Me, My Mom, and Davy Jones
The day that singer, songwriter, and Monkee Davy Jones died, my relationship changed with my mother. Just a little. I already was grown up enough to appreciate her experience and the advice she gave me. We had grown past much of the battle for respect and understanding that characterized my teens and 20s. We had nice conversations on the phone and finally our visits were devoid of epic screaming matches.
Still, I hadn’t given much thought to the part of my mother that once voraciously consumed teen pop culture. Until she wrote me an email that clearly detailed the differences she saw between Jones and David Cassidy, two teen idols that I assumed were held in equal esteem in her mind. Not at all. While Cassidy could sing, he was, she thought, too full of himself, and seemed to hate performing while he was doing it. Discovering Jones at age eleven meant that she would forever be influenced by her perception of him as the ideal idol: “super-cute, appealing, and nice” was the way she put it.
Before that day, I saw my mother as a product of the 1960s, someone who liked The Beatles and Dusty Springfield and The Monkees, who eagerly adopted an air of superiority, as I felt all 60s children did, when she described how she was there “when everything changed.” Big deal, I thought as a kid. My pop culture means something too. The New Kids on the Block are nothing like The Beatles. They can dance, and they are far cuter. But my mother’s taste had dimensions, as I later discovered. She didn’t just uncritically accept the music and celebrities marketed to her teenage self; she carefully chose the ones that she could identify with, that offered her more than a pretty package or a hit song. Everyone does this, and that’s why some unlikely artists become the most successful: they have something that a listener connects to.
Two days after her email, I was cooking dinner, thinking about my new understanding of my mother, when another memory came back to me. When I was eight years old, my mother gave me a mixtape that had Cyndi Lauper, Corey Hart, and Billy Joel songs on it. She had taped some of her favourite songs from the vinyl albums that she owned; I assumed this was for me to keep and listen to, since she already had the records. I don’t know what happened to the tape, I probably taped New Kids songs from the radio over it. And by that point, our record player was broken, so it was the only way she could hear some of those songs. When she discovered that it wasn’t the same, she lost her mind. The message in her lecture to me was, “Why can’t you ever take proper care of my stuff?” I distinctly remember tuning her out, assigning temporary insanity status to her, because didn’t she give me the tape? Why did it matter so much?
Standing in the kitchen twenty-five years down the road, I figured out why. My mother was trapped at home, yes, by her choosing, but trapped, raising three kids. Her days were an endless routine of driving to various schools, changing diapers, cooking meals, and listening to us whine and fight. Nothing was hers. Everything in our meagre house and existence was ours: we took her magazines and ripped them up, I used her hair dryer and curling iron, we messed up everything with our food and craft glue and runny noses. She went for years without being able to afford nice, new clothes, sacrificing all of her available resources to get us things like ballet or basketball lessons. So no kidding she was mad when I destroyed her tape. That tape represented a quiet moment where she could turn on music and drown us out, where she could escape back to her young and free teenage self and enjoy listening for its own sake, even though such a moment was probably a rarity.
Now we share music and freely trade opinions on the latest pop stars. My parents visit and sift through my pop history textbooks, arguing that much of what has been canonized had no relevance to their own experience growing up. They came to one of my lectures once, which happened to be on The Beatles, and after the usual parental gushing about how proud they were, they analyzed the tracks I had played, pointing out that what became hits and thus part of my lecture were not necessarily the ones that they remembered well. On the day that Jones died, I sent my mom a youtube clip of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” because I knew it was one of her favourites (even though Jones doesn’t sing the lead) and that started our email discussion about him. And then I played it that week in class.
My parents are visiting next week, and while I doubt my mother and I will spend mother’s day embroiled in music discussions – we’re more likely to talk about recipes over tea in the kitchen while my husband and dad talk about Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack in the living room – it’s nice to know that music is one of the things that bonds us.