A few days before Christmas 2015, my friend Liz contacted me through Twitter in an enthusiastic state and asked “is this The Song?” The ambiguity is an appropriate title of a mystery earworm that’s followed me around since childhood. A couple of notes to a song, a piano or synthesizer riff, that I had heard a few times while in the car with my family as we traveled late at night through Queens, New York.
do-do DA-do, da-da Dada….
We were always passing through Flushing Meadows, on our way home in Suffolk County, New York. It was late at night as-was and it was usually me and my father who were the ones still awake in the car. Dad had been working overnight for the United States Postal Service at their sorting facility at LaGuardia Airport at the time. Driving home late at night was no big thing for him. For the rest of the family – my mothers and my two brothers – it was time for sleep. The would be dozing as we were in the beginning stages of a trip to the Great South Bay area of Suffolk County, some 50 miles away
We visited Queens and specifically Jackson Heights on a regular basis; it’s where my parents were from and their parents were still there. Well, at least their mothers and siblings. My mother’s mother was the usual destination of our trips into the city, though we regularly made brief stopovers to my dad’s mother’s place.
I don’t remember the exact streets that were taken to get to the Long Island Expressway and back home, but I do remember passing William A Shea Stadium and the World’s Fair site in flushing. I loved passing those location sites. And it was guaranteed my father would have the radio on and be listening to the music playing on one station or another while we headed east.
? da-da Dada, dad a DA-da…. ?
It happened more than once, I just don’t know how many times; it was too long ago to even try to guess. Driving through Flushing that song would be playing. Memories of the streetlamps from the highway and seeing Shea Stadium and the World’s Fair sites at night were sown with the song and the memory a guys voice tied to the song. I couldn’t recall a lyric; I could recall the piano riff though. Was it a keyboard or a piano? Memory wasn’t clear on that one either, but as time went by it came off more and more like a keyboard. Blame that on time and distance distorting a memory.
The last time I heard that song was by chance after I’d moved with my family from New York to Florida in 1989. It was about 5 years later and coincidentally / fittingly we were visiting the tri-state area because my aunt was to be married in October 1994. We all had flown from St. Pete/Clearwater airport to Newark on the long-since-defunct Southeast Airlines, and had to make the extra long trek from Newark to a location in Nassau County where our hotel was. While it was just mid-afternoon, it was only me and my father awake in the car at the time when that song came on air over the station my father was listening to.
“What is this?? What is this song, dad? It’s been in my head for years, I’ve always wondered….” He answered, but between the events of the wedding-weekend and life in general, what he said didn’t get retained in memory.
A lot of things have taken place in my life since that afternoon, including me becoming deaf and regaining my hearing with thanks to an Auditory Brainstem Implant (it’s a variation of the Cochlear Implant). One thing that didn’t change was memory of that song that riff. It haunted me. I started imitating it and running it by people in person around 2004, seeking out suggestions from those who grew up in the 1980s. Maybe they’d know? I ran it by family first before reaching out more broadly in recent years (by way of social media).
Early in 2015 I compiled a list of Billboard Hot 100 lists from the mid to late 1980s and started to check songs whose titles I didn’t recognize… Maybe that one is it? Oh, by the way? I’m not even supposed to be able to enjoy music as much as I do. That’s supposed to be a shortcoming of having sound by way of the Cochlear implant – you can’t process music right, and can’t enjoy the songs for what they are.
Yeah, well, I’ve got 1250+ songs in my iTunes library, many of them songs I’ve only heard after going deaf, and they sound like they should depending on the era they were recorded in.
Back to the Billboard listings – I stuck it all in an Excel file, and while it reintroduced me to a lot of good music from 1987 through ’84 or ’83, I didn’t find what I was looking for. I didn’t go through everything though – getting impatient and disappointed as well as having the rest of life happening. I still have the spreadsheet tucked away somewhere on the PC and want to go through it again to sample other songs from the list but, well, that’s not necessary any more in the case of THE song.
I forgot how Liz got caught up in this. We were talking through Twitter I guess and out of frustration or because musical chatter had come up – I brought up the song. A little while after our conversation in the summer, I sent an audio recording of me humming the song. Like many had reacted to me over the years, Liz (who’s my age) recognized the riff but had no clue of the song – who it was, what the song title was. She’s a 1980s music fan and has friends who are 80s music fans. The plan was to keep an ear open for it.
Oh, by the way? Soundhound sucks. I’ve used that app a few times on Android phones and at no point has song humming worked to identify a song, let alone this long-standing sought after item. While I see the application as absolutely loved by the masses, it’s just never lived up to its reputation or abilities unless I put a smartphone up to a speaker when a song plays that I need to identify.
At any rate, back to Liz: She was traveling with her husband and a friend through upstate New York less than two weeks ago. A SirusXM station that focused on stuff from the 1980s came on the air. A lot of songs have been suggested to me over the years ago The Song, but all of those suggestions aren’t even of the feeling of 80s pop hits that this thing sounded like. It’s no rocker, it’s no ballad. It was… it was … something… Probably a one-hit wonder too if I’ve never crossed it again. And you can guarantee a one-hit wonder song will make it back on-air through a station that covers a decade…
@Johnny_Fonts Fontana! “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson!!! Is that The Song??
— Elizabeth (@spitesprite) December 19, 2015
I click that link and the tempo alone matches the memory. Then the piano of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin Out” starts coming through strong….
That link Liz posted, that song and hearing it again and knowing who sang it… that was an early Christmas gift and turned out better than the majority of my tangible gifts received this year. To have such a long standing question answered. It brings a level of internal peace and allows a degree of comfort. Such a trivial and persistent question gets solved, and now the earworm can’t haunt me by way of ignorance of who and what.