According to my credit card statements, I’ve spent over $1,000 at my local coffee shop since January. So I’m there a lot. It’s called Kura Kuma, a tiny four-table jewel in Morningside Heights, a block from my house. It’s full of nearby Manhattan School of Music students so the conversation is usually hilarious (OMG, he didn’t even know what opus it was!) and the soundtrack is pretty great, a mix of artists like Banks and Grimes and others like Britten and Gould. So I was shocked when I walked in this morning to hear Elton John belting, “This boy’s too young to be singing the blues.”
It turned out to be from a playlist John, a 20-year-old barista whose favorite shirt is of a cat with lasers for eyes, made of songs his father played for him. I didn’t know how old John was until the following song, “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None The Richer. Two things were shocking about this: a) I remember hearing the song as an independent adult (though it turns out I was 16 when it came out); and b) What a weird song for a father to play for his son.
My father didn’t put on the music as background noise. He turned it up, way up. And told my sister and me to keep our voices way down.
An entire relationship blossomed in my mind as I drank my macchiato. John’s father, perhaps, putting the three-year old John to sleep, singing quietly to himself, “Kiss me out of the bearded barley.” Quelle tendresse.
Then I began to think of the songs my father played for me.
In point of fact, I don’t remember my father ever playing “songs” for me. He played “pieces.” He, like his father before him, was a classical music fanatic. And, like his father before him, a chief engineer for Delco, loved cars. The only memories I have of music and my father are driving around in his old gray Pontiac, listening to Philadelphia’s classical music station, WRTI. Later, after he had a midlife crisis and left the family, he’d trade in the Pontiac for a Corvette, but the station never changed.
My father didn’t just put on the music as we drove from point A to point B as background noise. He turned it up, way up, and told my sister and me to keep our voices way down. And classical music pieces are long, very long. I remember works by Brahms stretching into hours, what felt to a six-year-old as days. And as he drove, he’d pump his fist back and forth, usually to the grand gestures of the string or woodwind sections of the orchestra. Sitting shotgun, I looked out the window to other motorists, trying to communicate wordlessly that yes, I knew he looked crazy but no, please don’t call the cops. He’s my father.
But even more discomfiting than the forced in-transit concert going silent were the molasses minutes spent after we had arrived wherever it was we were going but the piece had not yet finished. See, another terrifying aspect of my father’s music is that he would ask my sister and I to identify the composer. Rebecca, who was two years older than I was, was quite good at this. But I, at only six, had a decidedly mixed track record. To be honest, I had no idea. If it was angry, I’d say Beethoven. If it was prissy, I’d say Mozart. If it was boring, I’d say Brahms.
And then we’d wait, and wait, and wait. Sitting in a garage, waiting for a partita to end; or at the grocery store, just willing that the audience applause might yield to an announcer’s dull voice: That was the Berlin Philharmonic with Mahler’s Symphony Number 9, Herbert von Karajan conducting. Sure, it wasn’t Brahms but finally, we could leave the car.
I have two sons now. One, Auggie, is nine months old, and his music taste is quite catholic. He’s just a happy kid, actually, so whether he’s listening to Debussy or Death From Above 1979, he’s all smiles. But his brother, Achilles, who is two-and-a-half, has a very discerning ear. So what do I play for him, what melodies to worm musical pathways into his mind?
When he was younger and needed to be held, there was a lot of Big Star’s “Thirteen” going on. It’s easy to sing and easy to sway to. Ditto Billy Joel’s “Vienna”, an overlooked masterpiece, and Harry Nilsson’s “One.” But now that he’s older, he’s much more into dancing. We try to have a family dance party at least once a week.
The current rotation includes Loose Joints’ 1983 hit “Tell You (Today),” which incidentally has some of the best whistling in a no-wave New York disco song I’ve heard, anything from Paul Simon’s Graceland and “Nao Enche,” by Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso. We’ve experimented with some choice Hall & Oates (“Fall in Philadelphia,” for instance) and select songs from Daft Punk. But these have had mixed results.
If Achilles wants it off, I turn it off.
Because ultimately, as I remembered, a father listening to music with his son is not nearly as important as a father just listening to his son.