A memoir piece about my mother, inspired by one of her favorite songs. A song I’ve also grown to love. “Blue” by Joni Mitchell. Music as muse. Always.
Songs are like tattoos.”
“Blue” by Joni Mitchell
from the album, Blue (1971)
Song Of The Day – August 2, 2011
All the memories I hold dear are connected to music. Even the ones that came before I did, the ones I only know from stories told, and not told, are tied somehow to a song, an album, a band, or musician. It all started with my mother, and with music.
She spent her adolescence as a Penny Lane type of girl, trailing around after The Doors, actually developing a close relationship with the singer, Jim Morrison. There are stories my mother lets slip out every now and then that make me realize there is so much about her, so many stories, than the ones I know. Things I may never know.
I remember one afternoon, as we drove up in the hills about Sunset Blvd., I listened as she told my then boyfriend how Jim Morrison told her once that she was beautiful from the inside, and that no matter what people see on her outside that is what they should unravel from her. Beauty.
I think my father, and my birth, held her back from her dreams.
My mother had been learning to play guitar, writing songs in notebooks, joining a band. They even had an album. I saw it once, buried in a box in the back of the garage. The singer in the band had been her guitar teacher. From teacher to bandmate, then to lover. She was just shy of 17. He was almost 30. She sang back-up and played tambourine, wearing short dresses and tall boots. She spent nights on Sunset Blvd. hanging at the Troubadour, and at this tiny club that used right there in the middle of the Blvd. She was at the Riot Hotel enough times to know which rooms were reserved for the bands. She met Sonny and Cher there. Others, too.
In that hidden away place in the back of the garage she has other treasures she doesn’t talk about. A parking meter from Venice Beach, and the top of a city bus from Haight-Ashbury.
Something happened to her, though. Something that made her trade it all for dental hygienist classes and a wedding to a boy who was a virgin, and who didn’t care much about music. She was 18 when they got married. He was, too, just a few months behind. They had me at 19.
There had to have been some kind of event, some kind of trauma, that shook her up enough to change that much. Her life after, the one she chose to become, it never seemed natural to her, or even something she liked. So, why did she choose it?
When my mother was still wild she used to lie to my grandmother about everything. She hid her life away because that life was something my religious and prudish grandmother would never have approved of. But, even in the after times, when my mother was living her chosen housewife life that my grandmother would have approved of, she still lied to her.
Maybe inside she was still that rebellious teenager who used to hide all her Beatles records at school, and those short mini-skirts and tall boots in the bushes outside, the ones at the very far end of my grandparents’ drive=way. She’d grab them up on her way to school, changing on the way.
I know there’s always been a part of my mother that was disappointed in my lack of rebellion. I was the kid who could be found where she said she was going, who had good grades, and never did anything that needed hiding. She set no boundaries, no curfews, giving me this illusion of trust. The thing is, the second she ever had a reason to doubt me she’d take all my things and rummage through them, read my notes, my journals, empty my backpack, my purse, ransack my room.
She’d find nothing. And, instead of relief, I’d see a look of disdain on her face. That disappointed look she always seemed to have when I did nothing wrong.
Strangely, when I was older and chasing round the streets of Hollywood that she’d once traversed, she never seemed to notice, or care. At that time she’d slipped back into the pre-me life. The one she’d run from. Acting like she was a teenager again, partying and following men half her age around, calling me from places that she didn’t recognize in the morning. Asking me to help find her. Rescue her.
Those were the days that I was digging my boots deep into my own kind of rebellion. Living off cigarettes and speed, having careless encounters with boys, and with girls. It never felt that far from who I was. Not even after I traded that lifestyle in and began to embrace something else, something new.
The girl with too many books, the one who followed all the rules, shew as still part of the girl doing lines off the rearview mirror of her car. The one who pulled temporary lovers into hallways and stairwells of dark clubs. Both of those girls are still part of the woman I am today. The one who plays at the park with her kids, who works a 9-5 (and then some) job. The one who lives a rather domestic existence with her boyfriend, and her three kids. She exchanged the cigarettes and speed for copious amounts of music and coffee instead.
I wonder if my mother felt the same when she was a hippie mother letting her hair grow past her waist, making organic bread from scratch, and driving a carpool for me and some of my Montessori school classmates. Did she still feel like the groupie girl who’d chased after rock stars and played in a band? Did she feel anything at all in common with that girl anymore? Or had she taken such a complete departure from her wild life when she met that shy boy from Texas who’d end up breaking her heart?
Sometimes a whirlwind kind of life can spin you out so much that you lie awake at night feeling the weight of it all weigh down on you, overwhelming you. In those sleepless, spinning moments you can feel so much older than your numbers say. That kind of feeling can make a person do all kinds of things, make all kinds of choices, and changes. Like the kind that jumps as far as she could from the life she’d been living. Were we her frantic attempt at recreating herself? Was it as much of a disappointment as my non-rebellious youth was to her?
Did she regret the choices she made? That tiny house we’d lived in on Charlotte Ave.. My grandfather’s welding shop just around the corner. The house with the pink bedrooms and huge stereo speakers in the living room. Was that kind of domesticity what she wanted? Or did she just construct a self-made prison to serve time in? When she came home from cleaning people’s mouths out to find her husband in bed with her then best friend, did she think about the life she traded for our little broken family?
When my mother would play her records on the turntable, when I was a kid, she get this faraway look on her face. Her eyes would close, and her crooked-lip smile show up, that smile that is so uniquely hers when she’s actually happy. She’d disappear then, into the music, right there in front of me. I’d listen to her sing, watching as she danced around the room. Sometimes she’d lie down on the floor, open up her arms like wings, and sing.
All those songs, all those lyrics, they became stories to me. At night, when I struggled to sleep, those songs would play back to me in my head, side A and side B of whatever album my mother had played that day. They became my bedtime stories. My lullabies. The voices of Joni Mitchell, Lennon and McCartney, Seals and Croft, and Elton John, they were all pied pipers come to lead me off to dreamland. They became my father figures and my teachers. Music paving the way towards a life forever accompanied by a never-ending soundtrack.
The songs forever leaving their mark. The music always playing on.