I don’t remember the exact date that I became obsessed with anything involving the words “pop” and “music”, but I remember the circumstances exactly.
I was five years old, a precocious kid whose interests included playing in the sand, baseball, dinosaurs (I was going to be a paleontologist when I got older) and acting silly. I also enjoyed some music—I distinctly recall listening to “Free to Be (You and Me)” repeatedly on our record player, wearing out the grooves in the album to the point where my mother needed to buy me a new one.
One day, my father called me into the kitchen and told me we were going on a drive. This was not an entirely unusual circumstance — my dad and I were (and continue to be) very close, and he’d take me out for food or to go ice skating occasionally. In the past, however, he would tell me where we were going, so I could prepare accordingly.
Not that day, though. He just told me to hop in the car — that he had a big surprise for me that he promised me I would like.
We were driving down the 134 freeway in my hometown of Los Angeles when I first realized something was awry. My father and I occasionally went to Dodger stadium to see the team play, and that was where we were headed. Somehow I knew that the baseball season was over, and I was extremely curious as to why we were headed to the stadium.
“Dad, baseball season’s over!” I exclaimed.
“I know,” he replied.
When we got to Dodger Stadium, the marquee read, “Tonight only — Michael Jackson.”
I was ecstatic. I owned Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, knew it by heart, and loved it, basically because he was one of the few musicians whose names I knew. The concert was incredible—in my mind it is a blur of fireworks, costumes, a sequined glove, moonwalking and fantastic songs. The smell, the feeling of thousands of people singing these songs that I only knew from the disc at my house was too much for my young mind to handle. Even though I was in the nosebleed seats, my first concert was amazing.
Then, later in the week, I went back to Dodger Stadium to see Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the USA” tour. I was in the fourth row, on my father’s shoulders. Unlike Michael Jackson’s concert, I didn’t know the words to the Boss’s tunes, but I didn’t care. I was surrounded by strange, funny people who were laughing and yelling along to the lyrics. I was also within shouting distance of the stage. I don’t know whether or not I took advantage of that situation, but I do remember having a fantastic time at the show.
I am convinced that, subconsciously, my goal in life is to top that week. It makes sense psychologically — two enormous, mind-blowing, and almost incomprehensible events in a single seven-day span is for a five-year-old especially, an important and life-changing event. The emotions I felt at those concerts—the surprises, the unpredictability, and the release of it all, are what keep me coming back to great music.
When people see my CD collection, they are usually surprised by at least one album that I own, if not a whole section of the shelf. Alt-country crooners Wilco share shelf space with DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince. Sitting right next to them is a virtual discography of LA Hardcore hip-hoppers Incubus, who, in my collection, are neighbors with Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis. Recently, a co-worker at WICB was shocked that I knew the words to a Mephiskaphilies tune.
“Dude, I thought you were a Phish-head,” he said, not anticipating that an unsigned Boston ska band would perk my interest. But they do, and they do for the same reason Phish does. To put it bluntly, they move me in some way. There’s something about their music that speaks to me, that makes me emote, that makes me feel.
A lot of it is also about the gray area of songwriting. I don’t care what genre a band plays—if they can write a song that I believe, that feels real, they’ve won me over. Reel Big Fish can sing “gonna call my friends and get ‘em all together/I was gonna go and start a band” and it’s just as meaningful to me as “the answers, my friend/are blowing in the wind” because they speak to me.
To quote Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, “Music is my savior/I was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.” When critics write that there is no redemptive power in rock anymore, I think to myself that they just aren’t looking in the right places. Just break up with a girlfriend? Listen to Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine and you’ll be convinced that you aren’t the only one who has had your heart pulled out. Feel like dancing? Don’t turn on the repetitive, mindless techno that has infested dance clubs like a plague. Instead, go to the source — George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, who could convince even the most reclusive wallflower to shake his ass.
Albums can only do so much, though. The real power of rock ‘n’ roll lies, at least for me, in live music. I guess I have the Boss and the Freak to thank for that.
I am thoroughly convinced that there is nothing in the world that feels like the exhaustion of an amazing rock show. I have many examples of what I like to call “peaks” — the feeling of total freedom, of feeling like nothing even exists outside of the venue at which the concert is happening. Sometimes, a really good peak can make you feel like your body doesn’t even matter. It sounds like a drug, and it is — a legal, incredible drug that feels better then any controlled substance I can imagine.
Peaks can come in any form, at any time. They can be long, extended guitar solos that fill with tension to the point where they can’t get any higher, or faster—and the moment when they do is the peak. Trey Anastasio from Phish is especially gifted at this. They don’t need to be long, though, or even instrumental. Kurt Cobain yelling “Use just once/and destroy,” off tempo, followed by “what is wrong with me,” at the Forum in L.A. in 1993 was a peak that I think everyone in the venue felt.
Peaks don’t even need to come from the band — they can come from the audience, too. One of the most moving peaks I have ever experienced was at the Tibetan Freedom Festival in 1996. Zach De La Rocha, the singer for metal/hip hop band Rage Against The Machine, had to put down his mic during the band’s performance of “Killing in the Name Of.” Maybe he had a technical problem, but to me it looked (and sounded) like he could no longer hear himself. The sound of the audience had overpowered him, and a song about not bowing down to the government had become a battle cry for 50,000 fans. We all yelled “Fuck you/I won’t do what you tell me” at the top of our lungs, purging as individuals but representing something far more powerful then musical anger. We were diplomats for the power of music.
There is no other art form I can imagine moving me as much as pop music. I love film, but I have never walked out of a theater feeling like I was floating down the street, like I had discovered the meaning of life. But I did have that feeling when I walked out of the Elbow Room in New York City on April 10 after seeing Blind Man’s Sun continually keep topping their own musical peaks.
I have never seen a painting that draws me in so much that I need to explore all its layers, to dissect it from the base out to determine what the painter’s point was. The first time I heard Beck’s stunning “Hotwax”, I put it on repeat on my CD player for a day. I wanted to hear the song so many times that I wasn’t even listening to it anymore, instead discovering eccentricities and studio tweaking that say as much as the song’s lyrics. I have only read one book — John Irving’s “A Prayer For Owen Meany” — that has moved me to tears. When Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow sings “I’m willing to wait my turn/to be with you,” I feel my eyes begin to water every time.
I wish I could end this essay as effortlessly as I started it, but it is obvious why I can’t. Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen are the reason why I first became obsessed with music, but I haven’t found anyone to convince me to end my obsession. I hope I never do; that music continues to surprise me, to move me, to save me. When my favorite band comes to town and I can’t take anything out of it anymore, when I can’t feel the joy of being a part of something so amazing, then I will know it’s time to stop. Until then, I’ll see you at the show.