Nostalgia Sounds Good
Late spring brought with it a wave of melancholy. Outside, there was a thunderstorm starting. I opened my window, hoping that the cool air from the storm would relieve some of the late-May heat that was stagnant in my un-airconditioned room. I took a seat on the floor, resting my back against the end of my bed frame, and let out an audible sigh. The curtain on my window slowly billowed while I aimlessly picked pieces of lint from my carpet and placed them in a small pile beside me. I was having a bad day. It was one of those days where the weight of the world felt heavier, the isolation felt lonelier, the sadness felt more palpable, and I, unable to change or escape the present reality, felt claustrophobic within my own mind. I lounged back on my carpet, put on my headphones, and hit shuffle.
Track #1: At Last – Etta James
My parents had an Etta James greatest hits CD that they played frequently from the large stereo that sat under the window in the back of my childhood living room. The stereo had a five disk changer and two external speakers. I can remember the slight click the machine would make when my dad hit the power switch and the subtle static sound that would come from the speakers before a song began playing. Sometimes, I’d place my hand on the front of one of the speakers just to feel the vibrations of the music.
When I was really young, I loved to dance and sing along to whatever was playing from the stereo. I’d twirl around on the carpet in my bare feet, belting my version of the lyrics. Or, sometimes, I’d stand on my dad’s feet, hugging his legs as we glided across the living room, the side of my cheek pressed against the rough denim of his pant leg. When I grew tired, I’d sit down on the living room rug and trace the outline of the rug’s pattern with my fingers while I listened to the music.
My little sister would usually join me for the dance sessions. One time she twirled so much she made herself dizzy and fell to the floor, and the side of her face hit the corner of the coffee table on the way down, leaving a small gash near her temple, which, after a trip to the ER, eventually healed and scarred.
Track #2: Wasteland, Baby! – Hozier
My sister is a great singer, a trait she inherited from our dad, but she’s never had a desire to sing publicly. We used to have an iHome in our bathroom, and she’d plug in her iPod Nano whenever she took a shower, blasting and singing along to her latest playlist. Even now as a 23-year-old, most of her activities are accompanied by music. Ariana Grande and Whitney Houston play when she cooks. In the fall, she listens to Fleetwood Mac and Ray LaMontagne. In the spring, it’s Lake Street Dive and Maggie Rogers. She listens to Bruce Springsteen or The Chicks when she’s feeling nostalgic, Van Morrison and The Lumineers when she’s sad, and Beyonce and Dua Lipa when she’s feeling like a bad bitch.
She’s always had a knack for finding music. In 2014, she discovered music by a young Irish singer named Hozier. Before the world tours and stadium concerts, she was listening to his debut album, remaining a loyal fan into her adulthood. During her senior year of college, my parents gave her two tickets to his upcoming concert for Christmas and she asked me to go with her. The concert was in March of 2019 at an old theater in Baltimore. We stood the entire time, dancing, singing, and swaying along to every song. My sister, never taking her eyes off the stage, would occasionally pause and tuck a piece of hair behind her ear, exposing the small scar still visible next to her eye.
This song is about watching the world end with someone you love, and that someone is completely unaware of what’s happening around them, Hozier said before playing Wasteland, Baby! One year before our own little apocalypse, we were both happily and blissfully unaware of what was up ahead.
Track #3: I Think Ur A Contra – Vampire Weekend
My mom always says “you don’t have to like your siblings, you just have to love them.” This phrase is most commonly directed towards me or my second oldest brother about the other. Our similar personalities and closeness in age comes with frequent conflict, which became worse in our teen years when our friend groups began to overlap. One time in high school, my brother walked into a party to find I was already there talking to one of his friends and sipping a beer. “You have to leave now or I’m going to tell mom you were at a party drinking underage,” he said to me while also at a party drinking underage. “You’re here too,” I snapped back. A few months later, we went to a Vampire Weekend concert together. It was the first concert I ever attended without an adult chaperone. We spent the whole night enjoying the concert together, never once bickering. It’s always been that way for us and our relationship–the highs are some of my best memories and the lows are just really low.
He and I went to the same college where we both studied English. Sometimes, we’d meet for happy hour after class and talk about our favorite professors, or spend too much time analyzing excerpts of Finnegans Wake. Since the lockdown began, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking back on those moments and wondering when I stopped understanding him, or when he stopped understanding me, and whether we’d ever understand each other again. And I realized in that moment that my mom was right–I didn’t really like my big brother right now, but I’ll always love him.
Track #5: Wide Open Spaces – The Dixie Chicks
My mom hums all the time. Usually, you can locate her whereabouts in the house by following her humming. Sometimes it’s a specific song, other times it’s an original tune. The kitchen in my childhood home had a small, white cd player. It was mounted underneath one of the cabinets, typically with a stack of CDs below it. The CD player seemed to always be on, playing the choice music of whoever was in the kitchen at the time. For my mom, it was usually Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett, or the Dixie Chicks (now known as The Chicks).
I can remember walking to our backdoor from the swingset at the far end of the yard and the music from the kitchen would become louder and louder the closer I got. By the time I reached the back porch, I’d be able to clearly hear my mom singing or humming along to whatever was playing. Hearing the creak of the screen door as I opened it, my mom would look up from whatever project she was working on, smile, and greet me. I’d plop down on a kitchen chair and ask if she could fix my hair, which was messy from hours running around outside in the heat and humidity. She’d say yes, and I’d sit and wait while she finished up whatever she was in the middle of. Depending on the project, my wait would vary. Sometimes she’d just be doing the dishes or cooking, other times she would be ripping up flooring, re-painting the trim, installing cabinetry, or potting plants. Eventually, she’d grab a comb and detangler spray, still humming behind me as she worked through the knots in my hair. When she was done, I’d turn around and she’d smile as she tucked any stray pieces behind my ears, then send me off with a kiss on the forehead. I’d thank her and run out the door, hearing her remind me not to slam the door just as the screen door would slam shut behind me. “Sorry!” I’d shout, running barefoot through the grass away from the house. The music from the kitchen would become more faint with every step until, eventually, I couldn’t hear it at all.
Track #6: Fearless – Taylor Swift
The moment he got his driver’s license, my eldest brother became the family chauffeur. Especially on the weekends, he was tasked with shuttling his siblings around in our Honda Odyssey. The upside for him was that he was able to drive around and listen to music. The downside for us was that my brother has always had a tendency to fixate on one artist, band, or album at a time. If he were in a Janis Joplin phase, Janis Joplin would be the only music he played for weeks, sometimes months, until he decided to move onto something new. His music taste is extremely eclectic, so you never knew what exactly you’d be getting yourself into when you slid open the side door of the minivan. One month it would be Lady Gaga, the next it would be Led Zeppelin, followed by The Beastie Boys, then the B-52’s, then Tom Waits, Amy Winehouse, The White Stripes, David Bowie, Eminem, Bob Marley–the list goes on. He had more knowledge of music than anyone I’ve ever known. Sometimes, he’d turn down the volume knob on the radio before saying “Did you know…” and presenting some fun fact or anecdote about the artist or song we were listening to.
One day, my brother picked me up from school and I opened the passenger side door to discover he had moved onto a new artist. I paused a moment before climbing into the car, not believing what I was hearing. There was my 19-year-old brother, six feet tall with broad shoulders that somehow made him look even taller, wearing a Van Halen t-shirt, a small gold hoop earring, and dark, wayfarer sunglasses, while blasting Taylor Swift from my mom’s minivan. I needed to make sure my ears weren’t deceiving me. “Are you listening to Fearless?” I asked. “Yeah!” he replied. “Great album.”
A week before the pandemic lockdown began, I picked my brother up from his rowhouse in Baltimore. We were going to a local brewery. It was his first outing in almost two months. My brother is a steel worker and, in late January, a 2000 pound steel beam fell off a forklift and crushed his legs. He had recently undergone his third surgery and was cleared for a field trip. I helped him into the back seat of my car, loaded his wheelchair and walker into my trunk and, after double checking that had taken his medication, hit play on my Spotify and pulled away from the house. “Fool in the Rain” was the first song to come on. “Are you listening to Led Zeppelin?” he asked. “Yeah!” I said. “Great song.” “Do you know what it’s about?” I asked. He did, of course.
Track #7: Waitin’ On A Sunny Day – Bruce Springsteen
“Sun shower” is the term my family has always used to describe those types of rain storms that occur when the sun is still shining bright. In the summer of 2002, Bruce released The Rising. Track #3, “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day,” was my favorite at the time, primarily because the opening line reminded me of a sun shower: It’s rainin’ but there ain’t a cloud in the sky. But the line that followed–must’ve been a tear from your eye– always confused me. My 7-year-old mind couldn’t yet grasp the metaphorical language. I was entranced by the sun shower imagery and the upbeat melody.
My dad and I were driving to the neighborhood pool one afternoon that same summer. My dad, in the driver’s seat, placed The Rising CD into his walkman, which was connected to his car’s radio through a cassette adapter. I requested track #3 from the backseat. With my hand out the window, I quietly sang along to the lyrics while feeling the warm breeze gently hit my palm as my dad drove. I hadn’t realized he’d turned down the music until we reached a stop sign. He looked at me in the backseat through the rearview mirror and, with a slight sense of pride, asked “Do you know all the words?” I think so, I said. He started the song over and listened to me sing the rest of the ride, frequently glancing away from the road and smiling at me through the mirror. When I stumbled or struggled to recall the correct lyrics, he’d chime in and sing-along until I was back on track.
I’m waitin’, waitin’ on a sunny day
Gonna chase the clouds away
Waitin’ on a sunny day
I was pulled back to reality when, through my headphones, I heard a rustling sound. The breeze coming through my window whisked a pile of papers off my desk, and they began dancing around my room, eventually landing beside me on the rug. Outside, the thunder had grown closer. I could hear the rain slapping loudly against the house. A small puddle had accumulated on my windowsill. I stood up and pulled the window closed, and the noise of the storm became distant, leaving me to sit comfortably in the quiet of my mind.