Music and movies have always been colored tabs on manila folders containing collections of moments and memories. Music recalls mental states better than any specific memory. I was listening to the Beastie Boys’ The In Sound From Way Out! when I misunderstood a three-way stop and crumpled the bumper on my Jeep (and totaled a Dodge Neon). The Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) came out a few weeks before a trip to Florida with my parents. Sitting on my suitcase outside a Hertz rental car at the Orlando airport, that CD provided the soundtrack for not only that vacation but the entire year that followed. I discovered the eccentricities and depth of Jazz music my junior year in college. I stayed up one night barely reading, barely studying for a Film Theory final because Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers demanded more attention than I could offer my studies.
It was then perhaps inevitable that I would read an article sometime before the birth of my daughter about how other equally obsessive fathers had struggled with choosing a first song for their baby. I thought about all of the above moments and hundreds of others. How much power could that first song possess? Even subconsciously? Clearly she wouldn’t remember the moment I first turned on my iPod speakers in the post-natal recovery room, but what could that song mean to her future development? Was I obsessing? Of course. Out of all the new-agey hokum that remained after all of my pre-birth reading, was it so far-fetched to believe that a child’s first song would resonate well beyond their first weeks? Considering the amniotic fluid and skin and organs, clearly, in-vitro sonic representation would have been lacking, like a mix-tape dubbed six times over.
I posed thoughts about the first song to many of my friends who were either intrigued by the idea or somewhat appalled that I’d put so much thought into the concept. The latter were of the mind that she just wouldn’t remember it anyway. But even those that loved the idea couldn’t come up with just one song. I ended up doing the most suggesting and making mental notes based on initial reaction. To a couple of friends, I tested the waters with Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang. I wanted her to be exposed to rap early in her life. It was playful and free of “inappropriate” lyrics. I said I’d like her to keep an open mind. No matter the suggestion everyone nodded along with my reasons for selecting a certain song but had no real suggestions of their own. There were just too many options and too many contradictory opinions. The demands were overwhelming.
I turned to, perhaps, the source of most of my earliest musical affinities.
My dad had been the driving force behind introducing me to classical music (I tore through a set of cassette tapes chronicling not only music but the lives and traumas of more than twenty composers – and trust me when I say these guys had trauma) and classic jazz (I owned more than 30 jazz records before my 15th birthday). My dad suggested Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It had been one of my own favorites when I was “whipper snapper,” he said. No doubt. I loved cranking the volume when mom was out, rattling the windows, challenging the subwoofer. I said I didn’t think she’d really get the full effect without turning it up to house-shaking decibels. I’m told babies have very sensitive hearing. He agreed and after making a few other suggestions, among them Beethoven, Chopin and Kenny Loggins (the theme from Footloose). They all went on the list.
Over the weeks, I added a few of my own desert island songs to the list. “Pictures of You” by The Cure. “Windmills” by Toad the Wet Sprocket. “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns ‘n Roses. Duke Ellington and Count Basie’s version of “Take the A Train.” I wrote down NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” on the off chance that someone peeked at the list. Friends suggested “Tangled Up in Blue” by Dylan, “Stairway to Heaven” and I’m pretty sure I also included the “Imperial March” from Star Wars. I added “a Huey Lewis song, probably from the Fore album.” Why were any of these ideas better than another? For each song that I omitted, I added two more. One full page of titles spilled onto a second. The concept became an obsession. I stopped discussing it because the more people talked, the more confused I felt, the more I came to believe that the whole idea was just part of my obsession with the place of music, movies and literature in our lives. I hate the idea of owning digital music and reading digital books because there’s no romance without cover art or the weight and physical attachment to a novel – holding it in your hands and feeling the weight of the paper in your hand, noting the font style of the liner notes. Clearly I had issues; this idea wasn’t just going away. This was important – as important as anything I could offer this child in her first weeks of life when she was either hungry or not, sitting in a filthy diaper or sitting in a diaper she was about to make filthy.
As the due date grew nearer my anxiety over the decision increased as did my growing disbelief that I was going to be a father at all. Who thought it was a good idea to put me in charge of shaping a young mind if all I could obsess over in the months leading up to her birth was the first song she’d ever hear outside the womb? Some literature suggested that babies can hear and remember sounds, music and voices while inside the womb from the sixth month on. God knows what her mother listened to during that time at work, in the car. I bet there was Def Leppard. Ugh. The more I fretted over those three months prior to birth the more nightmare versions of my eventual thirteen-year-old daughter’s playlist flashed in my mind. Each one contained a greater percentage of recording “artists” discovered by American Idol. She’d be one of those people responsible for the success of the Black Eyed Peas or rather the 2021 version of the Black Eyed Peas. My wife noted my increasing negativity. While my wife has developed a pretty decent taste in music, she considers this side of me abrasive and unfit for mixed company. Under her tutelage I have learned to keep most of these comments in check, but sometimes they still rise to the surface and lately I’d become a science fair volcano project.
“You can force her to listen to your iPod,” she’d said, covering her ripened eight-month belly with the palms of her hand. “But you can’t make her like it.”
“If she doesn’t know anything but good music, she won’t like the crap,” I said.
“How do you think your dad felt when you started listening to all that rap music?”
“That’s different. He just doesn’t get it. Plus he’s generally cranky and close-minded when he’s unfamiliar with something.”
She smiled and walked away.
“I know you’re trying to make some kind of parallel here, but this is completely different. The Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest… these are exceptional musical artists. They’re not just rappers. I could go on. I mean we’d have to wait a while to introduce her to some other stuff like Public Enemy, but there are plenty of ‘PG’ rappers out there in the meantime…” my voice trailed off.
She’d left the room, her point already made. Even though I’d lost the heart for this argument. She didn’t need to like rap or jazz. I don’t necessarily listen to country music but I can identify rubbish of any genre. She just needed to dislike bad music of all kinds. I’d become bogged down in the semantics of one particular genre. The same went for jazz and classical and metal and indie rock and post-rock and trip hop and breakbeat and drum and bass. She had to start with the good – the great even – so that she’d understand when something was rubbish.
“Do you have the iPod?” I asked my wife as I ushered her toward the car just after midnight on that Monday morning. Other than “that” look, she didn’t respond. I eased her into the passenger seat. She was trying to breathe. I was stuck on the song.
“I still don’t have it, my song,” I said. “What am I going to do?”
She glanced up at me. I knew the look. I shut up and closed the door.
36 hours after her labor began I held a screaming baby girl. Three hours after that we were all resting in the Labor Recovery Room. I’d downgraded from a comfortable cushioned-bench to the bastard offspring of a recliner and a Murphy bed. I’d already set up my iPod speakers, but I wasn’t thinking about “the song” and oddly enough I wasn’t even thinking about the squirming, swaddled sardine in the pink cap awaiting her first impressions of the world. All I could think about was rest. Rest for my wife and then hopefully rest for me. She’d undergone the most horrific and painful ordeal of her life and I’d had to witness it. Mental versus physical scarring. Later I’d equate the passing of the placenta to a Salvador Dalí clock. So she was recovering and I was recovering, but she was still enjoying the benefits of the drugs she’d been given during labor. It should be noted that none of the labor had gone to plan. We’d done our breathing classes and our birthing classes with the intent of being drug-free. One thing lead to another and the anesthesiologist rolled out a full cocktail. Finally I began to wind down. I just needed a little winding down music. I reached over my shoulder and powered on the speakers. I hit the iPod scroll button, scanning my list of artists, searching for that perfect choice. Every moment has a perfect song, that perfect soundtrack. Midway through the “B” section I’d found my choice. A little down-tempo piano jazz. I selected Bill Evans and hit play on the first song from the album “Conversations with Myself.” The introspective nature of the title, I thought, fit perfectly with the kind of soul-searching I’d been doing. It was a little progressive, a little classical jazz. During my senior year in college it’d been on regular rotation during those late, late hours.
Then the little sardine chortled or croaked or whatever it was you call these newborn sounds. Only then did I realize what I’d just done. Months of preparation and debate had come down to unconscious decisiveness. Her first song wasn’t going to be the origin of rap music. Her first song wasn’t going to be a childhood favorite, a bombastic piece of classical music or a metal ballad that helped me survive those difficult middle school years. It was going to be a little piece of piano jazz called “‘Round Midnight” from an album best known for Evans’ then controversial experimentation with overdubbing – the process by which more audio tracks from the same artist are layered over each other. The album is difficult and often inaccessible, but it’s always felt like important music to me – even before I knew anything about the controversy or how Evans’ had been struggling with drugs and poor record sales before its release in 1963. It was one of those pieces of jazz music that just fell into place when I was first building my jazz IQ even though I didn’t fully understand it. I couldn’t have picked a better song or planned it any better.
My daughter won’t remember this song, but I will… because music always grounds these moments into a particular place and time. Bill Evans wasn’t planned. “‘Round Midnight” would never have been considered for the list, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I love Conversations With Myself but I can’t fully explain why. And in that room, in those first moments after my daughter was born I fell in love with the idea of being a parent because, as I’d only just begun to understand, nothing would ever really go to plan.