This column is best read to the playlist found by searching Spotify for “Otis Place 1968 - 1972.”
I made a couple of music mixes last week. Well, people do that all the time, especially those of us who are irritating pop music know-it-alls and who burn CDs for our friends and kids and friends’ kids that more often than not end up serving as coasters.
This mix was different, though. It was for John, my best friend from elementary school, to bring to his 61st-birthday dinner, and I didn’t want it to invoke just nostalgia. I wanted to re-create an entire past out of music — the sound-world of the early 1970s, when John and I were 13, 14, and 15, and the air itself seemed newly alive around us.
I wanted to restore not only what it felt like to be an adolescent but an adolescent boy in the Boston area during the late spring of 1972 — a soundtrack that would reassemble June light through morning trees in Larz Anderson Park, towers of clouds etched against hard blue skies on the Esplanade near John’s house, days of beautiful gray drizzle amid the dark green foliage of suburbia. The sense of leaving that graduations and lilacs have always evoked in me.
The mix starts with Badfinger’s “Day After Day” and it gets better or worse from there, depending on where you’re sitting. I was trying to isolate a very specific sonic core sample: After the Beatles breakup but during the early solo years (George’s “Run of the Mill,” Paul’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” John’s “Instant Karma,” Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy”).
Lots of early FM prog: ELP’s “From the Beginning”; Yes’s “I’ve Seen All Good People.” An emphasis on album cuts rather than hits: “Friends” from “Led Zeppelin III”; “Mother Goose” from Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung”; “Holiday Inn” from Elton’s “Madman Across the Water”; “Bell Bottom Blues” from Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.” Less-celebrated title cuts like CSNY’s “Déjà vu” and Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story.” And, yes, a lot of redolent Top 40 headcheese: “American Pie” and “A Horse with No Name” and “Hold Your Head Up” and “I’d Love to Change the World.”
All I have to say, really, is Mott the Hoople and “All the Young Dudes,” and you’ll know if you’re in or out. Memories — the really deep ones, of time and place rather than people and things — are cued by the senses. Taste, for example: Marcel Proust famously ate a madeleine that carried him back to childhood like a leaf on the wind. Others may find that biting into a Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano cookie is enough to transport them across the years to college library tea-times, where they tried to chat up the literary girls, including the woman who would eventually become their wife. (Cough.)
Or the olfactory sense. I’m a sucker for those balsam-stuffed pillowettes sold in cheap tourist shops throughout New England, not because they remind me of Maine but because when I discreetly huff them like glue, I’m swept back to Christmases and great-aunts in Marion, and guest bedrooms you’d sneak into when the grown-ups got boring.
Sight and touch somehow aren’t the gateways to the past that scent, flavor, and sound are. The last maybe most of all. People who’ve come of age since the invention of recorded music — which is all of us — often subconsciously organize their memories into playlists, the music we couldn’t stop listening to during all our various whens and wheres. Those hidden playlists are tumblers that, when lined up just right, spring open the doors of yesterday with a power and precision that can bring you to tears.
So with these birthday mixes (one playlist on Spotify turned into two CDs for John, because he’s old school) I wanted to build a time machine. Not what we should have been listening to but what we actually were listening to, with all its moments of chagrin and sins of omission. Why are there hardly any women in this playlist? Because, aside from a Laura Nyro habit acquired from my sister, I wasn’t paying attention to any. Why is this playlist so damn white when so much was going on elsewhere? That says as much about blinkered adolescent me as about growing up in a balkanized Boston when, ironically, much early FM programming was less racially progressive than AM pop radio.
I started listening more in the months and years to come; all of us find our ears widening, eyes opening, minds expanding as we step out of the cocoon of youth’s certainty into the wider world. For better and worse, the playlist is a snapshot of one person’s teenage formulating of taste, of which we initially have none. (And if you don’t believe that, I have some doubleknit plaid pants I can thankfully no longer show you.)
Childhood was over; all our schoolyard buddies were heading into individual orbits. John and I were going to different schools by then, with different circles of friends. What this mix may really commemorate is one boy’s melancholy realization during the rainy spring of 1972 that the past existed and was irretrievable, except with the aid of lilacs, balsam mini-pillows, and Top 40 headcheese. My personal bell-bottom blues, if you will.
I didn’t yet know that I’d refriend many of those buddies, including John, in years to come — that connections can be forged anew after decades of accumulated living, kids, laughter, loss. The playlist celebrates that, too: What we had and who we are and the pieces to hold onto. This music speaks to you or (most likely) it doesn’t. It’s a microgenerational soundtrack: If you weren’t just the right age in 1972 (or not a boy, or not white and upper-middle class), you surely have a radically different score to your past, a sound-world for the year you came alive.
But maybe you should make it. Maybe you should share it with us. And maybe we’d be amazed.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.