I only had two CDs growing up, but they were good ones: “Elvis: 30 #1 Hits” and the Beatles’ greatest hits compilation, “1.”
Really, they were my dad’s – the hardest working man I know, who immigrated from Mexico at 16, unable to speak a word of English. He would work two, three, four jobs at a time – the day shift, a few hours’ sleep, then back out for the night shift.
I once asked him what it was about those two artists, from an earlier generation than his, that so appealed to him. He told me that unlike newer music, the words of those classic artists were intelligible even to him. My dad knew exactly what John Lennon meant when he sang,
It’s been a hard day’s night
And I’ve been working like a dog
It’s been a hard day’s night
I should be sleeping like a log.
Yet I came to suspect, as I came to discover and appreciate these and other artists for myself, that there was something more to my dad’s appreciation for their music. Sonically isolated from whatever my peers were listening to by the gulf of Mexican radio that constantly played in the house, I found refuge on the twin islands of Elvis and the Beatles. Perhaps my dad, like me, had found in these simple pop songs a version of America he could begin to call his own.
For me, this was the America of James Dean, Jack Kerouac, JFK, Haight-Ashbury, Memphis, Lubbock and New Orleans. That the vision of America these songs painted so vividly in my mind might not have been made for me never once crossed my mind.
Each single from these classic artists was like a complete musical education in itself, and so it wasn’t long before I made my way to others – Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. Mine was the first generation fortunate enough to grow up with access to a virtually unlimited musical library, so that even as the working class son of immigrants, I had access to all the music I could imagine. With each MP3, CD and LP, I claimed for myself a place in the America I imagined.
Through music, I found that I could often forge a common connection with people from all walks of life, with backgrounds vastly different from mine. But I soon found out that even then, the gulf remained.
Having never frequented a baseball stadium growing up, how was I to know that “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” were as much a part of America’s favorite pastime as peanuts and hot dogs? I loved these songs, but if the source of that love was so irreconcilably different, was that connection – and by extension, the very lineage I had claimed for myself in my American heritage – nothing more than a mirage? I loved “We Are the Champions,” but to me it was no more special than “Bicycle Race.” Did that make me a fraud?
So began a kind of musical arms race. Maybe I couldn’t know the memories I had missed out on because of my background, but by listening to one more album, one more track, grasping at even the possibility of forging that shared connection, maybe I could do the next best thing. With each added marker of pop cultural capital, I could further cement my own status in the America I ardently believed was as much my own as anyone else’s.
It was only in sharing my story with other first-generation Americans, other children of immigrants, that I found my story wasn’t a unique one. We all shared the same burning desire to stake our claim for our own piece of the American dream, and something as simple as the music we chose to listen to could raise those nagging doubts that the dream was never meant for us.
But I remain steadfast in the belief that there is a place for all of us. In the meantime, I’ll put on my records – maybe “Born to Run,” or “Highway 61 Revisited.” I’ll hear the pop of the turntable needle, the crackle and hiss of decades of history whisking past, and then – America.
Sergio Lopez: 916-321-1909, email@example.com