“Not this song, this song is perfect.”
We were on our way home from school/work and for once we weren’t arguing over who got to choose the playlist. The previous day Xavi had asked me to play Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” after hearing the cover by The Bird and the Bee. Since he was showing interest in old school favorites, Sean and I ran with it. You mean we got to play our old school favorites? Yes.
Xavi’s phrase has stuck with me. There are so many perfect songs and songs that are perfect because they take me back to a very specific moment. I like to think of them as the songs that have altered my brain chemistry because I can’t hear them without instantly being transported 20 (or 30!) plus years to that moment.
El Noa Noa by Juan Gabriel
It’s really hard to pick one life-altering JuanGa song because his music is omnipresent. He died on the day before my second son was born and I listened to a playlist through most of my labor, at least the early part before I realized the epidural wasn’t as effective in blocking pain as it was during my first time giving birth. (Aside: that one knocked me out and I took a glorious nap in active labor.)
I don’t associate El Noa Noa with that hospital room. Instead, I’m taken to the Kern River (always known as just El Río) in the Mojave Desert. Growing up, it seemed that we’d go to the river every long weekend and were always accompanied by 4 or 5 other families, both our relatives and compadres. There was no shortage of kids. We spent all day in the river because it was too hot outside. At night I’d still feel myself being pulled by the current as I laid awake trying to get the ghost stories out of my mind. Really, whoever decided to tell the story of La Llorona as we camped beside a river was just cruel.
When I hear El Noa Noa, I can still see my cousin Eric standing on a boulder dancing and singing along with El Divo de Juárez. Eric was fully dressed instead of in his swim trunks like the rest of us because he had the bad luck of stepping on some glass on our first day. We hadn’t even set-up camp when my tío and tía had to leave and take him to the ER. The cut was bad enough that he had to get stitches and couldn’t swim with the rest of us, but dancing and singing on a rock was fine.
It’s hard to know if I remember this moment so well because of how we laughed or because my tío Chuy captured it on home video. Who knows, but it’s fitting that I think about my cousin singing in a desert along to a song that’s an ode to an El Paso bar.
Soul to Squeeze by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Summer 1996 was the first summer Danny had his driver’s license. We also signed up to host a Spanish exchange student, Esteban, for a month. Esteban had come with a group of students to learn English and his peers were also hosted by families we knew from church. During the day, they had class, but afterward they had excursions around LA like the beach or Disneyland. On this afternoon, Danny drove Esteban, his friend Sergio, and me to Guitar Center in West Covina. I don’t remember the reason for the trip. We had the radio tuned to KROQ, as always. Soul to Squeeze came on and I found myself singing together with Sergio to the chorus:
Where I go, I just don't know
I got to, got to, gotta take it slow
When I find my peace of mind
I'm gonna give you some of my good time
It was just a moment but it was the first time I remember that tingle of a crush acknowledging me in a flirtatious way. Nothing came from it and it was all probably in my head. Despite that, Soul to Squeeze always takes me back to my mom’s minivan with our Spanish exchange students.
1979 by the Smashing Pumpkins
This will forever be associated with my alarm clock radio. I can’t remember the exact morning in tenth grade this happened, but I do know Billy Corgan woke me up and I was probably late.
La Bamba by Los Lobos
La Bamba is the first soundtrack I became obsessed with. My siblings and I would play it over and over. Los Lobos’ version of La Bamba ends with the traditional son jarocho style. When the jarana starts in the outro I think of standing in our living room near the clunky stereo and dancing in a circle with a silly zapateado with Adrian. Writing this now it’s funny that I recall Adrian dancing like he was circling the sombrero in El Jarabe Tapatío because he was the only one of us kids who never danced ballet folklórico.
So Fresh and So Clean by OutKast
This is the song that inspired me to rack my brain for other songs I associate with indelible moments. When I hear the opening line, “Ain’t nobody dope as me, I’m just so fresh, so clean” I’m instantly back at a house party in September 2001. I had just turned 21 and went to a party at my friends’ house. When I arrived I didn’t know anyone besides the host, Chris and Lamont (shoutout to #thatsite), and remember walking through to the back yard. That’s when I saw D walk through the sliding doors singing.
Note: I used the El Noa Noa section for my takeover of this week’s Leave it to Leonor newsletter.