Dear family, friends, ex-girlfriends, nemeses, friends turned enemies, and anyone else who’s made an impact on my life:
As some of you may know, my 40th birthday approaches. I don’t say this looking for pity. I came to terms with my mortality years ago, as a body battered by countless pick-up basketball games has long been whispering lullabies about the final darkness in my ears. But that’s not to say that I can’t take a little stock, get my things in order as I start the downward slide.
The physical possessions are easy. As my mother will do to my sister and me, I will leave my children a house overflowing with books, records, papers, and other detritus from a pack-rat existence. They’ll think, “a cleansing fire, that’s what we need.” But sentimentality, a sense of duty, and an inability to successfully pull off insurance fraud will drive them to sort through it the best they can, and I’ll laugh from the Other Side at finally getting revenge for all the foot-piercing toys they left in the hallway every night.
But my musical legacy (apart from an MP3-laden hard drive and tons of records) will be much tougher to leave with you. What about the memories I’ll leave behind, memories complicated by the fact that I came of age during the heyday of hair metal bands? Do I really want my life events soundtracked by the likes of Warrant, Poison, or Winger—the music I was actually listening to when they happened?
Granted, nostalgia and guilty pleasures have their place, as does the satisfaction of looking back and seeing your tastes evolve over time, but I’d rather not define my last day of high school with the even-then-clichéd image of me blaring Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” as I squealed out of the parking lot.
It’s not that I’ve lost my fondness for that stuff—I’m certainly not saying it’s bad—but it doesn’t speak to me like other music does now. And besides, we’re all better off—personally and aesthetically—without images of me driving around in the late ‘80s blasting Bang Tango, Kix, or Motley Crue’s version of “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” through the open windows of a Camaro.
In a way, I’ve never felt like I had access to music that truly spoke to me while I was in high school. If I’d heard Joy Division, the Clash, the Smiths, or R.E.M. during that time, it would have been a whole ‘nother ballgame. Plus, if the afterlife is really like the Albert Brooks comedy Defending Your Life, where you’re made to rewatch your life in a courtroom setting, I’d rather not have the use of L.A. Guns held against me.
I can see it now. I’d get voiceover narration from Nicholas Cage, reprising his Raising Arizona role of H.I. McDunnough, or Sam Elliott as the Stranger from The Big Lebowski, and totally new songs. The prosecutor will ask me, “Mr. Gilstrap, this is all very nice. I especially like the use of the Cure’s “Fascination Street” in the montage of your breakups, but what about this footage we have of you washing your car to the strains of “Rock You Like a Hurricane?” I’ll calmly respond, “That’s an outtake. We did that for laughs and decided not to use it, and I really don’t think you can judge my life based on that.”
So if nothing else, a sincere thanks to the songs of my youth for acting as placeholders until I found the songs I really needed.
But my plans aren’t just limited to scamming my way into a good gated community in the afterlife. Barring a calamitous accident, good genetics should keep me on this mortal plane for another 40 or 50 years. So I might as well start taking control of the situation while I still have the time to do it. Therefore, I’ll be instituting a wide-ranging, systematic “director’s cut” of my life.
From here on out, my memories and memories of me will be subject to a strict evaluation process to see if they contain the right amount of gravitas, spiritual heft, and, for lack of a better word, coolness. Those memories found lacking will be rewritten and re-soundtracked so that they don’t embarrass the hell out of me.
Some of you might argue that they’re your memories, too. Well, that’s true, and I certainly can’t stop you from viewing senior year through the prism of Slaughter’s “Fly to the Angels” if you absolutely have to. So it might be best for all concerned to just look at this scheme like two sets of books, like the warden in The Shawshank Redemption, or any financial institution over the last decade, kept—a real one with the incriminating memories and songs, and one with my own sanitized accounting. But know that, should you to bring up my addiction to Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet album back in the day, I’ll call you a liar and secretly wish upon you a place with the traitors in the underworld.
I’ll keep the real set of books and memories locked away, my pride in my own cleverness lulling me into a false sense of complacency, until one day the truth inevitably surfaces. I expect it’ll be a stray comment from a long-lost friend on Facebook (“Dude, remember when we drained that bottle of Jim Beam and sang AC/DC songs into the night?”), or my kids finding a picture of their mulletted dad in a David Lee Roth Eat ‘Em and Smile t-shirt.
I’ll be forced to decide between taking my own life or allowing myself to be trotted out on a walk-of-shame as people ask, “Is it true that you slow-danced at the prom to Whitesnake’s “Is This Love?” I suspect I’ll go with the perp walk. If I decided to take the easy way out, I’d never get around to actually doing it, because of paralysis at deciding what song I wanted people to find playing when they came across my body. Plus, until that day comes, you’ll have the satisfaction of thinking “what a poser” to yourselves as I go about my business.
Memories from my teenage and adult years will inevitably be tied to songs that I don’t listen to anymore, or which make me cringe when I think about them. When I hear those songs, I’ll inevitably go back to the events that were occurring when they were playing. But I also know that when I hear a song like the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied”, the Finn Brothers’ “Only Talking Sense”, Magnolia Electric Co.‘s “I’ve Been Riding With the Ghost”—songs that I didn’t hear until years afterward—I often see past events through the lens of those newer songs.
They more accurately describe the way I remember those things, and in some ways, they more accurately capture the complexity of my feelings at the time (say what you will about the rawness of teenage emotions, but they’re rarely straightforward for the person experiencing them). There’s a great well of unheard music out there, and some of it is tailor-made for things that happened twenty years before I heard the song.
This would all be easier if we were talking about only memories. But I’ve left a distressing amount of hard evidence in my wake, in the form of mix tapes directed at girlfriends. So Rhonda, Vanessa, Tammy, Holly, April, and Lisa, expect representatives to contact you shortly to confiscate any old mix tapes you may still have in your possession. You will also be asked to sign statements that deny I ever tried to use Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain”, the Scorpions’ “Still Loving You”, the Cult’s “Lil’ Devil”, or Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” to give voice to my affections. In their place, you will get time-tested songs of subtlety with a healthy dose of neutrality (we are exes now, after all). And I promise, no digs at the issues that pulled us apart; I always lost those arguments, anyway.
I think that covers it. Granted, this whole idea seems like a bit of a travesty. In exorcising the songs of my youth, I run the risk of also obscuring the exuberance and excitement of those times, when you could hear a song like Kingdom Come’s “Get It On” or Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night” without caring that they were paler shades of Zeppelin (or that Zeppelin stood on giants’ shoulders as well).
The music geek’s quest for something better is always a double-edged sword, a quest that runs the risk of taking me right back to the raspy message of a favorite song from those days, Cinderella’s “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)”. With that in mind, I think I might go listen to some Dokken or Guns ‘n’ Roses, and think about that time we cut a whole week of school to drink beer and swim. Just don’t tell anyone.
// Notes from the Road
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