I have heard it said that smell and taste can be the most memory-evoking senses. A casual stroll into the Japanese pavilion at Epcot, with the smell of lacquered furniture and osimbe crackers, transformed me to my childhood in Tokyo. The taste of pancit and lumpias reminds me of my halcyon high school years in Manila. Chicken satay with peanut sauce represents the sad months I spent in Singapore after being uprooted during my senior year.
The other day, however, I realized that my life also has a musical soundtrack. Certain music represents the stages of my life; like food, music takes my senses on a historic tour. I can close my eyes and actually “be” where I heard certain songs, and I can see every minute detail of the room. The tone of a song from a cheap stereo can represent so many things: the agony of heartbreak and the emptiness of homesickness, but also the ecstasy of being young and carefree.
One of the earliest memories I have of Japan is going to the movies. There was an introductory sequence before the feature started, with a Rachmaninov symphony playing in the background. During the film, Japanese subtitles were flashed vertically on the screen. We had the soundtrack album from “The Sound of Music”, and the text was half in English, half in Japanese. I was so enamored with the movie that I claimed that I had played the youngest Von Trapp child. I bragged about it to my friends at school (along with the lie about the baby sister. I guess I was a habitual liar!!) but I don’t think anyone bought it.
My oldest sister Debi was a teenager in Japan, and I used to hang out in her room playing her records. Of course, The Beatles were among her favorites, but when I hear the early Bee Gees songs (like “Massachusetts”) I can see her room in my mind. My grandparents once bought her an album by a group called “The Pretty Things”. I guess they thought their teenage granddaughter would like any music as long as it came from long-haired hippie types. It was awful!
Living in Connecticut after returning from Japan, my sister was invited to go to some insignificant little rock concert in a town called Woodstock, but my parents wouldn’t let her go. Oh well, I’m sure she didn’t miss much.
Brussels was my sister Lisa’s high school turf. Lisa was a talented singer, and she was in a few of the musicals that the school produced, including “Carousel” and “Spoon River”. She was friends with several boys who played the guitar, and they used to come to our house for jam sessions. My dad would record their sessions on his reel-to-reel tape recorder. The music of their time was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Fleetwood Mac, early Elton John and Cat Stevens. When I hear “Tiny Dancer” I always picture Lisa in her bedroom, putting on makeup, getting ready for the day. “Sad Lisa” of course makes me sad, because she had so much talent, so much verve and excitement for life, and it was all cut so short. But in my mind, she is still young, vibrant and beautiful. Recently I had Dad's tapes converted to digital format, and heard her voice again after 30 years. It was eerie and sad, but in a way made me happy.
The musical theme in Manila was a cacophony of genres. When we first moved there, someone gave us an album by a Filipina singer, Pilita, who sang a song called “Dahil Sayo” which was a sickly sweet Tagalog love song. Whenever we went to the movies at the Quad, a local shopping center, we had to stand while the Filipino national anthem was played. I can still belt out the first verse (which, I was told, is more than some Filipinos can do!)
“Salsa” music was all the rage and we practiced dancing the salsa in our living room. The local radio stations played the early R&B music, like “Shining Star” and “The Hustle.” We all know what happened to the late 1970’s: DISCO! As much as disco has been excoriated over the years, I still get a thrill when I hear the opening beat of “Dancing Queen” and Barry White’s “Love Unlimited”. It takes me back to the red velvet walls and plush carpet of the disco “Where Else” in the Manila Intercontinental Hotel. It was ironic to see the Bee Gees of my earlier childhood evolve into disco superstars. “Saturday Night Fever” came out in 1977, giving my generation a new collection of anthems. When I was in Manila for my birthday in May of 1978, my friend Leslie and I went to see the movie, and she gave me the album as a gift. No wonder that movie and its music make me happy: it represents a supremely joyful week of my life.
Every rinky-dink restaurant band in Manila could play “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree,” and Morris Albert’s “Feelings.” The only problem was that some Filipinos have trouble pronouncing the letter “F” and the song became “Peelings.” We cracked jokes about that love song about bananas.
Other favorite groups from my Manila times were The Captain & Tenille, Neil Sadaka and Barry Manilow. I had a thing about musical cheese, apparently.
When I returned to the states for college, I ran into a huge wall of musical culture shock. “What, you’ve never heard of BOSTON? Or Foreigner? Or Toto?” I felt like an outcast, musically illiterate. I was dragged to concerts and given a crash course in rock & roll. It didn’t take me long to catch up. Groups like AC/DC, Aerosmith and the Eagles represent my college years.
Like food, music is a sensory minefield of memories. Songs that remind me of lost puppy loves can still make me cry. Certain top-40 songs elicit the tinny sound of my $9.99 clock radio waking me up for 8:00 classes. I think of my dad listening to his Big Band era music as he waited for us to get dressed for church. I spent a few weeks with my sister Debi in her apartment once, where I learned all the words to all the songs on Paul Simon's "Kodachrome".
My personal soundtrack meanders across the globe, much like my life itself.