I recently watched a beautiful but devastating documentary about the power of music, in particular its effect on dementia patients. In the film, Alive Inside, dementia sufferers are temporarily brought back to animated, lucid life -- not with medication, but with an iPod.
Listening to music specific to important times in their lives triggered emotional reactions and memories long inaccessible. According to the film, "Music ... takes you to a place where you can leave your regimen, and go off in a world that you create and you connect with on your own terms."
I'm a mother, not a dementia patient, and forgive the leap. But having three children under 5 means my life is dictated by a regimen: one of constant responsibility and reaction. It's easy to forget myself, to reduce the other things that make me tick to luxuries and indulgences.
Music was important to me from childhood, be it driving with my dad listening to John Denver or spending lazy Sundays with my mom, listening to Irish radio. My family's vacations usually entailed long car trips, during which each of us -- my mom, dad, sister, and I -- would each take turns playing music we loved on our Volvo's cassette deck.
This tradition continued even when my tastes moved away from theirs, including a heavy metal phase, which, according to a recent study, means I'm successful and well adjusted. I loved Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne in particular, and when Ozzy was touring with Motley Crue when I was 15 years old, I was desperate to go.
This was the late '80s, when Ozzy was better known for biting the head off a bat and dabbling in black magic than as the dopey but lovable dad on a reality TV show.
When my mom said no way could I go to the concert, I wrote her a letter. A rather long one. I quoted songs in this letter, and in the end -- although the show was canceled -- I was given permission to go. Victory.
I was and am a word person, and spent many hours pondering lyrics. While Ozzy, to my parents, wasn't much more than a pasty fat man wearing inverted crosses and making loud sounds, I interpreted his songs as messages of self-preservation in a confused world, either through keeping your wits or embracing your insanity. (I remind you I was 15.)
Music is one of the first things I learned to defend, and which held a personal value for me that I could articulate. It's a very individual thing, the emotions music can evoke, the feelings and ideas it can trigger, the way it can soothe. It is, in that sense, a sort of worship.
So it is fitting that another band from my youth, the Replacements, recently played the Amsterdam leg of their "Back By Unpopular Demand" tour in an old church.
I went to the show by myself. As I stood in the crowd, a 42-year old woman sipping a beer, trying to adopt a cool pose while waiting for the band to come on, I skimmed the crowd -- most of which seemed to belong in my demographic -- and felt a little unsure if any of us was still up for this.
I remembered a story of a friend of mine who, in his teens, was hit in the head with a beer bottle at a Replacements concert, after which singer Paul Westerberg leaned down to kiss his bleeding forehead.
My friend doesn't tell this story as a simple rock 'n' roll anecdote. It was kind of a key moment. A sign, a hope, a promise that life would be more than ordinary. I would have felt the same way once had Morrissey gestured toward me with a bundle of gladioli.
But now in my 40s, I wondered what I was looking for. Certainly I didn't want a kiss from Paul Westerberg --that just would have been weird -- and while I looked forward to seeing the band play, it wasn't with the same youthful anticipation. I knew they were just middle-aged people like most of us in attendance, and not prophets.
And then it began.
"Stay right there, go no further
Don't get a doctor, don't get my mother
It's too far to walk, gotta decide
Turn around, we're takin' a ride"
The crowd, including me, was transformed. We were teenagers drunk for the first time, filled with energy and optimism and a liberating rebelliousness. Because music takes you right back to where you were "then."
I think of my teens as a simpler time, but of course they were riddled with insecurity, uncertainty, frustration--all of which I faced with a mix of audacity and defiance, some bravery, and much idealism -- and all of which I rode out mostly unscathed, in part by listening to music that connected to what I was feeling and relieved my stress.
Today I still have insecurities and frustrations -- as a mom, writer, wife, expat -- which I still confront with a mix of boldness and hope. I'm still living by trial and error and I'm still discerning about what I value and what I fight for. And sometimes during a stressful day with my kids, when I feel like I might explode, I sneak away on my own for a few minutes to blast Ozzy's "Crazy Train" -- and then I feel better.
It was cathartic to spend an hour or more screaming lyrics of Replacements songs from long ago, and fifteen minutes after the band closed with "Bastards of Young," I was back to present self, quietly walking along a canal, calculating the babysitter costs and thinking about how very early my children would wake the next day. And I felt happy and ready to return to that life. I felt recharged and even a little badass.
You have to escape it sometimes, this grown-up, parenting life. Not because it's terrible, but because it's impossible to do well if you forget who you are at the core.