Monday, October 10, 2011

Mon Coeur S'Ouvre (A Ta Voix).

My children are fans of a goofy Disney channel program called "So Random", which is a SNL-style sketch comedy show for kids. Some of it is eye-rollingly annoying (a music video for a horrible song called "Ketchup With Everything" and anything that involves Zombie Man) but other sketches are really very clever. There is one in particular that makes me laugh (because I relate to it - not because it is wildly funny) about a sort of nerdy girl whose mother hires a group of female 60's-style backup singers to follow her around school. Every time something of consequence happens (little or big) the girls, resplendent in their beehive hairdos, lean in and sing a few bars.

Although I don't have my own backup singers (and if I did, they would not be a dainty girl group. They would be Daniel Craig, Clive Owen, and Jason Statham. And no, I don't actually care if they can sing or not!) I do have a Soundtrack To My Life that always seems to be running, as if I am starring in my own movie. My own, usually somewhat dull movie, yes. But my own movie nonetheless!

I don't think that this stems from any personal psychosis. I will leave that to the professionals to decide! I just know that music has been a huge part of my life, right from the get-go. My parents tell the story of how, as a tiny baby, I could only sleep if a little transistor radio was in my crib. (That was usually turned to the news, actually, but stick with me.) I asked for my own subscription to Rolling Stone Magazine when I was twelve. I tried to understand The Velvet Underground, and failed miserably. Everything has a soundtrack to me: breakups and makeups (involving myself and not), movies I love (and not necessarily the soundtrack the director chose), books that have seduced me, deaths and births and weddings and dinner parties. How many mixtapes have I made for people, just to show how I felt? And how many have I gotten in return? (Not as many as I've given, that's for sure.) My first concert (that I didn't choose) was Kenny Rogers. When I had a choice? Sting. 

As a child growing up with immigrant parents, I wasn't exposed to any of the music most of my friends were. It wasn't until high school that I really discovered (and promptly began to dislike) Bob Dylan. A lot of the  music my parents listened to meant nothing to me at the time: just a whiny assortment of vocalists going on and on about things I could care less about. Part of the difficulty was that many of the singers sung in the Egyptian dialect, which I could not (and still can't!) understand. I thought the music was awful. Boring. One of their favorite singers, a woman named Oum Kulthum, particularly tested the limits of my patience. She would sing one song FOR THREE HOURS! This what not something I was used to. My father is from a town in Lebanon called Baalbeck, which is the home to a world-famous music festival that is now coming back to its full pre-civil war glory. He tells stories about how she would hold the audience in thrall the entire time, with the crowd whooping and hollering at critical points in the show. My mother had a chance to attend one event as a young girl, and remembers that she was the only child there, remembers the crowd in tears, overcome with emotion and memory. I didn't care. I wasn't moved yet by life's pains, as Um Kulthum eloquently sang of in her classic piece El Atlal (The Ruins):

My heart, don't ask where the love has gone
It was a citadel of my imagination that has collapsed
Pour me a drink and let us drink of its ruins
And tell the story on my behalf as long as the tears flow
Tell how that love became past news
And became another story of passion
I haven't forgotten you
And you seduced me with a sweetly-calling and tender tongue
And a hand extending towards me like a hand stretched out through the waves to a drowning person

As I grew older, I began to better understand how these songs tied them to a place they had not forgotten, and still loved dearly. They came to America for a better life for themselves and their future children, but this did not mean they had blacked out everything that had ever held meaning in their not too distant pasts. My mother has a beautiful singing voice, although she will not admit to it, and is too modest and conservative to show off her talents in a public setting. (This apple did not fall off that tree, I assure you!) I will never forget the time we were cleaning the kitchen together, and, as was her habit, she began singing. That day it was a song that has now become one of my favorites: Ya Tayr (O, Bird) by the Lebanese legend Fairouz:

O, bird, flying at the edges of the world,
If you could speak to my loved ones of the pain I feel...
O bird, who takes with him the color of the trees...
The hand of separation guides me
I beg your feathers which equal my days...
If you're going to them and the paradise of love,
Take me just for a minute and then bring me back.

Her voice broke as she sang, and she said, holding back tears, "I really miss my family." My mother was not, and is not, much of a crier, and this display of emotion unsettled me. I was a teenager, but it was the first time I felt the full force of her longing, the throbbing scar of a wound that had never healed, the sense of having a foot in two worlds and never belonging completely to either one. It wasn't the first time I realized how music can affect our emotions (that had happened a few years earlier when I wore out The Cure's "Pictures of You" over some forgettable boy), but it was the first time I understood the breadth of feeling a particular piece could dredge up.

My parents eventually branched out musically, and so did I - but all of us (and, subsequently, my brothers) never strayed too far from melodic melancholy. My father, thanks to a work colleague, became enamored quite thoroughly with country music. Even now, the sob-in-the-throat voice of Marty Robbins brings a tear to my eye. Maybe that music reminded him in a way of the old folk songs he grew up with: lots of human drama, basic simple storytelling. Those are still the types of songs I gravitate toward: singer/songwriters like David Gray and Ryan Adams, music that is lyrically quite heavy and poetic.

Of course, for a music lover like me, there is room for more than just stories. Sometimes I don't care about words, and just want a beat that makes me forget everything except the way my body is moving. Sometimes, I want to have my cake, and to eat it, too. The result is reflected in my song choices at the end of posts: an odd mishmash off throwaway pop, classics, strange forays into realms I first visited in my younger days, on the path to reconciling the little girl who didn't know what she wanted with the woman who now wants nothing less than everything.


  1. Um Kulthum's lyrics in El Atlal called to mind country music, but I wasn't going to mention that until I read further down about your father liking country music. I think to understand The Velvet Underground and Dylan you had to have been there. The times. They were something else.

    Having a foot in two worlds is not an easy place to be and I can understand how difficult it must have been for your mother, and you also must have a sense of two sides to everything. On one hand that's very good, on the other it is difficult.

  2. I see you have one of my favourites on your list. Dream On - I guess that's the soundtrack to my life because I am nothing if not a dreamer. I really enjoyed this post. Music can do so many wonderful things to us but I think most of all, music is about the memories it brings.

  3. Such a beautiful post. The quotations from The Ruins and O, Bird are exquisite, and it was pure delight to read about your musical journeying. Once again, I checked out the entire listening list. It's going to be interesting to see whether our lists intersect at any point.

  4. I love your mishmash, and I completely agree that music can rip open a gash long ago healed or bring forth a memory nearly forgotten and make it as bright and crystalline as spring. I had to go to iTunes and listen to the songs you mentioned above--I couldn't understand a word they were saying, but I still felt the sentiment. Amazing. Neat post.

  5. Dear Maggie,
    I loved/laughed at your comment on Suze's "Breakfast" - "the weazels". So I looked you up - and I enjoy what I see. Always (when I want to decide or find out what I feel) I listen to the words of the song that at that very moment runs in my head (if I read it like that: sounds crazy - but it isn't) - and I know what is the matter.
    Oh - and I like your choice of background singers - Craig&Owen. Send them over to Berlin, please, for a little concert when you don't need them!

  6. Rubye: Yes, I can see how the lyrics parallel country music...especially the drinking aspect! Having a foot in two worlds is a challenge a lot of the time, but less so now than it was in the past. In general, I think there is a stronger acceptance of multiculturalism, especially in the US, and the boundaries of life in general are so blurred. I remember my mother anxiously awaiting those whisper-thin blue airmail envelopes for any scrap of news they might contain, no matter how old. Now, she just gets on Skype! I used to be embarrassed by my heritage. Not anymore.

    Loree: Thank you! Music really has the power to do so much: to hurt, to heal, to help us remember and help us forget. Keep dreaming, the world needs it! :)

    Susan: Thanks for being so open-minded (eared?) about the music. I am sure we will intersect at some point, unless you happen to be a fan of hardcore rap!

    Julie: I think if you look them up on YouTube you might find some with English lyrics...and if you can see Um Kulthum perform, that is something. She's like a cross between, I don't know, Homer (The Greek, not the yellow cartoon guy!) and Ella Fitzgerald all wrapped into one. She was a true diva.

    Britta! Welcome! I would regale you in German, but sadly the only phrase I really know is (I will write it in English because I don't know how to spell it) Hello! How are you? A beer and schnapps, please! Not sure that will get me too far...I should at least know how to ask for the restroom!

    I think our dear Suze needs to change the font. I am too old to read it! :)You know, I do something similar with songs. I even have what I call a Magic iPod (I wrote a post about it!) that I ask questions to. Whatever song comes up is the answer.

    I will be happy to share Craig & Owen, time permitting! :)

  7. I remember my parents' Oum Kulthum tapes. I never really listened to them, though.

    I recall a flurry of bootleg cassette tapes as a child--and some of those songs from the old country did seem to last forever--but I gravitated towards radio and modern pop.

    I like your mishmash. Also, I want your backup singers. We should share.

  8. Maggie,
    "Pour me a drink and let us drink of its ruins
    And tell the story on my behalf as long as the tears flow".

    Sounds like this came straight out of Nashville, m wife lefy me, my house burned down and the dog dies scenario.

    You post gave me a chuckle to start my day - THANKS :-)

    Music can instantly transport me to another place and time. I am so programmed by music, Perry Como can instantly bring back memories of mum and dad, even their smells! Wonderful.
    Have a great week.

  9. Dear Maggie - I'm so glad: I finally managed to get my old template back! So I can put you on my blog-roll, which I will, and now the "follower-function" is here again. (What a waste of time and energy that has been - Much Ado About Nothing)

  10. I can understand wearing out The Cure. I hadn't until now met another Camper Van Beethoven fan. I love their Ambiguity Song ... OK, lots of others.

  11. Mags, am smiling about something. Can you guess what it is?

  12. . . . . . . . it was the first time I felt the full force of her longing, the throbbing scar of a wound that had never healed, the sense of having a foot in two worlds and never belonging completely to either one . . . . . .
    I absolutely know what that feels like.

    I am so glad that you realise how she felt. It would have been easy to ridicule her and her foolish tears, as teenagers so often do.

  13. An excellent post. Brimming with a passion for music, and such a diverse list too!

  14. Medeia: She really is a bit of an acquired taste, in my opinion. Maybe if I better understood they lyrics...which are really just epic poetry, aren't they?

    Dianne: Thank you so much! Yes. All good music is sort of "tear in my beer", in a way! " :)

    Britta: Thank you! And let's see if I can figure out how to follow you now!

    Mary: Camper Van Beethoven in a leftover from my college days. I loved them so much! I wonder what happened to them...I think I will have to include another favorite from that time, Toad the Wet Sprocket!

    J: Thanks! Now more telenovelas from you, please!

    Suze: After what you told me you were smiling about, I smiled too! :)

    Friko: I am so sorry. Even after so many years being in a different place, has it ever become really HOME to you? It hurt me to see her that way. Whenever I ask her now why she doesn't cry much, she always says the same thing: "I cried enough in my life, and I don't have any tears left." (And that was BEFORE I was a teenager, so don't blame it all on me, people!)

  15. oh i'm with you girl. i have a soundtrack to my life as well.....

    this was such a poignant insight into your life, maggie. thank you for telling these tales......the connection to music is so powerful.

    the lyrics to El Atlal are incredible....

  16. Maria Callas was so beautiful, and what a voice.

    From this list, I love "La Camisa Negra" and "Dream On". And yes, music is certainly very evocative (maybe as much as smell?) The Cure is FANTASTIC!

  17. Lovely post Maggie, music moves me so much, I will have to think about my sound track now... Have you ever heard of Desert Island Disks? It's a BBC Radio 4 programme that has interviewed famous people for 60 odd years and the interviewee has to pick the tracks to their lives, and talk about why, plus pick a book and a luxury. You can listen again on the web site - bet Stings on there!

  18. This post went straight to my heart. I grew up in an outwardly typical Canadian family, but at home the music was my parents' - no rock 'n roll, no Mersey beat. We listened to Fairouz and other Lebanese singers of the 50's played on the Hi-Fi. That was for my mum. Then we listened to bagpipes for my dad. It was eclecticism at its strangest but it has always been the background music of my life and hearing either can bring me to tears.

  19. Oh dear. I'm sorry, Maggie. I read this lovely piece a week ago and was reasonably, well kinda sure that I had commented on it. But no. The trouble with pieces like this is that they're just so wonderfully done that I just want to sit here hugging myself and that doesn't leave hands free for typing.
    I loved this. Such a different perspective and experience from my own, and told with wit and understanding. And I'm glad I came back this late otherwise I would have missed Pondside's comment. which gave me a whole new perspective on her too.

  20. Amanda: you should read the rest of the lyrics; they would drive you to tears!

    Lore: Poor Maria Callas. Beautiful voice that she ruined as her life fell to pieces...

    Pondside: I am so touched by your comments, and our common connection!

    Deborah: Thanks for stopping by! I have been reading comments but have been so darn busy the last couple of weeks to respond - or write a new post. You are so, so very sweet. Thank you.