The local Alternative radio station was having its monthly “Way Back Weekend.” For two days, the station celebrates the music of the 90s. I was sitting in my patrol car, enjoying a weekend of not having to hear Twenty-One Pilots.
While I waited for my partner to come back to the car, the station started playing “Run-Around” by Blues Traveler, one of many bands to rise to prominence for about half an hour in the 90s.
The song is what it is. I’ve never thought much one way or another about it or the band. With one exception. In the summer of ’96, I went to the H.O.R.D.E. Festival at Riverport Amphitheater in St. Louis. I was there to see King Crimson, who opened the show (an injustice in and of itself, but that’s an argument for another day). Blues Traveler was the headliner. Just before they hit the stage, Lenny Kravitz performed, playing a stellar set. I could have left after he finished, and I would’ve been fine. But The Ladies wouldn’t let me go.
The Ladies were four rather attractive women sitting on either side of me in the third row. I came to the concert alone. I practically had the row to myself when King Crimson took the stage. I knew it was only a matter of time before I had company. The Ladies arrived shortly before Kravitz hit the stage. I don’t know their names or where they came from. I haven’t seen them since that evening. But for about two-and-a-half hours, we were the best of friends. Our friendship reached its apex during “Run-Around,” when I found myself arm-in-arm with these women, singing that oh-so-average song at the top of my lungs with The Ladies and 20,000 other concert-goers. There were hugs afterward. And then we went our separate ways.
I’ve never cared for that cliche about music being the soundtrack of our lives. But it’s true, isn’t it? Music evokes emotional responses on any and every level. It transports us to different places and times. The songs we hear are like bookmarks in the literary work we call our lives. As I sat in my patrol car, I found myself thinking about some of those bookmarks.
I can’t hear David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” without seeing myself as a six-year-old, listening to my parents’ 45 r.p.m. single of the song. I listened to it in my room through a portable record player with a questionable needle and a single tinny speaker. Before hearing that record, I knew I liked music. But “Space Oddity” took things to a level my little mind couldn’t comprehend. I only knew music stopped being entertainment, and became something else entirely.
I can’t hear Jean-Luc Ponty (or jazz, for that matter) without thinking of my father. Dad played jazz in the living room every Sunday when I was a kid. Sometimes it was traditional (or “straight-ahead’), other times it was fusion. It was the latter he used to draw me in. I heard Ponty for the first time in 1978, when I was 12. I was deep into rock, and doing my best to ignore what Dad was playing. But this … this was something else. One minute I was strolling through the living room, on my way to the kitchen. The next, I was sitting next to Dad, trying to make sense of what the hell was coming through his speakers. Dad knew then and there he had a new jazz fan to teach, and we had the ultimate way to bond.
I can’t hear King Crimson’s “Three of a Perfect Pair” without seeing myself as a 17-year-old Army reservist standing on a 100-plus degree asphalt parade ground one Saturday in July, 1985. I was at Fort Lee, just outside Richmond, Virginia. I was there for training. A fellow soldier, who appreciated my taste in music, thought I might dig this progressive rock band. He loaned me a cassette tape, which I put into my Walkman. I was about halfway across that parade field — cheap phone headphones on my ears — when I pressed the “play” button. What I heard stopped me dead in my tracks.
This was The Moment. This is where everything changed. My perception of music was altered forever. King Crimson sent me down a musical path I continue to walk proudly. Music was already an important part of my life. Now it was life.
Not every musical memory is a good one. A little over three years ago, I was sitting in my den, listening to the Miles Davis quintet play “Nefertiti.” I had just come home from the hospital, where my mom was bedridden with pneumonia. My cell phone rang, and my caller ID told me it was Mom, calling from her room. I answered the phone, expecting to hear her voice. Instead, I heard the voice of the hospital’s chaplain, telling me Mom just died. I can’t remember a word the chaplain said after “she’s gone.” But I can hear Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams as clear as day. I’m just now getting to the point where I can hear this tune without tearing up.
And now I can’t hear Led Zeppelin without thinking of my daughter. Children do their best to ignore their parents’ music. My teenager was no exception. My favorite bands and songs were “old people music,” as far as she was concerned. And then one day recently, my daughter told me she was into Led Zeppelin. She sent me a video clip of her turntable playing “Stairway to Heaven,” with the album cover of Led Zeppelin IV in the background. I was proud. Still, I figured that was the extent of her knowledge. So imagine my surprise when she told me this was her favorite Zeppelin song …
And now my daughter and I have something permanent to bond over.
When I think about music, I hear more than notes. I hear memories. I hear laughter and tears. I hear best friends, girlfriends, weddings and funerals. I hear my life’s rich tapestry. Music is a never-ending series of moments. There have been so many in my life, I wrote a book about them. It’s called I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears.
It’s the soundtrack of my life.