Sittin’ in the Back of My Memory: My Father and His Musical Commandments
by Genevieve Sachs
While I was growing up, my Jewish father could barely keep track of Hanukkah. When he would remember, the holiday would most likely be halfway through already and we probably wouldn’t have any candles. Therefore, at my mother’s behest and my father’s defenseless surrender, I landed in Catholic School, enduring plaid skirts and mass twice a week for the first thirteen years of my life. However my dad, Lloyd, was the one who passed down the religion that stuck. Not Judaism—although I definitely have his nose—but the religion instilled by growing up under a music critic’s roof.
As a child I regarded my dad’s taste in music with great reverence, believing wholeheartedly that he had access to some realm of music-godliness, and when he’d share an album or a piece of jazz or Americana wisdom with me, he was welcoming me in. Twenty years later, that belief persists; whenever I listen to music he’s showed me I feel the doors to that realm opening anew.
He had the knowledge, the power, the Jazz Fest paraphernalia. To me, his beliefs were sacred commandments, and they were unwavering. He wouldn’t play a song or an album twice in a row, presumably to preserve its sanctity. Often, he’d refuse to start playing any music in the car at all until we had hit the expressway, the dose of silence serving as a necessary palate cleanser. His muddled boxes of colorful CD-ROM sleeves did, in fact, have an order, and if you laid a pinky on them you’d better have made sure to leave no physical trace. Those boxes only hinted at what was in store in the basement: wall after wall covered floor to ceiling with shelves of alphabetically organized CDs. He followed his innate musical morals with a disciple’s dedication, and his wisdom and matter-of-factness left no room for doubt from us believers of the younger generation.
Aside from the time that my teenybopper crush stood me up for rehab, the resulting angst leading me into the open arms of Taylor Swift’s Fearless on endless repeat, I rarely betrayed my father’s Musical Commandments. I may have even been vaguely aware that I was benefitting from them—that my strongest memories and images of youth were being preserved in the music he was bestowing upon me.
After my sister, Willa, and I paid our Discman dues, cycling through our limited collection of CDs—with emphasis on Ashlee Simpson’s Autobiography and Avril Lavigne’s Let Go—our dad gifted us our first iPods. They were the first generation of the iPod Shuffle, so I must have been around eight years old. The Shuffle, a simple white stick until I covered mine with color-it-yourself stickers, sat in a clear and neon-orange case that hung on a cord around my neck, like a wary tourist’s passport or a parent’s sunglasses at a soccer game. My dad again granted me access to his musical realm, but this time, instead of providing just a taste, he kept the doors propped open.
I didn’t catch on to Fountains of Wayne when “Stacy’s Mom” became a sensation; Welcome Interstate Managers had always been Driving Music. “Mexican Wine” was backing out of the garage and pulling visors down as the sun hit, and “Hackensack” was lapsing into silence on the highway. Alejandro Escovedo’s Real Animal was the dénouement as we pulled back into the garage, or if we just kept driving, John Prine took over. James Taylor’s croon meant Christmas morning, and before Led Zeppelin or Houses of the Holy held any significance to me, it was the T-shirt covered in naked women that I got in trouble for wearing to elementary school on an out-of-uniform day. Every so often, my dad would tell Willa and me to write down a list of songs that we wanted him to upload to our iTunes library. When he’d return our iPods to us, he’d often follow up with something like, “Oh, and I threw on a couple extras I think you’ll like,” and that would introduce The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan or The Black Keys’ Attack & Release. Each new discovery was a welcome, all-encompassing intrusion, and each unpredictable addition trained me how to absorb foreign sounds and redefine them as my own memories and associations.
For leading me to first break one of my father’s Musical Commandments—Thou shalt not play a song twice in a row—I blame alt-country singer-songwriter Kelly Willis. I was an eight-year-old Eve and “Baby Take A Piece of My Heart,” off of her 1991 album Bang Bang, was my Southern apple. After requesting that this song be uploaded to my iPod, I panicked at the realization that my Shuffle’s limited capabilities left me without the control to play the song on command, whenever the urge came over me. Naturally, the only solution was to take the matter into my own hands by never playing anything else. I kept the song queued at all times; as soon as it ended I made sure to click repeat before the device could do its job and shuffle to the next one. Kelly’s crimped orange hair had been sent down as an angelic offering and my iPod was meant to be the place of worship. I remember sitting in the backseat of my family’s car in a department store parking lot, adamant that they wait for me while I restarted the song and paused it at exactly the right second, so that I’d be able to continue listening over and over again in the privacy of my ear buds upon my return.
It seemed to my sister and me that our dad held all music in the palm of his hand, and soon enough our sibling rivalry for his approval took hold. When we were much younger, my sister and I would teasingly pull back and forth on our mother’s sleeves, declaring our superlative ownership over her with each tug: “She’s my mom!” “No, she’s my mom!” Later in life, less jokingly, we would stake our claim in various interests or hobbies, forbidding even an inch of overlap between us. Finally, Nickel Creek and Best Coast came along, and our mother’s sleeves became our father’s musical respect. Who was a bigger fan, who had heard of the artist first, who could clamor faster for this A+ bonding material?
One dominion I can confidently say no one was clamoring to conquer at the time was the solid majority of my father’s musical taste, and that was all things jazz: free jazz, post-bop, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor—the common hyperbole “you name it, he had it” could not be taken more literally. In our house, a small corner at the top of the basement stairs was allotted for my dad’s speakers and music equipment, and the CDs were allowed to seep up and spill out. Next to a neon-green plastic saxophone from the dollar store that I gifted him for his birthday one year, a framed black-and-white photograph of Louis Armstrong was the centerpiece of the music corner. This still life is burned into my memories of our living room, alongside warm yellow lighting, the upbeat call and response between sax and piano, and my dad’s thumb and ring finger rapidly tapping out the rhythm on whatever surface was nearest.
For Willa and me, Armstrong’s all-knowing smile was a comforting staple in the house, like the abundance of Jazz Fest memorabilia and the neon “Jazz” clock adorning a wall in the basement. The life-sized cardboard cutout of sax legend Von Freeman that sat in our basement, startling many an innocent guest, amused us, but all off this was about the extent of our interest. Thus Peter Brötzmann, known to us then only as Screechy Jazz, was consistently silenced during our spaghetti dinners at the increasingly urgent requests of our mother.
In more recent years, I’ve felt the undeniable urge to at least attempt to pay it all back: to thank my dad for the sonic embraces I would’ve never known if it hadn’t been for his introduction, the cross-genre broadmindedness, the endless T Bone Burnett facts, and above all, the discretionary ability to let a song or a sound define its surroundings so much more eloquently than nostalgia can do on its own. He handed me a toolkit for seeing the world through sound and left me to figure out how to use what was inside. I’ve learned how to let myself succumb to, and cherish, the inimitable way a song or an album can freeze a moment, a relationship, a place, and make it stick. To this day I can’t listen to Aldous Harding’s Party without being instantly transported to living in Berlin three years ago, riding the M2 Tram to and from my art assistant job in Heinersdorf. Love’s Forever Changes is listening closely in a dim NYU dorm room, my best friend dissecting each song and weaving them into an essay about James Baldwin. Those close to me know not to play The Pixies’ “Hey” or The Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside” when I’m around because those songs are my tumultuous love affair from long ago, lying on the floor of his dad’s 14th Street recording studio, and my eyes will well up comically fast, without fail, if I hear any of those opening notes.
My small attempt at sharing my gratitude with my father has taken the form of annual “Ear to Ear” playlists, hefty compilations of every single piece of music referenced or recommended between us in one year of text messages. To dig into the wide range and far-reaching fingers that comprise the playlists would take us right up to the next one. A simpler way of putting it would be to explain how much easier these playlists made it to efficiently answer an ex’s maddening question, “Who is your favorite voice in music?” because I knew just where to look. To honestly state my answer to his question, for anyone and no one who seeks it, is to also attempt to chip away at understanding the very specific entwinement of reminiscence, familial longing, and whatever higher forces have brought us to where we presently stand. Several weeks ago in said ex’s kitchen, after flitting around classic possibilities like Diana Ross or Bing Crosby, my final, and confident, answer to his question was a tie between John Prine and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. A tie between pulling out of the garage into the sun and speeding down the expressway. In the small window of time since I made that declaration, not only did both Prine and Schlesinger die, they somehow got away with doing it within a week of each other. And I keep twisting and floundering to understand what it all means.
The easy solution to putting my suspicious spirit of nostalgia to rest would be to blame the COVID-19 pandemic that took both of them, and be done with it. But these two voices are tacked on to more than just vivid, ingrained memories; they’ve become liaisons with my boundless gratitude to my father and they keep at bay the burgeoning feelings of my familial footing slipping away. Just as the specific opening chant of “Hey” can flash the entirety of a heartbreak before my eyes, Prine and Schlesinger’s vocals can lead me to relive the sense of complete dependence on my father, or cruel teenage resentment of my mother, and always the sense of tightknit security embedded within the four of us—our pod, our exclusive club. So I can’t help but pay homage to the bigger personal picture here: that, apparently, I’ve grown up, and the trade was these vocal staples that did me the honor of accompanying me ‘til now.
So far, this is where my attempt to understand needs to stop and take a breather. My father has always had an uncharacteristically steady belief in cosmic forces and things falling into place, which I’m sure has fed into his apostolic compulsion to go out and spread the musical word. I think right now is an apt time to add this belief of his to the list of fatherly commandments by which I live. Maybe in time, it will help me achieve a different capacity of understanding, like the way I can’t really know which song or which voice ends up embodying which selection of moments until they’re all long behind me. Already, the sound of Prine’s voice covering Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” has started to fuse with the moment I read about his death, sitting at my small wooden writing desk in my Bed-Stuy bedroom with the dim light and red sheets.
It all comes down to a game of control: succumbing to a song by letting it take me to a different world—one that perhaps doesn’t exist anymore—or harnessing its power by letting it bring new light to the world I’m already in. The memories, people, and belief systems I’ve known to be true will keep slipping away, on micro and macro, personal and political levels, and the majority of the time, the reason behind it all will be above my security clearance. John Prine and Adam Schlesinger might have the answers now somewhere, but since I must resign myself to not being able to know for sure, I’m looking forward to letting them continue speaking to me through my dad, his Musical Commandments, and car speakers on the I-90.
Genevieve Sachs is an artist and writer from Chicago, currently based in Brooklyn. She received her BFA from New York University and has since been developing an interdisciplinary practice revolving around printmaking and creative writing. The text of her writing often appears in her studio work, and she spends the majority of her time creating text-based copperplate etchings and developing small editions of hand-bound books. Her writing has previously been published by Breadcrumbs Magazine, S/WORD Literary Journal, and Pioneer Works Press. Visual work can be seen at www.genevievesachs.com.
Image: Namroud Gorguis/Unsplash