Texas was a blessedly short adventure. We were only there for nine months or so before my father took a job in South Carolina and we were off again. Not much grows in upstate South Carolina’s red clay – kudzu, peach trees, scrubby pine trees – but it was rich ground for music. It was also the last stop of my childhood, and as such I’ve always considered it my home. That’s the downside of a transient childhood – one has to manufacture an answer to “where are you from?” I tend to think that the rootless pick the place where most of our growing up happened.
If this were a play, South Carolina would be the second act. But there are many wonderful songs that just didn’t make the cut in the first act. Their accompanying anecdotes aren’t meaty enough for their own little stories, but they are songs that are in my DNA now nonetheless. Some of these are little seeds that grew into towering musical redwoods later in life, and some are blurry little snapshots that I can’t bring myself to throw away.
So here we go, in no particular order:
Argent, “Hold Your Head Up”; David Essex, “Rock On”: Radio was everything when I was a kid. That little earplug speaker running to a transistor radio stashed under the pillow, thumbing the dial carefully, hoping for a signal. Music was free range rather than on demand – if I wanted to hear a favorite song my only choice was to listen and hope. “Hold Your Head Up” and “Rock On” were magical little jewels, and if a late night DJ spun them everything stopped until the record ended. I’m not sure why, other than their shape was so different than the other cuts on the radio. They were strange, moody.
Wings, “Maybe I’m Amazed (live)”: Another absolute must listen, but there was no mystery (and still isn’t) as to why. Goosebump music at its finest. I wanted to feel that deeply about another person. I wanted to be in the middle of something that I didn’t really understand. The first time I heard the studio version I was so disappointed. It was flat, lifeless. Hearing McCartney’s voice crack on the live version made the emotion believable.
Pilot, “Magic”: My oldest sister had a friend named Diane. She was smart, funny, and a big kid. A deadly combination — I hoped to be a smart, funny, big kid someday myself. “Magic” was a huge radio hit around that time, and thirty-five years later it still has legs. Any commercial for a product that magically removes stains or magically makes a kid happy or magically whatever is only improved with Pilot or the American Idol kids crooning “Magic” in the background.
Anyway, one afternoon I was going about my eight year old business – most likely playing with my Evel Knievel stunt cycle – and wailing Ho ho ho it’s magic! at the top of my lungs when I noticed Diane staring at me. “You know you really can’t sing, don’t you?” she said. I still won’t sing in front of people, other than my suffering children.
Heart, Little Queen: My first encounter with Heart was in the album bin of a record store, and it wasn’t the music that grabbed me. I may have only been ten, but that photo of Ann and Nancy Wilson stopped me dead in my tracks. I felt guilty simply looking at them. Not since seeing Michelle Phillips on my aunt’s Mamas and the Papas album had a record hit me straight in the crotch. This is when I realized that the record bins were a free place for cheap thrills. Ohio Players, Wild Cherry, Roxy Music, Carly Simon – I had no idea what any of them sounded like, but I checked for them in the bins of every record store like some trenchcoated deviant.
One evening Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert played a promotional clip for “Barracuda.” They were on stage, Nancy with her Ovation acoustic guitar, Ann with that voice. They were every bit as beautiful as their photograph, and they rocked. Hard. I’m still a fan. Their new album, Red Velvet Car, is worth your time.
Alice Cooper, “Go To Hell”: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins may have been the first, with his coffin and his voodoo. KISS may have been the biggest. Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, etc., may have taken it further. But only one head can wear the King of Shock Rock crown.
Alice Cooper was a playground legend, and none of us had heard a single song. We knew about the chicken dismemberment, the guillotine, the hanging, the boa constrictor. We also knew he was a reformed alcoholic (he wasn’t at that time but that was the PR) and a golf junkie. By the mid-seventies cleaned up golf lovin’ Alice was safe for Middle America. He was downright wholesome.
Nothing demonstrates suburban credibility like an awards show, and sure enough in 1976 Alice showed up with co-presenter Diana Ross on the American Music Awards. After being asked one too many times to announce the next award Alice trashed the podium, sparks flying from the broken microphones. I was sure it was real, but my sisters assured me it was all staged. Then he pulled a woman out of the audience, threw her on stage, and attacked her. Security guards rushed the stage and began wrestling with him. Now my sisters were equally baffled.
The whole scene quickly devolved into a Bob Fosse production number before we realized we’d been duped. Brilliant! And he said “Hell” on television. That was pretty bad ass, too.
I’ve resisted embedding things — I’m sure you can use the intergooglewebtubes with great competence — but this one seems mandatory:
The Who, Tommy: This would be one of those tiny seeds that grew into a towering redwood. The Who complete for me the holy trinity of Bowie, Beatles, and Townshend. No single songwriter has amassed a body of work as important to me as Pete Townshend’s. But my first experience with Tommy was no more than a glimpse of a poster for the film version directed by Ken Russell. “Can we see that?” I asked my father.
“No, that isn’t for kids.”
That isn’t for kids. He may as well have said “That is made of candy” or “That is Fonzie and Evel Knievel and Muhammad Ali all rolled up in one, but don’t look.” I don’t know if “obsessed” is the right word, but I was certainly determined to find out what was so taboo. Right around the same time I went through my mandatory Guinness Book of World Records phase. The Who were listed as the loudest band in the world. Forbidden and loud. I was a fan before I ever heard a note.
Kansas, “Carry on Wayward Son”: Speaking of Fonzie, Henry Winkler took a stab at the big screen long before Adam Sandler movies. In 1997 he starred with Sally Field in a film entitled Heroes. I would run to the television every time the Heroes commercial aired just to hear this song.
The Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the UK”: Another little acorn that could. The Pistols now legendary American tour is captured brilliantly in Julien Temple’s The Filth and the Fury, but that is with thirty years of hindsight and from an insider’s point of view. I was a kid in one of those small towns the Pistols terrorized with their mere presence. The local news coverage was abundant, as were the commentaries about the foreign degenerates who proudly proclaimed themselves antichrists. Parents were terrified that their children would be gravely injured if they attended the show, what with this strange dancing that the “punk rockers” did where they beat each other up and spit on each other. Clips of Johnny Rotten bleating “no future,” bug-eyed and irreverant, contrasted with the plastic hair and wide lapels of the local newscasters.
It’s hard to articulate quite what it felt like being a ten year old witnessing all of this. It was frightening, disturbing, exciting. Like Bowie, it was a little crack in the towering facade of FM radio – a glimpse into an unknown world. Johnny Rotten said “no future,” but I heard “your future.” This was the first music I’d heard that was universally rejected by everyone I knew. I liked that. A lot. These guys weren’t going to become golfers or presenters at awards shows.
I’ve certainly forgotten to mention many important songs, but the orchestra is playing me off. Besides, Alice just trashed my microphone.