it might be one of the best songs ever written/recorded. I cry a little bit every time I hear it. When I’m in the car I listen to it via YouTube, but I have to be careful because it can be dangerous to drive and cry at the same time. I’m trying not to wear it out because it feels so powerful and I’m trying to sustain the experience of feeling those feelings in a controlled way.
Music is so powerful Karen. You were an amazing conduit. One of the best.