Memoir’s chapters chart a life in music
Whether it’s the song that played when you fell in love, a trumpet fanfare that evokes images of gridiron glory, or a silly rhyme that takes you back to grammar school days, “The music evokes the moments, and the moments evoke the music.”
So says Baltimore author Jack Gohn in his new book, What I Was Listening to When: A Memoir Set to Music.
The book, a compilation of short essays, “started with a playlist,” said Gohn, 72, a retired lawyer.
“I was compiling songs that were important to me at pivotal moments of my life, and [they] reminded me of those moments because of some connection to them,” he said.
“I realized they charted the history of my emotional and intellectual life, and I just started writing them down in a blog. I posted what became chapters, one by one over the years, 2009 to 2017, and realized I had a book of sorts.”
An immigrant’s beginning
Gohn spent his early years in London and Vienna. He and his family arrived in the U.S. in 1953 aboard the infamous (and then new) SS Andrea Doria.
As immigrants, they arrived “having not heard of Howdy Doody, or Davy Crockett or baseball,” he recalled.
He grew up in Ann Arbor, and during those years worked on a Ford Motors assembly line and drove a Mr. Softee (ice cream) truck. He has spent the majority of his adult life in Baltimore.
He earned his law degree and practiced law for nearly four decades before retiring in 2018. For 14 of those years, he wrote a column for the Maryland Daily Record.
Gohn also holds a doctorate in English literature and has published a number of scholarly works, including one about a famous British novelist, Kingsley Amis: A Checklist. Since retiring, he has written plays and reviews of local productions.
Each of the 84 chapters of Gohn’s new book covers “a slice of my life and at least one song. It does follow my life chronologically, from toddlerhood to pandemic,” he said.
The first record Gohn recalls listening to was a story by Margaret Wise Brown, the acclaimed children’s book writer known for Goodnight Moon.
As Gohn entered his teen years, he began a journey typical of adolescence: the transition from one’s parents’ music to his own. For Gohn, the song that marked this passage was Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By” sung by Dionne Warwick.
“It was the first song from the era when I suddenly realized that there’s more out there than what my parents introduced me to,” he said.
The broadening of his worldview would bring Gohn to embrace music from Italy, Turkey, Argentina and Spain — from pop to folk to showtunes.
“There are chapters in my book about where I turned to music to make sense of things,” Gohn said. For instance, the Beatles songs provided insight during college and the Vietnam War years, and a Dixie Chicks song helped Gohn find his voice as a writer when he felt constrained and unable to express his true thoughts and ideas.
Challenges along memory lane
Gohn hopes everyone who reads his memoir will “become particularly taken by tales of early love — mostly frustrated;
efforts to get myself educated; the breakup of my first marriage; the joys of parenthood; coming to terms with the loss of parents; struggles with faith.”
As one might imagine, revisiting the highlights and tragedies of his life was a daunting experience for Gohn.
“Emotionally, it was delightful, but sometimes hard. In writing about them, I relived these moments,” he said, noting how when his stepfather became irreversibly comatose, he found himself musing on Bacharach and Elvis Costello’s “In the Darkest Place.”
Gohn didn’t rely solely on his own memory in developing his book; he spent considerable time researching, reviewing diaries and letters, poring over photo albums, and talking to friends and family.
While Gohn’s book is not a historical text by any means, some of its chapters offer a look into American culture and the forces that shaped it.
He mentions John Lennon’s 1971 song “Imagine,” for instance, a plea for peace during the time of the Vietnam War. Gohn also touches on “the divorce environment of the early 80s.”
Try it yourself
Why read a memoir devoted to the musical tastes of a former court reporter, administrative law attorney and English literature major? Well, it may inspire you to write your own.
“We all have our own personal playlist, whether we articulate it that way or not,” Gohn said. “It’s an imaginative process, and it’s very human…I’m a very typical human being, and I’ve forged these connections. Others might like to compare their connections to mine.”
Readers can listen to most of the songs referenced in Gohn’s book on Spotify, an audio streaming and media services app.
Still, Gohn admits, most song lyrics make for a very unreliable guide to life: “They’re fine for putting you in certain moods, but if you use them as an intellectual template for how to carry on relationships, you’re going to get in trouble.
“And of course, being the kind of guy I was, I got into trouble.”
Gohn’s book is currently available for download on Kindle; a hardcopy version may be published this year.