I like to go out riding in my Mini convertible, top down or not. It is not the newest model, doesn’t even have aux input. It also has standard transmission, a misnomer these days, considering that it is so hard to find. Driving is not just transportation for me; it is entertainment, and I like to be fully engaged.
That said, I do enjoy listening to music on my drives, and it was on a drive about a month ago that I had pulled out Uncle Tupelo’s album, March 16-20, 1992, an album and a time that I remember well. I admit to a fair amount of celebrity name-dropping, and I will not spare you from this now, gentle reader. You see, I actually knew Uncle Tupelo back in the day. A music junkie from St. Louis was likely to have seen the group at some point in Cicero’s Basement, and I was a music junkie, albeit a late-blooming one. Like most music junkies, I spent a fair amount of time in the fine assortment of record stores around town. Even if I had never been a pop or punk darling in my formative years, I had always loved music. My brother worked at Webster Groves, at a time when I had gotten to know Carl Pandolfi outside of high school and away from his fabulous power pop group, The Painkillers. Sometimes my brother and Carl drove one another around, and my mom somehow got Carl to tune our piano and play a few bars from “Linus and Lucy” in exchange for dinner at our house. I used to see Carl around Mizzou my second year there, and later on, he dated and then lived with my friend René, whom I had met in French class at Washington University. René lived near me, and I recognized her in class immediately as the glamorous girl I had noticed taking a drag in a many a dark bar during sound checks. She later introduced me to my boyfriend Steve, who managed Vintage Vinyl. Steve himself was a local celebrity who wrote a weekly music column and regular reviews for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. René had been the punk rock darling in her high school years and beyond, and she was incredibly smart, fashionable, and gorgeous. One night when we were deciding what to wear for an evening out, I let her try on my mom’s splendid 1950s Balenciaga cocktail dress that didn’t fit me quite right. It fit her, and we gave it to her. I imagine she still has it. René went to an arts magnet school, and had done things that I never would have been allowed to do as a young teen, even if I had known about them. Our family was bourgeois, sort of, or at least surface bourgeois, because there is always more to the story. We all had always had musical aspirations, if not talent, and had a wide and expansive background due to our parents’ arguments about the merits of classical (my mom) versus country (my dad). Early on, I had dreams of becoming a concert pianist, and I took lessons for many years before finally realizing it wasn’t in the cards for me. But I learned a lot, and had also mastered much of the great American songbook between Hanon Variations and John Thompson’s collection of classical arrangements. Rock was largely banned, both at piano lessons and at home, and was therefore mighty attractive. My half-brother gave me a set of Monkees records without sleeves, all scratched up. I hid them between the lawn chairs on our carport, and sneaked them inside, holding down the needle to play through the pops. As a musical revolution took hold in the early 1980s (remember, this was Missouri), my brother and I were completely entranced, riding our bikes sometimes all the way to Peaches, a store where albums were sold from crates, hence the store’s name. And… back to the original subject of Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy worked at Euclid Records sometime in the late 1980s, when I was a semi-regular customer. He was pretty surly, and he had a band, and that band was Uncle Tupelo. Jay Farrar was a lot nicer, at least back then. I remember many a night listening to them wind up a set with “Screen Door.” Jeff was cute, but less than honorable on one memorable occasion, and I thought a bit less of him when he hurt people I cared about. It took me a few years to hop on the Wilco bus because of that, but as I have gotten older, I find myself stunned how much of my upbringing comes through their music, as well as Son Volt’s. But I guess that’s not so strange after all. It amazes me how much we have in common with people we grew up around, even when we thought we were unique and original beings back then. Now it just feels like home. And, out on a drive in slightly less suburban towns near mine in Massachusetts, Uncle Tupelo sounds pretty good.
I had taken out this particular Uncle Tupelo album after being reminded of the song “Sandusky” in a documentary about Joan Didion. My son and I listened to one great tune after another, and as we passed through the horse farms and other bucolic winter scenes, another familiar tune popped up. It was the theme from The Waltons. Another long lost memory! I had forgotten all about that show! My son didn’t know what I was talking about when I started laughing, so I had to show him the tales and travails of John-Boy, available naturally on some streaming service somewhere.
It is easy to dismiss the treacle of my youth. I scoffed at it all the time as a teen and young adult, with a short nostalgic stint back in my married days when we used to watch episodes of The Waltons after dinner. I might note that at the time, we lived in Vermont, and I suspect that it was one of the few shows available. I was also highly distracted by life, children, exhaustion, and also by my then-husband’s habit of watching the same programs night after night. But even in that, there was a comfort of children, the smell of fresh hay, the brutality of winter and mud and bugs all forgotten in that first glorious June day.