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Soundtracking Memories: ‘My Life in the Sunshine’ Author Nabil Ayers Details the Music That Made Him (Guest Column)

Nabil Ayers My Life in the Sunshine
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

My life has always revolved around music. My mother is a dancer who played Seals & Crofts and Stevie Wonder records loudly in our apartment as far back as I can remember. My uncle, the jazz saxophonist Alan Braufman, bought me a drum set when I was two-and-a-half years old. I’ve never known my father, the jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers, but his music has always been present in my life. Both my mother and Alan exposed me to live music before I could talk — likely before I could even walk.

When I started writing my memoir, “My Life in the Sunshine,” I knew it would include a lot of music. It’s not a music book, but I work for a record company, and I used to own a record store and play drums in bands. So while I wanted to focus my memoir on bigger themes about family and race, it was impossible for music not to influence every page.

I listen to music when I need to work; to get me through a long drive; to help me fall asleep; to help me wake up. Music fuels my workouts, and it calms my nerves on turbulent flights and crowded subway commutes. Whether I use music to tune out or to tune in; to concentrate or to forget about everything, it always serves a purpose. There wasn’t a moment during the writing of this book that music wasn’t playing, and I quickly learned that music could play a new, important part in the process: Music has the ability to conjure memories, and to help to recall sounds, smells and feelings. Throughout the writing process, I often turned to older albums that I loved, and that connected me to a specific time or place. These are five of the albums I relied upon most to help connect me to my past.

Kraftwerk, “Computer World”

My uncle, Alan, introduced me to Kraftwerk sometime around 1980, when I was eight years old. I knew that Alan’s taste extended far beyond the jazz he performed, but his love of Kraftwerk surprised me. To me it was the opposite of the warm, human music he played and listened to. Kraftwerk was stiff and robotic, and it became the soundtrack to our many late night Monopoly games. Later, “Computer World” became my go-to focus music, whether for studying, working, or in recent years, writing. Although I attach “Computer World” to my time with Alan in New York City in the early eighties, it connected me to several sections of my book because of its constant presence in my life, and its ability to facilitate work.

Roy Ayers Ubiquity, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”

My book is largely about my non-relationship with my father Roy. His music has been ever present in my life. My mother and I played his albums when I was a kid, and as I entered adulthood, I started to hear his music in bars and clubs. Now I hear Roy’s music in movies, TV shows and commercials. In that way, Roy’s music doesn’t take me back to any particular time, it takes me to a particular mindset. Whether I was remembering what it was like backstage at Roy’s 1979 concert opening for the Grateful Dead and Patti Smith, or the particular way the waiter greeted us when we had lunch together at a Seattle restaurant in 2006, listening to Roy’s music while writing about him helped me to feel closer to the stories I was trying to tell.

Kiss, “Destroyer”

This was my introduction to rock music. When I was five, I fell prey to the omnipresent Kiss imagery that was geared to kids a few years older than I was. There’s no album I’ve played as much as this one. I’ve gone through phases in my life where I’ve hated Kiss — in high school when I realized that there are better musicians out there; In college when I realized the power of bands with no image whatsoever. But ultimately, I always come back to this album as a seminal recording that’s responsible for my love of distorted guitars and timeless beats. My mother loved it as much as I did — at least she acted like she did—so Destroyer became my go to when I wrote about my mother, and our many connections while listening to or watching live music.

Missing Persons, “Spring Session M”

Missing Persons hit me like a ton of bricks when I was ten years old, watching early MTV. To me, Missing Persons was a hard rock band. Sure, they were new wave… but with guitar solos. The songs were melodic, but also urgent and hard-edged. The drummer, Terry Bozzio played hard and fast on a double kick set like many metal drummers at the time, and he quickly replaced Neal Peart and Stewart Copeland as my drummer idol. I spent a lot of teenage time wishing there was a band between rock and new wave, and I hated that I had to pick a side. Missing Persons was the first band that straddled that line for me. I found myself listening to “Spring Session M” when I wrote about the culture shock of moving from New York City to Salt Lake City, a time when everything felt crazy in a confusing way, but Missing Persons made music crazy in a great way.

Bjork, “Homogenic”

“Homogenic” was released on September 20, 1997, seven days before my business partner and I opened our Seattle record store, Sonic Boom Records. We played it so often that the scratched plastic CD jewel case is still part of the cover art in my brain. “Homegenic” placed me back in the store’s early days, when we had very few customers and therefore very little to do. We eventually outgrew Sonic Boom’s original  tiny space, but “Homegenic” will always be emblematic of a very specific three-month period of time when we took a gigantic risk, and had no idea if it would ever pay off.

“My Life in the Sunshine: Searching For My Father and Discovering My Family” by Nabil Ayers is available now from Viking Books.

Nabil Ayers has written about music and race for publications including The New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone, GQ, and The Root. Ayers is the President of Beggars Group US, where he has released albums by many GRAMMY Award-winning artists. He currently resides with his wife in Brooklyn, New York.