Day 215: together in electric dreams

Sometimes I feel that my younger child came into being ex nihilo. She seemed to spring into the world fully formed, kicking and squirming, her face in a perpetual half-scowl half-smirk. I don’t have this sensation so much with the older child, with whom I feel a strong temperamental affinity: we are both quiet and studious; we both love reading and cooking and making intricate things with our hands.

But then there are those moments when I see clearly that the younger is indeed, for better and worse, my daughter. One of those moments was while reading this passage from the second-grade report card she brought home in mid-June:

“ … she can sometimes get lost in her daydream (or drawing) and not complete some assignments. This has been particularly true with math. [She] is a very confident and capable reader and she has many good writing skills, so her daydreaming has not had too much of an impact in those areas …”

A confident reader myself, I feel certain that almost identical passages featured in my report cards throughout my school years. I was—am still—a dreamy sort, liable to walk into traffic or miss my stop on the bus because I’m lost in wandering thoughts.

The same week that the report cards came home the second-graders had their spring performance, at which they sang, among other songs, “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” It wasn’t a song I’d ever given much thought to (although its history is quite interesting), but hearing it sung by a stage full of kids to an audience of parents was enough to nudge me into the awareness that, hitherto, I’d thought of it as a song sung by one lover to another: “Stars fading but I linger on dear / Still craving your kiss.”

A bunch of eight-year olds singing about “craving your kiss” was incongruous in the same way that, in the American version of The Office (which I’d never seen before this year but which the kids and I have been watching together for the past few months), it’s incongruous hearing Jan lustily (in all senses) sing Son of a Preacher Man to her newborn.

But the second-grade rendition of “Dream a Little Dream” was jarring also because it was apt, making me note how fine the line is between love songs and lullabies.

“Say nighty-night and kiss me

Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me

While I’m alone and blue as can be

Dream a little dream of me.”

At eight years old, my daughter has only recently started regularly sleeping through the night in her own bed. Although I realize this disclosure may horrify some, I myself slept in my parents’ bed till I was ten or eleven so it seems pretty normal to me. And although I’m glad for both of our sakes that she’s now (mostly) sleeping in her own bed, I also do miss her—maybe because otherwise I sleep alone. I miss the creaturely comfort of her small warm body, having her within arm’s reach so I can stroke her hair when she whimpers in the night during a bad dream.

Although usually the younger appears utterly mortified during school performances, she actually seemed to enjoy singing this particular song and I would overhear her—still overhear her, sometimes—softly singing it to herself. She even deigned to teach it to me; and when she forgot some of the words and I searched for the lyrics, we ended up listening to multiple different versions one night before bed, agreeing emphatically that we liked The Mamas and the Papas’ version the best. (The younger deemed both the Ella Fitzgerald / Louis Armstrong version and the Doris Day version “a bit too jazzy”; and, honestly, I think she’s right.)

Later that night I idly started looking up other songs with the word “dream” in the title, which turned up a treasure-trove of forgotten songs. And so I started making a playlist of songs about dreams. My only criterion was that I liked the song and I had to know it already; there wasn’t any special reason for this latter stipulation except my own whim; but now, as I revisit the decision, I wonder if it was because the fancy struck me that songs, like dreams, are portals though which we revisit certain times and places—and maybe I wanted to use the playlist for that purpose. A lot of the songs I included are either about being a teenager or are songs I first encountered as a teenager, so that they prompt a kind of wistful transportation.

The list grew gradually.

It begins with The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” followed by the Mamas & the Papas’ version of “Dream A Little Dream of Me.”  These two seemed a natural pair because they both begin with mumbly spoken introductions.

Now when I listen to the playlist I often skip past “Daydream Believer,” to which I’m only moderately attached—although I do enjoy gustily bellowing “Cheer up sleepy Jean!” along with Davy Jones, and I have fond memories of watching Monkees reruns on TV throughout the ‘80s. But I never skip Cass Elliot singing “Dream a Little Dream.” I was walking listening to it the other day trying to think how to describe her voice—trying to think of a word that would capture its unadorned quality that brings out something true and melancholy in the song that was always there but that I couldn’t hear before. The word I finally settled on was “limpid”: Cass Elliot’s voice is limpid like clear seawater through which ordinary pebbles become variegated, luminous.

#3 on the playlist is Eleni Mandell’s “Like Dreamers Do,” which is from her children’s album, “Let’s Fly a Kite,” but which, like “Dream a Little Dream” one can imagine being sung to either child or lover. It’s a jaunty, hummable tune; I’ve caught the elder singing it to himself more than once. At #4 is Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” over which I hesitated; but once it was there, I couldn’t get rid of it. The song is insistent, almost irritatingly mesmeric, a quality that echoes the lyrics (“Now here I go again, I see the crystal visions / I keep my visions to myself …”).

Songs 5, 6, and 7, I think of as a Katy Perry sandwich (strawberry ice-cream sandwiched between two meringue cookies, in case you’re wondering). Perry’s “Teenage Dream” nestles between two fifties pop confections, Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” and The Everly Brothers “All I Have to Do is Dream.” Perry’s directness (“you really turn me on”) and concreteness (“put your hands on me in my skintight jeans”) nicely cuts the chaste sweetness of the crooners’ teenage dreams.

Song #8 is the first on this list that I remember distinctly from childhood: “These Dreams” by Heart, first released in 1986, when I was 11, but not, Wikipedia tells me, a big hit in the U.K. until it was rereleased two years later. Either way, I heard it at an impressionable age; the song instantly conjures romantic tresses and gauzy chiffon and soft focus lenses; if the song were a color, it would be dusky rose, with shimmery flecks.

At #9, Mandell makes another appearance, here in a quite different mood in “Just a Dream.” The images in this song feel dream like; woozy, surreal, fragmented.

At #10 is perhaps the song that transports me most powerfully: “Together in Electric Dreams” by Phil Oakey (not Oakley) and Georgio Moroder. I love this song so much. Phil Oakey was the lead singer in “The Human League,” and “Together In Electric Dreams” (which was a hit in the U.K. in 1984, when I was 10) shares the synth-pop style of their 1981 hit, “Don’t You Want Me.” But it’s strange; while “Don’t You Want Me” is explicitly plaintive and “Electric Dreams” ostensibly joyful, it’s the latter that I find deeply sad: perhaps it’s the speaker’s utter resignation to the idea that he will never see his beloved again. The speaker in “Don’t You Want Me” is still in the throes of loss with all of the bargaining and anger and desperation that such loss entails; the second speaker has just given up.

The song is conjoined, in my mind, to a set of images, which, until recently, I assumed were from its accompanying video. The scene I see in my mind’s eye is from a movie. A young woman and man sit in the back of a taxi, which is driving through the city at night. They love each other. But they don’t speak or touch; they just smile at each other and then look away. The woman has short dark cropped hair, the man’s face is indistinct. Then the image cuts to green numbers scrolling on a black screen, the ‘80s visual shorthand for computing-is-happening.

The strange thing about these visuals is that “Together In Electric Dreams” is from the soundtrack to a movie; but it’s not a movie I’ve ever seen and the characters (Virginia Madsen is the female lead) look nothing like the characters who appear in my head as the song plays. (The movie itself looks bananas—like an ‘80s Her.) I seem to have grafted the song onto a set of images from some other ‘80s movie.

#11 is Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams.” I don’t especially like either the images or the tune to this song; but I do like the song’s mood, which, like Mandell’s “Just a Dream,” is noirish, sultry and defiant. And I really like how in the video a giraffe keeps photo-bombing Swift.

Song #12 came to while I was watching “You’ve Got Mail” on the flight to the U.K. (a movie that strikes me, in 2019, as about how writing technologies mediate relationships every bit as much as Richardson or Laclos’s epistolary novels. “You’ve Got Mail” is particular to a historical moment in which there was email but not yet smartphones.) The movie’s soundtrack features a lot of songs about dreams; but it was only The Cranberries’ banshee-wail of a song “Dreams,” released the year my Dad died, that found its way onto the playlist.

At #13, we have The Mamas & The Papas again, with “California Dreamin.’” You know how, with some songs, there are, like, seven perfect seconds and then you listen to the rest of the song just so you can go back and play it again and re-experience that moment? In “California Dreamin’” those seven seconds are between the fifty and fifty-seven second mark, when Denny Doherty’s voice breaks as he sings that he got down on his knees and pretended to pray as the others echo him in chorus. (Not related to this playlist but I was just listening to Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” (do Americans even know this song??)—which I probably hadn’t thought about since 1989—after hearing it sampled on Little Mix’s “Bounce Back,” and the magical seconds on that track come early: from fourteen to twenty four, I’d say. I probably listened to this song 10 times yesterday just to experience those ten seconds when the beat kicks in. But I digress).

#14. Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams.” I added this song almost reflexively but I always forget how good it is until I hear it again.

#15. Crowded House, “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” I also genuinely love the Miley Cyrus / Ariana Grande version.

#16. ABBA, “I Have a Dream.” The younger and I are Mamma Mia! fans and also Ghostbusters fans. I mention this because, whenever I hear this song now, I picture Amanda Seyfried staring out at the water; but also, when Anni-Frid sings, “I’ll cross the stream,” I reflexively whisper under my breath, “don’t cross the streams. It would be bad.”

#17. Fiona Apple, “Sleep to Dream.” This song transports me back to the attic bedroom of the Somerville house I shared with Louisa and Gina during grad school. I listened to “Tidal” a lot in that room.

#18. Roy Orbison, “All I Can Do (is Dream You).” “You’ve Got Mail” put Roy Orbison on my mind; the soundtrack features his lovely version of the 1944 song “Dream.” There are a lot of songs about dreaming in the Orbison catalog. Maybe that’s why I loved him so much when I was in my teens (which was, to be clear, in the late ‘80s, not in the ‘60s when Orbison had the majority of his hits). Orbison enjoyed a second flush of success in the late ‘80s after David Lynch memorably featured his 1963 song “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet (1986) and Orbison released his final album, Mystery Girl, with which I was obsessed.

Most of Orbison’s songs about dreams (most of his songs, period) are plaintive and yearning. But for the playlist’s final song I chose one that is uncharacteristically upbeat. A bit like “Together In Electric Dreams,” I love the contrast in this song between its catchiness—here not synthpop but rockabilly with a “hey baby” chorus and na-na-na background vocals—and the melancholic lyrics. Also: this video of Orbison performing it live is amazing. Check out K.D. Lang singing backup!


One night, soon after I had finished making the final playlist, I had an intense dream. This was now several weeks ago, but the dream was unusually vivid, and I can still summon the images. I was with the elder in a vast warehouse, which was the setting for a scavenger hunt. We were a team but decided to split up so as to more efficiently search for clues. I went down a metal staircase and was milling around, along with many other clue-seekers, on the ground floor. Then, suddenly, I saw a door ajar under the staircase I’d just descended. My heart beat faster; I somehow knew that I’d spotted a room that no one else had yet seen. I walked towards it and as I got closer saw a sign that said “Fire Door” on the door. I tentatively poked my head in. It was a kind of a broom closet with whitewashed walls, cluttered with cleaning supplies, small and claustrophobic. On the opposite side of the room there was a clothesline and pegged to it was a scrap of paper. I knew right away it was the clue I was looking for.

The door had been propped ajar but when I popped my head in I had dislodged whatever had been holding it open and it now took all of my strength to hold the door open. I knew that if I let go of the door it would lock automatically, leaving me either stuck inside or outside. So, using my foot as a doorstop I stretched, reaching my arm as far as I could to try to unpin the clue from the clothes line. But I couldn’t reach it. I stopped and looked back through the crack in the door. I didn’t know where the elder was and I felt panicked. I wanted to get the clue but if I stretched far enough to reach it I’d have to let go of the door and I’d be locked in and unable to find him. But if I left the room letting the door close behind me the clue would be lost forever. I stood there, my foot in the door, reaching towards the clothes line, while also looking back through the open into the warehouse, scanning the space for Max, who was nowhere to be seen. I felt stretched to my limit and I knew I couldn’t hold the door much longer. Then I woke up.


I played this playlist a lot in the car during the weeks I was driving the kids to and from their respective camps. They both seemed to like it. One night the elder even casually asked if I’d share the playlist with him on Spotify.

“Sure,” I said, trying to act cool.

The next morning I asked him if he’d listened to it.

“Oh yeah,” he said, “but only a few songs. Then I fell asleep.”


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