Kim Nelson: Music is Oxygen

“Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play? Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day…”

It’s a normal weekend morning in my parent’s house, the radio on in the living room, music pouring from the speakers and filling the whole floor. I’m curled up in a chair, reading in the natural sunlight. Both of my parents drink coffee as the stereo plays: “Breakfast with the Beatles” on 93XRT, The Who, early U2, David Bowie. If you tried to guess based on the music, it could be almost any year of my life. The soundtrack never changed, no matter my age, whether the book in my hands was Little House on the Prairie, Sweet Valley High, or On the Road.

My siblings and I absorbed the music along with the aroma of coffee and the morning sunshine; loving music became an important part of each of our lives. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve run into my parents at more concerts in my adulthood than any of my friends. (Sample text from my mom: “Are you at the Arcade Fire show tonight? Dad and I are by the stage, left side.”)

“Let the children lose it, let the children use it, let the children boogie…”

One summer, in 2002, when I had just graduated from college, my mom invited me along with her to see David Bowie perform at Tinley Park. She scored seats in the the tenth row of the pavilion. From our fantastic vantage point, we could see him command the stage, his energy and talent flooding through the enormous venue, despite being such a slight, elfin figure. The first song he performed was “Life on Mars?”. It was almost surreal to see him in person, a rock icon performing a song we’ve heard countless times in our life until the lyrics are etched into our subconsciousness, words I’ve sung along with on the radio back in that cozy, sun-drenched living room on many a Sunday morning. The audience of thousands sang along, feeling the communal thrill of happiness over being present of that moment in time. Music is oxygen.

My mom was the first one to text me about David Bowie’s death. The songs on his most recent album, Blackstar, would be the last new songs of his to ever emanate from my parents’ speakers.

“I’ve got the world on a string, sittin’ on a rainbow. Got the string around my finger…”

Within a day of David Bowie’s death, my grandpa also passed away. It was a much more personal loss, though no less intertwined with memories of music. I last saw him just a few days earlier when I visited him in hospice. The room was warm and full of the quiet chatter of loved ones. He mostly slept through the visit, his body weary from 91 years of life. There was a small CD player on the corner table playing his favorite, Frank Sinatra. The music hopefully offered him some comfort as he slipped away. For those of us there to see him, the classic standards brought back a flood of memories, of seeing him younger, more vibrant, entertaining family in his and my grandma’s home. Sinatra’s voice makes me picture their dining room with shelves lined with family photos, the warm laughter of my aunts and cousins adding to the soundtrack.

It made me think about the music I associate with everyone else in my life, how certain opening chords can bring me rushing back to a memory I had almost forgotten. Sometimes it’s personal, kept in a secret part of ourselves. Other times, we can be among thousands, hearing the same music and feeling a communal emotion, acknowledging our shared humanity.

Most of all, I love having music speak for me when I don’t have the words to speak for myself.

“Purify the colors, purify my mind, and spread the ashes of the colors over this heart of mine…”




Lyrics included by the Beatles, David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Arcade Fire.

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