Maura and I had to drive out to Springfield on Tuesday. The trip took about an hour and a half each way, which meant quite a few searchers for the Least Shitty Song on the satellite radio’s roster of preset go-to stations and their shallow playlists. Somewhere on the outskirts of Auburn, I switched to the Eighties station. It was playing “Under Pressure,” which sent a weird yet familiar chill down my spine.
I get the sensation whenever I hear the song. It’s not because I think it’s an exceptional slice of pop music — which it most certainly is — but because it triggers a reflexive sense of awe stretching back almost four decades.
My paternal grandfather was a pathological grifter who played for the smallest, most short term stakes imaginable. He was a one-man pyramid scheme, beneficiary and victim rolled into a serial bullshitter with galactic levels of overconfidence. There was never any doubt his schemes would eventually blow up in his face. When they did, he fucked off to Florida and left my parents to deal with the loose ends — namely my disabled grandmother and teenage aunt, who came to live with us in our tiny two-room apartment.
There were a lot of changes to get used to with this new arrangement. A minor — but significant — one involved music. My parents’ tastes fell along the Beatles/singer-songwriter/soft rock axis, which my impressionable younger self incorporated though osmosis. While my peers enlisted in the KISS Army, I was grooving to the smooth sounds of Neil Diamond and Chuck Mangione.
The arrival of my aunt added a whole new layer to the mix. Cranking up the stereo wasn’t limited to weekends or parties any longer — it became an everyday thing, and the playlist was 100% pure rawk. She mostly gravitated to the hard rock/AOR staples in heavy rotation on WBCN and WCOZ (Boston’s home for “Kickass Rock ‘N’ Roll!”) — The Kinks, The Stones, The Who, Cheap Trick, and so forth — but also made some minor forays into the then-novel realm of punk and new wave.
(She was the person who exposed Andrew Age 8 to the US version of The Clash’s debut LP, which made rediscovering it as teenager punk rocker feel like a homecoming and cemented by devotion to the band.)
The experience both broadened my horizons and made me realize how square my parents actually were. It wasn’t just about the music, but the experience of appreciating it — or, rather, watching how my aunt and her junior high girlfriends experienced it. One minute they’d be chattering and giggling around the kitchen table, and the next they’d fall into quiet awe when the opening bars of some Most Revered Song kicked off. And I, dicking around on the linoleum floor with my Star Wars figures or Hot Wheels cars, would also shush up under fear of getting yelled at.
There was a very specific canon of hard rock hymns the girls observed. “Free Bird,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Born to Run” were the apex trinity, which isn’t that remarkable considering the era and socio-economic statuses involved.
Others were less obvious but still subject to religious devotion — “Maggie May,” “Jukebox Hero,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Lola,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Games Without Frontiers,” and “Under Pressure.” “Total Eclipse of the Heart” joined the pantheon briefly before succumbing to its own success and the unforgivable sin of “being overplayed.” The experience was rooted in random moments of musical rapture, the thrill of having “that song” crop up unbidden from the airwaves. Ubiquity soured the experience.
Though I wasn’t a participant in the worship, that associative reverence has persisted to the present day — no matter what I think of the individual songs. Or the disgusted “are you seriously going to listen to that” look Maura shoots at me when I pause before changing the station.