By Emma Gerber
This year, the twenty first night of September was stormy and dark. The house felt cozy, but quiet and a bit more empty than usual. My step dad, Jeff, was not at home. From time to time, he is called out by his job at the power company, to go out during storms when the power lines are knocked out to fix the world and restore light to the homes across the north-east of America. Sitting alone in my room, one song was my anthem for that night.
“Do you remember the 21st night of September?”
The sounds of Earth, Wind and Fire seemed to fill the room, swirling around and mixing with the yellow light from the lamp on my desk. Craving more music filled with the nostalgia for a time I had not shared, I opened up Spotify and pressed shuffle on a playlist I had rarely played before. “Emma to Jeff”. This was a playlist that my step dad Jeff had made for me a couple of years ago to share his favorite music with me. I had never really listened to it before (a fact that I now feel bad about). I guess I had never felt interest, or I’d been absorbed by listening to other music. However, that night, I pressed play and waited for the music to start. The first melody of A Little Respect by Erasure instantly hit my ears. It was not only a really good song, but it also really reminded me of all of the fun times I had spent hanging out with Jeff and listening to music.As I played through the rest of the playlist, I recognized a lot of the music, but some of it I definitely didn’t. Somehow, this music felt like a connection between me, sitting inside my warm room with only the yellow light of a desk lamp, and my stepdad, who was sitting in a Sheetz gas station somewhere in Ohio, waiting for the call to tell him he could come home.
Ever since then, I have been listening to the playlist daily. It has some bops like True by Spandau Ballet, Eternal Flame by the Bangles, and so many more. I find myself singing along to anything by the Pet Shop Boys or Mike and The Mechanics. Last week, I decided to sit down and talk with my step dad about this playlist – what it means today and what it meant to him earlier in his life.
Me: Okay, well, why did you decide to make this playlist?
Jeff: So, this is going to sound so step dad, but you know, appreciating that you would be a teenager soon, I made this playlist for the first time a couple years ago, knowing your love of music. I wanted to share some songs that meant something to me as I grew and went through life stages, and I just thought that you might find them novel or interesting someday.
Me: So these are songs that meant a lot to you at the time.
Jeff: They have a connection. Some of them I liked when they were new and some of them I discovered later, including as an adult.
Me: So what is your favorite song on the playlist?
Jeff: Well, I’m kind of the kind of person who never really had a favorite song, and it’s always evolving. I really liked Something So Strong, by Crowded House.The video was really cool, it was kind of like all these young people – I think they were in a barn, hanging out, singing, and dancing, and the one girl was wearing coveralls- I just really liked that song. I do still like Crowded House and Neil Finn, the lead singer, and some of his other work. In fact, one of his other songs that he did with Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, was played at mom and my wedding. It was called Through Your Arms Around Me, it was on a soundtrack that was dedicated to an australian musician who passed away. I believe it was one of this australian musician’s songs that they covered. So, like I said, a lot of these songs have grown with me. One of my newer favorites is Alive and Kicking by Simple Minds, who are better known for The Breakfast Club – Don’t You Forget About Me. And then I added some new songs, well, I guess new to me. Like Forever Young -That’s one that Mom was familiar with but I was not really familiar with that one. And Life in A Northern Town – that’s one that I used to sing to you.
Me: And you played that one all the time in the car!
Jeff. Yeah, I played that one all the time in the car. So that was like, a newer rotation one. Some of the ones, like Hold Me Now by the Thompson Twins, and what else – I Melt With You or I Ran by Flock of Seagulls – those were ones I was certainly aware of at the time but they weren’t necessarily my favorites. You know, I have a question of you, Emma – Saulsbury Hill – do you know that one?
Me: Yes! And Caroline Cannon said she liked that one. At least, I’m fairly certain that’s what she said because she found the playlist on Spotify and was listening to it, and she happened to mention that one.
Jeff: So that song, though I don’t like listening to it as much now as I used to, I listened to when I was in college . It was already an old song when I was in college. I was working in Pittsburgh at the steel mill (literally), and so I would work for a week and I would be away from all of my college friends, and the every other weekend I would go back to see them, and I would listen to that song as I drove home. The line “I was feeling part of the scenery, I walked right out of the machinery” and the eagle coming to say “I’m coming to take you home” really had the image of returning to somewhere that I belong. That really meant a lot to me at the time, it was like my anthem of being the working man in Pittsburgh. That one meant something to me. You know, I think True has always been a sweet song that I have liked. A Little Respect by Erasure has also always been a song that I have liked.
Me: Those are all of the first ones on the playlist.
Jeff: Yeah, and that’s why those are some of the first ones on the playlist. You know, another one, because this is a retrospect article, is the song by Yaz.
Me: Only You?
Jeff: Yes! So that one I actually discovered much later, when on Netflix they had the original version of the television show The Office, which was the British version.
Me: Oh, which you’ve mentioned you like better.
Jeff: I liked better, yes. And that was the song – so they had – the show had finished and everyone had gone away with their separate lives but then later – I guess it’s a british tradition they would do a Christmas special. And so they had a Christmas special, showing where everybody was now, and that was where in the British version it was Tim and Pam, instead of Jim and Pam from the American version-
Me: Wait, were there different characters or was it just a different name?
Jeff: It was the same roles played by different actors.
Me: But Tim and Jim were the same character.
Jeff: Yeah, Jim was the American Tim and Tim was the British Jim.
Me: Why did they change it?
Jeff: I don’t know why they changed it. Maybe because Tim is more British and Jim is like ‘Oh, he’s American!’ So when they finally got back together and she left her crummy boyfriend they played that song. And I was like ‘Oh, that’s just such a sweet song.’ And the weird guy, who was the boss, he was always talking about Yaz, and how Yaz was the greatest band, and then at the end they played that song. It was really cool, and the nice thing about that was that it ended after a couple seasons, and they resolved it. So, yeah, that’s a newer song for me. She Drives Me Crazy by The Fine Young Cannibals was just a fun song.
Me: That’s an interesting band name.
Jeff: Yeah, that was an interesting band name. Oh, What’s On Your Mind by Pure Energy. That’s just a fun song. So anyhow, yeah. I kind of like the message of some of the songs like The Land of Confusion.
Me: That’s Genesis?
Jeff: Yeah, that’s by Genesis. So, back in the day, that was puppets on the music video of all the world’s political leaders and they were running around and just acting goofy or clueless.
Me: That makes it so much more interesting!
Jeff: Yeah, cause ‘this is the world we live in, and these are the hands we’re given. So let’s use them and let’s start trying, to make it a place worth living in.’
Me: I mean, it’s a good song, but I would have to say that maybe the Genesis stuff is my least favorite stuff on the playlist.
Jeff: Is it?
Me: Which is really not saying that much because the playlist is just filled with really good songs, but it’s just not my style.
Jeff: Yeah, well Follow You Follow Me is the other Genesis one on there, and that’s a more sappy song. That was some of my old friends’ favorite song. And they thought it was sweet. It was their song for when they thought they had crushes. So it does remind me of them and just the kind of people they were.
Me: I’ve listened to this playlist so many times, and I still don’t think I’ve listened to all the songs.
Jeff: Yeah, I typically shuffle it.
Me: That’s what I do to, and I still don’t think I have! I mean, if I didn’t shuffle I would just hear the beginning, because it’s like four hours and thirty-five minutes of music. It’s a lot.
Jeff: Well, I would say the Mike and the Mechanics stuff –
Me: Oh, they’re pretty good.
Jeff: Well they were – so Mike was part of Genesis.
Me: Really? Which part of Genesis?
Jeff: I think he was one of the guitar players.
Me: Okay, because I didn’t think he could be the voice.
Jeff: Right, so actually when Genesis started, Peter Gabriel, who did Saulsbury Hill, was the lead singer. But then he left, and Phil Collins, who was the drummer became the lead singer.
Me: Yeah, that’s who I thought it was.
Jeff: Yes, and we heard him on the This American Life Podcast.
Me: That was the funniest podcast! It was so cute.
Jeff: Yes, that was very sweet. Yeah, – Starlee Kine – that was the name of the girl who hosted the podcast and reached out to Phil for help.
Quick note: The podcast we were talking about is called “Break-Up” from This American Life. It is described on the This American Life website as “Writer Starlee Kine on what makes the perfect break-up song and whether really sad music can actually make you feel better. Plus, an eight-year-old author of a book about divorce, and other stories from the heart of heartbreak.”
Find it here.
Jeff: There’s another podcast that Starlee did that was really good called Mystery Show. It didn’t last very long, but there is one really good episode that we could include a link to.
Quick Note #2: The podcast episode that Jeff mentions here is called “Case #3 Belt Buckle”, and is part of the Podcast “Mystery Show” produced by Gimlet Media. The description of “Case #3 Belt Buckle”, is intriguingly vague I have not listened to it myself, but overtime I have learned that Jeff has the absolute best taste in podcasts, so I’m sure it is wonderful. Find it here.
Jeff: So yeah… So then Phil Collins was the lead singer of Genesis, and then Mike was the guitar player. And so, Silent Running was a song where I imagined a dystopian future where the government is being repressive and he’s trying to get a message to his wife and family.
Me: That’s interesting.
Jeff: Yeah. Because it’s like “Don’t believe the church and state and everything they tell you. Believe in me, I’m with the high command.”(Starts singing and laughs). It is just kind of a funny song, but you know at the time I was probably reading 1984, and you know kind of the things that teenage boys are into, like imagining ‘Oh my god, what if it was a dystopian future? Who would I be?’ Yeah… so what else?
Me: Well, there were actually some songs I wanted to talk to you about, the first of those being Rock Me Amadeus because you’ve mentioned it many times. You know, this is one of the ones that when I shuffle, it never comes up! But I have listened to it, because you’ve played it for me before. Anyway. You specifically like that one, right?
Jeff: I do. Well, you know, I just have a pure love for german people rapping. (Laughter). And Falco also has another song, Der Kommissar, which is pretty good and it’s more of like a fun tune. It’s like (singing) ‘Don’t turn around, oh oh oh (Ja, ja) Der Kommissar’s in town, whoa oh oh”
Me: What does that even mean? What is happening?
Jeff: I don’t know. Der Kommissar – that’s like the captain or the police officer.
Me: Oh, okay.
Jeff: Yeah, so that’s another good song. But Rock me Amadeus – it’s just a jam, you know? You know, there’s an association with the Amadeus movie, which came out around the same time. It might have been used in the commercials for the Amadeus movie. But it it is just this mix of the concept of classical movement, which you associate with Mozart, and this german guy rapping in a pop tune with synthesisers and stuff. So it’s just very unique and very iconic of that time frame. I would think it would be a good workout tune too.
Me: Rock me Amadeus? Yeah, it is pretty intense.
Jeff: It is a pretty intense song. It’s an intense movie in some parts too.
Me: Another song I wanted to ask you about was Take On Me, which I’ve known for a while, because I feel like it’s a little more of a popular culture thing
Jeff: Yeah, it is more of a popular culture thing.
Me: Yeah! But the thing that I wanted to ask you about was the music video, because when I first talked to you about it you said that the super cool thing about it was that it had an awesome music video.
Jeff: I mean, I can’t really listen to the song without picturing the music video. Have you seen it?
Me: Yeah, isn’t it the one where the guy is half in and out of the drawings?
Jeff: Yeah, so the girl is the artist-
Me: And isn’t she in a cafe or something?
Jeff: Yeah and I think she’s frustrated because she is working on her story and it comes to life in her imagination, and so I think she jumps into the frame of the comic, which is like black and white sketch. It’s almost like a flipbook effect in the video, where you’re seeing the pages dance and the black and the white are almost intermixing. I think she meets the guy, but then there are like some bad cops with a wrench or a pipe that are like chasing the guy and beating him up and he’s trying to get away. And then at the end, the song is coming to the climax and he’s hitting higher and higher notes. The man in the comics is flashing and becoming real and he’s banging against the frame of the comic to try to get out so that he could be with her and get away from the cops.
Me: Does she let him out?
Jeff: I think he either does reach out or she reaches in but he does get out at the end.
Me: oh, okay.
Jeff: Yeah, so like every time it goes like ‘Take on me…’ and it’s getting higher and higher he’s like slamming himself into the frame of the comic book border and when he does that, he goes real. The sketch goes away and you can see his face. And he slams himself into the other side and it gets higher. He‘s like ‘Take me on…’ and then he slams himself into the border again and he gets out. It’s just a very eighties video. And nobody else did a video like that. You know that kind of had a mix of a comic and… and you know the Genesis one, with the puppets- like nobody else did puppets in their video. And people were really trying out these new visual concepts in their music videos. And it was a time, different from now, cause we didn’t have Youtube, that you had to watch and wait for the videos to come on and you couldn’t be sure of seeing them. So it was a time of a lot of exposure to new ideas and new images.
Me: I mean, it was just a cool idea in general and that they were able to execute it so well is kinda crazy.
Me: So you’ve mentioned that a lot of the songs have like super strong memories for you. What do you think the strongest one is? Have you already mentioned it or is it something else.
Jeff: It’s hard. I would probably say Solsbury Hill is pretty strong. But that is a solid memory. That is me driving to go back to school. You know, Shout by Tears for Fears – that has always had lot of emotion for me, but it doesn’t have any tie to any specific memory. Some of them just really have a general eighties feeling to me – so songs like Shattered Dreams by Johnny Hates Jazz, I Just Died in Your Arms by The Cutting Crew, Hold me Now by the Thompson Twins, Tenderness by General Public, and Promises Promises by Naked Eyes. Those all just have a general eighties vibe.
Me: (singing) ‘Promises, Promises. You know you’ll never keep’ (laughter)
Jeff: Some of them again, I did discover later. I think like Under The Milky Way or Whole of the Moon, which is a song I really like now.
Me: I love that one.
Jeff: Yeah, I think I discovered that much later. I just really like that idea. That I saw part of something but you saw the whole. I really like that image.
Me: Can I finish off with one final fun question.
Jeff: Yes, you can.
Me: Okay. One of my favorite songs on the playlist – well, favorite is a strong word, but one of the songs I have really enjoyed lately is West End Girls by Pet Shop Boys. So I wanted to talk to you about that song, because I know that when we were talking about it in the car there were some-
Jeff: Yeah, well there were some social implications, is what I would call it.
Me: What kind of social implications?
Jeff: Well, at the time that was probably the Pet Shop Boys most popular song. It was about rich girls and guys from the poorer parts of town. So it was this area ‘In a West end town a dead end world’ where the eastern boys and west end girls would be. It was this place, just like in Hamilton, when the guys and the girls would meet – where would they meet?
Me: Oh, like downtown. Yeah, all of the girls would go downtown because there were all of these young and smart guys.
Jeff: Right. So it was like this thrilling thing, because you would get this high class girl, like the Schuyler Sisters and they would be seeing these guys who would be either ruffians or trying to prove themselves or whoever they were. So it was a song about that idea, about the mixing of these two groups, and some of the imagery is, as I think you’ve noticed, very dramatic and there’s like a spoken word part of the song –
Me: That’s my favorite part! Because he’s kind of rapping but he’s not rapping. It’s just ultra dramatic, almost like spoken word poetry.
Jeff: Yeah, and he’s talking about his anger and kicking over tables.
Me: Yeah, he just seems so, I don’t know, tortured.
Jeff: -Tortured! Yeah.
Me: It’s like the textbook definition of angst in the best way possible.
Jeff: Right. So it is talking about those emotions. Probably when you are a young person and you’re dealing with your place in the world and class. You know probably being aware of it and its control over your life. So yeah, I think it is another pet shop boys song where – what is it- i think it’s like ‘I brought you flowers’ and then ‘you crushed the flowers’. Or something like that. I think that was another one of the songs.
Me: Oh is that What Have I Done to Deserve This?
Me: It says
‘I bought you drinks, I brought you flowers
I read you books and talked for hours’
Jeff: Yeah. It also kind of has that spoken word kind of section. And Dusty Springfield, who is the female lead in that song is a british artist and I think she was kind of old and out of style. I think she did very seventies very upbeat pop songs. So for her to work with the Pet Shop Boys, who were very serious, and adding her vocals to that, made a nice contrast with her “since you went away…” And I think like a lot of other artists, well, I think the Pet Shop Boys are gay but they also embraced gay culture and I think Dusty Springfield was able to do that too.
Me: Yeah, definitely.
Jeff: Well, thank you for being able to be interviewed for your retrospect article!
Me: Of course!
Jeff: I can’t wait to read it!
I am so thankful that Jeff sat down with me to talk about the music that he shared with me, but I’m even more thankful that he shared it in the first place. Music holds so many memories, which is one of the reasons that I loved this playlist. Now I can’t listen to the the playlist without thinking of the memories that Jeff shared with me, as well as the memories that we’ve made together. One of those memories is from when Jeff came to visit Thailand with my family on my mom’s side. While we were in Bangkok, we went to a party with lots of family, where we all played karaoke. The only english song that they had was Eternal Flame by the Bangles, and since then that song always reminds me of that time in Thailand. Memories like these will always be so precious to me, and this music is a perfect reminders of both the memories and knowledge passed onto me, but also the memories that I create as well. If you would like to listen to the playlist, you can find it here.