My father studied film at the Film School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and he launched into grownup life with the goal of being a filmmaker, starting out with usually-silent short films in a style influenced by the European auteurist directors of the 1960s and 70s. But after a frustrating string of disappointments, rejections and setbacks, he set filmmaking aside and pursue another goal he had, to become a teacher. He and my mother moved to Meriden, New Hampshire and joined the faculty at Kimball Union Academy, a college preparatory boarding school. My mother taught Spanish and Math, my father taught English and a series of senior arts and philosophy electives, including Literature of the Absurd and filmmaking and film appreciation courses. In the latter class, kids were required to a write a detailed mini-screenplay and were then loaned a Super 8 camera to film their own amateur productions, usually in-jokey campus comedies or Sabbath-soundtracked horror movies, their grainy colors and non-existent budgets making them creepier than they had any right to be, or that’s what I thought as a little kid sitting in the audience during the big presentation day.
Though they lived the lives of broke young schoolteachers, my mom and dad were happy. Our little town was beautiful and they had a social circle full of young parents their age. My childhood memories are full of my parents’ friends buzzing around, my mom and dad going off to faculty parties, and the weirdly specific experience of being a prep-school faculty kid – growing up in a dormitory, eating every meal in the cafeteria, discovering the secret rooms and hiding places on the campus, breaking into the physical plant to play around on the gigantic lawnmowers and pretend they were x-wing fighters.
Though he’d given up on a filmmaking career, my dad still shot tons of family movies on his Super 8, throwing himself into the documentarian role with playful, inventive enthusiasm. Every time he’d get a new reel back from the developer, he’d aim his film projector at a blank wall and we’d sit on the floor and have family movie night, and when the film rattled out of the projector at the end of the reel my brother and I would make shadow puppets on the wall with our hands. My memories of seeing those family films have blended into my memories of the actual vacations and birthday parties my father was filming, until I can’t remember if I actually remember something or only remember the footage my father shot. Or maybe it’s a weird bleeding-together mix of both.
A few years ago, I took all the films my father shot during that time (starting in 1972 and ending in 1984, when his Super 8 camera broke and he wasn’t sure whether to spend the money to fix it or to buy a video camera) and digitized them. If you’ve seen the Okkervil River video for “Your Past Life as a Blast,” it’s made from these family movies. This year, for their 40th anniversary, I had the idea to go through the films and make a whole full-length movie out of them, sorting out the chronology where I could (the way the original reels were stored and labeled, the timeframe was a bit confusing) and setting them to music from each year captured onscreen. To that end, I decided to listen to every song on the year-end Billboard Hot 100 from the period of 1972 to 1984. It was slow going and occasionally frustrating, but it was an interesting exercise. As I made my way through eleven years of Billboard charts, I unearthed songs I’d forgotten I ever heard but at one time had known well, ranging from great songs like “Shine a Little Love” by ELO to silly party jams like “So Into You” by Atlanta Rhythm Section to kind of terrible but deeply entertaining songs like “Into the Night” by Benny Mardones (which I’ve come to believe could be used as a devastating karaoke secret weapon). Driving North one time to visit my family, I plowed through some of these Billboard Hot 100 songs (I believe the year was 1979) and had the uncanny feeling I was literally driving backwards through time, not only driving back to see the people who raised me but actually driving into the past.
This odd back-in-time sensation came back to me when I began editing the footage for my parents’ movie. Playing the same section over and over again, trying to fine-tune some transition or slightly bring out the colors of this or that shot, I noticed details I’d never seen before. A piece of furniture I’d forgotten we had, in the corner of the frame. The absurd haircut of one of my parents’ faculty friends. My grandfather, now dead, holding a five-year old me in his arms and, in the middle of a conversation with my dad, shooting me a loving glance. The footage was showing me secrets of my childhood and, by studying it closer and closer, time was becoming more permeable, the past becoming a place I could almost kind of re-enter The people and places on my computer monitor soaked through the screen a bit and into the room with me, and then they’d recede again.
This only intensified when I began auditioning songs for certain “scenes” (usually centered around a season of that year). For example, Christine McVie’s “Got a Hold On Me” gave one scene a chipper and sweet quality, but when I played the Cars’ “Magic” against the same scene a kind of humor came out – my brother flexing his muscles was funnier, and a scene of me hiding behind an umbrella while my grandfather blasted me with a garden hose looked much more rad. So I went with “Magic.” Paul McCartney’s “Coming Up” gave an Easter Egg hunt a manic and carefree vibe, but the colors seemed to pop a little bit more when I used “Let My Love Open the Door.” I went with the Pete Townsend.
I tried to stick to songs I specifically remembered from childhood and that I knew my parents liked and listened to at the time, but there were a few exceptions (my father, not a Bowie fan, wasn’t as into my jokey choice of “Young Americans” for their honeymoon in Guadalajara). Just once or twice, I’d cave in a bit on the authenticity of whether-or-not-we-listened-to-this-song in favor of something that just seemed to fit, and the most exaggerated example of this was when I went with a song by Joe Walsh, an artist I don’t particularly like, for a sequence of a birthday party of mine and some time spent at my grandparents’ house in Cape Cod. If you’re not familiar with Joe Walsh, he’s the other other guy from the Eagles, who had one of those hit songs everybody remembers but nobody remembers that they remember on account of a really forgettable title. The song’s called “Life’s Been Good” but you probably remember the lyric, “My Maserati goes 185 / I lost my license, now I don’t drive” (and maybe you remember the song’s shameless cribbing of the Led Zeppelin “Houses of the Holy” guitar lick). The song I picked was a Walsh instrumental called “Theme from ‘Boat Weirdos.’” It was never a hit but appeared on the same album as “Life’s Been Good” (1978’s But Seriously, Folks…), and I was initially attracted to it because I loved the title and instantly felt deeply disappointed that there wasn’t a 1978 film called “Boat Weirdos” that I could track down and watch (I can practically picture it. A Catalina pier. Burt Reynolds. A Joe Walsh cameo I fast-forward through…).
But seriously, folks – “Theme From ‘Boat Weirdos,’” while quite artfully arranged, is ultimately a ridiculously dated slice of ripe late-70s cheese, which can make it feel either hilarious or almost kind of hauntingly evocative depending on your mood. The song itself toggles back and forth between two different sections; there’s a washy ambient passage – guitar arpeggios and delayed flute giving everything a kind of mystical and wide-open feel that is in fact quite cinematic – and then there’s this kind of spanky, sassy electric guitar workout that’s a lot less widescreen, a lot more the “A-Team.” Listened to on its own, it’s a goofy laugh. But set against my dad’s grainy old films, it did something different for me. It called up a whole army of my childhood associations, my memories of my parents and my memories of my own life and the false memories implanted into my head by TV and the movies, by movies I saw in theaters and by my father’s movies projected on the wall of the living room. The song calls up this weird innocent image I have of my parents at that age, fondue faculty parties and bottles of white wine by Riunite or by Gallo, cross-country skiing and piña coladas and Hall and Oates spinning around on the record player. What the movies and TV and the radio all told us leisure meant in the late 70s. And when “Boat Weirdos” snaps out of its sassy guitar passage and those angelic voices join in, super-corny but undeniably pretty, it feels like there was some hidden message behind all the silliness that movies and TV fed us in that time, some weird and mystical vein in there, totally at odds with what was literally being said, something behind the cheese, something that’s sad and poignant and broken and human. You loved each other, in this ridiculous time, with your ridiculous hair and your old movie that hasn’t aged well and your silly sentimental song on the radio, it was a good time and now it’s gone and it’s never coming back again. It messes with my head when I think about it too hard. But probably the reason I got so obsessed with making this goofy home movie for my parents – I mean seriously I spent months glued to the computer working on this thing – was the way that the process let me back inside the past. My editing program was the controls of a time machine. Granted, it was a time machine that kept slipping out of gear and spitting me back out into the present, but it would work for a second and a second felt like an impossible gift.
I don’t know if I believe music criticism is even possible. The idea of “rating” music seems stupid to me. Because if I can feel so much affection for a song that I know is dumb, if I can be so easily manipulated by what I know is manipulative, if I can like what I know is not good, then there are really no objective standards to talk about pop music. Hurrah for that. Let’s just agree to disagree, like a bunch of friends who love each other, me with my ridiculous haircut and you with yours. I like Robert Johnson and you like “Let’s Hear it for the Boy.” You like Charlie Parker and I like “Theme from ‘Boat Weirdos.’” No one is right, and I’m glad.
…and here’s the original full song, if you’re interested.
Number 10: Bill & Will – “Goin’ to the River” (March 2011)
Number 9: Ted Hawkins – “Sorry You’re Sick” (November (2011)
Number 8: Blake Mills – “History of My Life (January 2011)
Number 7: Ray Price – “Release Me” (February 2012)
Number 6: Roy Harper – “One Man Rock and Roll Band” (February 2012)
Number 5: Joe and Donnie Emerson – “Baby” (March 2012)
Number 4: Robbie Dupree – “Steal Away” (May 2012)
Number 3: Travis Tritt ‘ “Foolish Pride” (September 2012)