What Is the Most Nostalgic Song of All Time?

My father died three years ago. He was a good man, a good father. He rocked a Jim Croce mustache and a white man ’fro. He rode a motorcycle and worked as a mechanic; he taught us about engines and cars and horse racing (and forgiveness and love of family and a good joke). I grieved him as children do. But ever since he died, this odd thing has been happening in which a song will come on that reminds me of him — perhaps it’s even a song I don’t ever remember hearing — and I’m suddenly overwhelmed by such an intense wave of nostalgia, I literally have to stand still and catch myself. Like I can’t breathe.

It started with “Celtic New Year” by Van Morrison. I don’t even remember my father playing that song. But it was his music, you know? I was standing in the kitchen when I heard those acoustic guitar chords and that raspy voice and suddenly I saw my dad in his red leather café motorcycle jacket, eating a popsicle on a bench at Knott’s Berry Farm while I ate a snow cone next to him. I could feel the sun on my cheek, the taste of the blueberry ice, the sound of his easy laugh as crow’s feet gathered around his weathered face.

Like I said, I had to steady myself. I sat on the cold tile floor and listened to it again and again and again. It hit me all at once: They’re all gone. It wasn’t just the moment at Knott’s or that smile of his. It was like I could suddenly feel the presence of all the people I’ve lost — my grandmother putting cream cheese on a bagel as she told an off-color joke. My grandfather looking up from his stack of articles from The Progressive with glasses on his nose. My uncles howling with laughter as they tell their stories about Mexico.

The author and his father on a beach
The author and his father (with that Jim Croce mustache)

This feeling never happened to me when I was younger. I suspect it was because I’d never really lost anything so big.

It was as if a lost continent — like Atlantis — had suddenly revealed itself, and I could see such monuments that were built to ideas were now buried under a thousand feet of water. They lived, they laughed, they pursued life, and they’re all gone now.

I don’t know what it is about songs that can make you feel the weight of people or their loss or the fact of your own. But they do.

The next time it happened was “The Highwayman” by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. It was another song I don’t remember ever hearing until it came on one day and there were these great old voices singing about building dams and haunting spaceships. Again, I had to stop what I was doing and play the song twenty times. I just had to sit in it, to think about these lives, to understand their monuments. My father with his brown Porsche 924 that he restored. His cowboy boots. My maternal grandfather with his thin mustache, reading the paper in a chair while we played on the rug.

Who were the dam-builders Waylon Jennings is singing about? Where did they all go? What about the women at the shore, the children waving as the boats fell into the water?

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After the twentieth listen I could finally put the feeling down. But not until then. Not until I’d walked around that room in my head, flashed some light in every darkened corner to see the memories that lay about like sunken treasure.

I had this vision of an entire generation staring down at their phones. Millions and millions in separate rooms talking through wires on social media, like inmates knocking on a prison wall, trying to communicate from their individual cells. As one of them, I posted it to my Twitter account, curious if any other people locked in their cells felt this way about nostalgic songs.

It was like banging out Morse code on a wall: knock, rappity, knock knock.

A simple question, posed at eight o’clock on a Saturday night: What is the most nostalgic song of all time? I suggested “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. (Not the studio version, mind you. But the live version recorded at Warner Bros. Studios in 1997 where Stevie Nicks introduces the song by saying, “This one’s for you, daddy.”) I let the communiqué reverberate through the prison walls and waited.

I got more than 5,000 comments back.

It started with the Beatles (“Let It Be” and “Yesterday”), then moved into James Taylor and even Journey. There was an entire discussion about “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, a sidebar about Jackson Browne (“The Pretender” might just be the correct answer to the original question). Jim Croce himself made an appearance with “Time in a Bottle.” (This prompted a tributary conversation about dads who looked like Jim Croce.)

Many answers were tied to a specific person, or event: “I’m gonna go with ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ mostly because of my mom who passed away four and a half years ago who instilled in me my love of Motown and also because her name was Gladys.”

“ ‘Same Old Lang Syne,’ Dan Fogelberg. They play it every year at Christmas and it punches me in the gut every time I hear it.”

Next we got on to the Pogues, “Fairytale of New York,” that great call-and-response duet with Kirsty MacColl:

I could’ve been someone. Well, so could anyone.
You took my dreams from me, when I first found you.

I kept ’em with me, babe. I put them with my own.
Can’t make it all alone. I built my dreams around you.

By the time we got onto “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack, it was a raging discussion — people posting lyrics and memories and suggestions for new songs, new genres. (What about modern classics like “California Stars” by Billy Bragg and Wilco, or “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem? What about hip-hop?) Most Eagles songs were shouted down (thankfully) though the political undertones of “The End of the Innocence” by Don Henley were treated with a respectful reverence. Someone even made a Spotify playlist inspired by the thread. So many people talked about the relief they felt to simply sit like teenagers in a room, listening to music and talking about what the songs meant to them — the connection, to the past, to the lost Atlantises, the buried treasures in our minds, to each other.

And it was around this time it occurred to me we’ve all lost something: that there is a dread infecting the country, maybe the whole world, a sense that the future might not be as good as the past. And this fight, this dread, this nagging fear about the future has become such a familiar burden, we don’t even think about it. Except when we dive down into memory where it does not exist, and momentarily the weight is lifted. Where we commune with our lost cities and ghosts and sense their presence. Not just the people. But the laughter, the clothes, the hairstyles, the ideas, the sound of their voices filling the room.

I became a father a year and a half ago. We started our son’s musical education with lullabies and children’s tunes. We’ve begun playing modern music for him. His current favorite song is “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads. (I mark this as a personal victory.) He bobs his big noggin and slaps his hands on the comforter of the bed while we dance with him. These are the moments when I feel OK about the future again. When I remember that there are new cities to build, a new lifetime of memories still to come, and the music, for whatever mysterious reason, will always be a pathway back to this moment — for me, maybe for him — laughing and safe and hopeful and free.

It’s all there in the songs.


Django Unchained: The Most Moving Scene Quentin Tarantino Has Yet Filmed

Half a year later, now on Blu-ray and DVD, Django Unchained is still kicking up shit, this time via cross-media trickle-down. TV’s LL Cool J, not long before declaring Confederate flag apparel A-OK with him, dared to express in “Accidental Racist” one hard-edged complaint about the life of a black man in America today: “I feel like a newfangled Django dodging these invisible white hoods.”

Brad Paisley, too, has cited Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 slave-vs.-masters hit as an inspiration for “Accidental Racist,” evidence that this is the rare, stubborn film that isn’t retreating from the culture just because its marketing campaign has ended. Still, now that the furor it stirred has settled, and now that the film is available for easy revisiting, Django stands more clearly as what it actually is: a brave, moving, funny, sometimes tender interracial buddy comedy eager to jab its thumbs into America’s sorest of sore spots. It’s kind of like “Accidental Racist,” except not godawful.

Its most moving scene — and probably the most moving scene Tarantino has yet filmed — exemplifies all this. But first, let us briefly consider the three main Django controversies, which seem even more ginned-up now than upon the original release, when the easily outraged at least had the luxury of not having the chance to see the actual film.

The common complaints:

1. Django Unchained makes frequent use of the word “nigger.”

So did your grandpa. So does 42 and Lincoln. So do half of all YouTube commenters. In Django the word is never used to make characters look “slick,” the word Spike Lee chucked at Tarantino over the use of “nigger” in Jackie Brown. Instead, it’s like the smoking on Mad Men: an artistic device to demonstrate how alien and upsetting the past is to us today.

2. Django Unchained is a violent revenge fantasy, and quite possibly irresponsible in gun-mad America.

So are Justified and G.I. Joe: Retaliation and most video games and the Bush administration. Look, I’m not unsympathetic to this argument. The climactic bloodbaths are the film’s least interesting sequences, and they’re not enlivened enough by Tarantino’s prankish wit, his zeal to surprise. That said, it’s dispiriting to hear complaints that this particular movie is the instance where Hollywood has at long last gone too far: seriously, just as soon as it’s a black guy killing white folks?

3. Django Unchained is racist against white people.

If you worry that white Southerners saying “nigger” in a movie set on antebellum plantations makes the real-life white people of today look bad, well, the problem is with white people today. “Kill white folks, get paid — what’s not to like?” Django muses at one point. That line — and Jamie Foxx’s joking about it on Saturday Night Live — spurred the professionally outraged shouters of the rightwing blogosphere to deem Foxx himself a white-hating racist. That reaction exemplifies a point our Inkoo Kang made online earlier this week: why Hollywood always prefers to try to sell the Non-Threatening Black Man (NTBM) — exactly who Django dared to unchain.

The most affecting sequence of the film — or of Tarantino’s career — was entirely overlooked during the winter’s shitstorm. It comes a third of the way in, after Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) has freed Django, collected the bounty on the Brittle Brothers, and in a quiet campfire scene offered to “partner up” with Django for the winter. That scene ends with a handshake, a white hand and a black hand on a bitterly cold night. Schultz, in anticipation, removes his glove early; Django, still skeptical of white aid, slips his own off only after asking “Why you care what happen to me?” Touchingly, it’s Django who extends his hand first.

Then comes the scene. Tarantino cuts to a storefront from which Schultz and Django emerge, Django at last in his bad-ass freeman’s jacket and cowboy hat and bearing a gorgeous new saddle with his lone initial, “D,” burnt into the leather. Pop music kicks in, but not the blaxploitation soundtrack ringer you might expect from Tarantino. Instead, it’s the gentle folk of Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name,” a perfectly pleasant highway song that suddenly takes on urgent meaning: Here, a man most of the characters in the movie call “boy” or “nigger” or “jimmy” not only has freedom and economic independence. He has a name — and proof of it on his saddle and his freedom papers.

“I carry it with me like my daddy did,” Croce sings of his name, but the one-named Django, of course, can’t do this — did Django ever know his father, or his father’s name? The next line, though, sung as Django mounts his own horse in a stable, speaks for both, beautifully: “But I’m living the dream that he kept hid.” The stable doors burst open with the chorus; as Croce sings “moving me down the highway” we see Django and Schultz, partners, hit the road. The ensuing montage — snow-packed mountains, wandering bison, a vision of Kerry Washington — could only be more moving if it weren’t truncated.

Originally, in the theater, I found Django Unchained thrilling but thin, its plotting straight-ahead and somewhat predictable, especially Tarantino’s choice to pin Django’s story to Wagner, German legend, and Super Mario Brothers — a princess in a castle!

But that simplicity now seems the best possible choice. Django’s fights are for the basic rights that today we’re fortunate enough not to have to fight for: a name, a family. (Gay Americans are still too often denied that second one.) Most movie heroes have the luxury to fight for what they’ve lost; Django has to fight even for the right to be a hero.