One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my dad’s lap in the sun-dappled living room of our first house. The chair we sat in then rests worn in my room now, but even 15 years ago it still creaked like an old family relic. As we rocked, my dad sang “Summertime Blues” by The Who and I fell asleep peacefully to the dulcet tones incongruously paired with lyrics like, “Well, I’m gonna raise a fuss / I’m gonna raise a holler.” The first cassette I bought was by Bob Dylan, but the first band I fell completely in love with was The Who. Every morning, on the way to school, my mom and I would listen to Oldies 103.3 FM and my favorites were the Motown songs.
We never fought about music. My brother—who gave me fodder for an endless series of lovelorn mixtapes in middle school and the band names to make me look cool on Facebook in high school—got me listening to alternative music starting in seventh grade, and my drives to school changed for the next few years. My mom endured my obsessive love for Everclear’s “So Much for the Afterglow,” and as the school bus phased out short morning drives and introduced me to the majestic appeal of early mornings spent channeling the heartache and rage of others through my earbuds, I stopped listening to Motown.
Some months after the release of “The Joshua Tree” in 1987, U2 received a cassette from its label, Island Records. On it was a gospel recording made in a small brick church on West 124th Street in Harlem of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the second song off that album. When the band made its pilgrimage to America—captured on its 1988 album “Rattle and Hum,” along with its eponymous documentary—band members stopped by the church to play the song. And if U2’s gospel sound was first introduced in “Still Haven’t,” it ran so deep that the gospel choir didn’t need to do much searching to find religion in the song’s three chords.
When the group began writing the song, it was an unremarkable reggae number called “Under the Weather Girls.” The bass-and-drum groove sits at the back of the pocket, pushing confidently forward with the rolling pace of a long-wandering caravan, gleefully propelled by the eighth notes on the bass drum at the end of every phrase. As the group struggled to finish the song one day in practice, the Edge handed Bono a small slip of paper on which he’d written, “Still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Bono read the sheet and sang the chorus as it is on the record.
When I was younger, I was an obsessive mixtape maker. This pastime was my first to be rendered anachronistic by rapidly advancing digital technology, and so I remember it with pleasure. In the kitchen, my family had a tall black structure with irregularly placed shelves, one of which held a combination cassette player, radio, and phonograph—sort of a dunce’s corner when it comes to current music technologies. When the weather warmed and school days became a thing of the past, I would become preoccupied with the making of mixtapes for drives to my grandfather’s house in Cape Cod.
I would load a favorite tape into Tape Player A and a blank cassette into Tape Player B. Inevitably fast-forwarding to midway through my favorite song, I’d back up to the beginning, and record the track onto the new tape. As it recorded, I’d listen and think about the trip to come. One March, I even collected my favorite summer traveling music and stashed it away until summer so, after such anticipation, it would feel all the better when I listened to it with the windows down.
I first thought of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” as the noise of a drunk determinedly rummaging for something in a room filled with musical instruments. As he digs, acoustic guitars thrum and violins quake; a flute falls and catches the wind just so. He pushes deeper into the room and knocks over a vibraphone—several times—and through it all he mutters to himself about what he has lost.
When I first heard the album, I’d already listened to it several times. I’d reversed Van Morrison’s line of influence, working from Springsteen’s guileless “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.”-era emulations back to Morrison’s own “Moondance” and only then, after these and other derivations and precursors, to the confounding “Astral Weeks” itself. The night I first understood “Astral Weeks,” I was cold in the dark back seat of my family’s car, looking out the fogged window as we became helplessly lost en route to a Christmas party.
As it unfolded, my first summer out of high school seemed longer than any other I’d known. No longer returning to my high school yet still not a college student, for the first time I spent those months free from the cycle of school following summer and summer following school. For the first half of that summer, I didn’t take a job. Instead, I drove, played guitar, and listened to Bruce Springsteen constantly.
All my life, I’d sought joyful music, though I’d never consciously acknowledged that overriding characteristic in my favorite songs. One muggy night in mid-July of that summer, I found a soft-focus, black-and-white video of “Racing in the Street” performed live in 1978. The song was, and remains, my favorite of Springsteen’s—the ballad of a man who struggles through life, hoping to find redemption in the late night street races he and his friend Sonny follow across the East Coast. On the record, soon after Springsteen’s protagonist describes his wife’s descent into loneliness—sitting on her father’s porch “with the eyes of one who hates for just being born”—overdubbed guitars quietly guide the track into a slow fade. But in the Passaic, N.J., performance, as Springsteen backs into the darkness onstage, he begins wailing through his harmonica, and something entirely different takes place.