I love making lists. I am a sucker for the easy to digest, bullet-point brevity of top ten lists. Care to animate me over coffee or at the dinner table? Ask me for the top ten outfielders in major league baseball history; dare me to enumerate a dozen-less-two best movies set in Manhattan; prompt me for ten greatest books not written by Nobel Laureates... Here is a personal (i.e. by definition, mildly self-indulgent) list I scribbled down ages ago in a writing-ideas notebook. I was supposed to be brainstorming story ideas; instead, I went deep into the wellsprings of pop music memory. Prufrock measured his life out in coffee spoons. Me? In three to five minute tracks.
Top Ten Songs That Make Me Nostalgic for My Hometown
1. Fontella Bass, "Rescue Me"
I used to mistake this song for a Motown record, and I suppose that's where the hometown association began. It certainly echoes Berry Gordy's sound. The song is, of course, a call for salvation to a long-distance lover in its lyrics, but I can't help but hear it as my heart crying out to where I'm from, especially as my exile from that smoky town persists. Can't - you - see - that - I'm - lonely?
2. Martha and the Vandellas, "Dancing in the Street"
Similar reasons. This one gets me for the exhortation, "Can't forget the Motor City." I can't. This song is, for me, a Friday night Tiger game in the summer of 1993. A fireworks display after the game and when Martha paid tribute to Detroit as they played this song on the ballpark PA system, the crowd roared. I got chills. I still do.
3. Sawney Beane, "Lenten Love Song"
This is a local ditty from way back. My friend Kenneth MacLeod's lyrics are so Windsor in my mind: the crummy part-time job; the overindulgence afterwards; the fleeting glances at love. This song is so many nights in 1995-96, when Sawney Beane were regular performers at the Bridge, the Loop, the DH.
4. The Stylistics, "People Make the World Go 'Round"
This is the summer of 1989, and the first of my parents' annual backyard parties over the long weekend in August. Guests stayed late. As the clock crept up on 6 a.m. we gathered around the piano for a sing-along. A tenor sax player got his horn out; a bass player joined in; my father on piano. Our crazy neighbor from next door stood arm in arm with me and shared his beer. This might have been the first time I heard this song, but I caught on to the chorus well enough to sing along and I've never forgotten it since.
5. Bob Seger, "Rock and Roll Never Forgets"
My first concert at age 13: Seger at the Joe in Detroit. He opened with this tune and the hometown crowd--predictably--went wild. At the time, I dug the peppiness of it, but now the song as special appeal for its homecoming narrative. Sweet sixteen's turned thirty-one... Wow, and then some.
6. Rickie Lee Jones, "Weasel and the White Boy's Cool"
Rickie Lee Jones's whole first album reminds me of my parents--along with other memorable artifacts from their record collection: the Joni Mitchells, the Steely Dans... This song probably gets me for its finality about the past. Sal, the main character, is leaving his people, his geograpy. Sal, say goodbye to your mom and your dad. Sal, say goodbye to your barrio...
7. Madonna, "Vogue"
You laugh, but-- A bubblegum favorite from that bittersweet, about-to-start-university summer of 1990. This song is listening to the dance mix on vinyl in my best friend's bedroom, or endless, aimless drives through dark country roads in another friend's car. It's ironic dancing at the prom and the promise of clubs and long nights and freedom to come.
8. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, "Our House"
This is the house in which I grew up, scored for pop song.
9. John Sebastian, "Welcome Back"
A song I love without irony. It evokes those too-short visits back some since I left for good in 1996. Walking the dog through my old neighborhood and wondering if I'll ever be back for any length of time.
10. Donald Fagen, "Maxine"
The summer of 1988. A stray dog shows up in our backyard to drink water from my sister's Slip and Slide. This occurred on 21 June, the official start of the summer, and the night my father and I saw the Tigers beat the Yankees on an Alan Trammell grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. The dog stayed, became ours. After a few days of haggling over the name we agreed on Maxine, after this Donald Fagen tune from The Nightfly, a ubiquitous recording on the family stereo that summer. The dog lasted four years, till she died of grief and old age not long after my father's death in 1992. I can't hear the song and not think of her, or those sun-drenched happy days in my family's history, even now.