It just so happened that the transition from high school to college for me and my classmates paralleled the end-transition from the 1980s to the last decade of the millennium: from glam to grunge. The hair bands stopped teasing their bleach-blond tresses and let them tangle and return to their natural color. I contemplated attending class in my pajamas. I love how the world imitates my life.
This is not to say that as the 80s turned into the 90s, I caught up to the music of the age ... that didn't happen till the 2000s and I haven't gotten there yet.
The soundtrack of my college years was greatly influenced by my friends and my weekly attendance at various fraternity parties across campus. Though I surrounded myself with people who had similar backgrounds and experiences, the collection of music that came to that collaborative table could not have been more varied despite the fact that it consisted of at least 98% rock and 2% everything else. From one end of the group, we had an obsession with U2 & REM while another person built their collection around Men Without Hats and Pet Shop Boys. Add to it my 60s retro collection-slash-Bruce-slash some few 80s MTV gems and throw in a few (several) drunken frat parties blaring dance classics such as Joy and Pain and Baby Got Back.
The songs that take me back to those days, like Joy and Pain, each have their individual memories attached so that when I hear the songs, I can propel backwards to that moment, that person, that time. I actually only own one of these songs, relying otherwise on the radio to transport me randomly.
I am not a Led Zeppelin fan. Chalk it up to being inundated with Stairway to Heaven throughout most of my high school years. I have a teeth-clenching reaction to that song and will leap tall buildings to turn off a radio when I hear those first few notes. Given this extreme reaction, I expected that I disliked all of Led Zeppelin and never bothered to buy any of their records. Until TKE.
TKE, Tau Kappa Epsilon, was a favorite frat of mine at Knox. I had been involved with TKE since freshman year when I in my yellow VW Rabbit helped kidnap 8 naked pledges and a shoe. Did I mention the yellow VW Rabbit? ... that comfortably held 3?
TKE wasn't as famous for their parties as, say, the Phi Delts were, but I enjoyed them ever so much more; I attended as many as I could which, to tell the truth, was probably all of them. At a Phi Delt party, you would hear Joy and Pain and be crushed on the dance floor while trying to keep the beer in your cup. At a TKE party, you would hear Misty Mountain Hop as you strolled through the empty dance floor from one conversation to the next, upstairs through the various rooms and eventually settle into an Indian squat up on the top floor bobbing your head the entire time.
In my opinion, Misty Mountain Hop is the finest of the Led Zeppelin catalog. Yes, the bulk of this reason is because it takes me back to TKE. That's what art is. It takes you back to something you fondly remember because you spend all of your time moving forward and you need something to take you back every now and then.
When Misty Mountain Hop comes on the radio, I am back to being 20 years old with schoolgirl crushes and little responsibility (honestly, looking back, I could have taken a little more responsibility but that's not the kind of taking me back art does for me) and a Saturday night that could go all weekend. These days, by Saturday night and the weekend being half over, I'm already anticipating Monday but back then, Monday was a million beers away.
College wasn't all classes and frat parties. Often, my friends and I would congregate in a room or a suite (or an apartment Senior year) and talk, nurse beers, listen to someone's CDs. Two separate friends owned the Billy Joel Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2 CDs. Often, these CDs would be in the carousel.
Coming into college, I knew Billy Joel for Piano Man, a song I don't like much more than Stairway to Heaven for the same reasons, some poppy 80s tunes he wrote after Christie Brinkley actually fell in love with him (oh to be an unattractive, wealthy man), a few songs I like very much such as Pressure and Allentown and not much else.
A favorite song on these CDs for many of us was Captain Jack. While not my favorite on the CDs - that would be Scenes From an Italian Restaurant - this is the song that takes me back to those conversations and relaxations so long ago. I was told the song is about cocaine and the lyrics bear that out. Perhaps in college, that was more akin to our lives though none of us ever strolled down that road. But the nihilism that is suggested by heavy cocaine use isn't rare among late teens/early 20s kids and with or without the expensive habit, that nihilism is what always attracted me to the song and still makes me smile when I hear it now, when I am far less self-absorbed. I enjoy remembering the carefree parts of college most, I think. And if I were ever to have a kid, which is not in the plans but God has a funny sense of humor sometimes, I would insist s/he have a few of those years themselves.
The one song that I expect will always draw me back to college and I hope we play every time we reunite is Layla by Derek and the Dominoes.
Speaking of self-absorbed - we suspected, while in college and I think not entirely jokingly, that our group, self-titled Idiots, was being filmed as a reality show by aliens. Now, this seems like less of a leap these days in which 60% of the shows on TV are reality shows but back in 1992-1993, the only reality show on TV was MTV's The Real World and none of us really watched it ... television in college is both a luxury and a waste of time; I didn't own one and rarely watched until Senior year when Jen Clark moved into my room with her TV and all I remember watching is the Waco showdown.
But we were half-convinced in our narcissistic group-think that we were so fascinating, we must be television fodder to someone, somewhere. Thus, The Idiots. Thus, the theme music, Layla. Not the whole song, just the instrumental portion that is also in the Goodfellas scene where all the bodies of Jimmy Conway's former colleagues are turning up. I've always enjoyed that irony, by the way.
What that piece of music has always meant to me (besides dead mobsters in pink Cadillacs and freezer trucks) is friendship. I had some of the greatest friends in college and while there were plenty of bad times with them, I couldn't have had good times without them. Paraphrasing Aristotle, one cannot have the good without the bad and vice versa. Without bad, it is impossible to discern or define good and good relationships need bad times to be really and truly good. That pretty well sums up my college friendships and even after. And I cherish them more for it. It has been an honor to see these friends grow and learn and love and live. Layla reminds me of that every time I hear it and inevitably puts a smile on my face. And inevitably makes me sit up straighter and smooth my hair ? just in case the aliens are still watching.