One day, granddaughter Lily was in the storeroom rearranging the Liquid Abstracts Prints Inventory for our zone913.com website, when I realized she was listening to one of my iTunes playlists. Well, that's unusual for a teenager, so I asked her why she was listening to that particular one, and she answered that she liked it.
I explained the playlist was part of my life's soundtrack. I told her once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, popular music was only accessible through AM radio, and then later FM radio, and then I began purchasing my first vinyl records, then tapes and finally CDs. I explained that I process information visually, so when an AM station released a new tune that rang my bell, I always remembered exactly where I was when I first heard it, creating a visual image of the scene accompanied by the song. Now, even with immediate access to the world's music, I continue to play the mental image when I hear an exceptional old tune or create a new image for new tune during a magical moment. Click!
She looked down the playlist and pointed to Like a Virgin, by Madonna. Really? "Absolutely," I said. "Our first year working in Guatemala, we based ourselves in Antigua. When we weren't out in the field, and while Victoria was writing, I would walk around town taking photos. Antigua was the original capital of Spain's Central American empire, before being destroyed by an earthquake and mud slide. A popular Guatemala City radio station kept playing Like a Virgin, by someone called Madonna, and we would hear it over and over in Antigua, blaring from market tiendas, restaurants, buses and houses. We even heard it playing in remote Mayan villages high in the central highlands — in fact, we heard it everywhere we went in Guatemala. One afternoon towards sunset, I was approaching Antigua's picturesque arch, with the towering Hunaphu volcano perfectly framed in the background, when a sudden shaft of sunlight broke through the haze of the wood smoke. The picture-perfect scene was accompanied by Like a Virgin ringing out from some place. Click! A new visual mage with a soundtrack. Even today, whenever I hear that song, I still smell wood smoke."
Laughing, she pointed to Carey by Joni Mitchell. "That's an easy one. I first heard Joni Mitchell's Carey, describing her experiences living in the caves on the Greek island of Crete, when I was living in the same caves on the Greek island of Crete, two years later. Click! Talk about déjà vu all over again."
Next, Ghost Dance by Robbie Robertson came up on the playlist. "We spent a year working on a book project about the Sacred Buffalo, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota," I told her. "Late one night, Ghost Dance was playing while we were driving through the Badlands under a full moon. It was the same area where the Lakota medicine man we were living with told us the original Ghost Dances took place. Quite a few déjà vus all over again with that one."
Lily's face got a puzzled look over Colorado by The Flying Burrito Brothers. "I was hitching a ride in the back of a 1952 Ford pick up truck, leaving Boulder on my way to JFK, to fly to Europe. The sun was setting, the mountains were in silhouette, and I had no idea what was going to happen," I told her. "At that time, the song's lyrics didn't help much either. 'I left your mountains to try life on the road...Colorado I wanna come home,' were not the most encouraging words for starting out on an adventure. But it was a beautiful image and soundtrack, and I did come home a year later."
I was beginning to suspect this was Lily's elaborate ploy to get out of work, but she was enjoying it, so we continued on with Don't You (Forget About Me), by Simple Minds. "While we were working in southern Nicaragua, I was injured and had to be smuggled out to Costa Rica, where I spent the next four days flat on my back, waiting for connections to be made to fly us out. Each afternoon at 4:00 pm, a San José radio station would play this song on its top 20 hits program. Being heavily sedated, it became a beacon of joy that I looked forward to hearing each afternoon. Click! Even the flight out was surreal, when the nearly-empty plane made an unscheduled stop in Managua, Nicaragua, and suddenly filled to capacity with people leaving the country."
I warned there was going to be only one last song, so she picked Host of Seraphim by Dead Can Dance. "This song has been a soundtrack for me on so many adventures, it has its own file folder in my mind. One memorable visual occurred in the smallest, yet by far the most powerful, of the three pyramids of Giza — the Pyramid of Menkaure. We had settled into the main chamber right after the pyramid opened, and sat undisturbed for at least an hour. When I heard faint voices approaching our location, I was about to inform Victoria, but then they receded and it became quiet again. I was sitting there, listening to Host of Seraphim playing through my earphones, when a deep voiced 'Om' permeated the chamber, startling us out of our meditations. Standing in the doorway, a white-clad Egyptian guard, was chanting 'Om,' crossing his arms in the Pharaonic manner, with tears streaming down his cheeks. Click! Puzzled, we stood up, and then the guard embraced us. He instructed us how to exit the chamber — walking backward. It was he who had kept the other visitors away from us. At the entrance, we embraced again and went on our way, wondering what exactly had just happened."
Lily pleaded for one more song, as only a granddaughter can, asking what a Lohengrin was. "Lohengrin is a Wagnerian opera about the pursuit of the Holy Grail. For six winters, I lived in a small, isolated cabin in the mountains, three miles from the highway, and from mid-November to mid-March, I had to ski in and out through deep snow. One night, it was after 1:00 am when I was returning from a day of teaching in Boulder. It was so cold I felt like I was standing inside a crystal-clear wall of ice. There was a full moon, and a couple inches of newly fallen snow made the world sparkle bright in the moonlight. It was beyond magical. Then, about halfway in, I noticed coyote tracks in the snow. There appeared to be three or four of them, and I could hear them howling at the moon ahead of me. They were the same coyotes whose tracks I had seen all winter when they walked through my meadow every few days. I decided to announce my presence to them, so I stopped skiing to press the play button on a cassette player in the top of my backpack. The music cued was the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, when the Holy Grail descends on Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal. The coyotes stopped howling, as I'm sure they had never before heard Wagner. The music erupted with the crash of cymbals as the Grail was finishing its descent, just as I was turning into my meadow. Click! When I reached the cabin, the thermometer was as low as it could go — 30 degrees below zero."
"Cool" she said smiling, and I replied "No, cold!"
I explained to Lily that when I was her age, nothing was (and still is) more liberating than driving the open highway on a road trip, with the wind in your face and your own soundtrack blasting.
It was now late afternoon. The kid hadn't accomplished much work, but we agreed to do this again sometime.
I wondered if anyone else has a life soundtrack.
Text and Collage: © David Björkman