Young at heart

The Magik*Magik orchestra gets nostalgic for childhood at the ripe old age of 5

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John Vanderslice and Minna Choi
Photo by Autumn de Wilde

LEFT OF THE DIAL "Why are some songs so perfect in a way that never happens again in our lives? What is it about music and being older than 12 but younger than 20?"

Those are the lines of narration capping the final panel of one of my favorite Lynda Barry comic strips, an autobiographical story in her collection One Hundred Demons. In it, our teenage protagonist is lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, listening to the radio in a manner immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever been a teenager. The mood is: I am surely feeling feelings and thinking thoughts no one ever has before. As I recall, this is what being a teenager is. Every emotion, positive or negative, however fleeting, is all-consuming, and often you have no choice but to lie in your room, crushed by the weight of it, headphones drowning out the world. The idea that "this too shall pass" is impossible to understand, because you can't even see past the econ test you're surely going to flunk tomorrow, or that guy in biology who barely knows your name. This is why teenagers always seem so sluggish: That shit's exhausting.

Ask any teenager what helps them get through it — and here I realize I'm starting to sound like adolescence is an inevitable six-year-long disease of sorts, or perhaps a heroin detox you just have to sweat through, but whatever, it kind of is — and near the top of the list, I bet you'll find music.

"I would have ended up as a drug dealer, no question," says John Vanderslice, the musician-producer-owner of SF's storied Tiny Telephone studios, of what he might have become without music as a young person. "I would currently be residing in prison."

Lucky for him, "My mother forced me by gunpoint to take piano lessons," he says. "And this was the dirty South. I was in public schools, where the arts meant, you know, coloring. But I got really interested in music, and that became a huge open door for me. I think it would have been a lot tougher to do what I do now if I hadn't had that music theory kind of shoved in to my brain when I was seven, eight, nine years old, even if I didn't know it was happening at the time."

Vanderslice is just one in a who's who of Bay Area artists who were invited to think about what music meant to them when they were young — how and when and which music shaped their formative years — in preparation for a Friday, Jan. 31 show celebrating the 5th anniversary of the Magik*Magik Orchestra at the Fox Theater in Oakland. The orchestra, a group of more than 50 musicians who have provided "made-to-order" support on records and tours with Death Cab for Cutie, Zola Jesus, How to Dress Well, and Nick Cave, to name a few, is raising money for Magik For Kids, their nonprofit arm that throws hands-on music education events for school-aged kids in the Bay Area.

"When We Were Young," presented by Noise Pop, will showcase bands — Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, the Dodos, Geographer, and a dozen others — collaborating with a 30-piece orchestra and the 30-piece Pacific Boychoir on songs that the artists themselves selected. The prompt: Pick a tune from your childhood that's close to your heart.

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