Almost a Rough Draft: The Internal Soundtrack

So a while ago I joined a writing circle. We met one time and what I was working on wasn’t ready to be critiqued yet. I posted it on the old blog, and on occasion, I still work on. I am putting up the newest draft (still not out of rough draft stage yet) on the gnu blog, just to make this place feel more complete.

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Letting Go and the Art of the Internal Soundtrack

I only have three regrets from college, and they are all related: 1) going back out with Heather because 2) I was too scared to ask out Jenn. My third and final regret is not having a freshman follow me around either of my senior years with a boom-box to provide a soundtrack to my campus life. On the surface, it may appear that these regrets are unrelated. However, a quick glimpse into my psyche would reveal that I could have prevented my love life woes if I just had a sound crew. Imagine if shrill, annoying techno played while I talked with Heather and a soft, romantic ballad filled the room when I talked to Jenn. My choice would have been obvious. The cues that this soundtrack would provide would be impossible to ignore. Personally, I don’t think I would have any regrets if I had some an impressionable kid following me around with a pre-approved list of songs to play at certain events. My life certainly would have been easier.

Instead, I’m stuck with having an internal soundtrack. Considering how often I listen to music, this is unavoidable. Yet, the internal soundtrack is fickle. If someone says a few key phrases of a song that I know, all the lyrics I can remember come flooding back. A coworker can hum a few bars of a song and I’ll be right there, whistling along with them. God help me when muzak plays. While fickle and, on occasion, easy to ignore the soundtrack still evoke emotions. Typically, this emotion is fear. Fear as in, “Dear lord, why do I remember this?!” This is not at all funny. There is on reason why my brain should be compelled to remember to play back parts of Bonnie Tyler’s classic, Total Eclipse of the Heart, every damn time someone says turn around. But it happens.

All the time.

An external soundtrack cannot be ignored because everyone around you hears it. Once everyone hears your cue, peer pressure and shame force you into action (double time action if you ever considerd yourself catholic). Internal soundtracks, while easy to ignore, have songs that you can’t let go of. It seems that songs, just like regrets, aren’t that easy to let go.

My internal soundtrack is easy to ignore only insofar as it is easily changed. I have music–an external soundtrack–on in the car, at the office, at home, on the bus, while doing laundry and even in the bath. With music on all the time, it ‘s no wonder that my internal soundtrack adds any catchy song. I don’t regret a single one, even the crappy top 40 hits.

Once I get over how scary my internal soundtrack can be, I can move on to other emotions. When I get nervous, I hear The Minstrel Boy, complete with, “In the ranks of the dead you will find him.” These lyrics, as morbid as they are, does have a calming effect on me. No matter how nervous I get, I know when I screw up, I won’t be killed over it. Luckily, when I’m happy, I don’t sing along with Shiney Happy People, or Don’t Worry, Be Happy, but I may sing a few bars of a Beatles song. When I’m upset, any number of Nine Inch Nails songs—songs I haven’t willingly listened to in years—fill my head. When my dad died, both of my soundtrack were limited to God’s Promise. A year later, when my mom died, the soundtrack went back to God’s Promise. Anytime I miss either one of my parents, I can’t shake the song out of my head until I listen to Ellis Paul sing Woody Gutherie’s lyrics. When I’m sad, any number of embarrassing, depressing or sappy songs are in my undercover soundtrack. It just depends on the kind of sadness. If its just general blasé, the soundtrack can go anywhere from, The Thrill is Gone to the Adagio for Strings. If there is a specific cause for my sadness, there may be a specific song for it. For example, if I’m sad and it’s because of something a family member did, or didn’t do, you can bet your ass that the song will probably be an Irish one.

Eventually the emotions and the songs fade away. I haven’t really learned how to let them go. The best I have ever been able to do is swap out one song for another. The same holds true for regrets–I can’t let them go, but I can swap them out.

This is where love, and love songs, come in. Love and regret as intertwined as Beatles harmonies. Because love is a complex emotion, all the songs in my head vie for attention. Sometimes my soundtrack has soft, sweet and meaningful songs by Ellis Paul. Other times the songs are cotton-candy (sweet yet empty) tunes by Matthew Sweet or Kelly Clarkson. A lot of the songs I have in regards to love are tinged with some sort of regret. Those are songs with minor chords. But lately the songs have been short, fast rock and roll songs–I attribute this to my new-found love for Ted Leo. None of these songs compare to what was featured on my soundtrack the last time I was in love. That song was Cannonball by Damien Rice, and like any good track, and regret, it isn’t easy to let it go.

Cannonball did not start out on my internal soundtrack. Honestly, before Ginnie, it was just pretty background noise. In soundtrack terms, it was scene setting music. Looking back, at this point in our relationship, talking and emailing Ginnie was the same thing: Pretty background noise. When our relationship changed Cannonball changed. Pretty background became important foreground. Cannonball became a theme song.

Remember any move with an impressive score. The hero and heroine will have their own theme song. Akira has one in the classic Anime. Superman has a famous one. Fresh Air, Morning Editon and All Things Considered have them. Theme songs are cues to let you know that your her/actor/favorite show should now be the center of your attention. Most theme songs are written for the show. Cannonball didn’t start that way. It simply started out as the song that was one whenever I talked to her. We fell in love to this song. It was on the radio–Chicago’s soundtrack if you will–a lot but it wasn’t over played. The night I told her I loved her, it was on a local Chicago radio station. Each and every time we were in my car while she lived in Chicago, it was on the radio. Whenever we were driving in Canada, including the day I asked her to marry me, it was playing. Who needed to call in a request when fate supplied the music?

Shortly after one trip to Canada, I ended up buying O and the Cannonball EP. I probably didn’t need to, considering how often it was on the air, but, I wanted to dissect the lyrics and the music. I was examining every detail of the song so as to better understand it. I figured that if I understood all the nuances of Cannonball, I would have some sort of insight into the relationship that we were in. This should have been a clue that something was wrong. In order to make things right between us, I had focused to my internal soundtrack for cues, as the external one screamed, “Ship her back to the frozen wastes of Canada!” Typically, it was a suggestion–again, scene setting songs–such as a carefully worded comment from my mom, an aunt or a close friend. Sometimes it was a flat out declaration. Those stark and truthful words were an attempt to change my soundtrack, or at least to make me change the song.

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