I lived in Dallas, Texas until I was eight. I don’t remember much about it, other than a few scattered things, but I’ve got very strong memories of sitting in the back seat of my mother’s car and listening to the cassettes she’d play. Mostly 60s rock and Motown and 70s singer-songwriter stuff; I must’ve heard Sgt. Pepper’s a thousand times before I turned six years old. I’m glad my mom wasn’t a Phil Collins fan. Anyway, here are five songs I remember from those days that made me sad:
1. “The Needle and the Damage Done” by Neil Young and Crazy Horse (from Live Rust): I was a very curious child, and a lot of the time I would ask my mom what a song was about, or what the words meant. I guess explaining what heroin addiction is to your five year old is kind of awkward, but if my mom wasn’t willing to go down that road she shouldn’t have been listening to this album. The upside is, I will never in a million years try heroin thanks to this song.
2. “The Partisan” by Leonard Cohen (from Songs From a Room): I mean, pretty much any Leonard Cohen song I’ve ever heard is sad, but this one really stood out. My mom said it was about being in the French Resistance during World War Two and fighting the Nazis. Being in the French Resistance sounded like a total bummer: “There were three of us this morning / I’m the only one this evening / But I still go on / The frontier is my prison” is heavy stuff for a little kid. And then there’d be a part with a children’s choir backing him up on a verse, in French… I mean, damn.
3. “Walking After Midnight” by Patsy Cline (from the Sweet Dreams soundtrack): My mom played the hell out of this cassette after Sweet Dreams, the Patsy Cline biopic starring Jessica Lange, came out. This song always got to me; it’s more upbeat musically than the rest of the songs on this list, but even a preschooler can hear a lady singing about wandering around in the middle of the night being as lonely as it’s possible for a human to be lonely and get kind of depressed. Also, my mom told me the plot of the movie, and how Patsy Cline’s plane smashed into a mountain when she was still relatively young, and that didn’t make things much cheerier.
4. “She’s Leaving Home” by the Beatles (from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band): This song is probably my least favorite on the album, listening to it now; it’s actually pretty maudlin and heavy-handed. But when I was in short pants, that harp and those harmonies tugged at my heartstrings until they were ready to pop. Also it’s a song about running away from home forever, which seems scary as hell if you think about it in a practical sense when you’re half a decade old.
5. “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians (from the radio): Not actually from a cassette, but I remember this song coming on the radio one night really really late when my mom was driving my sister and I home from visiting some relatives, and it really freaked my shit out. The organ sounded like it wanted to kill me, or at least sneak up on me while I was sleeping and give me bad dreams. And it was a dude singing about crying! A really unhinged-sounding dude… It wasn’t even that it was sad, it was disturbing. I was like four years old. I asked my mom what the song was called, and when she told me I asked her why he was crying exactly that amount tears. She said she didn’t know, and when my mom didn’t know the answer to a question I asked her it just made me all that much more unsettled. Thanks a lot, Question Mark, you creepy unstable bastard.
My family moved to Houston sometime around my eighth birthday. Sometime after that, my mom sold her car and got one with a CD player and mostly just played Carly Simon albums. And listening to Carly Simon all the time made me sad too, but that’s a different story.