(AUBURN, AL) — By the time you read this I’ll be leaving Alabama and heading north again to Pennsylvania to spend more time with my kids. As I write I’m in the van in Auburn, listening to a Grateful Dead live album and thinking for the millionth time how grateful I am that music exists. I thought I’d spend the next two or three editions of Road Trips talking about my history with music and what it’s meant to me.
Music is by far the most important thread running through my life. One of my earliest memories is of receiving a transistor radio with one earbud in 1976 and hearing “Dream Weaver” by Gary Wright on the radio. I was three. Starting around the same time I spent many afternoons at my grandparents’ apartment in Lenox, MA, sitting on the living room floor in front of their big console stereo, one of those that looked like a piece of furniture. You could lift up the top and inside was a turntable and controls for the stereo. I used to love watching my grandpa put on his big band records, a collection I later inherited.
I continued to listen to big bands and Nat “King” Cole (about whom my grandma said: “He can put his shoes under my bed anytime”) as I got older. I started taking classical guitar lessons and then switched over to clarinet when I received one in the mail from my cousin Todd. My grandpa took me to my first concert: Pete Fountain and Al Hirt. Pete was a big favorite on the clarinet, and I wore out several cassettes of his music during my childhood. I won’t go into a lot of detail about my childhood, so let’s just say that music provided a place of escape and solace when I needed it, which I frequently did.
The summer before my freshman year of high school I got sent saxophone music for summer marching band practice. I took it with me to the first practice and explained that I didn’t play the saxophone. “You do now,” said the band director. “We’ve got too many clarinets.” A senior showed me how to finger the notes and so I became a saxophonist. That was lucky because I ended up hanging out with another sax player and his friends, all of whom were really into prog rock. This was a whole new world to me and I dove in with joy. Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd, Rush — these bands became the soundtrack of my high school years, along with bands like Depeche Mode and Dire Straits. I didn’t give up on my big band and jazz roots, I just expanded into this new, previously unknown territory.
After high school I went to Japan for a year as an exchange student and encountered my first large record stores. I grew up in a small town and although there was a mall nearby with your standard record store, I’d never seen a truly massive store with a wide range of music until I stepped into one in Sendai, Japan. There was music from all over the world (including, of course, Japan) and I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store. The first two CDs I bought in Japan were Set by Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour (who sings at the end of “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel) and Roll The Bones by Rush, which had just come out. I also started listening to Japanese rock and pop bands, particularly TMN and Southern All Stars.
One of the ways I kept in touch with people back home was through cassette letters. I’d record my thoughts and adventures on a cassette tape and send it home, and my friends and family would record cassettes for me in return. I remember my high school buddy James sending me Pearl Jam’s first album, Ten, along with a note saying he thought they were going to be pretty big. He was right; by the time I got back from Japan and entered college, Ten was playing in every dorm room on campus. My college had a radio station that could only be heard via the school’s cable system (slogan: “You Can’t Get Us In Your Car!”) and I started a show with a friend, through which I got introduced to music by Elvis Costello and Barenaked Ladies and Dada and whatever else we could get our hands on. My cohost also turned me on to Joni Mitchell and tried to get me into the Dead (it didn’t work at the time).
It turned out that the music education degree my parents had mandated wasn’t for me, and I mostly stopped going to class, preferring to hang out at the radio station and to play with my band in local bars. That summer I got kicked out of the house and had to scramble to find a job and an apartment in nearby Rochester, NY. Music would play a huge part in that transition, too. More about that next time.