My first encounter with music education was a colossal failure, or as today’s teenagers say, an “epic fail.” My first grade music teacher asked me to step in front of the class and identify a diminished arpeggio over a dominant seventh chord.
OK, I was daydreaming at the time. Ms. Ramsdorfer could have been speaking Pig Latin, because I was much more enamored by her smile and child-like stature than by the words floating out of her mouth.
She could have asked me to point at a major scale or an apple on her head and I wouldn’t have had the foggiest William Tell notion.
I left my chair and stood beside my first crush, confident that I someday would be taller than her. I peered up at the towering flip chart easel. I wasn’t sure what to say so I resorted to something I may have seen the Marx Brothers do on TV: I waved my hand abracadabra and bowed for effect. The whole class burst out laughing.
Ms. Ramsdorfer’s smile melted. I had gone from teacher’s pet to class buffoon in a matter of minutes. She scolded me, told me to sit down. I sat. I pouted. I silently swore I would never love again.
And that is how I recall my first public dressdown. Picture a crushed and canned cherry tomato of a boy with a “kick me” sign on his back. Picture a wounded sparrow with no hope of spring.
To this day I wonder if I ever fully recovered from the burn. A music teacher had shown me the path to Heartbreak Hotel. How fitting.
I grew up in an old colonial with a crackling audio system and cabinet turntable that often aired the voices of 1950s crooners Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis (and to my adolescent chagrin, Connie Francis).
I soon graduated to the vinyl stacked on the floor of my oldest brother’s upstairs bedroom. The pile of trippy album covers and scratched LP records featured many 1970s progressive rock bands, such as Pink Floyd, Yes, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, along with chart toppers like The Beatles / 1967-1970, Paranoid by Black Sabbath, Goat’s Head Soup by The Rolling Stones, and The Adventures of Panama Red by New Riders of the Purple Sage.
A large part of me held a soft spot for the poetic side of rock, too. It started with repeated listens to Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin, and Simon & Garfunkel, and continued with New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen (Nebraska) and the gifted “Piano Man” from Long Island, Billy Joel, whose 1977 album, The Stranger, was the first gift I ever gave a girl (who returned it when we broke up in the sixth grade). It also was the first album to which I memorized all of the lyrics.
During this period my friends and I played street hockey, dabbled in weed, and incessantly listened to music. It was a glorious time to be young, with boom boxes blasting tracks from Rush, Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Neil Young with Crazy Horse.
In 1979 we watched the rockumentary, The Kids Are Alright, several times at The Oritani Theater in Hackensack. Instead of leaving the movie house after the first run, we stayed and watched successive showings, and then returned on the bus the following week to sit through The Who fan film all over again.
We loved to channel the rebel rock lifestyle through air guitar and drum solos. As we “jammed,” we imitated each of the band’s longhaired members. I played the part of Keith Moon, the eccentric drummer who had died in 1978 at the age of 32 from an overdose of a drug intended to treat or prevent symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
As I entered high school in 1980, The Police and The Talking Heads became a mainstay in my rotation of mix tapes. I arranged and recorded them in “The Nest,” the studio apartment of my best friend, Chris who we called “The Bird.”
The Nest, an attic bedroom with a private backyard entry, became a legendary hangout to “let your freak flag fly” and that, we did, jamming to the soundtrack of a couple of generations, the hippies and our own, Generation X.
I attended my first rock concert at the formative age of 15. Billy Squier opened for Queen a mere 10 minutes away from my hometown of Hasbrouck Heights, N.J.
I remember that feeling of elation that an arena rock show can bring to a stomping, raging hormone as Queen’s master vocalist Freddie Mercury and guitarist Brian May tore through concert anthem after concert anthem, songs that soon would blast from the speakers of my high school football team’s locker room for the next two seasons.
When I began listening to Bob Dylan, he was heavy into his Christian phase—Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981). I dug his courage and conviction as a folk singer, but I didn’t revere his “religious stage” until later. He then released Infidels in 1983, my senior year of high school, and it was like a giant light bulb flashed before me.
Up to that point, I was a pedestrian fan of rock music, listening to WPLJ (95.5 FM) with a steady stream of The Eagles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Steely Dan, David Bowie, Elton John, and James Taylor. I wasn’t hip enough for REM, nor was I disgruntled enough for The Dead Kennedys, but there was this band out of Ireland that was becoming a big part of the 1980s landscape. They sang about religion and war with fervor, grace, and a blue-collar authenticity that separated them from the pack.
As much as U2 became “our Beatles” and Stevie Ray Vaughan became “our Jimi Hendrix,” in the mid-1980s, Bob Dylan became my seer and touchstone to all things musical, lyrical, and artistic.
Dylan became the missing link. I finally had found an artist who thumbed his nose at the establishment. I had found an enigma whose words spoke to society’s ills in vivid images and haunting, rambling metaphors.
Dylan opened the vaults to a wider culture and music sphere, beginning with Woody Guthrie and extending to The Band and 1960s Greenwich Village folk singers like Dave Van Ronk and Eric Andersen.
After seeing Queen perform in 1982, it took me two years to attend another rock concert. (I’m not sure if the lag between concerts was because of a lack of funds or parental resistance.)
Unlike the arena concert, this intimate second show taught me how different it felt to be so close to the live act you could see the sweat on the instruments and callouses on the guitarist’s fingers. I was a freshman at William Paterson College and I was in the second row at one of the most electrifying and sonically overpowering shows I have seen—right up there with Carlos Santana and SRV—and I’ve since attended hundreds of concerts in my lifetime.
George Thorogood and the Destroyers, with guitarist extraordinaire Johnny Winter opening, was a stunning experience and turned me on to the endorphin-like possibilities of live music. It also added live music to my growing list of pastimes and healthy addictions. I found it to be as thrilling as sports, as transformative as film, and as profound as literature. I was hooked.
Music. For those fortunate enough to appreciate its beauty and breadth, there’s nothing like it.
Art, literature, and film—they are all instrumental to intellectual depth and personal growth, but without dear music, I wouldn’t want to live. It hits my senses on all decibels.
I’ll close by citing an early influence, Rush’s 1976 concept album, 2112. It taught me much more than the “tough love” life lessons of my first grade music teacher. It taught me the perils of a closed society.
You may consider this evidence of my arrested development but as much as George Orwell forewarned readers of fascist Big Brother in his dystopian novel, 1984, Rush’s 2112 did the same for a bunch of suburban kids whose heads were in mushroom clouds in the year 1984 instead of between the covers of a book. Consider the narrative of 2112–where a high priest grounds a precious instrument to splinters beneath a young man’s feet, calling the guitar he discovered a “silly whim” and “waste of time.”
Neal Peart’s words are a clarion call to citizens whose civil liberties are always in danger of eroding. We must remain vigilant in protecting the rights of all artists, he is saying, particularly those–like Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson–who know how to shred!
As The Who’s Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey implore, long live rock!
Or in the inimitable style of T. Rex, bang a gong, people, get it on.