Friday, January 30, 2015

The moment

A couple of years ago, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys died after a battle with cancer.  When this happened, Lindsey Way (Lyn-Z from the band Mindless Self Indulgence) stated on her Twitter account how much she loved the Beasties and that “they were like the Beatles to me”.  This puzzled me, as I was never a big fan.  I’m apparently one of those cranky old farts who found them loud, rude and annoying.  (I know; that was pretty much the point of the group.  I also still maintain that white people shouldn’t rap, since we mostly sound ridiculous when we do.)  My kids admire the Beasties, too, though.  Obviously I’d underestimated their influence.   

It occurred to me recently what Ms. Way was actually saying: that everyone who loves music has their moment when an artist’s music speaks to them, and lifts them out of whatever situation they’re in.  This could be someone’s “Elvis moment”, which would likely apply to many young people in the late 50’s (and long thereafter) who picked up a guitar after witnessing Presley on the Sullivan show.  For those a few years younger—an entire generation, as it happens—it would be the “Beatles moment” of seeing them live, also performing on Ed Sullivan, and the hysteria they caused.

For me, the Moment happened during a vacation with my folks in Florida in the spring or winter of 1973.  I seem to remember being outside when I heard the haunting strains of an unfamiliar song. It turned out to be “Daniel” by Elton John.  When I found out what it was, and who sang it, I was crazy to hear it again, and eventually, to own a copy.  I still have the 45—backed with a non-album track that I played and sang all the time: “Skyline Pigeon”.  The first album I ever owned was Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player, its artist and title photographed on a theatre marquee as if the album was actually a movie, its singer the star.  Naturally, I have my beat-up original copy to this day.  Replacing that worn vinyl disc with something that might sound “cleaner” is as inconceivable to me as selling one of my children.

The simple act of hearing something that caught my ear in a particular way propelled me into a fandom that (in those primitive pre-internet days) I couldn’t really share with anyone.  That made it all the more precious.  I had scrapbooks where I housed magazine interviews, song lyrics, and any tiny mention of the name that had become so important to me.  I pored repeatedly over a brief biography; I stayed up late and taped the soundtrack from a British-made documentary of the making of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  I cut out pictures of every costume, every pair of glasses (why was my own eyewear so boring??), and kept my ears wide open for any news that might bring me even more joy.  As much as it embarrasses me to admit it, I was inspired by a series of Partridge Family novels (the first fan-fiction I ever read!), and in 7th grade, I wrote my own fiction involving Elton John and his band.  For a school assignment.  (Sadly or not, both have now, as they say, been lost to history.)

My point (other than examining the often insane heights of fandom) is that a single song, half-heard, could propel me into something that was so much bigger than myself that I could barely comprehend it.  It filled my life and my heart and my ears and my attention so completely that I’m not sure how I made it through my days.  And it wasn’t just Elton; music itself became my obsession.  The mid-70s, as maligned as they may be, were a ridiculously fertile time, with the radio blasting rock, pop, funk, disco, soul, singer-songwriters and hard rock.  James Taylor, Carole King, Helen Reddy, KC and the Sunshine Band, Gloria Gaynor, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Grand Funk Railroad, the Rolling Stones, the O-Jays, the Jackson 5, Funkadelic: all these and so many more, all of them spilling into my ears out of the same station all day and all night. 

The excitement for the music I loved made me get up early on Saturdays to tape my favorite songs off the radio (God knows what happened to those cassettes).  I listened to the Top 40 show every Sunday up until the minute we had to leave for church, or just as soon as I got home from Mass.  I kept lists of the top ten songs for weeks at a time.  I had a small notebook in my school locker where I’d assign myself a “song of the day”.  For example, on a given day, it might have been “Angie Baby” by Helen Reddy, or “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” by Brownsville Station, that I would choose to keep my brain occupied between classes.   Almost a decade before MTV, I watched The Midnight Special on Friday nights with Wolfman Jack as host, and saw the first music video of my life (not counting the Monkees TV show): “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.

And all this before I was sixteen.  I could go on, but in the interest of brevity I will refrain.

When my older daughter was little, she pretty much liked everything I played for her.  (Needless to say, that did not last.)  She had her own Moment when, at twelve, her new best friend gave her a homemade copy of I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love by My Chemical Romance.  Almost overnight, she was immersed in a band whose songs her bewildered parents could only hope to comprehend (much like my own poor mother more than thirty years prior).  All we could hear coming from her room was what sounded like inarticulate screaming.  On our basement computer, she scoured for and printed hundreds of pictures of her favorite band (until our printer ran out of ink, in fact).  She constantly watched their DVD documentary Life on the Murder Scene and all the extra material, at all hours of the day and night.  I think we even brought it along on vacation that year.  And of course she listened to their first two albums pretty much 24/7.  That was just the start of it, along with a whole new family of bands that she could love.

I have documented in other essays how we connected over MCR, and how I also became their fan (and I’m so very glad I did).  But I wonder now if maybe a part of me recognized and was drawn to that obsessive love of a band, and of music in general.  Though I hate to use the word, it was a journey that led us many miles from our home to seek out the band we loved so much.  Of course, the internet allowed us to connect with many other fans, some of whom have become dear friends in the last few years.  All of them, and us, understand that music, and the love of it, fills your heart and soul in ways nobody can explain, but almost everyone can recognize and understand.  It really is like falling in love, with the same passion and the same madness.  It becomes all-encompassing, a way of life, almost a vocation.  While some might say this love means I’m immature, I think it keeps me young: most times I maintain a mental age of no more than 19 in a 50-something package.  Yes, I might look and/or feel ridiculous sometimes, but I feel sorry for those who (in my opinion) seem to live without the passion that’s kept me alive, and continues to do so.