Part One: Obsession
It all started with an iPod. Laura and I both swore we’d never own one. Laura believed they were responsible for the decline of Western Civilization–no one speaks to each other anymore; they wander around running into things; often, that thing is her. I thought they were too expensive. I walked to work, or rode the bus, and was often bored. But it was a good bored. I could think; let my mind wander. It seemed dumb to spend $300 to stop thinking. We bought one anyway, for a variety of reasons.
First, we wanted to play white noise at night. We’d read that it might keep our then three-week-old daughter asleep. We didn’t have room for a full stereo system in the bedroom, so we got some cheap computer speakers and figured we could plug the iPod into them. Plus, that’d give us a way to play music too, which we’d read might help gether to sleep. We thought we’d play soothing music: new age, classical, celtic. The deciding factor was that we could also use the iPod in the car. We reasoned that with an iPod, those same new age, classical, and celtic songs could follow us around town, making our little Ella sleep like an angel.
We have a fine car; a 2000 Saturn SL-1. Not flashy, but trusty. Not new, but paid for. Not big, but I hate driving big cars, and it’s as safe as any sedan can be from the monster trucks posing as family transportation that clog the highways these days. The car is great, but the factory radio sucked. So, before a cross-country drive a few years ago, we replaced it with a Sony deck that’d let us play CDs and MP3s. The unit we bought does all that and more…much more. It could play regular CDs, and of MP3s. It had a headphone-style jack so you could plug in an MP3 player way. If that wasn’t good enough, it had a USB plug on the front so you could jam in your thumb drive and play any MP3s you had on there. Last, it had an officially licensed iPod cord coming off the back. This cord dangled in the passenger’s footwell for over two years. We rolled it, coiled it, taped it, shoved it under things, but it kept falling out, getting in the way. I guess it wanted to be useful–it ached to have an iPod connected to its pins. After Eleanor arrived, it did. That’s when the Hells Bells obession began. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I have to tell you more about the stereo.
When you hook your iPod up through the officially licensed cable, the deck uses its own built-in software to control your iPod, and you control the tracks, playlists, menus, etc. from the buttons on the deck. That’s right, you use the tiny buttons originally designed in the 1960s to control an AM radio, and a 12-character green dot-matrix display (where “B” and “8” look exactly the same) to navigate tracks, artists, playlists on over 100GBs of MP3s. What could be simpler? The deck also has some really fun behavioral quirks. If you are actually playing a song at the moment you plug the iPod in, the deck knows what you’re playing and takes it up from there. However, if you’ve paused it, or backed up to a menu, or breathed while plugging it in, then it couldn’t access the iPod’s memory to know what you had been playing. Instead, it just played the first track from the first album, ordered alphabetically.
When Ella was born, we were slowly, half-heartedly, digitizing our music collection. We have an abnormally large number of CDs (somewhere around 700). And despite my spending a decade in the software industry, we have luddite tendencies. We didn’t trust that MP3s would sound as good as the CD (which they don’t) or be as fun as pulling out the CD and looking through the cover art (which it isn’t); or be as wonderful and painless an experience as everyone said it was (which it also isn’t). We started the ripping with Rock. We’d both worked at CD megastores in the past. Rock always comes first. We’d completed the first half. The first album, alphabetically, in that genre was AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” The first song on that album is Hells Bells. Can you see it coming? Then you’re smarter than we were.
Car rides are notorious soothers for babies. We heard anecdotes from our birthing class instructor, and our First Weeks leader, and our parents, and other parents, and just about everyone, about the wonders of car rides. There’s a family legend about Laura’s parents driving from Rapid City, South Dakota to Chadron, Nebraska in the middle of the night (an 5 hour round trip) just to get some quiet, if not some sleep. In Ella’s case, we felt like we’d been given the bait and switch. Ella would sleep in the car, but only when music was playing, and when you were going above 40mph. If you dipped below 40mph, no matter how long she’d been asleep, no matter how deeply asleep she seemed, she would cry. We were in our own personal version of the movie Speed: Keanu Reeves Adam pointing out obstacles and contacting home base for advice, while Sandra Bullock Laura keeps a level head and weaves through traffic. Meanwhile the infant bomb is still strapped in the back seat and we can’t slow down, or our eardrums will rupture.
Music and motion, that was the magic combination. Picture two frantic parents jumping into the front seats while the baby starts to cry because you’ve gone out of sight. Ella couldn’t stand our being out of sight. Talking didn’t count. She had to see you, which meant you had to be, at most, eight inches away from her face. Hard to do from the driver’s seat when she’s strapped into the Graco in the back, facing away from you. She didn’t cry if she was asleep, but you had to get her to sleep. Quick! hit the gas and get this bucket of bolts moving. And put on some music! But what to play? Celtic Memory wasn’t on the iPod yet. That was in Irish, a subset of World, which wouldn’t be digitized until after Rock, Soundtracks, Showtunes, and Classical. And we weren’t about to go scanning through to find something appropriate. Picture that scene: click, scrolling song title slowly comes into view, that’s not appropriate, next, still no good, click the button to switch to artist scan mode, that’s the wrong button you just turned on repeat, [curse], look up at the road, let me do that you just drive, I’ve got it, no just drive, click, accessing, oh hell with it, this is fine, Fine, FINE, not bad actually, this is fine. We didn’t have time for that. There was a baby crying in the back seat. We just went with whatever came first: Hells Bells.
Perhaps this is a good time to tell you about the song Hells Bells, and AC/DC. If you’re not familiar with AC/DC, they’re an Australian, heavy metal, blues-infused, four-piece from the late-70’s/early-80’s “bad boys of rock” tradition. They play odes to the triumvirate gods of the rock pantheon: sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. They are most famous for their guitar player, Angus Young, who wears a boarding schoolboy’s outfit on stage (navy short pants, blazer with patch, striped beanie), and their high-pitched, scratchy-voiced singer. Actually, make that singers. The original singer, Bonn Scott, drank himself to an early grave, and was replaced in 1980 by Brian Johnson. AC/DC fans can tell the difference, but the casual listener may not realize that a change was made. They can both scream like banshees.
If you’re not familiar with Hells Bells (note: they forgot the apostrophe, not me), it’s a song about the devil taking people to hell, or perhaps someone in the band taking people to hell, or someone else taking people to hell, or perhaps it doesn’t make sense at all, and is just a heavy metal song from the days when vaguely satanic imagery sold millions of records. In any case, it’s an epic–a start quiet and slow then build to a headbanging frenzy, epic–with all the requisite parts. It starts with low tolling bells: “dong…dong.” Next, Angus Young adds a haunting, dirge-like guitar riff which drives the rest of the song, single notes picked out in quarters and triplets. After one eight-bar riff, the drummer brings a ride cymbal in on two and four; the next time through, he layers on a kick drum. One hit on two, one on four. Emphasis, but with lots of empty space for the bells to echo around your head. Once more through the phrase and we pick up the bass. You don’t notice it unless you listen for it, but you can feel it, a drone, just two notes in the eight-bar phrase. Then, a drum fill, and everyone breaks out of their slumber. The drum is playing a rough rock beat, the bass is pulsing through the chord progression, and we enter the heart of the song. By the time Brian Johnson sing his first line, you’re already on your feet with your horns in the air. “I’m rollin thunder, pourin’ rain. I’m comin’ on like a hurricane. White lightin’s flashin’ across the sky. You’re only young, but you’re gonna die.” Maybe you have to be a certain age, or of a certain age, but I still think that line rocks. So, that is the music, those are the lyrics, that Ella heard whenever we took her out in the car. And Lo! behold the power of associative behavior.
By two months, Hells Bells could be heard night and day in our little Seattle condo. Set on a loop, it played while one or both of us bounced, shhh’d, and sang our little groupie to sleep. It was a cure-all. If she was fussy from gas, overtiredness, or needed to eat but dad was getting the bottle ready, there was nothing like it. We parents couldn’t stand just the one song all the time, so the rest of the Back in Black album soon followed, and the Black Crowes, and Guns n’ Roses were eventually added to the set list. These additions were not to be used calm her down. Oh no. The were only as after-the-storm-but-she’s-still-not-totally-asleep sanity keepers. More often than not, though, Ella would hear the changeover from Angus to Slash, and her eyes would pop open. That’s when Laura would give me that “What the heck were you thinking changing the song?” look, and I’d be on rocking duty for another half hour.
Ella got older, and her horizons widened. At four months, she was grabbing and rolling over, she could see across the room and recognize you. But her taste in music was as restricted as ever. She would still, as we described it, lose her rhythm. One minute she’s fine, playing happily, then suddenly she’s crying. As soon as we played music, she’d be fine. The radio was a decent choice. If you stuck to heavy metal and classic rock, something with a good beat, she calmed down. We tried working in classical, new age, even Celtic Memory, but they had no effect. She wanted to rock-n-roll all night. And even though the radio would work most of the time, if she really got going, if the pitch and volume were trending in the wrong direction, it was back to Hells Bells, the instant baby cure-all.
She’s now eleven months old, and she is not a super sleeper, but she’s getting better. Many nights fifteen storybooks and a good nursing will put her to sleep. If that doesn’t work, then riding in the sling with daddy singing “Oh Shannendoah” or “Molly Malone” will often put her out. Some nights though, it’s just not enough. If the day was too intense, she’s too frustrated, or overtired, then we break out the jams. I have a new playlist in iTunes full of hard rock and heavy metal, called “Hush Little Baby, Don’t Say a Word.” It usually works when singing doesn’t. But if that won’t cut it, we have an ace up our sleeve. If the dulcet tones of Axel Rose won’t do the trick, then we can break out the big gun, and put Hells Bells on a loop. The second she hears those low, tolling bells, she perks up, looks at the speakers, looks up at me, and lays her head on my chest. It’s only a matter of time, then, until we can all go to sleep.
Part Two: The Concert
We live in the north of Munich, in Olympia Dorf. It’s a huge complex of apartments and condominiums which now house drowsy student/parents and their young children, and retired people who tend their planters with utmost care. Once, though, the apartments of Olympic Village were the temporary homes of the lithe young athletes of the 1972 Olympic Games. That’s one of the sad ones. It’s the one where the Israeli team was murdered by Palestinian terrorists. The building where that happened is about 100 yards from ours. We were worried for a few weeks that it was ours, but we didn’t ask anyone. If it was, we really didn’t want to know. Up the street and just over a bridge is Olympiapark, the main Olympic grounds, with the swimming/diving hall, the indoor arena, and Olympiastadion.
Olympiapark is really an amazing place. The stadium is half sunk into a hill, has tall graceful spires, and a glass and steel half-roof which looks like a spider web, and which spills out of the stadium, over the plaza, and links to the other buildings. Instead of being surrounded by a huge asphalt parking lot, like most stadiums, it’s in the middle of a beautiful park. If hobbits and elves got together to have an Olympics in Bree, this is what they would build. In addition to the other olympic buildings, there is a beautiful pond where you can rent swan paddle boats, kilometers of walking/biking trails, and wonderful grassy hills. The biggest of these looks down, just a little, into the far end of Olympiastadium. One night in May, AC/DC paid this stadium a visit.
All that day the U-3 was packed with tattooed men and women wearing leather pants and black T-shirts coming up to our park. There were twice as many trains (running every five minutes, instead of ten), all day, all full to the brim with AC/DC fans. That’s a lot of AC/DC fans. It’s a big stadium, but not that big. We had to find out what was going on. Plus, we felt we owed it to Ella to take her near the concert, even if she wasn’t old enough to go in. We planned to take a walk around the stadium, witness the mob scene, and since it’s an open-roof stadium, listen to a bit of the concert. We headed over around dusk. Ella was tired, and fell asleep in her stroller almost immediately. Large groups of fans were still moving towards the stadium, finishing their beers and trying to shove them into already overflowing garbage bins. A few eco-conscious fans collected their bottles in boxes and plastic sacs and stacked them near the fence, or near their bikes, so they could pick them up them on the way out. We stopped to read a few posters advertising upcoming heavy metal shows. Germans love heavy metal above all other forms of music, and they have some great band names to prove it. There are good names: Dream of Evil, Witchburner, Enemy of the Sun. Bad names: Bonded by Blood, Powerwolf, and Jon Olivia’s Pain. And there the truly hideous: Davidian, Contradiction, and best of all Hackneyed. Did these people not get the message that they’re a heavy metal band? They should learn something from their colleagues. Heavy metal is about skulls, blood, and fire, not ironic self-effacement. Hackneyed? Maybe an emo-pop solo act like Bright Eyes could pull that off as an album title, but heavy metal? Come on! Anyway, we had a good laugh, and pushed on towards the stadium. Just as the sun was disappearing behind the hill, we rounded the curve to see the stadium and the park.
Now we knew where all those people were going. The big hill had turned from green to black. All those leather-clad fans who didn’t have tickets had settled for a case of Augustiner, a picnic blanket, and a spot on the hill. You can see a little, and you can hear perfectly. Those who couldn’t find a spot on the hill were milling about in the plaza below. The beer and döner-kebap carts stayed open late to serve the fans who hadn’t brought their own. Everyone was anxiously waiting for the boys from down under to take the stage. They didn’t have to wait long. We were still looking for the best place to park our baby buggy when Brian Johnson started belting out Rock N’ Roll Train. The response from Ella was immediate.
She had been fast asleep, her stroller reclined for greater comfort. When she heard the gritty falsetto, she popped her eyes open, propped herself up on an elbow, and smiled a huge, open-mouth, giggling smile. She knew that voice. That scratching, screaming, soothing voice was bouncing around and surrounding her. It was everywhere. She was in heaven.
We stood in the plaza for about an hour. Ella was bouncing in our arms and laughing. We had a wonderful time too. We are slightly abashed, though, that Ella seemed to particularly enjoy “The Jack,” a song about one of the band members contracting Chlamydia. But good times like that can’t last forever. Despite her favorite band being so close and clear, despite the smiles and laughter, despite her dancing in our arms, she was getting tired. She was fussing, threatening to cry, sounding like a car with a faulty starter. I put her in the baby sling to cuddle her, and we decided to take her home. Then fate struck one more time. We heard the bells. She knew those bells, Laura knew those bells, I knew knew those bells. It was her all time, number one, best, most favorite song. She calmed immediately, and when Angus Young started that haunting guitar riff, she looked towards the stadium, then up at me, laid her head on my chest, and went to sleep.
Part Three: Fate and Fantasy
This obsession with Hells Bells could be caused by the iPod, and the car stereo, and the countless times she’s heard it while nodding off, but it might have been preordained. Let me explain. Before Ella was even a raised eyebrow and a passionate look in my eyes, more than a year, in fact, before she was conceived, Laura and I were walking through Seattle’s Post Alley. That’s an offshoot of Pike Place Market. It’s got some interesting things like a cool tea shop, but mostly it’s stores like: Made in Washington, A Thousand Things You Never Knew Existed, and Wouldn’t This Look Good Collecting Dust On Your Shelf? In the window of a swanky baby boutique, we actually saw something we couldn’t live without. It was a tiny T-shirt, black, with silver writing. In unmistakable lighting-inspired script, it said “AB/CD”. We had no child, and no prospects for a child, but we knew that someday we would. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we asked the clerk how long they might have this in stock.
“Well, at least until the fall. After that I don’t know. Why?” She saw the disappointment in our faces. “How long were you thinking?”
She laughed out loud.
“Let’s get it,” we said. We didn’t know what size to get. We knew that babies were sometimes born too big for their clothes so we wanted to be sure. Err on the big side, we though. We got a 2T. That’s for two year olds. Yikes! We didn’t know any better then. In a year or so, when Ella fits it, she’ll certainly have earned it. She’ll probably have listened to Hells Bells over a thousand times.
Our friends and family are alternately amused, and completely baffled by, Ella’s AC/DC obsession. Friends have exalted the “all-Angus diet,” suggested that we start teaching her how to play Guitar Hero as soon as possible, and two friends have threatened us with drum kits for her second birthday. Laura’s parents are surprisingly good sports about it. Their house normally resonates to the smooth timbre of a French horn, or the nimble grace of a fully-loaded string section. When Ella arrived and needed hard rock on the radio, Grandma Mary played along. She jumped and jiggled with Ella till she fell asleep, then turned it back to the classical station. Her other Grandma Mary made her a “Lil’ Rocker” outfit for Christmas, complete with AC/DC onesie, red velvet shrug with skull and crossbones lining, and a matching headband. Ella loved it (especially the headband, which she tried to eat). Maybe she’ll receive inappropriately occult gifts for many years to come, like a skull on her sweet sixteen. Or, maybe we’ll forget all about it.
I have a vision of her at eighteen. Her AC/DC obsession was over before she could really remember anything, maybe three or four. She hasn’t asked about it since, and it has somehow slipped through the cracks all the times I’ve told embarrassing Eleanor stories to her boyfriends as they sat on the couch, trapped between a protesting Eleanor and me, wanting to laugh, but fearing dangerous repercussions from my feisty daughter. In my fantasy, she’s driving down the road on a summer afternoon, in her faded, red 2016 Toyota Celica.
She’s driving mad. It’s been a bad day at work. She’s doing an internship at Bethesda Medical, earning experience before med school, and though she doesn’t tell me, earning some beer money too. She’s frustrated because the tasks they give the interns aren’t challenging enough (she’s brilliant, you see). She could handle the hard stuff if they’d just give her a chance. Anyway, she’s angry as she drives. The windows are down, and she’s taking deep breaths. She wishes she smoked, smoking seems to calm her friends sometimes, but of course she knows better. She would never smoke. She’s got the radio tuned to KROK – “The Rock.” They’re playing the latest track from the parent-scare band of the day. Parent scaring is a grand (and highly lucrative) tradition in the music business. It’s probably older than the 1950s, but the lineage traces back at least that far. It includes Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Marilyn Manson, and System of a Down. But of course, I listened to parent-scare bands too, so they don’t scare me. The boy bands (NKOTB, N*Sync, Backstreet Boys) have always been much scarier.
Chauncy, the young, hip DJ (KROK still has DJ’s; this is kind of a throwback station), is signing off and handing off to Rex, The Dinosaur. Rex (on-air name: T-Rex) has been with the station forever. He’s going gray on the sides and bald on top. Rex is always decrying today’s music, talking about how it was back in the day, how much better the music was when he was a kid, and about how Bryce, the f*ing station manager, won’t let him play the good sh*t (Jimmy, the sound engineer, has to keep one hand on the dump button–that’s radio talk for the bleep button–during Rex’s show). Today Rex has decided he’s had enough. He’s playing what he wants to play. “This is T-Rex, rockin’ you all day, and gettin’ you ready to party all night,” he says as he comes on the mic. “Today, we’re not playing any of the crap that I’m supposed to play. We’re bustin’ out the good sh-BLEEP. And we’re starting right now with one of the best of all time.”
At first, Ella is not sure if he’s played anything. It’s just silence. Maybe they pulled the plug on him. She leans forward and turns up the volume. Then she hears the bells. The slow, tolling bells. She leans back, relaxes her shoulders. “This is cool. I’ve never heard this song before,” she thinks to herself. The guitar riff starts and Ella is strangely happy, like she hasn’t been in a long time. The stress of the day is melting away. Her shoulders are relaxed. She can feel her cares draining out her feet, through the pedals. She wants to go faster, driven by the music, but she knows better. She carefully obeys the speed limit. When the bass enters she’s smiling widely, straining her cheek muscles. She’s a beautiful bud in the spring, raindrops glistening on her petals. She doesn’t know why, but she starts giggling. When Brian Johnson comes in, she opens her mouth and sings along. She knows every word. Every single one. She doesn’t understand. She gives her mouth a look like it’s betraying her as she sings along. Why does she know this song? She doesn’t care. She’s flying. She sings with abandon (though she continues to drive carefully, safely). She’s shaking her strawberry-blonde hair, pounding her fists on the steering wheel, rocking in her seat. She is Hell’s Belle.