I spent a recent afternoon playing Nanci Griffith’s amazing 1988 album One Fair Summer Evening. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost twenty years since I first heard Once in a Very Blue Moon on the Fordham College radio station while listening to my Walkman as I walked through Central Park on my way home from work. My college boyfriend and I had recently broken up and, suddenly, I was hearing a song expressing all the longing and inevitability and sadness I couldn’t stop feeling no matter how hard I tried. I stopped in at a record store on East 86th Street before going home that night, and played the CD over and over again for what must have been weeks.
There are only a few songs for which I can clearly remember where I was when I first heard them. There’s Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Tori Amos’ Silent All These Years, the last while watching MTV in a motel room in the middle of the country, on a cross country drive with my husband of less than a year and our dog, Rupert the Schnoodle.
But at some point before I turned thirty, I stopped having such moments of transcendence. Music became background, and while some songs could still break through — I will always be driving a car in Los Angeles when I hear anything by the Counting Crows or the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Radiohead, for example — nothing would leap out at me again with an immediate I-have-to-have-this-CD-now feeling. I was convinced I was musically trapped in my late twenties, a sensation described wonderfully well by Faulkner Fox in her much underrated motherhood memoir, Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life. “We’re all sort of stuck in ’80s,” she writes of the tired parents she hangs around with who play hits ranging from Dire Straits to Sting when they get together, in an effort to demonstrate how cool they once were. “None of us is up on current music.”
I write all this as a way of saying I thought the musical passions of my twenties were forever gone. But then, as the Supremes might sing, it happened. One day last spring, I was driving toward Central Avenue in Yonkers, as horrid a shopping strip that has ever existed, when I heard the voice come over the radio. Sexy, knowing, sad, angry, defiant, brash, defeated, triumphant … I just couldnt get enough of it. It was cabaret mixed with hip-hop mixed with Motown mixed with — well, I didn’t care what it was mixed with. I was in love, in love with a song and a singer in a way that I hadn’t been since I first heard Silent All These Years in that damn motel room in Oklahoma. When the DJ came on afterwards and said the name of the song and the woman who sang it, I repeated the information over and over again till I could pull over into a parking lot and scrawl it down with the only implements I could find, a broken lip-liner and an aged ATM slip. “Amy Winehouse,” I wrote. “Amy Winehouse.”
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