What is a basement song? It has nothing to do with the Basement Tapes. I can only think of a couple Dylan and /or Band songs that may qualify as a basement song. My best description of a basement song is that it’s a personal tune that settles into a certain moment or moments of your life and stays with you. For the rest of your life, within seconds of hearing it, a basement song can transport you to a time or place, often causing you to relive emotions, good or bad. As I can only write about my own experiences, that’s what will fill this space each week. One song. One moment in a lifetime of music.
I grew up in a Cleveland suburb where my parents owned a large four-story house. As you may have figured out, the house had a basement. I have a brother and two sisters, and when we were kids, the basement was essentially a dumping ground for toys. My dad’s workbench occupied a cornerâ€¦ which was essentially a dumping ground for his tools. When my brother, Budd, reached adolescence, he began playing the drums and decided to clean up the hole. In one corner he set up his black five-piece Rogers drum set. In the opposite corner, he laid down ugly, green shag carpet he must have found on the side of the road, hung a few posters, and set up a cheap JC Penny stereo with four speakers mounted to the cinderblock walls. That corner soon began to resemble a dorm room, as a couple old couches and a grungy, yellow upholstered reclining rocker created a social atmosphere.
Soon, posters of bands like Rush and Journey were hanging alongside the images of bikini clad babes hawking Budweiser and St. Pauli Girl. How my parents can claim that they didn’t know the basement was a haven for underage drinking is a mystery. While Budd used the basement as a rehearsal space for the numerous pickup bands he played in, or as a last resort beer binge hangout for his friends, my brother wasn’t home much. He always had something to do or someplace to be. So I began taking up residence in the space and the basement gradually became my fortress of solitude.
By the time I was 7 or 8, I started to get interested in rock music. My parents had never been into rock and roll. My dad listened to classical, and my mom preferred showtunes or standards (what was then called elevator music). My discovery of rock came from hanging with my brother. He listened to the first Boston album and Bob Seger’s Stranger in Town religiously. A copy of Clapton’s Slowhand floated around as well. And, of course, there were the three-chord, easy-to-learn songs like “Rocky Mountain Way” and “25 or 6 to 4” that carried through the house during those garage band rehearsals. When I was 11, I received a cheap cassette recorder for Christmas. I’m not sure why I was given it, but I used the thing to death, religiously placing it next to stereo speakers and taping songs directly off the radio. I guess you could say this was the beginning of the basement songs.
I would collect tapes of my favorite songs and then head downstairs to listen in private, trying to decipher what the singers were saying and figure out what the drummers were playing (I, too, became a drummer). At the same time, I had friends in grade school that also had older siblings; we would gather to compare music and loan LPs to one another. A new world was opening up, and the basement became the one place I would escape to to explore it.
I spent hours just LISTENING, absorbing the music and appreciating the intricacies. Occasionally I would study the album jacket, tracing my fingers over the artwork, some of it raised to give a 3-D effect. Music began to seep into every detail of my life. I tacked torn-out pictures to the walls from magazines like Circus and Hit Parader and adorned the covers of my notebooks with the hand-drawn logos of bands I worshipped. I treasure those early days of discovering music — and, more importantly, what those songs said to me emotionally and how they guided me through my life. As I grew older and the basement became my place to gather my thoughts and figure out life, the music became an accompaniment to the journey, not just background noise.
The enduring quality of the music, then and now, is what makes the songs special. A basement song isn’t some pop ditty that you listened to a thousand times as a kid and then return to and vomit. A basement song is something that has a place in your heart and you can listen to whenever. Decades may pass, but that song will come on and you can recall where you were when sunk its hooks into you — why you loved it and why it still affects you.
Okay, I think you know where I’m coming from with this setup and what this running memoir will be about. I hope you all will relate in some manner. Maybe it wasn’t a basement for you. Maybe it was your bedroom. Maybe it’s your car (like it is for me now). Maybe it was when you went running and you had headphones on. Who knows? It’s not about where you heard the songs; it’s about the songs themselves, and how they’ve helped you get through life.
What I consider my very first basement song isn’t even a rock song. And the song is attributed to a green frog hand puppet, no less. It is “The Rainbow Connection” (download) from The Muppet Movie.
Anyone who doesn’t like The Muppet Movie does not have a soul — it’s just a wonderful movie on so many levels. Despite its hip cast and the slew of one-liners and cameos, it’s a movie about hope, pure and simple. This is laid out in the opening number sung by Jim Henson, a.k.a. Kermit the Frog:
“Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what’s on the other side?”
That opening question, posed with such melancholy, perfectly reflects the mood of Kermit’s character. The maudlin strings and the tinge of worry in Kermit’s voice reveal a frog facing an uphill battle in life. Content with his life in the pond, dare he step outside of that comfort zone and pursue his desires in life? Is it worth the risk? Having big dreams dashed can be devastating. Still, the song offers hope. “Someday we’ll find it/The rainbow connection/the lovers, the dreamers, and me.” It is that dichotomy of hope and despair that made the song resonate with my young mind. The Muppets may have been written off as kiddie entertainment, but these were definitely adult themes being addressed.
The Muppet Movie soundtrack was my very first contemporary record. This LP scarred me for life. Since these were the days before VCRs, I couldn’t go and watch the movie every night to remind myself that everything ends happily. I only had the music. Weeks were spent listening to “The Rainbow Connection” over and over. And it wasn’t just the lyrics or the music — it was the way Henson/Kermit sung the song. I felt his sadness. I connected with the fear and doubt. It is the same fear and doubt I experience to this day. I am a member of the “lovers and dreamers” club, that’s for sure. But at that age, I didn’t know that. That’s the remarkable thing about that song for me — it touched a part of my soul that wasn’t even awake yet. It would be years before I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. But here I was, in 1979, already lost and unsure of myself.
Still, it is one of the loveliest songs to get lost in, and so great a melody that these concerns and worries that Kermit sings about are easily forgotten as the chorus swells. “The Rainbow Connection” can still take me back to my youth, and those seemingly simpler times. Today, when I hear the opening banjo notes, I’m a child again. The worries of the day are forgotten for a brief time as I re-experience the simple joys of a nice song. I recall what it’s like to be somewhat optimistic. I recall what it’s like to feel free and not worried all the time. This is the type of song I hope my children, Sophie and Jacob, latch onto and make one of their own. I want them to always be full of the hope the song ultimately expresses. I pray they don’t experience the melancholy that I went through and still do. It is a part of my personality I fear I’ll never be able to shed. Maybe it’s that melancholy that keeps me feeling optimistic, because whenever I’m feeling down and lonely and feeling as if nothing is ever going to turn around, I know that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. I know that there is some kind of treasure waiting for me at the end of the rainbow. It may not be gold or money. It may just be reassurance that things will work out. I have to keep that hope alive. I have to.
As easy as it would be to just cave in when the world is coming down, I have to show the kids that you don’t give up. Especially Jacob. He has to be a fighter.
This song holds such a special place in my heart that I’ve never been able to buy the CD. I need to hear the crackling of my original LP before Kermit begins singing. The crackles bring me almost as much comfort as the banjo. Once upon a time, I dreamed big. Once upon a time, I was going to be a huge star in Hollywood. Now, I’m content to be a huge star to my children, and my biggest dream is to a better man and husband. And even if I’m not the same lover or dreamer that I was as a child, it’s okay. I am happy. And that’s all you can ask for in life, isn’t it?