There’s a popular, long-running radio show in the U.K. called Desert Island Discs. The premise behind the show is quite simple: A guest is invited by the host to choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island. It’s really a vehicle for getting famous people – whether that’s Bill Gates or David Beckham or Zaha Hadid – to narrate their lives through music.
So, what most guests do is to select songs that speak to different parts of their lives: a piece that conjures up their childhood or family… something to capture the time they met their spouse…a tune that speaks to the most creative point in their career or the death of a beloved relative. You get the picture.
Needless to say, in one of my recurring fantasies I am a guest being interviewed on this program about my book project on swimming and adulthood, narrating how I built my illustrious career as a full-time writer over the course of a lifetime. Hey, we all gotta dream.
Which of course only begs the question: which songs would I choose to tell my story?
Early childhood is an easy one for me. I would select Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary. Yes, I know, a cheesy selection by certain measures. Yet, for me, that’s a song that makes me weep every time as it is about the inevitability of loss as we age: the loss of playfulness, the loss of our childhood friends and the painful but necessary separation we must all undertake from our families of origin.
Adolescence is also an easy one for me. I listened to a lot of Billy Joel as a teenager; a songwriter who so clearly evokes a particular moment – the late 1970s-early 1980s just after the Disco era ended – and a particular place. Most of his songs are about the New Jersey-New York metropolitan area and the longing to get out and make more of ourselves. I could pick any of his hits, but these five Billy Joel tunes probably still speak to me most.
College has got to be either The Grateful Dead singing Ripple or Dire Straits’ doing Romeo and Juliet. These were the only two bands I ever went to see perform more than once. These songs readily call to mind the most carefree time of my life, a time when I didn’t worry about anything other than going to classes and hanging out with my friends (not always in that order!).
College was a time when I didn’t think at all about the future. It was perhaps the only time in my life that I was fully “present,” before any concerns about rent and jobs and graduate school kicked in.
I had never listened to jazz before I met my husband, but he introduced me to this great musical tradition and to this artist – Gene Harris in particular. During the early months of our courtship, we used to listen to Like a Lover first thing when we woke up in the morning. Bliss.
Much like writing your own obituary, something I wrote about on these pages recently, thinking about how you narrate your life through music is an interesting exercise. Music reconnects you to your past. It gets you to think in concrete terms about what different phases of your life meant to you and why. And in doing that, you get a better handle on your present self – what you like about yourself, what you might wish to flee, what you miss about yourself, what you’d like to see more of in the years ahead.
So, go ahead, try it. What are some of your “Desert Island Discs”? What songs tell the story of different stages in your life? Please share in the comments.