Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World

"I was born, in a crossfire hurricane ..."

Around 68 years ago, in a galaxy far away, two stars collided. An explosion resulted. The center was a raging flashpoint of burning gasses and matter. The heat was intense; enough to set whole worlds aflame for decades. The sound that the explosion made was something like this. Deep down inside of this great cosmic ball of fire, four souls were born. They blasted out of the galactic chaos in the form of meteors, eventually crashing to Earth in the outskirts of London. Neither human nor demon, they were forged of supernatural matter with a strength far beyond that of pure titanium. There were many of these fires burning in deep space at the same time. Many such stars were born bearing names like "Clapton" or "Plant." These four souls, however, would outshine all of them. They would burn brighter. Longer. They were born with a Mission, a World to conquer. They had a genre to write and paradigms to shatter. Generations would try ever so hard to walk in their giant footsteps, to no avail. The only job they would ever have is to change the Earth with what came out of their mouths and the instruments that were forged into their hands in an eternal bond of flesh and wood. They were given a name that evoked one of the only substances that could survive such an inferno. It was drawn from the wisdom of the masters that came before them and described perfectly what they did once set in motion: The Rolling Stones.

You've heard the term "Rock 'n' Roll" hundreds or thousands of times. But stop for a moment. Setting aside music theory, what does that triplet of words mean? I can speak only for myself. Rock 'n' Roll is about much more than the music. Like jazz, it is an attitude, an approach to life. It's a deep appreciation for the past as it applies to an aggressive, loud, unafraid, and full-bodied present. Respectable? Not in any traditional sense. Moral? Nah. Debauchery? Yes, but with a purpose. It feeds the music. (It's hard to create Rock music while sitting at a dinner party eating on fine china.) Rock 'n' Roll is full speed ahead, for better or worse - carpe diem squared. "I can't get no.... No! No! No!" While looking back is an essential part of the genre, it is the now that is most critical. What happened yesterday matters only as inspiration. What lies ahead? Well, that will come tomorrow. "It's just another Moonlight Mile, on down the road."      

With the genre so defined, one irrefutable Truth emerges . . .

The Rolling Stones are the greatest Rock 'n' Roll band ever. 

My old friend Mike Herrig had a quote that I loved in reference to the Stones. (I do not know where he got it): "Many bands are rock 'n' roll. Only one band is Rock 'n' Roll." Never could a single group of artists so completely typify a genre as The Rolling Stones do Rock 'n' Roll. The unkempt hair. Sunglasses worn inside, at night. Gutter dandy fashion plate dress. Private charter airplanes with band logos on the side. Smoking cigarettes at press conferences. Mysterious dismissal of criminal charges. Luxury party villas. Marrying supermodels. Shows starting two hours late. Sexuality dripping from every action and word. It's all the essence of Rock 'n' Roll. The Stones did it first. Watch a band with one or more electric guitars on any stage anywhere in the world. During the set, someone on the stage will do something that would not have been done if The Rolling Stones never lived. "But I like it, like it, yes I do!" You see, "only one band is Rock 'n' Roll."

So, we know the Stones are the greatest Rock 'n' Roll band ever. But there is a problem. If we started to rank the giants of Rock with the only criteria being their mastery of a particular discipline, would any of the Stones even crack the top 5 on our lists? Probably not. So how are they the Greatest? You can boil it down to a simple formula: 2+2=50. Synergy. The whole is (exponentially) greater than the sum of its parts. The Stones never let their lack of technical prowess get in the way of the Mission. They either borrowed it (Mick Taylor), faked it (Ron Wood), or made it up as they went along. No matter what, they never hesitated or doubted for a fraction of a nanosecond. They were the best. Nobody knew it any better than them. From the moment they first heard the shriek of a girl inspired by the mere sight of their young faces, they were, immediately and forever, The Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World. Playing guitar like Jimi Hendrix? Not a qualification at their School. Singing like Sam Cooke? Forget about it. This stuff is too raw to be sung by angels. As we all know, greatness is about much more than physical attributes. You have to have "It." The Stray Cat Blues all down to your soul. Just as surely as William Shakespeare was born able to write a killer sonnet, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had Rock 'n' Roll coursing through their veins from breath number one.

Further to the point, the Stones stick together. They survive. Once their bond was formed, it became unbreakable. Always, unconditionally, no exceptions, the band stays in front of all else. More than any group of rock artists before or after them, they are a singular, cohesive Unit. We could fill pages with the names of merely great bands that came and went during the period while the Stones were at their peak (roughly from the release of Out of Our Heads in 1965 through Some Girls in 1978). That, of course, says nothing for the fact that they have held themselves together for 35 years after their Golden Era. Squabbles over Women and Whiskey inevitably erupted, but those were set aside like yesterday's beer cans the moment Charlie tucked a drum stick between his fingers (jazz style, of course) and Keith turned on his amplifier. Blood is thicker than water. Here, the Music is stronger than an infinitely large group of egos. One could hardly claim they kept themselves healthy, but unlike so many of their contemporaries, they managed to keep themselves alive. Torn? Sometimes. Frayed? Almost always. But alive. Nobody could die or quit until the Mission was complete. Somebody had to define Rock 'n' Roll once and for all and it had to be them. They knew it. It's like the Three Muskateers with '61 Les Pauls in lieu of cutlasses. All for one. One for all.

Last, and perhaps most important, in defining the Stones's greatness, is a fact almost never mentioned. It's the central reason that they were great in the first place; that so many hundreds and thousands of bands have come and gone while the Stones have endured. They love music. They revel in its history and nuances. Given a whiff of Detla blues and Chuck Berry double stops as teens, they took that raw material and exploded it into a global musical movement now over a half century old. But they never stopped. They did not break the old mold or throw it out the window. (They have far too much respect for those that came Before.) They just created a new one and gave it the shape they wanted it to have. While showing an intense disrespect for the musical status quo, they showed the deepest respect for those that created it. It is not a fad or a passing romance in their minds. It is a deep-seated and undying infatuation that never left them. These men have spent the better part of five decades taking the raw material provided by Elvis, Muddy Waters, and Hank Williams (Yes, Hank Williams; the Stones, more than any other band, are responsible for the fusion of country and mainstream rock. Like "alt country?" It was invented by the Stones.) and turning it into a world-shifting genre. Their intense devotion to the Mission cannot be explained by money or fame alone; they've created libraries of vital music long after both of those were guaranteed beyond measure. No, it's something more. In all the wild tales of debauchery and lust, what is lost is that these men love the Music above all else. It's what propels them. Always forward. No time for regret or contemplation. Kick down the door. Hide the women and children. Cover your ears if you are scared. We are on a Mission. We are the the Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World. The Rolling Stones.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Get your sail out in the wind"

I walked through the glass door of the red brick dormitory into the sultriness of June, 1994 on the Georgia Piedmont. The syrupy Heat and cicadas scared everyone away from non-essential tasks like learning. Sweating just isn't much fun. I hopped down the concrete stairs, passed Legion Pool, and took a left onto Lumpkin Street. I was heading downtown. The scorched streets were mostly dead and people were scarce. This was not the college I'd seen in the movies. Nobody seemed to be excited about learning or much of anything else and there were no young lovers cuddling on the parched grass. The hum of air conditioners was everywhere. It was the dead of summer. What few people I saw seemed agitated and in a hurry to get where they were going.

I'd been at college for all of a few days. My toes were just barely in the edge of the water. Three weeks earlier, I'd put on a mortarboard and marched across the field at the "Cougar Den" to gather my high school diploma. A couple of days after that, it was off on the senior cruise. "Whooomp! There it is." In music and life, it was a period of transition. I was heading off to the Great Adventure of American Youth more commonly known as college. My taste in music was becoming more developed. The hair metal and grunge that I'd cut my teeth on had faded. As tantalizing as it was to "look at that girl in the Daisy Dukes," such garbage did not cut it musically for anything more than a pep rally, and I was done with those. Except for the occasional bright spot like Beck's Mellow Gold or the Beastie Boys' Ill Communication, there was nothing to fill the void that grunge was quickly leaving behind. So, I turned to the past and it started with a band from just 40 or so miles up highway 41.

Around 1992, I discovered a song. It's the type of song that angels sing if there's rock 'n' roll in Heaven; one of the rare numbers that, no matter how far down in the Ditch one finds himself, will bring harmony.
Walk along the river, sweet lullaby.
They just keep on flowin', they don't worry 'bout where it's goin'.  
The first time I remember hearing it was sitting on a vinyl covered bench in the way back of a tan 15 passenger Ford van on the way from Cordele to Boone for a church ski trip. The four-wide bench in the back put one the furthest from adult supervision, so that's where I typically parked myself. The trips lasted forever. The battery indicator on your Discman would inevitably start to flash and you'd be relegated to whatever was on the radio if you'd forgotten spares. We were crossing into North Carolina after an eternity on the road when Dr. Patten (our do-it-all-totally-selfless driver/mentor/Sunday school teacher/role model/spirtual guide/chaperone) hit the "seek" button on the radio or shoved a new tape into the dash, or something. It hit me like a ray of sunshine:
Good ol' Sunday morning bells are ringin' everywhere,
Goin' to Carolina, won't be long and I'll be there. 
It takes a real Poet and Man of the South to wrap something as peaceful as church bells ringing on the Sabbath into a rock song, and Forrest Richard Betts is both. The ode to joy that "Dickey" wrote for his first wife, Sandy Bluesky, like a statue of a beautiful woman sculpted of old South Georgia red clay. It grabbed me by both ears. It was so far from what I'd spent the last five years listening to. So mellow and emotive.

When I got back home, a Wal Mart cassette copy of Decade of Hits was my first purchase. The tape quickly started to wear out, especially at the end of the first verse of "Blue Sky" and immediately before the beginning of the last. My eternal childhood sidekick, Zackary, had no patience for the solo, so "early mornin' sunshine, tells me all I need to know" was followed immediately by a buzz in the tape that signified habitual pressing of the fast forward button. As is so often the case in the life of a child, we didn't really understand what we were missing.

May of 1994 brought the release of Where it all Begins. The slow drag of growing up in the small town South was about to give way to something much More. I could feel it, but it did not yet have a soundtrack. In retrospect, listening to Where it all Begins began a shift in my mind. It wasn't about what was newer or different, but instead what was better. I knew when I heard it that I loved much more about the Allman Brothers Brothers than one or two songs. I knew that Duane Allman had lived and died young, but I did not distinguish between the music that came before and after that fateful day of October 29, 1971. My mind was far too undeveloped to appreciate a 36 minute "Mountain Jam," (that would come like a cold chill later on), but I could hear that this band was an Institution. The first time I heard the Bo Diddley chugga chugga of "Nobody Left to Run With," I was hooked. My young mind previously had no idea how to process an extended blues guitar solo. "Blue Sky" was Lesson 1, but there, like Zackary, I just couldn't wait for the next verse. The soaring peaks of "Back Where it all Begins," the mercury tickle of "Soulshine," and the call-and-response on the "Nobody Left" outro changed that. It started to sink in that the bluesman tells a story with his guitar that is every bit as compelling as what the lyricist has to say with his words. You just have to listen. "Roll on back to some place you ain't never been," to borrow a line from Gregg. To hear a band that had done so much in the past dig so deep in the present excited me. What Had Come Before in music took on new meeting. Just as I could not wait to shake loose of the confines of growing up in a small town and to dive into college, I was ready to learn much more about these giants of the past. The wave that started in 1992 carried on. I saw the Brothers play everywhere from a sweltering horse park in Conyers to the banks of the Suwanee river and it was special every time. To think that it started in the back of a van on a church trip.

There is a street in Athens, Georgia named "Lumpkin." It is the coronary artery that feeds man and machine to the sacred ground where our State's children have come to learn for some 226 years. Aspiring baccalauretes coming from all points south use this street to complete their journey. As it moves northward from Baxter Street, Lumpkin climbs steadily from the valley created by Tanyard Creek. Eternally polluted now, that pencil-thin body of water flows just next to or under Sanford Stadium. The valley is spanned by the bridge that crosses the west end of the stadium. The stadium sits in the valley. My grandfather, Lewis Lafayette Spence ("Double" or "LL" to nearly everyone who knows him; "Pop" to me), graduated from the University of Georgia in 1942. He reports that climbing the north side of the valley between classes involved trudging up a couple of hundred stairs ending up somewhere near where Memorial Hall stands today. There was no bridge at the time. Thank goodness I never had to deal with those stairs, but no technology of the last 70 years has made it easier to walk up the concrete sidewalk from northward on Lumpkin from Baxter in the Heat of June in Georgia. You sweat.      

By the time I got from Mell Hall to Baldwin Street on that steamy day back in June of 1994, I was just under half way and about tired of walking up that hill. I took a right on Baldwin Street so that I could rest a bit before I headed back uphill for downtown. With the smell of the Hot Dog Man's wares drifting through the stifling air, I took a left onto Herty Street and passed between Park and Leconte Halls. (There is a mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that is 6593 feet tall called "Mount Leconte." I don't think it's named for the same guy, but the Leconte's must have loved hills, because Leconte Hall sits on one of its own.)

Fully sweating, I topped the hill on Herty. That put me on North Campus. While only the Almighty himself could have conceived the University of Georgia, some supremely enlightened men, including Abraham Baldwin and Josiah Meigs, handled the layout. North Campus is the living embodiment of their genius. William Wordsworth's poetry would not have suffered a bit for lack of aesthetics if he would have gone to college on North Campus. It is a glorious place to take a stroll or to sit and think . . . so long as it is not the middle of June. I kept moving northward to "the Arch." I was a freshman. Heeding Pop's advice and with a nod to tradition, I was careful not to walk under it.

A hop across Broad Street and past the old Chinese buffet on the left put me onto College Avenue. College is a cross between a grand European boulevard and "Main Street" in a Faulkner novel. Making the block past the Grill and dodging the hackysacks and eau de townie on the street, my destination came into sight. Wuxtry Records. The living, beating heart of music in Athens. Concert venues come and go, but Wuxtry remains the same. Starting around 1978, somehow, someway, a quantum shift in music started in Athens in the form of the B52's, R.E.M., and dozens of forgotten bands that were no doubt as important but failed to find popular mass. (For the full story, see Rodger Lyle Brown's excellent Party Out of Bounds: The B52's, R.E.M., and the Kids Who Rocked Athens, Georgia ). Over a few year period surrounding 1980, everything that we came to know as "alternative" music in the 1990's was (arguably) born within two miles of where I stood. Wuxtry is where these world-changers worked and traded before anyone knew who the hell they were. The store thus sits not only at the corner of College and Clayton Avenues, but at a critical juncture of modern music history.  

The plate glass window has the slight clouding of age and the faded and cracking facade does nothing to betray that appearance. New releases and items of interest are displayed in the window using 19th century technology (a chalk board). You can pay attention or not, your choice. It's a serious place. You can feel it in your ears the moment you walk in the door. It has the smell of history. The vibe is more library than music store. Hushed tones are the way to speak and one need not expect immediate assistance. The place is so confident in its own being that it doesn't need marketing tricks or embellishments to garner customers. The people who come are there for one reason, to buy music. But unlike the people in the electronics section of a Wal-Mart for a similar purpose, Wuxtry's patrons do not care to be distracted by anyone or anything that might somehow affect what they choose to purchase of their own free will and choice. Unless they ask, in which event a supernaturally knowledgeable clerk will be able to guide them to _exactly_ what they need.

I had my own mission that day and $20 in my pocket to carry it out. In '93, I subscribed to Entertainment Weekly and they released a list of the 100 Greatest CD's of all time. I'm a sucker for music criticism and lists, so I found the list most interesting. The number one CD was one I'd never heard of. Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones. I knew little about the 'Stones beyond the more popular numbers on the Hot Rocks greatest hits compilation; not that I knew what Hot Rocks was. I only recognized some of the tracks, like "Satisfaction" or "Honky Tonk Women." "Paint it Black" had been popularized as the theme song of the Tour of Duty television show in the late '80's. That was the extent of my knowledge of the Rolling Stones.

The system of organization at Wuxtry is not complicated. The new CD's are arranged in waist-high flat bins segregated alphabetically with white plastic dividers between the letters. Letters are written on the dividers, intermittently with a thick black permanent marker or whatever else may be convenient. Much like Weaver D's restaurant down the hill, a request for assistance is typically met with a slightly annoyed albeit helpful response. (The typical Wuxtry staffer would be too immersed in deep thought about meaning-of-life style issues like which Butthole Surfers era is best and whether the Flaming Lips were more relevant before their post "She Don't Use Jelly" sellout to be bothered with helping a 'Stones rookie find one of the most notorious rock albums of all time). I had to have help that day because a scan of the "R's" did not reveal the treasure that I sought. It turns out the only copies of Exile they had were 1994 Virgin Records deluxe edition remaster and those were kept in the glass case by the register. Cardboard CD longboxes had only recently died and "soft" CD packaging was in its infancy. The '94 deluxe edition of the album had a thick cardboard sleeve that was designed to recreate the original album packaging. The sleeve slid into a hard plastic clear case made of "jewel box" material. Picking it up was different. It had the black and white look of pure, unadulterated cool. There was enlightenment to be found inside, I could feel it ["Just wanna see his faaaaace...."]. The price of $17.99 was stiff for 1994, but I'd have bought it if it cost five times that much. I wanted it. ["What's the matter with the boy?"]. My work there was done. I gave the clerk a twenty, collected my meager change, and hit the door. I had a new subject to learn and the teacher was the Discman laying on my metal frame twin bed back at the dorm room.

There was a lot of road between Wuxtry and Mell Hall, and I needed to cover it quickly. No time for North Campus sightseeing. Back south down College. Right on Broad (forget the Arch). After a diagonal against the rules Frogger run across Broad by the old obelisk, a quick left onto Lumpkin. Being at college was exciting, but  I took off back down the hill as fast as I could move without looking like I was in a hurry. The heat was at its peak, but I had gravity on my side this time. Once I got past the row of fraternity houses on the right, I hit the short cut across "TEP's" lawn, over the chain by the sidewalk on Baxter, and back through the glass door. Whew. Air conditioning. The two flights of stairs to the second floor. Down the hall (out of my way, guys) and into the room. Good. Zackary was at class. I had the place to myself .... Why do they make this cellophane so hard to get off ... The dense plastic smell of a new CD unsheathed for the first time ... A disc of solid yellow with a splash of black writing across the top ...  Do I have fresh batteries in this thing? Maybe not. I'll plug it in to be sure. Light off, air conditioner on high. Jump on top of the red and blue piped bedspread that Mom had sent me with; a little sweat won't hurt this old pillow. The tiny balls on the spindle in the center of the Discman click into the hole of the CD. It  starts to spin. The flashing "00" turns into a "01." The laser doing its job. Closed my eyes. One deep breath . . .      


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen...

It appears that everyone is ready,
Is everybody ready?
Ladies and Gentlemen, the
Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World!!!
The house music comes to abrupt halt. Darkness falls on the arena and the air is pierced by a chorus of screams, clapping, stomping, and wailing. General pandemonium. People making noise. Patrons pour down through the portals scurrying to return from too-late beer runs. As your heart rate rises, you stand more erect and raise your hands. Succumbing to the Thrill of it all, are compelled to cut loose a "WOOOOOOOO!!!!" High fives and hugs are exchanged in your aisle as those around you bounce up and down with anticipation. Lost sheep scamper up and down the aisles trying to read the number off their tickets in the dark. You stare intently into the distance. There is rectangle of light behind the stage - a window into your immediate future. Through the haze of smoke and excitement, the rectangle darkens momentarily as human silhouettes flash through the opening. Impossibly, the din raises a notch in intensity. Instruments are raised and bring themselves in tune. A blast from the kick drum punches a hole in the night and the snare sounds its return. A flutter of notes from the guitar confirms that the roadies have done their job. The bass pounds its rumbling "hello." The place is up for grabs. "How's everybody doin' out there?!" Yes! Yes! Just great! Could not be better. Days and hours and minutes of physical and mental preparation have been reduced to this moment. The Time is here. Everyone is in. In the immortal words of the Lizard King, "the Ceremony is about to begin."

Music is best enjoyed live. According to, a "concert" is "a public musical performance in which a number of singers or instrumentalists, or both, participate." What we commonly call "concerts" (or more commonly, "shows") today were born with the invention of the electronic amplifier in 1906. Things got loud very quickly. By May of 1976, the Who were rocking the "Charlton Athletic Ground" at 120 decibels. That's a tad below a 747 taking off and at the edge of what audiologists call the "pain threshold." (Whatever it was, I'm quite certain it was not as loud as Blue Floyd at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Halloween '99). In any event, ever since amplifiers were invented, mankind has gathered in groups massive and small to see our Heroes do Their Thing, live and in person. I realize that concerts were held before the advent of amplification. Secular music apparently became "pop" during the Renaissance. It's hard, however, to imagine 25,000 barefooted shirtless people gathered around an orchestra in Vienna in 1687. As such, I draw the line when the modern concert started at the time when someone standing behind a "soundboard" started turning a knob that controlled the volume.

Enough history. On to philosophy. The power of live music is undeniable. As I write, tens of thousands of people are standing on a few acres of white sand on the Mobile beach. They traveled from all over the Southeast, the U.S., and likely the world, all to watch small groups of one to eight (or so) people stand on an elevated platform and play their instruments. Sports are the only thing that draw a comparable crowd. The difference is that sports take place on a relatively large stage with big groups of people performing acts of physical grandeur. The musician, by comparison, is engaged in a challenge that is almost entirely intellectual. Where a 230 pound running back blasts through defenders using kinetic energy and brute force, the effort of the musician (at least the non James Brown variety) occurs mostly inside of his mind. Using little more than slight motions of his fingers, the musician can move us; take us on a jersey of 1,000 miles while standing completely still. The point of departure and the destination are whatever he chooses. This is the essence of live music.

On the one hand, live music is an intensely personal experience. Think of the moments spent at shows with your eyes closed, lost in your own thoughts. The song can take you to places of joy, exhiliration, peace, pain, satisfaction, longing, comfort, apprehension, pleasure, and all spaces in between and beyond. The singer speaks to you on more levels than you can comprehend at once. His story momentarily becomes your life. You can import whatever meaning you like into his words or you can ignore them all together and instead focus on their delivery. In those moments, "[i]t's just the way that he sings, not the words that he says, or the band."* The singer can inspire, deflate, forbid, permit, chide, reassure, question, answer. There is no limit. Still, we've covered less than half of the equation. Rhymed verse by itself is poetry. The melody, harmony, and rhythm or what combine with the verse to make it music. Individual notes, meaningless by themselves, are combined to form the brilliant brushstrokes of an infinite mural. And to think, all of this happens inside your mind! "Behind blue eyes ..."** In these beautiful slices of time, it matters not whether you stand with 100,000, or alone. The action is entirely within your own mind.   

On the other hand, live music can be an intense human bonding experience. How many times have you been to a show alone? How many of your friendships blossomed at one concert or another? How easy is it to remember who was there with you? How many times have you looked at the person standing next to you at a good show and thought about how much you liked (or loved) him/her? It does not happen every time. The people around you have to Love It as much as you do. It's a communal thing, and there needs to be unity. A small handful of disinterested or, worse, hostile people in your section can ruin it all. But then there are Those Moments, those times when you look at the person standing next to you with a giant smile on your face, nodding your head up and down, and realize that he was experiencing the, exact, same, thing. It's knowing that the journeys inside your minds ranged far and wide but still managed to reach the exact same destination. Pure serendipity. Sharing that sense of amazement, there's nothing you can do but just smile at each another and mouth an amazed "WOW!"

When you've ridden the Wave to its crest, sooner or later, it crashes to the shore. And so the show ends. The lights come back up and, and it's time to go somewhere else. It can be an invigorating moment, or one drenched by sweat and exhaustion. 
I always leave with something - enlightenment, satisfaction, frustration, resolution, motivation - always something. No mater the emotion, when the artists have shown me something truly special, I leave a slightly different person than the one who walked in just hours before; most often by a little, but sometimes by more than I can grasp. There have been those times when a concert literally bent the trajectory of my life (Fox Theatre, String Cheese Incident, 2002). It's part of the beauty of music heard live. It can change lives, viewpoints, and beings. It gives us extended respite in an ever more complex world. We learn what we want from it, and we take what we find. "What a beautiful buzz."***

* My Morning Jacket, "The Way That He Sings"
** Daltrey/Townshend
*** Jagger/Richards, "Loving Cup" 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Union Jack

But what can a poor boy do,
Except for sing for a rock n roll band?
Cause in sleepy London town there's just no place for
A Street Fighting Man! 
Rock n roll is a thicket of mysteries layered upon one another. Who invented it? Was it the great bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta or that Son of a Truck Driver from Memphis who drew so much from what they did? Was it Little Richard banging his baby grand and flashing that million dollar smile; or Robert Johnson, anonymously flailing that old worn out acoustic that the Devil taught him to play? What was their inspiration? Was it the pain of manual labor in the baking summer sun of the Delta, or was it something more refined; an animal instinct coupled with supernatural skills driving them relentlessly forward towards Something bigger. (BB King did not become BB King by sitting around bemoaning his station in life. Elvis did not become Elvis by frittering away his time playing checkers at filling stations. They worked at it. Hard.) I do not believe anyone can say exactly who invented rock n roll or why. But there is no doubt about who perfected it. 

England is, of course, a nation that forms part of an island off the coast of Europe. In terms of land mass, it is roughly one-third the size of California; slightly smaller than Georgia. In terms of influence on the musical genre known as rock n roll, it is Pangaea. And then some. It has been there for a very long time. While humans first inhabited the place during the "Upper Palaeolithic" period, since I don't know when that was, and for the benefit of the non-anthropologists among us, let's just say the place was first a unified state around A.D. 927. That would mean the fine people of the island had been enjoying evening mead with their countrymen for around 465 years before Columbus set off on his little frolic. (If only they would have had Fender Stratocasters and some Marshall stacks the whole time, Lord only knows what we'd be listening to today!) 

Stop for a moment and start making a list in your head of the greatest rock n roll bands ever. How far do you get before you reach a band that did not originate in England? (If not to five or so (not including Queen), then by all means call me and let's chat.). England of all places! I'll go you one better. Start ranking the greatest albums in rock n roll history? How far do you get on that list before you leave the area within 300 miles of London? (If not to 15 or so, then we really should talk). While the English did not invent rock n roll, their influence on it was so outsized it defies the imagination. They are the unquestioned wizard masters of the genre. 

Now. Stop for a moment and ponder how this happened. It's something like this: Black sharecroppers come in from the fields and invent the blues deep in America's belly. Their "crop" of musical genius gets carried up the river towards Chicago and other big cities, where it gets mixed in with a bit of jazz and swing (think Ray Charles), and bam, you got R&B. Then, the white boys get ahold of it. They've been out in the country listening to Hank Williams and Tennessee Ernie Ford. They take the blues/R&B stew and mix in a little spice in the form of C&W, and whaddayagot?  The "Upper Palaeolithic" period of rock n roll. Elivs. Carl Perkins. Still, we're not quite to what we've come to know as rock n roll. 

Well, right about the late 50's, as blues is taking root (electric style) in Chicago and ol' Ray is figuring out that he "[had] a woman," early curators of the art like Leonard and Phil Chess got smart and figured out that there was a real market for this stuff, and it wasn't just stateside. As sure as they started putting it on wax, the little black discs started trickling their way across the Atlantic. English ears perk up. Think a young Keith Richards sitting in his bedroom hunched over a record player. It's late at night and waaaaay past his bedtime (if he ever had one). He can't even play guitar yet, but he knows that Muddy Waters can the nanosecond the needle hits the wax. It was Keith's own Moment Zero. Not even the width of an ocean could hide the fact that those cats from America had the blues. People like Keith Richards and John Lennon wanted It. Thus, the raw material from which rock n roll was formed started to make its way across the Atlantic. First slowly, then in a flood. From the Delta to the suburbs of London by steamer. Soon, music would never be the same.  

But still, none of this answers the question. Why England? It's not like the place has a deep history for musical innovation. Literature, sure. From Shakespeare on through Wordsworth and his Romantic cohorts, nobody writes better rhymed verse than the Brits. But "Satisfaction" is no "Midsummer Night's Dream." Before rock n roll, name any legendary musician that came from England. As far as I know, the musical history just is not there. Why, after centuries of nothing much going on in the world of English music, did such a massive explosion erupt in the space of a few years?  

Perhaps it was the World Wars. England spent the better part of half a century getting ready for, fighting, and cleaning up after massive armed conflicts. One can only imagine by the time May 8, 1945 rolled around that the Brits were rightly tired of wars. As the country dug out from the Second World War, I'm sure there was a generation of youths looking for a lighter way of life. When you are worried about a bomb falling on your house, it's gotta be hard to concentrate on learning your chords or stringing lyrics together. When you read the early chapters of Keith Richard's new book Life, what you see is a post-war nation that was ready for a diversion. There's a spark. Throw on a big pile of dry tender in the from of blues and R&B never been heard before on that side of the Pond, and you've got yourself a fire. A hot one. [Cue "I Saw Her Standing There."]

Then there's the people. Say what you will about the Royal Wedding last week and all the hubub surrounding it. That was one heck of a party! Those streets were packed by stout, vivacious souls who are positively drenched in history. They've been invaded, conquered, colonized, ceded, threatened, bombed, and otherwise had their apple cart upset repeatedly, none of which stopped them from going out and forming the largest empire in the history of earth ... then slowly but surely giving it all up like a pint of Guiness after closing time. Those Brits have attitude and they are nobody's chumps. What better people to perfect a genre of music characterized by such swagger as rock n roll. 

Alas! Like so much else about rock n roll as art, we will unfortunately never know exactly why the Great Rock n Roll Explosion erupted in England. All that we know is that a tiny spark imported from the U.S. was set on the record players of a generation of English youth. That spark became a raging inferno. It set the world on fire without burning a thing save the musical conventions of a generation past. All of us who love music are a little warmer because of it. We are left only to admire and wonder. "The King is dead. Long live the King!"  

Thursday, April 21, 2011

On the Road Again

May the wind take your troubles away.
May the wind take your troubles away.
Both feet on the floor two hands on the wheel,
May the wind take your troubles away. 
Cars and music. Could one exist without the other? Stop for a moment and look back on your life. How many times have song and road converged to perfection? More than you can remember? Think back on the soaring highs and crashing lows you've lived with your hands on the wheel, music in your ears, and the road before you. There is just something about the strictly mechanical act of driving when coupled with the free rhythmic flow of music. It's a very situational thing. Mountain curves, long straight shots across plains, fast songs, slow songs, happy songs, sad songs, morning, night, driving fast, driving slow, sitting still. You just never know when the road and music will join in harmony.

Alone or with others, sometimes we feel the discomfort of being able to find nothing to listen to. You dig through your CD's, you scan your iPod, you search through Sirius (all while carefully watching the road, of course), but you find nothing that fits the mood; nothing that can translate the doldrums of the moment into some higher joy or understanding. You have little to do but sit and half listen to whatever is on. No fun.

Then there are the times that you create with a calculated play. Think back to a random Friday night at some point in your very young adulthood. Four people in the car, all big fans of the same band. You've all grilled out on the back deck and gotten yourself "ready" for the night. It's time to go. The bar is waiting and "people" are "out" who you most certainly want to see. The night is young and calling. It's dusk on a summer eve and cicadas are yielding to crickets. You load up in your friend's SUV. It's got a really good sound system. He cranks it up and rolls down the windows. It's time to _go_. He hands you a book of CD's. Flip, too mellow. Flip, nobody knows this stuff. Flip, too aggressive. Flip, bingo. It's the perfect CD. Casey Kasem himself could do no better. You put it in and flip straight to That Track. As soon as the first note floats out of the speakers, smiles break out and heads start to bob. If you've really done well, high fives are exchanged. Of you _go_.  Little talking. Stop lights, turns, left, right, you could ride for hours (so long as the bars stayed open while you did). Nothing random about it. You chose the tune but its perfect nonetheless.

Sometimes, music and driving combine to form joy. Recall going on a really good date with someone you had a crush on in your youth. Good times, plenty of laughing, never an awkward moment. You drop her off and it is obvious the date has gone juuuuust right. Perhaps you get a kiss good night and a promise of another date in the future. You walk back to your car trying not to skip and hop - gotta look cool. You non-chalantly throw the key in the door as the porch light goes out. As your butt hits the seat and the door slams shut, you stop, take a deep breath, then let out a suppressed smile. You crank the car exclaiming "yes!" between clenched teeth - gotta look cool. You'd been listening to the oldies station to keep things upbeat and fun. As you crank the car, the joy of your moment is greeted by the quiet little arpeggio that begins Dobie Gray's "Drift Away." The road unreels before you in a ribbon of unadulterated glee.
Give me the beat boy and free my soul,
I wanna get lost in your rock 'n' roll and drift away!
Sometimes, however, we drive when we are sad. How many times have you left somewhere in your car feeling crushed for one reason or another? Think back to when you were young. You've just left a party where you found out you'd been betrayed by someone you thought was your friend. Gut punch. Bad feeling. Furious, embarrassed, and hurt, you get in your car to head out. You are done with the disloyal scad. Finished. Friendship over. Your other (more loyal) friends run out to the car and beg you to say, but you brush them off and peel out of the driveway. You grab the first tape you can reach in the passenger seat and jam it into the deck without looking. After five seconds of hiss, your rage is fermented by the first notes of "Rearviewmirror" by Pearl Jam.  
I took a drive today
Time to emancipate
  . . . .
I seem to look away
Wounds in the mirror waved
It wasn't my surface most defiled
Head at your feet, fool to your crown
Fist on my plate, swallowed it down
Enmity gaged, united by fear
Tried to endure what I could not forgive
Saw things, so much clearer
Once you, were in my... rearviewmirror...
The music gives you a frame of reference. The further you drive, the more you understand. By the time you get to wherever you are going, the enlightenment of the music combined with the elixir of the open road and the wind in your face has calmed you down; composed you. Everything is going to be okay. How many times has it happened to you?  

But then there are Those Times. The perfect moments of serendipity where road and song join into one. Those Times could never be planned or created. Cameron Crowe painted this picture for us perfectly. Think the "Tiny Dancer" scene in Almost Famous - music and asphalt combined to form enlightenment. I had my own such moment in the late summer of 1994. My dear friend Zackary and I had gotten off of our senior cruise and set out for summer school in Athens not a week later. Taking my cue from a "Top ____ Albums of all Time!" list in Entertainment Weekly, one of the first things I did in Athens was pick up a super special collector edition copy of the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" album on my first trip to Wuxtry Records. (Much, much more on this in future editions).  It was an exceedingly hard time in my young life for many reasons. Times were just bad. I finished summer school and drove my sister Beth's '91 Accord down to Panama City to meet my family for a beach trip. I was emotionally banged up and my head was not in the trip (or anything else). One night way after dark, I had to get away. I took the Accord out by myself. Turning left out of the resort onto highway 30, I rolled down all the windows, and soaked up the steamy haze of an August night on the Florida panhandle. I rode in silence for awhile. Somewhere out near Laguna Beach, the traffic starts to thin, the road starts to open up, and you can actually see the ocean. I gained speed and the tires started humming to the road, barely audible over the roar of the wind. The moon was low in the cloudless sky. Metallic sprinkles of light reflected off of the rippled black glass surface of the ocean to my left. The garish lights of the resorts in town put a glow in the sky behind me. It was one of those times in your young life when walking around strength seems hard to summon and your soul feels threadbare. The Accord had one of those old Pioneer six disc changers mounted in the trunk, and I had no idea what whoever drove the car last had been listening to as I stabbed the volume/power knob and turned it up. A whirling, dreamlike flutter reached out of the speakers and grabbed me followed by the straight shot of a drunken singer's voice:
Saw you stretched out in Room Ten O Nine
With a smile on your face and a tear right in your eye.
Oh, couldn't see to get a line on you, my sweet honey love.
Berber jew'lry jangling down the street,
Making bloodshot eyes at ev'ry woman that you meet.
Could not seem to get a high on you, my sweet honey love. 
May the good Lord shine a light on you,
Make every song (you sing) your favorite tune.
May the good Lord shine a light on you,
Warm like the evening sun. 
For that unforgettable moment in time, everything was okay. The music and the road converged into one. "Warm, like the evening sun."  

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Wait

"Just a little patience. Yeeeeeaaaahhhhh..."

September 16, 1991, 11:30 p.m. I am wide awake upstairs at my family‘s brick cottage on 14th Avenue in Cordele, Georgia. My bedroom is lit only by the single bulb lamp on my desk. The walls are plastered with the indicia of "rebellious" youth: posters of bands with names like "Poison," "Metallica," and "Motley Crue," Camel cigarette ads featuring "Joe the Camel" in leather bomber jackets and such. There's ignored homework spread out all over my bed and a half-eaten late night snack on my desk. I'm laying on my bed with my headphones on, listening to some band or another but not hearing it. I’ve been dressed and ready to go for over an hour. Finally, it's time. I stand up to leave. There are three twenty dollar bills rolled up tight in the front right pocket of my jeans. I pat anyway to make sure they're still there. Appointed in my black Guns ’n’ Roses t-shirt and Nike cross trainers, I kill my stereo, leave my bedroom, and tiptoe down the single flight of stairs. The third one from the top always creaked if you stepped in the middle. Shhhhhhh. I pull the back door open gingerly (it was hardly ever locked, even at night) but the old metal weather stripping makes its inevitable clatter. Shhhhhhhh. Mom knows I’m leaving, but everyone is sleeping and I can’t wake little sister Meg. I’ve been working on this for months, pleading with Mom in an effort to convince her that it was absolutely safe for me to be out in the O’Neal neighborhood on my bicycle after midnight. 

I slip outside. It‘s not summer but not fall on the coastal plain of Georgia; still muggy outside even approaching midnight. I pause to savor the moment. It’s finally almost here. The Day. The rock supernova that was Appetite for Destruction (a topic unto itself) had started to flicker around ‘88. The release of Lies in ’89 had kept the fire burning, but it was a mash up of the band‘s punk origin live recordings on the A-side with an all acoustic B-side; a bit hard for my young mind to digest. The nearly two years that followed were interminable for the faithful. For months and months and months, nobody had known when The Day would come. At first, there were vague hints, unconfirmed rumors and innuendo focused on one date or another. Then, there were the vicious teases declaring that this date or that was The Day, which gave way to the "no kidding I know someone whose cousin’s friend used to date the band’s manager and saw them on Sunset Strip back in ’85 and he told me for absolutely sure _____ is The Day." Rumors of the band breaking up and getting back together. Nooooo! I cannot say for certain how I finally got iron clad confirmation of when the waiting would end, but I believe it came in the form of an announcement by Riki Rachtman on Headbanger’s Ball. It would be September 16, 1991. The Day.  

That was a different time and news was harder to come by. In 1991, a person wanting information had essentially the same options of a similarly curious person in 1950: pick up the phone and call someone, cut on the television, read a printed source (newspaper, magazine, the family encyclopedias, etc.), head to the library. It was like the Stone Age compared to the information megagrid we live in today. Trying to figure out when The Day would come was thus frustrating for an impatient 14 year old. Metal Edge magazines came to the Big B drugstore down the street once a month. I could not bring them home because Mom would never tolerate that. So I’d ride my bike down there, get a Pepsi out of the machine out front (they were colder than the ones inside) and stand there staring at those pages for hours as if there was some enlightenment to be found in the angry grimaces of the pseudo warriors of Heavy Metal that graced the pages. I was young and full of energy that was as unbounded as it was unfocused. To nearly any 14 year old, there comes a period of time when you are pissed off at the World and the World is pissed off at you. (The truth of the matter in hindsight is that you are fortunate and blessed to have a warm home and parents who love you and provide for you, but you just can't see it that way when you are living on testosterone overload.) Heavy Metal thus gave a quarter generation of disenchanted (real and imagined) American youth an outlet for its collective anger … until Grunge came and wiped its cousin Metal right off the map, at which time another quarter generation had a whole new channel for its rage. “The news of revolution hit the air,” to quote Mike Cooley. But that’s a different story.          

Two singles off the records had hit that summer, both with accompanying videos. “You Could be Mine” came first. The world premeire was on the radio on a Saturday afternoon. In 1991, the only way you could hear a song before you got the tape or CD in your hands was to hear it on the radio. The only way you could hear the song more than once every few hours (assuming it was popular and on "heavy rotation") was to record it off the radio. I had thus camped out in my bedroom with the door shut waiting for the magic moment when it hit the airwaves of Rock 103, my quivering fingers perched on the “play” and “record” buttons. As soon as I heard the DJ say the word “premiere,” I hit them both. Hard. Stared into my player to make sure the tape was turning. It was. Good. No time for a mistake now. A massive kick drum explosion followed by followed by a looping guitar riff of increasing ferocity until. Bam! 

I’m a cold heartbreaker, fit to burn
And I’ll rip your heart in two,
And I’ll leave you lying on the bed!
Rock. And. Roll. Only the bass rumble that starts Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Crossfire” would shake me out of the trance and remind me to stop the tape.... Must call Mitch immediately...  Yes! Yes indeed! It’s awesome!

A couple of weeks later my dear childhood friends Jim and John Shipley came down from Perry and picked me up to take me to Amelia Island. I think it was July. Terminator 2 had pop culture abuzz and “You Could be Mine” was on the soundtrack. Jim had been 16 for about zero months and getting Mom to accede to a trip to the beach in his white Chevy Beretta with him driving had been a massive feat of parental manipulation (i.e., deception). The car didn’t need gas to run, only a constant stream of that song, followed by “Civil War,“ which was on the flip side, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. We must have driven 1,000 miles on that island that week. Besides an interlude of REM’s Out of Time album (Jim was a couple of years older and his tastes slightly more refined) and a trip to the theatre to watch Days of Thunder, I think it was a non-stop blast of “Yoooou could be miiiiine, but your waaaay, out of liiiiine…” 

By late summer, the second single had dropped. “Don’t Cry.” Even though I was too young to get a learner‘s permit to drive, that song made me feel like I’d loved and lost a thousand times.

Talk to me softly
There’s, something in your eyes.
Don’t hang your head in sorrow
And please don’t cry . . . 
That song could make an arm’s length slow dance at the school gym seem like a monumental life event. By the point of the super long drawn out “Toniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiuuhhhhiiiiiiiiiiuuuhhhht!” that ends the song (who knows whether Axl Rose could actually have held a note that long without computer assist -- I had my doubts even then), I was always nearly in violation of the directive that was the song’s title. By September of 1991, the swirl of rumors about The Day coupled with the exhilarating tease of the two advance singles had the rock world whipped into a state of ultimate anticipation.  

Back to 14th Avenue and September 16, 1991. It’s now 11:40 p.m. I slide open the door of the old garage, which unleashes its usual rumble creak. Shhhhhh. Can’t let Coach Fachini see me leaving or I might catch heat at golf practice (I was awful no matter how much sleep I got). I slip my cinnamon red 10 speed Kent Nottingham out of its dock and point it out of the old dirt driveway, down the concrete pitch at the end and right onto the darkness of 14th Avenue. I catch the slight downhill headed down towards First Street and feel the air on my face. There is no stopping me now. No cars on the road this time of night. Taking a left onto First Street under the orange light of the old streetlamp, I can see the shopping center that is my destination. Past the Episcopal Church on the right and still accelerating. Almost. There. An eternal minute later I blast past the Big B going too fast to be on a sidewalk and stop short of the Music Mart. Everybody there but me is certain to have arrived in Mustangs, Camaros, and trucks. Ten speeds will not seem cool to them.

The bells hanging from the door sound my arrival. The room is full of cigarette smoke and a band of late night miscreants and Metalheads that are far more “experienced” than me and infintely "cooler" by late 80's/early '90's Cordele standards. We are talking very long hair, tight ripped up black jeans, high top tennis shoes, leather jackets, and every sort “satan worshiper” (80’s shorthand for angry teen) overwrought death metal T-shirt imaginable. Some type of Heavy Metal is blaring from the stacked speakers at a volume loud enough to make interpersonal communication difficult. This is not the crowd I had promised Mom would be here. Taking a deep breath, I walk in. “Speeeeeence!” Good old Bob the store owner. He was my buddy and I spent hours a week talking to him, but now was the wrong time for him to be drawing attention to me. “What’s up, Bob,” I respond in a terrified half whisper to mask the crackling post- pubescence of my voice. A line has started to form at the counter. I don't know any of the thirty or so people packed into the store. Having nothing better to do, I eagerly jump in line and claim the third space. Most of the people there are far too “experienced” and “cool” to show any hurry to get up there and get in line. Unlike me, they have absolutely no curfew. Ever.      

11:59 p.m. The excitement builds. Tick. Tock. Bob can obviously start selling the things whenever but it is probably fun for him to watch all of us fret; those of us that aren't high or drunk, at least, and I am neither). FIVE, FOUR, THREE .... Bob pulls two boxes out and put them on the counter. There. They. Were. Perhaps 100 copies of Guns 'n' Roses, Use Your Illusion, volumes I and II. A box full of orange covers and a box full of blue. The Ben Hur of 80's and '90's Rock 'n' Roll! Bob takes out a previously opened copy of volume I and sticks it in the tape deck. Yes! All of a sudden I feel comfortable and cool. I was about to have the third, fourth, and fifth copies of both records to be sold in Cordele! (The twenties in my pocket belonged to me and my buddies Trey and Mitch.) These people are my friends

The line starts to move and my heart starts to accelerate. Two stacks of three each hit the counter in front of me. Kapow! I am almost afraid to touch them but the fear subsides quickly. As I scrape up my change, Bob tries to tell me something, but I am out the door. Fast. I place the tapes in the black saddle bag on the back of my bike. Gingerly. Never could I ever cause them any harm. Back by the Big B and the Pepsi machine at the speed of light. Off the curb and hard left out of the lot. Stand up on the peddles. Must. Go. Faster. Right onto 14th at the edge of control. Back out of the seat. I can't see but I don't care. Up into the driveway and down it with a cloud of moonlit dust behind me. Hit the garage at near full cruising speed and skid to a stop. Across the yard at a run, breathing hard and sweating. Stop at the door. Can't go in this fast. Can't wake up Meg. Crack the door and slip in. Can't hear the old metal weather stripping now. "Mom, I'm home" in a loud whisper and up the stairs like a bird taking flight. Miss the third step! Good. Into my bedroom. Close and lock the door. Hands trembling as I pry the cellophane off the tape. Crack it open. Savor the sharp smell of pent up plastic. Which side is side 1? There it is! Into the player. Grab the headphones. Lay back and close my eyes. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. It's just me and the music now. Time drags to a crawl and my thoughts collapse into a black hole with Axl Rose and his band on the other end ...
When you were young and your heart,
Was an open book,
Used to say live and let live.... 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Moment Zero

Some people listen to music and some love it. It is the difference
between hearing something and feeling it, between doing something and
experiencing it. For those of us who love music, It happened at one
time or another. Moment Zero. The Big Bang inside your head when you
realized that It was deep down inside of you, a part of your very
being, as essential as breathing. The time came for me at the ripe old
age of 8. I was in the basement of the First Methodist Church
in Perry, Georgia in the musty old cinder block room where the youth
group congregated. There was a pool table and a stage. It's not what
you think.

I had flirted with It before. My dear grandmother (Gam) had
Jim Croce's Greatest Hits on vinyl. How or why she got it I have no
idea; old big band swing and gospel were more her style. I don't
remember much about that record except for "Bad. Bad. Leroy Brown.
Baddest man in the whole damn town." It is a boogie number, the kind that 
is easy for a young mind to grasp. Gam would play that song on the record 
player in her den and I'd try to replicate Fozzie's "wokka wokka" dance 
move from the Muppets and jump around. My moves caused quite a stir 
in the retired grandparent's set down in Dawson, Georgia. Gam's friends 
would come over and laugh while I did my dance to "Bad Lewoy." They 
would sometimes tempt me with dollar bills when I got shy. I couldn't 
have been more than 5 years old. It was the first and only time that 
anyone ever paid money to watch me do anything.

It wasn't just the blues of Bad Leroy, even at a young age. I grew up
in the church and the hymns were powerful elixir to my childish mind.
One, in particular, stole my heart, "Oh, For a Thousand Tounges to
Sing." If I hummed it to myself once I did it a thousand times:
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!
Yes, yes indeed! Sing it Brother Tom! On Sunday nights we had a
segment in church where the choir director (Brother Tom) would let the
assembled faithful call out hymns from the pew. You'd raise your hand
and he'd call on you if he got to you. If chosen, you called the number of the
hymn you wanted played and the baby grand piano would crank up within
seconds. I liked to sit near the front with my parents. I raised my
hand early and often. There was no reason for Tom to ask me what I
wanted to request. (I'm sure he knew my hand was up without looking.)
Before I got my hand up good he'd call out "NUMBER TWO! Ladies 
and gentlemen, Oh for a Thousand Tongues to Sing!" I was far too young
to understand the religion behind it all but, man, the music really
moved me. It was the way the chords drove the melody. I heard it at 
least once a week and it seemed like a new song every time. (Music is 
just that way). It seems like yesterday.

Anyway, back to the basement. We'd finished a Wednesday night supper
back in 1983. As was our usual practice, us kids headed down to the
basement to play while our parents did whatever parents did after a
church supper. The time was mostly spent running up and down the 
halls or on non-organized games of "pool," but this night would be different. 
I was handed what must have been a Sony Walkman. I don't remember 
who handed it to me, was but she (or he) was obviously wiser than I. I was 
exhilarated and intimidated at the same time. What a marvelous invention 
the thing was! But what was inside?

I opened the player to find a cassette tape. I took the tape out and
looked at it. I hadn't seen many of them. Cassettes were a new
invention at the time, and the only ones I was familiar with were the
ones that my Mom had Christmas music recorded on back at the house
(Perry Como Christmas, black tape with a red and white label, holiday
bliss). The tape I got that Wednesday night looked different. Felt
different. I put the headphones on my head. Felt the foam on my ears. 
I put it in the player and hit rewind until it stopped. I hit the button 
with the triangle on it. "hissssssssssssssssss Bum pa, Bum pa, Bum pa, 
BumPA, Bum pa, Bum pa, Bum pa, BumPA, the whistling sound of a 
bomb falling out of the sky. GUITAR. Loud, Electric guitar" 
What. Was. Happening?
They told him don't you ever come around here.
Don't wanna see your face you'd better disappear.
There's fire in their eyes and their words are really clear,
So beat it, just beat it!
Old Hymn Number Two became irrelevant in a fraction of a single
drumbeat. No more ping pong, no more manhunt (not on that night
anyway). It's not time to go home. Nobody touch this Walkman. I'm
nodding my head because I cannot hear you. There was nothing else --
just me, that tape, and those foam headphones. That stage. Dead corners of
the room where nobody would distract me. "Just beat it beat it beat it
DA DUH DUH beat it beat it ….." The confusion and exhilaration grabbed
me simultaneously. I pressed the earphones against my head. What was
going on? The Big Bang. Moment Zero. By the second time through I
was sweating. My joy was palpable and others wanted to pry my tape
away. Noooooo! Not just yet. One. More. Time. By the time it was
over, as my mind slowed down from hyperdrive, I was exhausted.
But one thing I knew for sure. I wanted More.

That night was the beginning of what has been a lifelong journey. It's
taken me from the Florida Everglades to the shores of the San Francisco
Bay, over mountaintops and down winding rivers. Through darkness
and light, love and pain. Into the farthest reaches of my own psyche and
back. What I did not understand as a child, I know now as surely as my
name. Then, now and always, I love music.