Maria Majsa’s yearning for a happy childhood and later a personal rebellion are reflected in her music choices

1. Penny Lane

The author and her brother Paul, in the 1960s.
The author and her brother Paul, in the 1960s.

This is my first memory. I am 4. I'm standing in a corner of the kitchen. It is evening, probably winter, because the lights are on. I'm staring at the floor, which is a giant chequerboard of black and white lino. My mother keeps it exceptionally clean. She gets down on her hands and knees with an old cloth and a bucket of soapy water and washes it at night. There are jokes about floors being so clean you could eat off them, but my mother's floors really were that clean. She's on the floor now, but she's not cleaning. She's lying on her side, eyes shut, waiting for it to be over. I want to do something, but I'm scared, so I stay in the corner and watch.

My father works in a loud factory full of machines. When he comes home he smells like metal and grease and his nails are black underneath. His boots are always dirty and my mother doesn't like it when he wears them inside, but he does anyway. His fingers make black smudges all over the house; on the backs of chairs, on cupboard doors, on handles and taps. My mother spends a lot of time scrubbing the marks off.

I'm not sure where my brother is. He might be under a bed or behind the couch. Sometimes we hide together. Once my brother got himself in between them, but even that didn't stop the fight.

The shouting has stopped and it's quiet. I know she's hurt and I wish I knew what to do. I stare at the floor so I don't have to look at him standing there; he seems to reach the ceiling. Soon he will grab his keys, slamming the door on his way out. But he's not done yet. There's an ache in my throat like when you're trying hard not to cry. I want to say something to make him stop, but I'm afraid he'll remember I'm there and get angry with me and I don't want him to notice me, ever.

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In the same kitchen of the same suburban house, there is a radio in a brown leather case on the bench. My mother turns it on during the day when my father has left for work, and the house feels different. One morning as I'm getting ready for school, a song comes on the radio. It opens up something inside me that feels like an actual place I can go. I don't know what the song is called or who sings it, but I become obsessed with it. Whenever I hear it, I stop what I'm doing and turn up the volume. I lean on the bench, head resting on my arms, and listen to Penny Lane.

I remember the sound drawing me in, although at the time I probably couldn't have explained why. The music had a whimsical lightness; it unfolded in a gentle, orderly way, like a walk through town, or a story being told. There was something sad and sweet in its daydreamy fusion of images; a kaleidoscope of summer and winter, sunshine and rain, innocence and knowingness, all piled up.

In Penny Lane there were blue skies, pretty nurses and laughing children. There was a sense of something shared and human. It seemed welcoming. Safe. It sounded like a place I wanted to be.

The song is a montage of memories from Paul McCartney's childhood and the Liverpool neighbourhood where he grew up. It's steeped in nostalgia, and that feeling is reflected in the way his voice rises upward for the chorus just as the key shifts down, creating a wistful sense of distance. I connected entirely with that feeling, although I probably experienced it more as a longing for the childhood I should have been having.

Penny Lane always brought up a knot of confusing feelings in me that were difficult to unpick. It still does now. There is a deep sense of injustice, an overwhelming urge to be elsewhere, and the curious sensation that someone out there was living my life instead of me; no doubt having a much better time.

2. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Maria Majsa and her brother's friend 'Toilet'.
Maria Majsa and her brother's friend 'Toilet'.

The pocket of East Auckland I grew up in was a bland new development bursting with kids. We lived in variations of the same tin-topped weatherboard box on marine-themed streets. We played bullrush and go-home-stay-home under the mortal hum of power pylons; occasionally someone would be dared to climb one and have to be rescued by the fire department.

My best friend Tracey lived on the same street as our school. Her house, down a long driveway, wasn't like the others. It was interesting and generous and her family was, too. They threw parties and invited neighbours over for drinks in their lounge with the massive stone fireplace and the picture window. They went on holidays, all of them together, camping and water-skiing. They had dogs, cats, guinea pigs, a caravan and a boat. They were everything our family was not. I spent as much time there as I could without arousing suspicion or concern.

Tracey had a twin sister, and two older brothers who were tanned and handsome in that tousled 70s way. The boys used to chase the twins and me around for sport. When they caught us, they would sit on us and tickle us till we cried, which was quite exciting. Occasionally they upped their game, forming a runway on the lounge floor with cushions and making us sprint down it one at a time while they clubbed us with rolled-up newspapers, which was terrifying but also exciting.

There was always music at Tracey's house. In summer her brothers opened the windows, cranked up the volume and played Bowie, Pink Floyd and T. Rex; songs rebounding like a mini-Glastonbury around their garden. One hot afternoon as Tracey and I lay on the grass under the willow tree, I heard the descending piano chords of this song. I squinted up at the bright river of sunshine through the leaves and listened.

The tune has a weightlessness, a kind of slow-mo bounce that never quite touches down. There is a sense of constant motion in two directions at once, trapping us in the soft turbulence of an endless loop. Just as we find some composure in the bridge and verse, the chorus turns up to pitch us back into the heavens again. Uncertainties hang in the air with no resolution. We meet them as we fall and again as we rise, like the hopeless parts of ourselves we're unwilling or unable to fix.

The sound is deceptively sweet and clean, and when that chorus kicks off, laden with strings, backing vocals and swooping chord changes, it spikes the blood like a sugar rush. But under all the fairy floss, trouble is lurking. There are wrong turns, regrets, situations that are easier to run from than face. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is about escape, and it wasn't lost on me that the first place I heard it was my favourite place to escape to.

My first ever sleepover was at Tracey's house. I remember watching TV after dinner, stone hearth blazing, Tracey's parents nestled together on the couch. Everyone except me was watching the screen. I was staring. I was staring because I'd never seen parents touch each other in a non-violent way before. At the age of 5, it was a revelation to me.

When Tracey and I were in high school, her family moved to Australia. The last time I went to their house in Swan Crescent I was in the living room, surrounded by boxes, watching them pack up their lives. I felt their excitement and their limbo. I concentrated on every feature of the room, the framed view of the garden, filing them in my memory, knowing I would never be back. Tracey kept offering me bits and pieces, things they couldn't take, but I only wanted them to change their minds and stay.

A year later I quit school to plot my own escape from the suburban cul-de-sac. Tracey and I kept in touch, through marriages, children, death and divorce. Her family still lives in Queensland, so they must have found whatever it was they were looking for. And if I hear Goodbye Yellow Brick Road now, filtered through supermarket speakers or default music on hold - no matter where I am or how I feel - I am handed right back to the safety of Tracey's family.

3. Holidays in the Sun

Dancing the lounge at Tracey's house.
Dancing the lounge at Tracey's house.

One summer afternoon my brother came home with an album under his arm. We met in his room. He slid the disc from its fluorescent sleeve - all hot pink and canary yellow with ransom-note lettering - and put it on the turntable. Like a Panzer division, Never Mind the Bollocks had just shown up at our house. Shit was about to change.

Paul and I gave the album a proper listen. We'd heard the singles already and seen the band on TV - sickly Sid, rat-faced Rotten. We'd gorged ourselves in that all-you-can-eat way they'd been dished up by the press. Obscenity, scandal, shredded clothes and street-urchin hair; each time they'd been banned, beaten up, arrested. The Sex Pistols were anti-heroes in a blitzkrieg that would scorch the musical landscape and change it forever. Paul and I decided to volunteer.

Our hair was the first casualty. Though hacked and dyed with blue and pink crêpe paper, we failed to reach peak hair atrocity because we didn't know you had to bleach first to get the colour to grab. My earlobes were the next casualties. Paul found a blue pen, a cork and a needle. While he boiled the needle, I checked the freezer for ice; no cubes, but I did discover a long-lost raspberry popsicle. Mum didn't ask what we were doing; she left us to it.

Back in his room, Paul dotted my earlobes 10 times with pen, checking from side to side that the marks were even. I held the wrapped popsicle to my right ear and we listened to the album again. I was impressed by the controlled energy of the track - not raging anger, but a slow, blistering burn. The simplicity was almost shocking. It felt bone-crushingly new. Death to calcified musical virtuosity. This was the sound of rock music being hauled all the way back to its rebellious roots. It was never going to be pretty.

At the height of their infamy, the Sex Pistols took a trip to Jersey to escape the violence and hostility of London. When they were thrown off the island, they tried Berlin instead. Rotten didn't care that it was rainy and depressing - he loved the decadence, the Wall and the insanity of the place, and the song came about from that. The descending introductory chords were nicked from a song by The Jam that had been released six months earlier. Talent borrows, genius steals.

By the time we got to No Feelings, my ear was sufficiently numb. Paul braced my head against the wall. A poster of Bowie's Low looked on as Paul tucked the cork behind my ear and stabbed the needle in with a firm twist. I held the popsicle to my left ear while he stabbed away at my right. It was a warm day and I could feel the popsicle oozing down my neck. Blood and raspberry, an indistinguishable mess.

Halfway through Problems, Paul finished my right ear. I had no sleepers, so we pushed multi-coloured plastic-pearl-headed pins from Mum's sewing box through the piercings. The popsicle was now a bag of wet pulp and my left ear wasn't as numb as it could've been, but we ploughed on. Some pins were messier to force through than others.

Submission ended. Paul trimmed the ends off the pins and the job was done. He stood back to consider his handiwork, nodding. Mum called us for dinner and I went to the bathroom to clean up, half afraid to look in the mirror. I don't know what I was expecting - probably not this chased-through-an-abattoir-by-a-maniac-with-an-axe look: raw mince ears, defence-wound-stained hands and a flux of sticky red drips down my neck.
I did what I could to camouflage my swollen ears, and took my place at the table. Paul and I sat opposite each other in a quiet limbo of anticipation. It took Mum about 10 minutes to notice the butchery. She gasped, hand to mouth, and my father swore in English and Hungarian. Already. It was working.

We thrashed that album all summer. My mother found it hard to believe they were allowed to swear that way and my father, who listened only to the most caramelised form of jazz, loathed them. We mostly played the album when our father was out, because when he heard it, he behaved as if something important was about to burst inside him. I hoped it would.

Once the swelling had gone down, my mother changed her mind about my ears. She also made me a black mini-skirt with 10 zips in it. I wore that skirt the night we saw Proud Scum at Zwines and our friend Toilet pushed a safety pin through his cheek and we got gobbed on. I don't think I've ever felt more punk in my life.

Extracted from A Time. A Place. Three Songs by Maria Majsa, in The Journal of Urgent Writing, Volume 2, published by Massey University Press on November 9, $40.