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It's Only Rock and Roll but I Like It: Music as a Soundtrack to Life

Music is exceptionally - my wife may say irrationally - important to me. I can walk into a store, determined to spend hundreds of dollars, only to turn around and walk right back out if something horrible is playing inside. Music has never been disposable background noise; it's defined me, inspired me, soothed me, and provided a soundtrack to my life. I think this began in second grade, when my father introduced me to music as art during weekly drives to visit my great aunt in Northridge.

We lived in Sunland, and because the 210 didn't go all the way through to Pasadena like it does now, we had to spend a lot of time driving along surface streets before we could pick up the freeway in Sylmar. Though many of today's parents hasten their children's descent into consumerist zombies by distracting them with DVDs or handheld video games, minimizing or even eliminating interaction on the shortest of car rides, my parents treated our visits to Aunt Val's house as miniature road trips. We played the alphabet game and auto bingo, we told stories, and we all sang along with KLOS and KMET, or one of my dad's many cassette tapes.

My dad loved classic rock, so when I look back on my childhood, The Beatles, Boston, Heart, The Doobie Brothers, and Fleetwood Mac provide the soundtrack. Twenty-nine years later, I can't listen to "Second Hand News" without hearing the unique sound of his VW bus's engine just underneath it in my memory. Most people who listen to "Black Water" hear Patrick Simmons on vocals, but not me. I hear my dad, modulating his voice to hit all the different parts of the harmonies during the chorus. When I hear anything off Boston's eponymous debut, it's accompanied by the steady sound of a hammer driving nails into cedar wood. Dad listened to that album a lot while I helped him build a gate for our side yard in the usual eight year-old manner: by wearing an oversized tool belt and handing him nails while I stayed out of the way. I'm sure it's possible to listen to Dreamboat Annie without giant earphones and a 15-foot coiled black cord, but I don't know why anyone would want to.


My dad was as passionate about music as he was about the Dodgers, and growing up with him was like growing up with Vin Scully and Uncle Joe Benson. Every baseball game we watched was filled with trivia, and nearly every song we heard was accompanied by extensive liner notes. At a very young age, I learned to always pay attention so that I would be able to deliver the correct answers during the inevitable follow up quiz.

One morning while driving to school, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" came on the radio. "What album is this from?" Dad said.

I was only seven, but I knew the answer, because we listened to it a lot. "Abbey Road," I said. "That's easy!"

"And why is it called that?" He asked.

"Um... " I knew he'd told me before, but I couldn't recall the answer. While I searched my memory, Paul McCartney sang, "Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer made sure that he was dead." My father and I both held imaginary silver hammers in our hands, and tapped them on the dashboard as the song ended.

"Oh! I know! Because that's the name of the place they made the record."

My dad smiled at me. "That's right! It's also where Pink Floyd recorded Dark Side of the Moon, which was engineered by Alan Parsons, who sings 'Eye in the Sky.'"

It was always like this, and even though there were times when I just wanted to sing along with "Joy to the World" and I didn't care about how many dogs Alaskans slept with to stay warm, it made an impression on me: I inherited my dad's musical passion, and I've passed it along to my own kids. 

My son Nolan recently told me that my wife was responsible for his love of arena rock, and that he learned to love alternative music by watching me. His older brother Ryan called me last year from college and said that he got his love of '70s rock and roll from playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band with me, and when he feels lonely at school, he puts on Doolittle and remembers riding in my car when he was a kid, the same I way I occasionally listen to "Fly Like an Eagle." I always hoped that I'd pass certain things along to my kids, like the importance of honesty and integrity, the value of friendship and hard work, and to appreciate art for art's sake. That's still a work in progress, but learning that they'd both picked up and embraced my musical tastes - at an age when they should be rejecting everything that matters to me, no less - made me feel like I'd just won front row tickets to Radiohead. I realized when Nolan told me how much he loved The Cure, that during my childhood, my dad was using music of the '70s to build and strengthen the bond between father and son, just the way I did with music of the '80s.

I called my dad last night, and told him that I was writing this column today. "Do you know how many dogs they sleep with when it's cold in Alaska?" He asked.

"Yeah, I do, dad," I told him. "Thanks for that."
 

Wil Wheaton sticks a pen in his heart. Subscribe to this column's RSS feed here.


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