Music first deeply affected me when I was a young public pool rat. Certain jukebox sounds just made me feel good, and I played them over and over: Lobo’s “I’d Love You to Want Me,” The Spinners’ “Mighty Love,” Paul Revere’s “Indian Reservation,” Cher’s “Half Breed”–I have no native ancestry, nor did I study it in class or on the side, so don’t ask me–Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” anything by Elton or Alice. But since I remember really thinking, I’ve spent quite a bit of time (too much, still) inside my own head. I think that was originally an outgrowth of eventing games and scenarios first for Captain Action, Johnny West, and GI Joe, then for doodling in my school notebooks, then for “TV shows” I acted out alone in our backyard when we moved out in the country. I never needed another person to have active, imaginative fun, and eventually my interest in music joined with my tendency to spend considerable time silently thinking, imagining, and inventing.
The catalyst was Ken’s Record Shop, just down from the high school. There, I bought my first albums; to me, their design implied extended mental engagement, though I still evaluated them as a whole, like I did the pool jukebox 45s, and like I still do. For the first time, I started thinking about lyrics and archetypes (I didn’t have that word, but I had Edith Hamilton and Bergen Evans) and seeing if they applied to what I was living and seeing, or what I could live or might see. To a great extent, those first albums were an escape: from the exquisite torture of adolescent yearning to belong and be loved, from the grind of most of my classrooms, from the considerable lack of constructive non-sports outlets in my community (I was an athlete, but sports were not an escape for me; they were where I physically released my frustration, anger, and confusion). Church couldn’t compare to those first records, and I wasn’t being asked to read many books in school, so they were my first scriptures, for better or worse.
Here are the first ten albums that I contemplated and tried to unravel, interpret, and apply–whether they really bear up under that weight or not.
1. Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (seemed literary and I was starved for such, though I thought I was stoopid because I didn’t “get it”; the title seems to me today a bit more of a clue)
2. Alice Cooper: Billion Dollar Babies (I mos def got the entertainment aspect of this, but I labored to dig it what money and decadence really meant to him–um, Phil, you knew the reflexive property from math, dude!)
3. Bob Dylan: Street Legal (yeah I know–this Dylan album?–but I was miserable and confused by girls just like he was)
4. Neil Young: Decade (his Cortez v. my teachers’ Cortez + his guitar + he was confused by girls = love!
5. Rush: All the World’s A Stage (when I heard the album on KSYN outta Joplin–in its entirety–it sounded profound)
6. Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (a whole new strange world to me–I knew no Bruces but I did see the cars–but “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” became a credo)
7. Ted Nugent: Double Live Gonzo (proof I wouldn’t lie to you if I’d actually list this–remember, I said archetypes as well as lyrics)
8. Elvis Costello: My Aim is True (I seldom listen to him or it today, but he put words to my (so often self-inflicted) agonized romantic and sexual desires, and he was confused by girls)
9. Boston: Don’t Look Back (soaring guitars, smooth harmonies, and strangely transcendental lyrics were Midwestern boy-balm–balm enough that I had to write my first-ever record review about it)
10. Bob Seger: Night Moves (the whole album’s still good to me, but the title song was dictated from my fantasies, the only place I got to cluelessly “work on” The Mysteries)
Scary, ain’t they? For scriptures? Exclusively white and male, het’ro (far as I knew), foursquare (even Alice, really–I never took him seriously even then), a tad humorless (no?). On the plus side, there’s some “poetry” in there, a dollop of politics (historical and emotional), a touch of class-consciousness, spacey futurism, wang dang sweet poontang (really, though…), wordsmithery–stuff for my addled but determined mind to work with.
Maybe the next five I explored before heading to college were more important.
1. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (the kind of food my teachers should have been serving me daily–still nutritious after all these years!)
2. The Clash: London Calling (a cultural dictionary I didn’t have the background for, but I wasted no time trying to translate “Spanish Bombs” and figure out who Ivan and Montgomery Clift were)
3. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks (“I’m looking over the wall / Oh no it cannot be!” was the most exciting line I’d ever heard, delivered by the most frightening singer I’d ever heard, and I didn’t even have a clue about the Berlin Wall at fucking 18–but I did know he meant it, man…and that meant a lot in the days of “Disco Duck”)
4. Teddy Pendergrass: Teddy (yes, I studied that–to no avail, and no hot oil rubdowns for me)
5. Neil Young: Live Rust (I would read a book about the sound engineering for these shows, because they sounded transmitted from outer space–or the Palace of Experience)
Still no codexes from women, but I am thankful for the intercession of those five platters in this southwest Missouri boy’s life before I was cut loose into the wider world. I guess I linger over them because I’m fascinated that I got here from there, and wonder if, oh, “Desolation Row” had anything to do with it in a dance with chance. Believe me, if you’d told me then where, what, and who I’d be now, I’d have fainted from surprise–and relief. I’m still an old chunk of coal, though, and I wonder, too, like most, how much of the teenage me is still operating in my core. At least I’m much less confused about girls.