September 2009

Katie Henderson


Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives edited by Peter Terzian

In the midst of a deeply settled routine of suburban Seattle housework, roasting chickens, dropping children off at whatever, tucking them into their beds, Claire Dederer reluctantly allowed herself to be dragged to a local performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It's a dynamic show humming with anger and pathos and... drag queens. Instead of the boredom/annoyance she expected to feel when the last note was belted, she actually felt more like herself. The music reached to Dederer across every possible demographic and reminded her of her most vital soul, which had been somewhat buried under the needs of her family. When she attended the final performance of the show she noticed that she was not the only 30-something woman in the crowd. “Some in night-on-the-town dresses, some in Hedwig-inspired wigs, some in sweatshirts spattered with what looks suspiciously like baby spit-up. The women are laughing and singing and crying. The women are standing up. The women are lifting their hands in the air.”

In Peter Terzian's new anthology Heavy Rotation, Claire Dederer is one of many writers who find comfort or invigoration from unexpected music. While her essay, "Bewigged," is slightly unusual -- her musical awakening does not come during adolescence -- it is, nonetheless, an example of the best the book has to offer. Whether it's those ABBA songs we've all heard a thousand times or the rather more obscure stylings of Miaow, describing music is one of the most difficult tasks a writer can undertake. But describing the impact of that music -- this is where the potential for magic lies.

Several themes crop up across many of these essays. One is possession: connecting with a song, album or musician in a way that not only makes the music special, it makes you special for noticing. Alice Elliott Dark's piece, “The Quiet One,” about Meet the Beatles! reveals Dark's deep love for George Harrison, the man who replaced her absent father, who spoke directly to her and to her alone through that album. She “searches for his voice within the harmony, searches for his guitar line, his lead; all you have to do is find the beginning and then it's like pulling a thread, the whole song unravels; you have him, just him, all to yourself.” When Benjamin Kunkel discovered The Smiths' The Queen is Dead he opted not to listen to it with his friends, because “this was music for listening to alone while you lay in awe on your bedroom floor.” And poor Joshua Ferris's heart was broken when the precious little secret he kept to himself, Pearl Jam's Ten, became first a sensation and eventually a cliché.

Predictably, another recurring image is that of the budding badass, born of headphones and attitude, bursting out of oppressive suburban boredom in a genuine, if naïve, attempt at authenticity. According to James Wood, “hearing the Who is both a way of registering life and a way of shaking a fist at it.” When Kate Christensen was a disaffected MFA grad digging into the grit of New York City, she strove for the coolness of Rickie Lee Jones between the office job she resented and the party-girl nightlife waiting at home. Editor Peter Terzian snuck away from his nerdy childhood by cutting class and buying records. There's an exhilaration in so many of these pieces that only that one bit of music can really evoke. What comes across so beautifully in this personal and carefully compiled anthology is that we all have an album that came to us at just the perfect moment and changed everything.

So in the spirit of this book, mine was the soundtrack to Rent. I was 13, living the most sheltered life imaginable in a small New Hampshire town. As I impatiently wiled away the final days before my Big Scary Private School Adventure, I had already found musical theater as an appealing outlet for my many, many emotions. But when I first heard those opening guitar strums on the first disc of the Rent double CD, and those opening words, “December 24th, 9 PM, Eastern Standard Time,” it was like a hand reached inside of me and plucked a chord running right through my middle that I hadn't known was there. Those desperate, lonely, hopeful voices bursting through my stereo, infecting me with lyrics about things I didn't understand (AZT? The Sex Pistols? Carmina Burana?), made me want to run away to New York where I could sing and starve and worship at the altar of Jonathan Larson. That would have to wait until college. In the meantime, I copied down the lyrics in my 8th grade Latin class just to keep myself from belting them. When I moved to New York, I would get rush tickets to the show every few months to rejuvenate and to remember that dirty, soulful optimism. Like so many of the writers in Heavy Rotation, I make no apologies for my somewhat embarrassing first musical love. It found me when I needed it, cheesy or not.

Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives edited by Peter Terzian
Harper Perennial
ISBN: 0061579742
320 pages

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