I am not sure when music put a hook in my lip, but I was quite young at the time, and it could have been any one of the following moments:
- When I received the Banana Splits theme song 45 (I feel like it came out of a cereal box, but I don’t remember–did you know Al Kooper, Barry White, and Gene Pitney contributed music to the show’s soundtrack?).
- When I first heard Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy”–my childhood best friend’s dad owned a jukebox stocking and repair shop, and when we’d visit, he’d always let me have a beat-to-hell record, and this was probably the first. I didn’t care about the forest-fire surface noise, and it was probably the first song I memorized. I don’t think I ever flipped it over….
- When my parents gave me my first album: Sgt. Pepper’s, of course (that would have been ’70 or ’71). I could not get enough of that one, then I subjected it to a long, long, long period of avoidance, which ended late last year when, after reading a couple Beatle books, I once again found myself infused with affection for it.
- When I first heard Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”–I think my mom had a crush on Glen, thus we had the albums (I tended to stare at Bobbie Gentry on the cover of one of those), thus we watched his show, and…man, I caught the vibe of this song. I think it was the first time I ever heard loneliness. 40 years later, when I read the story of its recording, I ended up playing it every day for about a month.
- When I first heard either The Spinners’ “Mighty Love” or Warren Zevon’s “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” on the Carthage Municipal Pool jukebox: the former sounded like pure, unadulterated joy on wax and probably caused my junior and senior high romantic life to be torture, because that was what I expected having a girlfriend to feel and be like (whatta sap!); the latter seemed like I would need decades of research to fully understand, and with a title like that, I just had to play the “B” side instead of the “A.” (What a 45 that was!)
I mean, I can sort out the chronology, but I’m not sure which moment was the one that really struck me with the fever. Most definitely, one of those was the cause.
I bring all of this up because this morning I found myself recalling the moment that ensured the hook of music remained sunk, as it still is and will likely remain, unless I lose my mind, which these days is very much a possibility.
Most of my high school friends probably remember me as a music nut. I wrote reviews for the Carthage High School student newspaper; the first couple enthused about Boston’s Don’t Look Back and Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True. I skipped lunch frequently to spend my money at Ken’s Records, which was just a few blocks from the school and right next door to our favorite lunch joint, so friends often saw me “eating” there. My friend Todd Freeman and I regularly arrived to school early just to man the senior lounge stereo, its speakers wired out into the lobby, and philosophize, girl-watch, and heckle underclassmen–we had an East Coast thing going for some reason, so Springsteen and Billy Joel were our eight-tracks du jour. Even then a drooling Dylanophile, I successfully lobbied to make “Forever Young” the theme of a homecoming dance–o former classmates, please forgive that, for I was young and foolish and my dreck-detector was ill-calibrated! I sat patiently next to my home stereo, cassette tape on “REC” and “PAUSE,” waiting for KSYN in Joplin to play my favorite songs that hadn’t made “Casey Kasem’s American Top 40” yet; back then, kiddies, you had to have the bucks and hope the local shop (if your town even featured one) carried the 45 or album if you wanted a chance to hear it over and over and over again. Speaking of Dylan, I heard “Hurricane” on the radio exactly once on KSYN during my entire high school career, and I didn’t have a blank cassette ready. Once. Why didn’t I just go buy Desire at Ken’s?
A) I wasn’t made of money.
B) I wasn’t yet reading reviews every week, and thus I might not have known it was on Desire.
C) Ken’s might not have carried it, or might have been sold out–I didn’t hear “Hurricane” until way after Desire was released, anyway.
Back then, simple listening on demand did not come easy. We did, though, have KSYN’s late-night show that played new albums in their entirety (thank you, programmers, for Live Rust and for 2112, two seemingly vastly different albums that, come to think of it, have much in common).
Well, that was the good stuff. The frustrating stuff was, I was (and still am) a restless seeker after new sounds and knowledge, and I didn’t then know anyone, really, who was also down for the search. I’m pretty independent–I don’t tend to need much validation for my interests–but you have to admit few moments are more fun than discovering new sources of exaltation, amazement, and enlightenment in good company. Try as I might, I had zero luck enlisting anybody for deep dives into Armed Forces, Darkness on the Edge of Town, London Calling, 1969 Velvet Underground Live, The Essential Jimi Hendrix, Night Moves, Never Mind the Bollocks, or The Basement Tapes. I mentioned Live Rust earlier; elsewhere on this blog, I documented the pain and suffering inflicted upon me when I dared to foist its revelatory content on high school friends (and potential more-than-friends). One can see I wasn’t getting a ton of positive reinforcement, and since my seeking also extended to non-musical paths, the possibility that I might have jumped off the musical hook at some point in the near-future was…distinct.
At the time, music and sports ran neck-and-neck for my attention, with sports leading by a nose. I played basketball, football, soccer, and baseball (very, very poorly and mercifully briefly in the last case); I also ran track, and swam competitively. I wrote almost all of the sports copy for the school paper, as well as covered junior varsity (and some varsity) sports for the local paper, and, most tellingly, when it came to a career, I just wanted to watch, record statistics for, and write about the NBA for a living. I headed off to college at the University of Arkansas with that intention, as well as the promise of a gig as the school’s baseball statistician. With me, I hauled about 19 records (why do I remember that number?) and a faux-leather case of 12 eight-tracks (Queen, Head East, Alice Cooper); if that tableau doesn’t indicate the potential for my musical passions becoming fleeting–or at the least stunted–I’m not sure what would (though I had bought a rubber stamp with my name on it and stamped all my records–that’s a tad strange and obsessive).
So, my parents had dropped me off at Reid Hall–I was clearly an early arrival–I’d gotten comfortable in my dorm room on the fourth floor, a nice breeze was blowing through my open window and door out into the hall…and I decided to just blast something annoying to test the waters and find out as soon as possible if I were indeed going to continue to seek new sounds alone (if, alas, at all). I remember feeling pessimistic about that process continuing. The obvious album for the task was The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. Though I didn’t have a fucking clue about most of what Mr. Rotten was raving about, though I had not yet listened to it with anyone, though it had essentially gotten me kicked out of Sunday school forever a couple years before (that’s another blog post), I thought Bollocks would be the perfect album to blast, mark my territory with, and measure the degree of alienation from my peers I was bound to suffer/cause. I didn’t know Whitman yet, but also, underneath all that bullshit, it was, probably, “Noiseless Patient Spider” time for me. I snapped the eight-track into its slot, turned the knob to seven, and sprawled out on my bed to await the results.
No sooner had those four opening seconds of marching boots led into Steve Jones’ first chord than a dude walked right into my room, pointed at my stereo, cocked his head slightly to one side, and asked (note the implied question!), “Ummm…The Sex Pistols?”
I sat up and said, “Yeah?”
The dude enthusiastically proclaimed, “Hello!” This was not a greeting–that five-letter word, as he used it, would have many meanings, depending on the context, over the course of our still-ongoing friendship. In this case, it was an affirmation.
The dude was from Little Rock. Turned out he was ensconced with his cousin Bruce in the dorm room next to mine. He was distinctly not angry with my selection or the stereo volume.
“I’m Kenny. You heard of The Ramones?” he asked.
“Well, some kids I never met spray-painted that name on the baseball stadium wall in my hometown, but no.” (Ken’s did not carry Ramones records as far as I knew, but I also hadn’t yet read about them.)
“We can fix that. Are these your records? Hello, eight-tracks!”
“Ooooooooooh. Elvis Costello!”
Soon, we were over in his room. Kenny introduced me to Bruce, slapped on a record, and I quickly realized The Ramones were a subject for serious further research.
His vaguely dangerous-seeming cousin was into Sabbath, whom I knew well, but also Funkadelic and Jerry Clower (HAW!) and Monty Python, whom I didn’t. And that wasn’t all. Without checking with us, Bruce took Leave Home off the turntable and replaced it with a yellow-covered album he’d snatched so quickly out of a nearby crate I couldn’t make out the other artistic details. Waggling his eyebrows and darting his eyes about manically, he lowered the needle into the record’s groove. Sounds from a deeply weird space slithered out of Kenny’s speakers, and Bruce launched into an almost threatening solo dance, at which point I took a step backwards:
If you haven’t already deduced it, this was the moment I hearkened back to this morning. I honestly think it not only re-set the musical hook in my lip, but also insured that music wouldn’t just be a hobby for me–that I’d ride that line like the shark in Jaws. Before long, I got bored with baseball stats and found myself rifling through the university bookstore’s handy cut-out bin for Kinks and Howlin’ Wolf records. I didn’t end up sitting at an NBA scorer’s table, but I did end up playing in three bands (absolutely unaccountably–I’d never imagined the possibility). My writing was diverted from a sports focus to a near-exclusive attention to records, whether I was knocking out an essay for a course (I became very adept at manipulating my professors’ assignments to allow for that subject), scribbling lyrics on the back of a Taco Bell sack before a gig, writing reviews for college newspapers and Xeroxed fanzines–or designing assignments for the English classes I ended up teaching for 35 years (and counting).
I’ve always been deeply impressed by the power and significance of chance, and one thing that stereo-cranking on the fourth floor of Reid Hall taught me is that you can best take advantage of chance’s bounty by putting yourself (or, rather, your self) out there. Kenny, Bruce: thanks for helping to save me from a fate worse than death–crunching sports numbers.