Friday Flashback: A Life in Music

You might have noticed I’ve been writing a lot about music lately (or maybe you haven’t noticed, and that’s ok too). In light of that, I thought maybe it was a good time to reflect on why that might be. It requires going back in time and getting personal, but hey, I’ve already gotten pretty damn personal, so this is really no big deal.

From birth, basically, I was raised right, on the classics — like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. To be entirely honest, my earliest recollection of Zep is from high school, but I’ve been told I used to sing “D’yer Mak’er” as a kid, so obviously my memory is flawed. But I certainly remember listening to plenty of Beatles. There were other groups and artists, of course, over a fairly wide range — Sinatra, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Springsteen, Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, and Elton John all come to mind — but of all of them, The Beatles have always shone through as the strongest influence. Lennon may not have been entirely serious when he said they were “bigger than Jesus,” but I don’t know that he was entirely wrong, either.

Controversial statements aside, The Beatles are the earliest and strongest influence on my musical taste and experience, even now when I’m not listening to them anywhere near as much as I used to.

I mean, I even bought a Höfner Ignition Series guitar because I love Paul's bass so much, but, you know, I play guitar and not bass.
I mean, I even bought a Höfner Ignition Series guitar because I love Paul’s bass so much, but, you know, I play guitar and not bass.

Ok, now that we’ve established the groundwork for my musical interests, we can move forward in time to the summer after seventh grade — this would be 2006, if you’re interested in specifics. I should say, prior to this time I’d not done much int he way of actually playing music. i’d taken piano lessons for a year in third grade, but didn’t — and still don’t — have the patience and diligence to actually practice and really learn it. I tried again in high school.  Nothing doing. It’s something I kind of regret, but as much as I would love to be able to play, it just isn’t the right instrument for me. Anyway, at some point I’d also tried guitar, and i still have that 3/4 scale nylon string somewhere to this day. With that first attempt I was able to learn a number of basic chords, but I couldn’t understand strumming, and eventually shelved it for a number of years. More on that later, though.

So, summer ’06. This was, for all intents and purposes, the summer that changed my life. My dad, a couple of his friends, and I went to see Ringo and his All-Starr Band at Radio City. It was the first real concert I’d ever attended, and you really couldn’t ask for anything better — especially growing up a Beatles fan. Almost a decade later i can still remember the electric thrill of going to that show. Everything that night seemed to align perfectly. I’m not a big believer in fate or higher powers or anything, but even I can’t just brush everything off as pure coincidence. You see, that night wasn’t only my first concert and a huge deal because I was seeing an honest-to-goodness Beatle, but it was the pivotal moment that somehow led me to realize I should pick up the drums. I don’t know why, exactly, but something just clicked that night.

Oh, there’s one more detail that makes me question how that night could have been coincidence. Before the show, we went to the Hard Rock Café for dinner, and I swear on all that is holy I’m not making it up when I tell you we were seated next to Ringo’s drum set. I know there’s a fair amount of Beatles memorabilia there, but come on. There’s the coincidence of sitting near something Beatles-related that night, and then there’s sitting next to Ringo’s drums.

Side-note/bragging rights, a few years later in 2010 I was at the concert at Radio City on Ringo’s 70th birthday and got to see Paul McCartney come on stage to perform “Birthday” as a surprise, after Ringo had done “With a Little Help From My Friends” with a crazy amount of guests — including Yoko Ono, Joe Walsh, and Steve Van Zandt & Max Weinberg (the closest I’ve been to seeing Springsteen, so far). Here’s the Rolling Stone coverage of that night, though the guest list can’t possibly be complete — there were a lot of people on that stage.

Look, I was excited, it was a low light situation, it came out blurry. Gimme a break.
Look, I was excited, it was a low light situation, it came out blurry. Gimme a break.

This one is pretty solid actually, but no Ringo to be found.
This one is pretty solid actually, but no Ringo to be found.

Probably the best shot I have.
Probably the best shot I have.

As I said, that show led me to take up drums, and i started out on just snare in the school band — it was more of an orchestra kind of thing, they just had snares and one big-ass bass which I probably played at some point. I took to it pretty naturally, actually, and moved up to the advanced band within a few weeks. They actually put me in the Honor Band, too. I don’t mean to sound like like I’m bragging, but I want to make clear just how quickly and easily playing that drum came to me. I don’t think anything other than writing ever came more naturally.

Graduating eighth grade that year, I hit on another stroke of luck. My high school had initially said they weren’t looking for drummers, but later told me I was accepted to the band. This actually is something I to this day am baffled by in terms of just how lucky I’d gotten. I’d never auditioned, and if I had, I’m fully convinced I never would have gotten in. i’d taken lessons on full set the summer before starting high school, but I still went in having no idea what to expect or do.

Our first show, from when I started, was Candide, which is, by the way, a pretty terrible musical. I provided a bit of background percussion for my much more talented and experienced upperclassmen drummers. Our spring concert that year was Motown themed, though, which is much more interesting and in line with the kind of playing I enjoy. Unfortunately, I fell very ill during the last third of the year. I wasn’t able to continue in the band that year, and of course this had happened right as I was starting to get some idea of what I was doing. Similarly with my Sophomore year Big Band concert, I wasn’t able to play because I’d fractured my elbow and torn the ligaments after falling down the stairs at the train station. And again, it was as I was getting the hang of things. Though at least I was actually able to be on stage, sling and all, and I got to play the hi-hat part on “Satin Doll,” which had been “my song,” in some ways, as I was the first to really get a grasp on the timing for it. In a surprising and touching show of solidarity the two drummers up there with me put on fake slings at the end of the show. In a lot of ways that band was a family to me.

In Junior year our musical was Fiddler on the Roof, which wasn’t very conducive to drumming, but our spring concert was 60’s themed, which meant I was already familiar with most if not all of the songs. I’d never realized until that year how interesting and unique (and downright fun) the drums in “Aquarius (Let the Sunshine In)” is. Unfortunately for me, seniority kept me from playing most of the main drum parts, ultimately, though I had a blast on “Daydream Believer.” Regardless it was really a turning point in my time in the band, as I was finally playing with a real idea of what I was doing.

And then Senior year came, when I did some of the best drumming in my life. Our musical was Les Misérables, which you might not think is a particularly good show for drums — but you’d be wrong. I had a lot of fun with it, and still five and half years later remember a lot of the drum parts. It was easily the best we put on in all my time there, in all regards (and their production of Jesus Christ Superstar the year after I left wasn’t anywhere near the same level, in my opinion). And I’m not just saying that because I performed in it; it was legitimately our best. Our concert that year was a Broadway revue, which lent itself to a lot of fun drumming. On “Magic to Do,” from Pippin, the cast was on stage in black, in the dark, with black lights illuminating their white gloves. Our other drummer and I used light-up drumsticks for the song, which was a really fun effect. Later in the show we did “Circle of Life,” for which I bought my first djembe. It’s pretty small — I think a 7″ head — but it got the job done, and i loved using it so much I later found an excuse to get a full-size 11″ djembe.

Toca Percussion is my brand, in case you were wondering.
Toca Percussion is my brand, in case you were wondering.

Official school performances were not the biggest highlights that year, though. In what I still consider one of the greatest nights of my life, I played a six-song set with three of my friends. It was the first time I’d really been able to let loose and throw everything into a performance on stage, and it was probably the best feeling ever.

For the curious, our set list was as follows:

  1. “You Shook Me All Night Long” – AC/DC (on which we played the wrong instruments for the hell of it — our singer and I played guitars and our guitarists played drums and sang)
  2. “Rock And Roll” – Led Zeppelin
  3. “The Boys Are Back in Town” – Thin Lizzy
  4. “One” – U2
  5. “Cocaine” – Eric Clapton
  6. “Killing in the Name” – Rage Against the Machine

After high school and before dropping out of college, I did a lot of performing with my mother and sister. My mother is the one who taught me the foundations of guitar, and my sister has been singing for most of her life, so it worked out pretty nicely. We played as much as we could — mostly open mics — but lately we haven’t even been playing together at home. Busy schedules keep us from really having that chance. But when we were performing, it just felt right.

Jumping back in time to high school, I really picked up guitar seriously in my Sophomore year. I got my first full-size steel string acoustic — my first real six-string, Bryan Adams might say, though I didn’t get it at the five and dime — sometime around the spring of 2009, I believe. It was made by a now-defunct brand called J3 — I found a small amount of information on them here. It’s not a high-end guitar, but it’s served me very well over the years, and it even made the trip to Florida with me last summer. I don’t play it a whole lot anymore, since I got my Ovation, but I still take it out every now and again. I taught myself to play on it, after all, long before I got my first electric (an Epiphone Les Paul Special II, for you gearheads out there), and we’ve come a long way together.

The J3 is the natural one, on the left, and Ruby the Ovation Celebrity is on the right.
The J3 is the natural one, on the left, and Ruby the Ovation Celebrity is on the right.

I do still consider drums my primary instrument, and if I were joining a band that’s what I would be playing. But I can’t deny the importance of guitar. When I went into my depression in the fall of 2013, one of the few things I could actually get myself to do was play guitar. I learned how to play “Silent Lucidity” by Queensrÿche, which remains to this day the most complicated song I can play, and one I’m actually pretty proud of. I honestly don’t know how I mustered the energy to learn it with the state I was in, but I suppose that’s the point. There’s just something about music that pulls people out of hard times, even if only for a moment.

People always talk about “the power of music,” like it’s some sort of mystical force, and it sounds a little melodramatic. But there’s no denying that there is something incredibly powerful about music. It can even trigger altered mental states. Those of you versed in psychology might be familiar with the phenomenon of dissociation. It’s most often described as an out-of-body experience. It’s a feeling of being outside of yourself as an observer, or of your consciousness being separate from your body. It’s most commonly experienced as one of the psychological defense mechanisms, but it can be triggered in other ways. For me, certain songs can do this, especially when I’m driving. Believe it or not, Weezer’s “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” was the first song I noticed it with. I don’t know why, but there you have it. It’s probably worth noting here that I’ve never experienced dissociation at any other time, that I can recall; only when it’s been triggered this way. It’s an interesting experience. It doesn’t make for dangerous driving or anything, but it is a bit uncomfortable, mentally. In my case, it lasts for the span of the song, and it’s not a particularly strong effect, either.

Speaking of psychology, music can also be a coping mechanism. When my parents separated back in 2014, 30 Seconds to Mars had just released Love Lust Faith + Dreams (which I should probably review at some point, now that I’m thinking about it), and for months it was the only thing my mother listened to. Similarly, when my godmother passed this past December, I spent the car rides to and from the wake and funeral with Leoš Janáček’s “Sinfonietta” on loop (conducted by Seiji Ozawa in 1926 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, if you were curious). Why? I don’t know, but for whatever reason, that was the song I needed at that time. It’s a fantastic piece, too, and I’d certainly recommend it. I can’t seem to embed it from Youtube for some reason, but here’s a link.

Music can be intensely personal, but it can also foster a sense of community. I grew up in a time when radio was still relevant and disc jockeys could still be household names. I remember listening to Ron Lundy, Dan Ingram, and my favorite, Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow. I wasn’t even two years old when Wolfman Jack passed away, but I certainly heard recordings of his shows – my father is a huge radio buff, and was actually a local disc jockey for a time, before I was born. Every weekend we’d listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top 20; I remember Santana and Rob Thomas’ “Smooth” topping the charts for weeks on end, seeming like it would never leave that #1 spot. It was through radio that I first began to develop my own musical taste, separate from what I was raised on. The first band I remember really getting interested in on my own was Five for Fighting, who I still listen to today, over a decade later at this point. That was after “100 Years” hit #1 on the countdown.

Radio isn’t what it was, these days; most disc jockeys aren’t big personalities like they were when I was young, and certainly before then, and the vast majority of radio isn’t even live anymore, but prerecorded and automated to cut costs. There are more commercials than music. It’s no longer a true entertainment medium so much as something for drivers to put on when they forget to put in a CD or plug in their iPod. Sure, there are still some stations trying to keep the medium alive as best they can. Here in New York we have Q104.3 for classic rock doing things like “Twofer Tuesday” and the “Three at Three,” gimmicky but fun shows that keep things interesting. In the suburbs outside of New York City, there’s The Peak on 107.1, running modern rock/alternative, with some pop and classic rock mixed in. They have their own gimmicks, like the “Ten at Ten,” playing at 10 AM and PM, where they play ten songs from a particular year, as well as movie teasers and things like that. WCBS is still alive at 101.1, after a short stint as the fully automated “Jack FM,” though without the classic jocks and the culture that once surrounded the medium, they’ve lost some of the magic they had when they were my favorite station as a child.

I bring this up because, though a good disc jockey makes you feel like they’re talking only to you, you still know you’re not the only one listening. There’s a sense of unity when you have this common link to people you probably don’t even know. Radio, of course, is a big component in my relationship with my father, and was for him a unifying factor with his friends back when the medium was at its best. But even now, a good radio show can give you that feeling of connectivity, in a way that all the social media in the world can’t touch.

When it comes down to it, I suppose I’ve been writing so much about music lately because it’s been such a big part of my life for over two decades, and I’ve finally found a format and outlet that allows me to think critically about it and share the passion that’s for so long been one of the defining aspects of who I am. In recent months especially I’ve been listening more than ever, so that too is a factor; I’ve got a lot of material to draw from here. Even if I can’t perform right now and don’t have the slightest idea of when the next time will be, at least I have my posts here to talk about the music I love. Or don’t love, for that matter, I have talked about songs that don’t work for me, after all. And, hopefully, people enjoy it. I’d like to think going track-by-track is at least somewhat unique, and I try to keep it light but at the same time honest. I think after everything music has done for me, giving honest opinions and spreading the word about good artists and albums is the very least I can do.

The best way I know to cap this off is to share some of the music that’s stood out throughout my life. So here’s a playlist crafted specifically for this post. Every track on it was carefully considered and curated, and there’s a reason for every single one of them. Some will be obvious from this post, or if you’ve been following me for a while. Others, maybe not as obvious to those not inside my head. But either way, enjoy!

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4 thoughts on “Friday Flashback: A Life in Music

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