For the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I will be using this space for a series of pieces I call Mixtape – a set of personal stories about the pop music that made a positive change in my life. Enjoy and share your thoughts on these and the other songs and records that shaped the way you see and hear things now! Part of the power of music is how it can be both personal and communal at once.
As an adult, I realize now I was being an accessory to vandalism and theft. But at the time, the crime we felt being committed against us was boredom. It was a rainy Saturday night in small-town Arkansas and we’d been driving around aimlessly.
Small towns have a way of inventing an adolescent subculture around cars as a stand-in for the illusion of freedom. There may be nothing to really accomplish, but we were determined to use every nondescript weekend evening as an opportunity to flaunt the little autonomy we’d been granted. Driving without real purpose seemed to do at least that.
Piled into secondhand cars, we’d circle each other outside of a non-descript gas station a few miles from the high school and then either decide to take the long way to a house with an empty basement or to head to the tourist-centered downtown for a drive by well-lit marquees and storefronts.
But on this particular night, someone knew of a new addendum to one of the nice neighborhoods. The roads had been poured, the street signs were planted. But there were no houses yet.
I ended up in the car with a kid we all called “Shep” – a moniker used to lessen confusion in a group that held too many boys with the same first name. He always wore ballcaps and had big opinions and an early curfew.
I am not sure how I ended up with him that night. Our pairing wasn’t a regular occurrence. We orbited the same group of friends and were fond enough of each other, but our times together outside of a bigger mass of people were few and far between.
The caravan journey to the subdivision must have been his idea for as we pulled away from the gas station, he revealed true intentions.
“There is a street sign with my first name on it out there,” he said, meaning the deserted map of blacktop we were headed towards. “I think I’d like to have it.”
He led the rest of the group to the ultimate destination and then veered another direction, deeper into the development.
I never wanted to be in trouble as a teenager, but I was okay with being somewhat close to danger. Saturday nights like this one were often only exercises in me rationalizing the questionable groupthink to which I would succumb. I knew that taking a street sign was not a good idea. It also sounded difficult.
Shep pulled into an abandoned cul-de-sac in what felt like the woods and pointed at the sign he wanted. Then he backed the car up and positioned the vehicle at an angle against the pole, creating a makeshift lift so that he could climb on the roof to claim his prize.
As he went to get out of the car, he leaned back and grabbed for a CD somewhere in the car’s interior.
“Oh! You have to hear this!” he said excitedly. “There is this new British band…” The words trailed off as he jabbed at the car stereo. He inserted the found disc, rolled his driver’s side window down so he could hear the music on the roof and then exited and climbed atop the car.
The calm acoustic guitar strum of “Yellow,” a song by that “new British band” Coldplay, that in the next year would become an international mega-hit – began. So did a hackneyed thievery.
I now sit at a desk most days that features behind it a large framed photo of Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. In the shot, he is suspended in the air, amid a jump that happened onstage during a show I attended last summer. A photographer friend of mine captured the moment from the foot of the stage and I begged for a copy to enlarge and frame.
Since my very first encounter with the music of Coldplay during that rain-soaked pilfering, they’ve become a weird part of my musical make-up. I didn’t mean for it to happen. In many ways, their music is amalgamation – equal parts Radiohead, U2, Supertramp, Jeff Buckley and hopeful, good intention. But I tell myself that most music is this way. While band members tote their idealism and name their kids after fruit, I remain still enthralled and inspired almost every time I hear them playing.
“Clocks” was the soundtrack to parties at my first apartment. “Speed of Sound” takes me back to the radio studio where I began my career. My friend Shack (not to be confused with the aforementioned Shep…) drove across the country to go with me to watch them play “Viva La Vida” on a crowded lawn in Cincinnati.
But Parachutes still holds the most magic for me.
Maybe they’ve just always symbolized stolen moments. Maybe they just remind me of that guarded hopefulness you start to lose as you age. Maybe I just like the feeling that you may just get away with it – street sign and all.