Last week I saw a documentary that rocked my world. It was called Alive Inside, and it shared the true stories of elderly patients in nursing homes (some suffering from dementia, schizophrenia and other ailments) who were awakened from their dormant states by music.
I’ve always thought that music had the power to get to parts of our soul that regular words couldn’t reach, but it was nice to be validated by famed neurologist Oliver Sacks, who explains in the film why that is true.
The magic of seeing these individuals burst with life after just a few notes of songs that they once had a connection to made me remember hearing stories of coma patients waking after hearing songs that meant something to them. And then it dawned on me: would my friends and family know what to play for me if I was in a horrible accident that resulted in a coma; or if I live to be 100 and become unresponsive, will my nephews’ children or grandchildren know what to play to revive me?
I spoke about this with my mother the next day and she said she’d probably respond best to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” because she danced to it incessantly in her youth. It brings nothing but good memories for her (many of which she began spilling out to me that very moment) so she’s sure she’d recognize it.
She guessed right that songs by U2 and The Beatles would be my strongest triggers, but we both agreed that we should make lists that represent different parts of our lives if the unthinkable should happen. So, that’s just what I did.
Here’s a key to unlock the reasoning behind my playlist titled “A Coma,” presented in chronological order, from birth to present. I chose songs that I still have a visceral reaction to when I hear them, no matter what the context. It’s a solid list that I plan on adding to as the years go by.
Let’s hope you never have to use it.
Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles is my first music memory. When buying my first Beatles cassette, I chose Revolver, and my sister and I listened to it start to finish, over and over. I could not have been more than 6 years old. She taught me how to sing melodies with this song (me taking the high parts as she sang the lower ones). I developed such a clear vision of Eleanor in my mind’s eye, I can still see her when I hear this haunting, tragic, beautiful tune. Cue the violins.
On One One by Cheap Trick is the title track of a great album by a great band that my sister and her friends listened to ad nauseam when they were in high school. Because I did my best to tag along, I also became a fan and developed a mad crush on lead singer Robin Zander. I love them (and him) to this day.
I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues by Elton John represents the first time I ever remember yelling at my mother. MTV was a few years old and VCRs were not yet in every household (including ours), so if you missed a video when it came on, chances were you may not see it again for a few days. I heard the first notes of this song playing on the TV no one was watching and ran into the living room to see it. My mom had been calling for me to clean something up or help her in the kitchen and I shushed her, which she did not appreciate, so she marched over to the TV and turned it off. I got so angry I shouted at her as tears welled up in my eyes. “I’m gonna miss it! Dang it, mom! Turn it back on!!!” Being that I was just 8 years old at the time, she looked at me with a mixture of horror and amazement and told me to calm down. By the time I convinced her to turn it back on and promised to do whatever she wanted me to do immediately after, it was over. I held a grudge. And she began to understand what music meant to me.
Hair — The Original Broadway Cast Recording represents one of the first plays I ever remember seeing my sister in, at her (our) high school. She had to bring home a cassette tape and play back the songs to learn them, and since we shared a room, I learned them too. I was glued to the musical and energized by the actors, fantasizing that I’d play Sheila someday. I didn’t really have the desire to act, but I could sing, so I figured I could pull it off. I still dream of seeing the production on Broadway.
The Seventh Stranger by Duran Duran features Simon’s voice hitting some very low, sexy notes. I’ve been in lust with Simon for many years, and this song is one that stayed with me long after childhood, even becoming the basis for my first screenplay. I play it mostly on rainy Sundays.
Back to the Future by Alan Silvestri reminds me of my favorite childhood movie, and it’s the film to this day I’ve seen more than any other (at last count it was something like 122 times, no joke). It was the first movie I saw more than once in the theater (movies were a luxury, after all) and my warmest memory of it was when we went to see it for a third time on my 10th birthday. It was my mom, my grandma, me and a friend, and we all enjoyed every minute, then when we left the theater a light dusting of snow covered the ground. It was nothing short of magic. The crisp, beautiful air acting as nature’s coda to a perfect evening.
One More Try by George Michael represents my middle school years, the hardest of my life, when my sister had gone off to college and married, and my dad decided we had to move away from the house I’d grown up in to a rougher area where we could afford property. I was devastated and every night to try to put myself to sleep, I listened to the album Faith. This was usually the song that I finally drifted off to, on the nights I actually slept.
Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2 was a song that I knew as a small child, but didn’t fully grasp until high school. For nearly a year, every day on the way to and from school, I listened to the War album, and this was of course, the first song. It seemed to bring out the good (strong) Irish part of me.
Travelin’ Man by Ricky Nelson was pure joy. When my best friend Jen got her driver’s license, we made regular trips to Dairy Queen and TCBY for treats, always laughing and singing along the way. We did a hula car dance to this song, which was part of Jen’s regular car stereo repertoire.
Squeeze Box by The Who will always remind me of my first taste of independence. On a hot July day in 1992, I packed my things and ‘relocated’ to Washington, D.C. for a summer journalism workshop that taught me so much more than AP style. I made lifelong friends, discovered the thrill of air travel alone and realized that I needed to broaden my horizon farther than Portland. On one of the late nights in the dorms at GW University where we stayed, Jeff hosted Aaron, Lauren and I in his room for a blast through what was on his stereo at the time and this is one we all sang along to, not caring if we woke the neighbors.
Sea of Love by The Honeydrippers came out when I was in elementary school, but like so many other songs, I had to grow up before it hit me. On a dreary day in high school when I was daydreaming about the wedding I was going to have, I decided that this would be the song I walked down the aisle to because of its perfect intro. Though I haven’t married (yet), I hold out hope that someday I will and I still think it would be ideal.
Cowboys and Angels by George Michael is another song with an amazing intro. There is so much to it, yet it always seems to be over too soon. This song is calming and healing in so many ways, I pull it out of my arsenal whenever I need to reflect.
Dear Prudence by The Beatles was the song I was listening to the first day I was free. The day after my mom and her cousin dropped me off at the University of Missouri-Columbia to start my new life, and the afternoon that Lauren and I separated to go shopping and run errands before classes began the following week. The first time I was all by myself without anyone expecting me to check in and report my whereabouts, I put on my headphones and started walking across campus to learn about my new surroundings. The sun was out, the sky was blue, I was thrilled and I was terrified.
#9 Dream by John Lennon was playing the day Brendan and I went with David and Ann, his friends visiting from Kansas City, to Finger Lakes State Park in Columbia. The conversation was lively and lighthearted, but with Brendan driving and the sun beaming in on my passenger seat, I was content in a way that I had never been before. I was all grown up. I fell into somewhat of a trance as I listened to Lennon above the din of our happy outing and had to be snapped out of it upon arrival to the little patch of nature where we spent the afternoon. It was divine.
Wintertime Love by The Doors holds another good memory of my time with Brendan at MU. We had gone to the movies late one night in the winter of 1994 and were waiting for the shuttle back to our dorm from the parking lot where we left his car. We heard a loud sound and looked toward the woods to see at least 20 or 30 deer leaping in unison across the way. We both froze and watched them, looking at each other to confirm what we’d seen. It was one of the most majestic scenes I’ve ever witnessed; these amazing animals charging across the backdrop of a dark purple sky, disappearing into a cluster of bushes and low trees. We said nothing on the way back, and as we landed back in his room, he played this song as we sipped hot drinks to warm up.
It’s All Too Much by The Beatles reminds me of my 20th birthday. I spent it with Brendan at his parents’ house in Kansas City, and since it was Thanksgiving weekend, we were around his extended family for most of the time, but he made sure that one night we got to celebrate, just the two of us. He took me to my favorite Japanese steakhouse where I (illegally) sipped a Mai Tai (he could order it because he was a year older) and then we drove around and looked at Christmas lights. When we returned home, I stayed upstairs with his parents while he and his brother wrapped my gift in the basement, carrying it up the stairs to me ceremoniously. This song was playing as I opened his mom’s laundry basket (a trick to make me think it was something huge) to find the Sgt. Pepper watch I’d been coveting at the bottom, tucked into its wooden guitar-shaped case. I practically burst with happiness.
Heart-Shaped Box by Nirvana doesn’t bring up happy memories, but it’s a moment in time I’ll never forget. I’d come home from class at MU and heard Nirvana playing as I passed several rooms to get to my own. I went downstairs to Nick and Brendan’s floor (where we all hung out) and people were crying, watching MTV. I ducked into my friend Scott’s room and saw Kurt Loder break down and pronounce Kurt Cobain dead. I went across the street to where Brendan was working to see how he took the news (he was upset, but not surprised); I called Jeff in his room at Brandeis, as I knew he’d be affected as well. He was in shock. I went back downstairs to be near friends and watched the biggest Nirvana fan I knew completely melt down and slam his door to the world in a fit of tears. This song was playing. It would continue to play in the weeks that followed.
The Unforgettable Fire by U2 symbolizes the first time I left the country by myself. At age 25 I ventured to Ireland to see the band perform at Slane Castle and had somewhat of a religious experience. Because U2 had recorded this album there so many years ago, it was the one I listened to most in preparation for the trip, and the one that helped me heal when I returned, after losing my beloved Grandmother and enduring 9/11 just a few days after I landed on American soil.
Scenes From An Italian Restaurant is my favorite Billy Joel song. In the early 2000s my life was taking a new shape in Seattle and I often daydreamed my way out of my problems. I listened to this song almost daily on my bus ride to work and its characters came alive so vividly for me that when I saw them represented in the theatrical production of Movin’ Out in 2004, I felt like they got them all wrong. I’ve itched to write a screenplay about them ever since. Brenda and Eddie would be played by Bobby Cannavale and Annabeth Gish. Stay tuned.
Where The Streets Have No Name (Live Version) by U2 is the song that gives everyone goosebumps. I was never a big fan of the studio version (still am not, to be frank), but there is something about feeling the opening notes of this song live, and absorbing the energy of the crowd, that raises the hairs on the back of my neck. It’s something that shouldn’t be described; only experienced.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (Live 8 Version) by Paul McCartney and U2 brings back one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. My sister and I were in Hyde Park in London, watching the monitors as our favorite living band, along with a Beatle, ascended the stage to perform together. The crowd was electric, the vibe was peaceful and I was about as sonically happy as I’ll ever be. Brilliant, as the Brits say.
First Day Of My Life by Bright Eyes was the first time a man had ever chosen “a song” for me, to represent us as a couple. The sincere lyrics, the unassuming guitar, the gorgeous voice — all meant to symbolize our feelings, which were more intense than anything I’d ever experienced up to that point. My love for said boy soared, my joy became euphoric; my tears stung like a thousand wasps when he broke my heart months later. I couldn’t listen to it for years, and I still prefer not to, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still feel it to the core.
Hero by Family of the Year is the song I presently can’t stop listening to, the main theme from the film Boyhood. Though the narrator of the song is male, it’s stayed with me as I’ve struggled with some decisions about how to move my life forward. Its themes universal, its chords simple, its message profound.