“Music was my refuge.
I could crawl into the space between the notes
and curl my back to loneliness.”
– Maya Angelou.
Elementary School: Dancing with Myself
If I can get to lunch without a wedgie, benny hill, or wet willy this will be a fantastic day. I’m the smallest kid in my class and mocked for my ‘chicken legs.’ Fantastic days are few. When kids start in with ‘your momma’ jokes, I’m just silent. I have all the social skill of an only child to defend myself. like turtles and ostriches before me I learn quickly that being silent is actually a pretty good strategy against feral 6th graders, but it also means a lot of time alone.
Rock and roll is gonna change all of this.
Well, some of it.
I flip the dial to 98.1 WACU, and turn up the volume.
The sound is like electrifying and I’m moving like a train wreck possessed. This doo-wop inspired hit from 1983 has me feeling; like really feeling music for the first time. A preening Billie Joel sings, “oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, Uptown girl,” and I’m jumping on top of the couch and into the walls. Billie is laying some secret knowledge on me. ‘And now she’s looking for a downtown man.’ I kick my legs, throw my arms, and I sing. “That’s what I am!”
This is Rock and Roll? I push the front door past its hinges to search for more. Choir music finds me first. It peels through the stained glass of St. Joe’s church and soars upward on the wings of angels. Gag me with a spoon! I cover my ears tight. This isn’t what I’m searching for. I’d rather laugh with the sinners.
The closest thing I know to sinners are four older cousins across the tracks who are as different from each other as Joni Mitchel and Johnny Rotten, but all cool. All on the spectrum of rock and roll.
I disappear into their album covers and in my marrow I know there is something more than just cool here; something mysterious, something meaningful, something sacred between these grooves. None of them are into Billie Joel, but they’re all into Floyd. Amy watches dancing on air. Puke. The voice of Madonna blends with the sound of Rick playing Atari’s Space Invaders “beep, zing, like a virgin ‘vrm, vrm, wm.” The house vibrates with energy and music, not to mention the smell of tube-socks. Upstairs, Steve listens to Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces and works on getting his girlfriend pregnant. John, long blonde hair right out of a Van Halen video puts the last double D battery in his grey boombox, AC/DC sticker bannered on the side, hits play, and then the only thing anyone can hear for a three mile radius is Judas fucking Priest. Bass, drums, and then a squealing guitar and… “You’ve got another thing coming!”
They kick me out cause I’m a “twerp.”
They think they are oh so rad drinking beer and lifting barbells. We’ll see who’s rad. I begin my own library starting with Def Leppard’s, Pyromania. “Gunter gleiben glauchen globen. Aaaalright. I got something to say. It’s better to burn out, then to fade awaaay…“
Middle School: Radio killed the radio star.
It’s still an unsupervised world and borders are defined by the end of the trolley line and how far I can get on my bike. Nobody knows where anybody is, yet somehow no one is lost. Just be home before the street lights come on.
This moment in music has no equal. Sorry Mozart, but Rock, Punk, Metal, Rap, New Wave, Altenative; it’s all colliding and it’s all portable. Records are still around, but now their bodalicious album covers are coming to life in moving images on MTV that ushers a wild carnival of characters into our homes, and leading them all with a baton is ‘the astronaut.’
He wears a silver helmet and stares at us. All we can hear is the steady beat of his breath; It makes the waiting unbearable. The visor reflects a room full of high schoolers in neon and hairspray and one small, shy kid, who in an affront to nature somehow still has the legs of a chicken. It is December 2nd, 1984 and it is the debut of Michael Jackson’s video Thriller. We moonwalk, chicken legs and all, into our future.
High School: Welcome to the jungle.
My walls are bleeding tributes to my heroes. A twisted Dee Snider holds a bloody bone in his hand and Screams stay hungry. I hold up my own fist rebelliously with O-Z-Z-Y written just below my knuckles and punch the wall. I have no vocabulary or appropriate outlet to share with anyone what I’m feeling. I just know that when I hear the lyrics of my favorite bands I feel alright knowing someone else understands the rage, want, and loneliness I’m feeling. A Reggae prophet sings. “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.“
My grades totally suck and I’m too small for sports. Music is my one passport for social mobility. It alone gives me safe passage through the cafeteria of headbangers, skaters, and rappers who are all happy to share what they’re listening to; not the jocks though, but they’re listening to shit anyway.
I scrutinize my face in a steamy mirror the night of our first Bonner Mixer. There’s no confidence in what looks back at me until Bon Jovi’s You give love a bad name comes on the radio. I feel bolstered and put a hand full of dippity-do in my dark hair and grab the hairdryer. Some of those ‘uptown girls’ will ignore me, but some will find me a passable “cute” with “blue eyes.” I take one more look in the mirror. Rock Star. The kids I meet at the trolley stop are a mix of John Hughes and John Waters movie extras and the adults onboard have to demure to our antics and numbers. There’s something cruelly karmic about my becoming a teacher. Boy George’s Karma Chameleon can be heard outside the doors. The mixer plays a mish-mash of pop hits. Some drive me to the gymnasium floor and others to wilt by the wall. When the B-52’s come on, I transform with all the other teenagers, claws and all, into a rock lobster. On the floor flailing my arms and legs into the air it’s impossible not to realize things are changing, that I’m changing. The tempo makes a dramatic shift downward returning us to something close to human. Everybody knows we have till the first lyric is sung to find a partner or else hold a capital L up to our forehead. Slow dances almost live up to Mike Reno and Ann Wilsons’ promise of paradise… The trolley ride home is full of sweat and vomit.
The energy of pop is infectious and undeniable, but it’s not me. I search for what my cousins and DJ’s haven’t discovered, something to call my own. The search takes us out of the dead of night, together like the four horseman through the woods, parking lots, cemeteries, and railroads. We take on weekends with an appetite for destruction and along the way discover the milestones of growing up. Bands like the Violent Femmes and Misfits are the soundtracks for nights that will become for our one square mile of grass, fence, and stone – legend.
When Mike hands me a memorex cassette with the words “Louder than Bombs” written crookedly in blue ink, I know I’ve been handed a treasure. I put on small orange foam headphones and hit play on my Sony cassette player. The skateboard weaves back and forth of a killing moon toward home home sweet home, a 16 oz bottle of Pepsi in hand just in case of violence, and I sing. Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ…
Graduation: It’s the end of the world as we know it
The heterotopias of high school are now utopias in nostalgia where anthems of rebellion will reign forever. We will fight for your right to party! Alas, I can’t party here forever, I’ve been taught to be a rolling stone, and the search for new sounds continues. The new sound for the moment is opera. The themes of love, heartbreak, and rebelliousness that spoke to me so much in rock and roll are funny enough just as present in opera, maybe more so. However, the music has a richness and layering of complexity that seems more true to the layering of my own experiences and the age I am now.
Music holds a place in my heart unlike anything else. Its ability to enrich the present or transport me back to the past is tubular and awesome. I’m not just listening to Billie Joel or Led Zeppelin, I’m fourteen with a full head of dark hair again bouncing around the room and then strutting into the swim club with ray bans, my orange towel around my neck, the smell of chlorine and copper tone wafting over the pool…
The telephone pole speakers play,’ it ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senators son….’ followed by a deep voice, “That was C.C.R.’s ‘fortunate son’ and your listening to hard rock WYSP! Philadelphiaaaaaah.”
While the music plays, I’m a rock star, and the center of the world
Looking back, music was my refuge.
Music still, is my refuge.
I’ve looked under chairs
I’ve looked under tables
I’ve tried to find the key
To fifty million fables
The Who, “The seeker.”
I know everybody loves music, but I feel like nobody loves music like me and I recognize that smug joy in my album flipping soulmates.
This post is dedicated to them, the seekers.