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I was driving down to Toronto, Saturday, listening to a CD with Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and several other singers of my parents’ generation, singing along, and I wondered aloud, “When did I become my parents?”
When did I start buying and playing their music? When did I start choosing an Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong CD for a road trip instead of Bruce Springsteen or Blue Cheer?
When did I get so old? Who’s the old guy staring back at me from the mirror?
In the 1950s and 60s, when I was growing up, I would not have been caught dead choosing to listen to any music my parents liked (with perhaps the exception of Spike Jones). But it was their hifi set, and their record collection, so I listened to what they wanted to hear. Until bedtime, that is.
I discovered rock and roll early; falling to sleep with a crystal radio set earphone in my ear from at least the age of seven. I heard Elvis when he was young, and hot. I heard Fats Domino, Eddie Cochrane, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darrin, the Drifters and all those now-classic performers and their hits, when they were new and on the charts.
Now I listen to – and appreciate – music my parents grew up with; music of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Rudy Vallee. Ruth Etting. Al Bowlly. Glen Miller. I even play on the uke some of the tunes my parents would have heard in their youth; popular tunes I’ve unearthed in old song sheets from that era between the wars. Who would have thought the kid learning to play Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ songs in the 1960s would end up playing Tin Pan Alley?
When did the wheel turn around like that? When did I go from Layla to Volare? From Clash to Ray Charles? When did I pass over the latest album from Roxy Music to buy Sarah Vaughan or Ruth Brown?
I suppose we all become, in some manner, our parents, as we age. We calm down, mellow out, take on the mantle of responsibility. Our tastes broaden, like our hips. I still listen to rock and blues, just not exclusively. Or as often and as loudly.
It wasn’t a sudden thing; I didn’t go to sleep one night to sleep through some overnight metamorphosis, caterpillar-like, to awaken as the butterfly of middle age. No, it was slow, insidious; a gradual but insistent change. Like my hair changing to grey, one strand at a time.
Weekend mornings we still like to listen to some quiet Mozart or Bach, maybe Sibelius or Tchaikovsky. Or a bit of Puccini while we sip our morning tea. My mother, at 93, likes her Mozart, too. But classical music wasn’t a big influence at home when I grew up. I heard more British music hall music than classical. I suspect my parents grew into their appreciation of classical music in parallel with, but unrelated to mine.
Other influences came into play, of course. Girlfriends with a better education taught me to like classical music in my late teens and early 20s. That led to appreciating opera and operetta, and to modern composers like John Cage. My taste in classical music is not based on my parents’ selections, rather on what I learned when I was on my own.
I remember my parents’ culture; the suburban life of the 1950s. The little black-and-white TV tuned to Mitch Miller, Ed Sullivan, Howdy Doody, the Lone Ranger, Robin Hood. Or Front Page Challenge.
As a kid, I watched hockey, too, sometimes. There were only six teams in the league back then, so it was easy to keep track of all the players. I listened to baseball games on the radio, sometimes hockey too (Foster Hewitt). Neither of my parents were interested in sports that I recall. Instead, while I sat in front of the set, they would be in armchairs, reading.
No one had a TV set in the bedroom then (no one I knew had more than one TV anyway). I guess that influenced me because I’d never have a set in the bedroom today (the time before sleep is reserved for the pleasures of reading and has been as long as I can remember).
The record player cabinet in the living room was as wide and almost as tall as a hutch. It played movie soundtracks, popular singers like Dean Martin and Perry Como, and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas on 33 rpm records.
There was a special insert you put over the spindle to play 45s. You could stack up records and the spindle would let one fall onto the side just played. Wasn’t very good, though,if the record below was even slightly warped. I got my own record player sometime in the 1960s, but I think after I got my first Beatles record, in 1963. Might have been what prompted my parents to get me my own, to listen to this new music in the privacy of my own bedroom.
Funny, though, how you remember things, even things you really didn’t pay much attention to. Driving down that highway, listening to Frank Sinatra, I can sing along with him, recalling all the lyrics. I don’t remember ever listening that hard when I was young, nor ever singing along with Dean Martin or Dinah Washington. Yet their songs were trapped in my head, waiting until now to be released.
I suppose children are like that: little sponges that absorb everything, uncritically, unselectively. And those memories stick, with us; all they need is a trigger to release them.
In part I suppose this meandering is all nostalgia. My father is dead, my mother in a nursing home at 93, and my own mortality nags at me like a rough spot on a tooth you can’t seem to leave alone.
I want to hang onto them in that memory-place, to keep them alive not merely in body but in the whole picture of our lives together. The happier, carefree days. I want to be that kid learning to ride a bicycle again, skimming my knees playing with neighbourhood friends, reading comics in a tent in the backyard and capturing praying mantises in the nearby fields. Turning back the clock.
Even tho’ I know it’s only me and my dreams
That drive me so let me go please
Let me go onto tomorrow
One day at a time
Now I know the only foe is time
Moody Blues: 22,000 Days*
I guess we all do. As children we ache to grow up, break the bonds and fly free, can’t leave soon enough to start out on life’s voyage. Then we look back from our new heights and see the warm nest we left. Thomas Hardy: we can never go home again, but we we still pine for that comfort.
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears
from Fiddler on the Roof
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed the journey to get where I am. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve grown a little wiser, a little smarter, a little more tolerant and calm than I was back then. Despite the inexorable accumulation of years, I still have the capacity to learn new things, and to experience wonder when I do. I still have fun and can laugh at myself. I don’t feel particularly old, at least not as old as the guy in the mirror appears.
And while I’ve aged, l am not entirely grown up: I still play games. And as long as I can still play, still have fun, I will never feel my age. And in that I won’t quite become my parents.
Gross well says that children are young because they play, and not vice versa; and he might have added, men grow old because they stop playing, and not conversely, for play is, at bottom, growth, and at the top of the intellectual scale it is the eternal type of research from sheer love of truth.
G. Stanley Hall, Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education (1904), p. 235
* Great song. The verse goes like this:
22,000 days, 22,000 days
It’s not a lot,
It’s all you got.
22,000 nights, 22,000 nights,
It’s all you know
So start the show
However, 22,000 is a bit of an under-estimate. It adds up to just over 60 years. Most of us – the nonsmokers at least – can expect to live longer. 32,000 – 87 years – is more like it. But the sentiment is catching and worth pondering: every day is a precious gift we can never get back if we waste it.
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