A long time ago, Mcdonald’s used to give out these plastic lunchboxes.Â They weren’t special, and they certainly weren’t interesting (a quick Google search turns up no images of the things), but, for a time, I kept my whole world in mine.Â Then, at some point, probably around age four, I became aware of the difference between cassette tapes and the radio.Â My parents starting keeping more and more cassettes in the car, and, so, John Denver’s Greatest Hits could remain in continuous play from the house to the car and back again.Â (This was, I assure you, a desired state of affairs at that age.)Â I had one or two cassettes of my own, Muppets and Twisted Sister, if I remember correctly, and I was particularly pleased when I would get the opportunity to play one of these tapes in the car.Â There’s something about having music at your command, wherever you might go, that’s just so magical.Â For a long time, my father and I loved a PBS concert from Genesis’ Mama Tour.Â (1) When we would put the cassette on in the car, I would be instantly transported back to the time we spent watching it, and that experience just fascinated me.Â As time went on, I became aware of the power of music to shape and enhance the otherwise mundane time spent traveling from home to school and back.Â But after a time, I needed something more…and that’s where my McDonald’s lunch box comes in.
During the 80s, one of those most frequently used “bargain” gifts was the Cassingle.Â It was an easy way to get the latest song by whoever (but at least once by the Beach Boys), and then some other thing that they forced on you like brussel sprouts at Thanksgiving.Â (Unless you were taping off the radio, of course.) I was no exception to the rule, and so acquired many unusual singles.Â To this day, I am hard pressed to account for the varied soundscape inside that lunch box.Â In no particular order, I had Genesis’ Mama and We Can’t Dance albums, Def Leppard’s Pyromania, the We Are The World album, and then cassingles of the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo,” Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine,” Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through The Night,” Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” and something that said “.38 Special” on it that I have neither played, nor can I recollect the origin of. (2)Â It was, to be sure, a weird mix of things.Â But at the time, it was an amazing thing to be able to drag around some songs and let them change the color of the night as my grandmother drove me here or there.Â Or, indeed, as my friend Tim and I would play at “being in a band” on his porch – often miming songs and fighting crime (as bands inevitably do) long into the night.Â *shrug*Â Some kids had books, and I had a box of cassettes.Â Life is funny.
Over time, though, I realized that it was much more fun when you could drive around with someone who also loved what you were playing, and that it was particularly gratifying to find that you had made things better for them.Â (I have always loved those rare moments when people talk positively about some song I played for them, or gave to them, and count these things among my greater accomplishments.)Â Which is why it was always so wonderful to ride around with my Dad.Â There was, of course, Mama, but Dad also loved Peter Gabriel’s So (which I loved), Pink Floyd (any), and a host of other things I was learning about.Â These were some of the best drives ever, in my young life.Â At some point (around when Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” took over the radio), my father fell in love with Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It,” and I would often hear it back-to-back with Don Henley’s “End of the Innocence.”Â I had never been a Traffic fan, but it was all worth it.Â Every time I hear these songs, now, which isn’t all that often, I am transported back to the car ride through Granite Village when I first put these songs on for my Dad.Â The smile that lit up his face is one that I know I will always hold on to.
Most of the time, this is why I want to make mixes for the car.Â My art, as I’ve said before, is “setting the mood.”Â If I were in theatre, I would be the lighting designer.Â If I made movies, I would do soundtracks.Â It’s who I am. I’d love to be the star, sure, but I’m much more interested in the work that goes into setting the scene.Â These days, my desire to shape things has left me unable to sit through any prolonged period of silence.Â I listen to, and sing along with, music almost all of the time I’m in my car.Â I think carefully about what things to bring on road trips, and I make as many mixes as are required (either explicitly or mentally).Â There remains a fourteen part mix that was to last the drive from Massachusetts to Michigan when Dianna moved out there.Â All of this is why, incidentally, I can time any journey to my collection.Â I bet that, if you’ve driven around with me much, you’ll notice that I can almost always make the song end at the exact moment we arrive.Â It’s what I do.
All of this is a bit ephemeral, but it was something that I realized has always stemmed from my father.Â I know that those early car rides, and my little lunch box of tapes, were what first led me to become obsessed with music.Â That smile on my father’s face was the first thing that made me realize I could do good with my silly choices.Â The only other thing that has ever felt as good, in that regard, was driving along with my father through Chelmsford Center, singing along to the Counting Crows’ “Round Here,” and having my father say “You should sing more.Â It’s really good.”Â Â Oddly enough, I was singing to the window – the bottom of the window – because I was hoping the sound wouldn’t travel as far.Â One other person has remarked on a similar experience, and, both times, I have felt lifted right off the earth.Â (So, thanks.)
So, today, since I can’t be with my Dad, I’m trying to recreate him through a mix.Â It’s a pale simulation, sure, but it brings me back to where things were whole and beautiful.Â On occassion, I feel silly for feeling this way about something as simple as mix tapes and cassingles and lunch boxes… but when I find that they can bring my father’s smile back to me, then I know that I am truly blessed.Â So, thanks Dad, for giving me the means, and the desire, to find the songs that saved my life.
(Happy Father’s Day.)
*Yeah, that’s a really obscure reference in the title.Â We sort-of apologize.
And since he’s not here to object…
Some other posts about my Dad: