Today is Tell-a-Story Day. It is also what would have been my Pop’s 69th birthday. So it seems highly appropriate to tell a story about him. There are many to choose from, some quirky and delightful, some not so much.
Sometimes, when I’d tell him something strange or fantastic, or if I attempted a fib, he would say, “tell me another one!”, a phrase that actually has a lilting little nursery rhyme tune associated with it (he wasn’t a great singer, so usually skipped the tune): tell me another one, just like the other one, tell me another one please. So here’s one.
Despite his lack of vocal prowess, Pop was both an aspiring musician (banjo, anyone?) and an avid music lover. His music collection – from vinyl to digital – was not so much vast as focused. When he heard something he liked, he wanted to hear it again and again. And again. And yet again. Preferably loud. He would and could play the same song over and over for an entire hour, or even an evening. Listening to music with him was sometimes delightful and sometimes torture. He introduced me to lovely music I’d never heard before, but then, like a terrible AM radio station, could almost ruin it through overplay.
An early memory of this is The Eagles’ Lying Eyes, from the Greatest Hits album, circa 1975. I remember hearing the entire album many times, but more clearly I remember that song being played over again. This was no small accomplishment in 1975: none of today’s “repeat song”, but someone going to the record player and moving the needle back to that little groove in the vinyl, to that first guitar strum.
In later years, the habit was still there. Visiting him in Ottawa once, he played an album by Laura Smith (B’tween The Earth And My Soul), and her haunting version of My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean was a long, repetitive, bedtime prayer, played on repeat until he fell asleep on the couch. When he stayed with me for several days in Vancouver, he’d recently encountered Blue Rodeo, and so we (I and my neighbours) were treated to multiple iterations of Bad Timing (with the occasional ‘Til I Gain Control Again). When he died, a friend of his shared some stories of hers about their friendship, including a time when they were cooking for a big dinner, and he played Joan Baez’ Diamonds and Rust on endless repeat.
It is easy to see themes and patterns in the songs and the behaviour. Rueful, longing, introspective, both apologetic and defiant at once. Also beautiful, simple expressions in melody and harmony, usually with guitar and voice and not much else. And the vain attempt to recapture or re-experience something for the first time. Perhaps like an addiction, trying through more and more of something to experience that first beautiful high. Or perhaps like a tragic quest, knowing you won’t find what you’re looking for, but seeking anyway. It was something he did his whole life: his last playlist included just 13 songs, one of which had been played 17 times.
My earliest memory of this habit of his is of a song poignant and perhaps predictive of the pattern to emerge; from Harry Chapin’s Greatest Stories Live, the song is Circle. There are several songs from that album that were in Pop’s limited repetitive repertoire, but Circle will forever be the one that reminds me of him, with it’s own endless repetitive structure, and lyrics that could have been part of his philosophy:
No straight lines make up my life
And all my roads have bends;
There’s no clear-cut beginnings,
And so far no dead-ends.