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Wilco worlds away

March 31, 2023

Juliana Vandermark

My family’s photo albums are filled with mementos of musical pursuits. In one particularly treasured shot, my brother stands on our wooden kitchen floor as rays of sun pour in through wide glass windows. Though the table and chairs tower over him, he is more enthusiastic than his size might suggest as he strums a toy guitar, his head thrown back in classic rock star fashion. In another childhood photo, I sit behind a drum set, smiling brightly, dressed all in black, drumsticks cast in the air. I am prepared for a proud performance (to a room of preschool parents).

Noah is two years younger than I am, but he has always surpassed me effortlessly in musical talent. Though we both discovered our unbearable lack of singing talent early, Noah excelled at all things rhythm. In second grade he began tap lessons and danced around the kitchen in imitation of Fred Astaire (committed to the act, he even wore suit jackets and ties to school). By third grade, he had moved on to drums. Now, he can hear any beat and imitate it in an instant.

My instrument of choice was classical piano. Frustratingly, music always felt more laborious to me than it seemed for Noah. I struggled with rhythm and pacing. I got notes wrong and played the same few chords time and time again hoping to get them perfectly right. When I took up bass guitar as I got older, Noah—who had never played—gave me pointers. Music is the most impressive of his many skills and so I resisted annoyance in exchange for awe.

Noah and I were raised by parents who cared about our creativity and encouraged us in our artistic pursuits. They loved music, so they wanted us to care about it, too. For my mom, music meant Cat Stevens, Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead and the soundtracks to her favorite musicals. She is by far the most graceful and joyous member of my family and the rest of us have grown to envy and adore her singing voice and the vibrancy with which she dances around the kitchen to choruses from “Grease” and “Oklahoma.”

A less skilled singer but more up-to-date listener than my mom, my dad fondly recalls singing Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” as lullabies when he grew tired of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” For him, music has come to mark the passage of time. Certain songs recall memorable eras: Tears for Fears was his first concert and brings him back to the time of his record player and Walkman; The Stone Roses got him through late nights studying in law school; now, he trains for half marathons to the tune of Taylor Swift.

When I moved across the country for college, I feared growing apart from my family. Our busy lives were whirlwinds that did not always—or even often—align, and we would sometimes forget to reach out, miss each other’s calls and go days without texting.

Amidst these moments of disconnection, music knit us together. I would text my family group chat links to artists and albums that spoke somehow to my life of late. They would respond with stories and songs they considered worth sharing. Most recently, my dad texted me a link to a New York Times review of Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” From many miles away, I cherished reading the same words on the songs that had played over our kitchen speakers often on slow weekend mornings. As David S. Wallace writes in The Paris Review, “I have many songs that mark the time of particular relationships, both their highs and lows of their dissolution.” For better or for worse, it is impossible not to link familiar chord progressions to the times, places and people with whom songs have been shared. In the case of my family, it is always for better.

When we could no longer connect over music in person, Noah and I began to secretly steal from each other’s playlists. From his Spotify profile, I came across songs by Mac Miller and Peach Pit, from mine he took The Walkmen and The Strokes. Each of our playlists began to be populated by songs from the other in a sort of melding of musical preference.

Noah makes a playlist for each month. I await their creation and the collection of new songs that will connect me to him. His March compilation is full of The Growlers and Pink Floyd. I can imagine him listening on shuffle; perhaps he sings along in the car, characteristically tapping the wheel of his minivan as if he is drumming, hooked by The Growlers’ catchy guitar riffs, imitating the rasp in Brooks Nielsen’s voice.

When I flew home to Denver for winter break, Noah insisted on picking me up at the airport. The first song queued for the drive was Belle and Sebastian’s “Like Dylan in the Movies,” one he admitted to borrowing from a playlist of mine from the fall. He tapped on the wheel and nodded along as we drove toward the mountains and I felt as if our sharing of the song bridged the months we had spent apart.

Perhaps I can’t talk to Noah—or my parents—as often as I hope. But I can always steal from their playlists or send them a song.

Talia Traskos-Hart is a member of the Class of 2025.


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