My father had only a smallish collection of music as I was growing up. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, as it was all the music I knew (except for a few Madonna tapes and that Paula Abdul video with the cartoon cat). My dad’s favourite albums (played obsessively) were Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Paul Simon’s Graceland, Led Zeppelin’s anything, Chris de Burgh’s ballads and (of course) the Beatles. Sometimes I’ll be driving in a car and somebody will pull out Graceland and inevitably people will comment on the fact that I know every single word. But I’d have to, wouldn’t I, after hearing it so many times.
My father has never liked change. Sometime in the late eighties, my mother bought him a kind of windproof leisure suit. It was navy blue with electric blue accents and intended for exercising or for warming up, but it was Dad’s size—he can easily shop at Mr. Big and Tall—and had an elastic waistband, so it became his favourite. He wore it after work, on weekends, when painting the house, even while entertaining guests (much to my mum’s embarrassment).
Eventually, Mum deemed it so “past it” that she absolutely refused to mend its ripped crotch or threadbare elbows ever again. It was condemned to the bin, and I think Dad was quite sad about that. Mum did buy him a replacement suit, but for some time he only eyed it suspiciously. My father, you see, is a Yorkshireman. And like any good Yorkshireman, he tends to think things are usually better left alone. Anything new is suspicious. And so it was with his record collection.
Ironically, for someone who hates change, my father has the most changeable temperament I have ever come across. Like the British weather system, you are never too sure when you might suddenly encounter a chill or a warm front—so you always make sure you have layers. When my dad was feeling cuddly, which wasn’t too often (he is British, after all), he would put on Chris de Burgh, and my sister and I would rest on the sofa with him and listen to the music and he would play with our hair absentmindedly. I still have a soft spot for “The Head and The Heart.”
But when we heard the opening lines of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, we knew Dad was in a darker mood. He would frequently play this one on repeat while doing odd jobs around the house. The portable tape deck (mine) is still splattered with paint. “Hello, Hello,” it would echo through the house, “is anybody out there?” My mum would roll her eyes and Dad would get into a sullen and nostalgic mood. The album brought out memories of being a repressed, British schoolboy, living in tenement houses and having the odds stacked against him. It was not the music that my mum minded so much as the obsessive playing of it and the self-indulgent temper that followed. He would become a bit of a Wall himself.
The Led Zeppelin collection came out when Dad was in a similar, but more hyper mood. Led Zeppelin is one of the only bands I have ever heard him sing along to. He doesn’t sing much, but he is a good whistler. His favourite whistling music was the Beatles, our music of choice on car journeys—because everyone likes the Beatles. I remember us all driving down to Florida in the Crown Victoria and my mum and dad singing along to “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” I wasn’t too sure what “do it” meant, but I was embarrassed because I knew it was something sexy, so I pretended to be asleep. Same with “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (which I had to sing in an elementary school choir).
I remember when I was about six years old and still living in England, and I would dance in the living room in a kind of happy trance, skipping around on the patterns of the rug. I would sing along with Graceland, never thinking of what the words meant: She comes back to tell me she’s gone/ As if I didn’t know that/ As if I didn’t know my own bed/ As if I’d never noticed/ The way she brushed her hair from her forehead.
The songs were about being “human trampolines”—and it sounded fun to me. I loved the album. It wasn’t sad; what was a broken heart, anyway? And the best part was that Dad put it on when he was in a good mood.
So this handful of records and was the soundtrack of my childhood. And the records spun round at the same rate as my dad’s temper—so it turned out to be a good litmus test for his happiness.
About five years ago, Dad got an Enya album (some impulse buy at a chain drugstore). Of course, he grew quite obsessive about that one, too. We all laughed at him, but we liked the relaxing effect the calming, New Age hippy music had on Dad.
This past Christmas, we bought Dad a record player, and we have all been happily buying new records at used stores, getting some new stuff to listen to at Christmas. My younger brother Jack has been telling my dad about the White Stripes and the Darkness. But Dad tells Jack that the White Stripes have been all the rage in the UK for some time and he knows all about them. Jack has been digging through Dad’s old records and is really into the Led Zeppelin and Supertramp. “This shit’s awesome,” he tells me. I guess some things change and some don’t.
Poppy Wilkinson is managing editor at Maisonneuve Magazine. Paul Winner returns next time. The Score appears every second Monday.