Knights in Black Vinyl

I was recently struck by just how much of a seemingly invisible influence music has had on my personality. I was also somewhat befuddled by the difference between my grown-up perception of the music that has molded me, and the actuality of my influences. There are glaring similarities, to be sure, but that’s like comparing the moons of Jupiter to our piddly little nite-lite. 

This all started with a quiz. One of those endless pain-in-the-ass, normally-I-wouldn’t-but-if-so-and-so-did-it – random bullshit quizzes that makes you choose your top 5 albums, top 5 golden age wrestlers, top 5 toilet paper brands, top 5 Twihard Milf-bait actors… what-have-you.  

Axel HowertonFive Albums That Shaped Me: Or, the ones that I could find in this database. 387,136 participants  
Axel Howerton chose Nebraska, Abbey Road, Sandinista!, Rain Dogs, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.

 Now, I stand by those choices. These are all albums that have meant a great deal to me but, aside from Abbey Road, all albums I came to love in my pubescence whilst plowing through the collected archives of 20th Century music looking for answers to those troubling teenage questions: Am I cool enough? Am I smart enough? Individual enough? Will a girl ever really touch my schvanschtucker?

I thought no more of the list. It was decent. It was varied, yet mature. Nothing embarrassing like Ric Astley or Milli Vanilli on there. All albums I would, should, and do listen to on a semi-regular basis. It’s a good, solid list.

Then the epiphany hit. Not like a whisper, not like a thunderclap, just a mellow realization while stuck in a rainstorm gridlock with an unusual pick on the CD player. For some reason, digging through the voluminous archives I keep piled up in softcases on the floor behind both seats (and next to the baby’s car seat), I came up with ‘Days Of Future Passed’ by The Moody Blues – a CD I had, in all likelihood NEVER listened to. Like Abbey Road, it was on heavy rotation during my early childhood, one of my Dad’s records I inherited when his turntable crapped out in the early 80’s and my ever-hip folks turned exclusively to tape. I picked up the CD somewhere about 15 years ago and I can honestly say I don’t remember playing it even once. My rampant OCD would have forced me to sandwich it into the ‘70’s Mood Rock’ case, despite the almost nonexistent likelihood of my listening to it. My incessant laziness would have put it somewhere in the neighborhood of Mott The Hoople and Nico & The Velvet Underground.

In any case, to make the short story long, I was driving (well, sitting in an idling car on the freeway) in the rain and absently tossed in ‘Days of Future Passed’. The opening buildup of lovely classical refrains from the London Festival Orchestra felt both comfortable, and eerily familiar (having not listened to the album in damn near two decades).  Once the orchestration settled down and the poem ‘Morning Glory’ from drummer/songwriter/poet Graeme Edge began, I found myself firmly entrenched in the surreal slipstream that is sense-memory.

Brave Helios, wake up your steeds.
Bring the warmth the countryside needs.

And then it clicked.

I could see myself – 7, maybe 8 years old – lying on my stomach on the linoleum floor of a townhouse bedroom floor on a rainy Sunday afternoon, surrounded by books, the Moody Blues on the cheapo-kiddie turntable in the corner. I was lost in some Ace or Ballantine Sci-Fi or Fantasy novel, armshelf bookstand, feet kicking in that way peculiar to children lost in playful concentration.

It struck me that this was a memory I may have never revisited in the 25 or more years since. As the album continued to play out in its combination of classical melodies and late 60’s mellow-rock, the memories flickered and ran, reappeared and faded until I found myself nearly home with no recollection of the road for the last 30 or 40 minutes. Then, as the Junior High dance fave ‘Knights In White Satin’ crept through the speakers, haunting me again, this time with a vision from around my 13th year, a spectre of myself in the back seat of the family car, on our way home from a summer trip, from a summer ‘love’ (as close as love can be at 13) and me, silently contemplating the moon as it slipped in and out of the trees that crowded around the winding mountain road. I honestly don’t remember where we’d been, what her name was, not even vaguely what she looked like… but I remember the romanticizing of a peck on the lips, a twinkle in the eye and a tremble in the underoos. I remember the Shakespearean agony of a star-crossed puppy love and the effects of that specific song mingling with the moonlight in a dark and endless sky barely perceived through the window of a 78’ Monte Carlo.

Finally as the reprise followed the song and keyboardist Mike Pinder returned to cap off the album with Graeme Edge’s ‘Late Lament’, I realized just how monumental an influence it truly was:

Cold hearted orb that rules the night,
removes the colours from our sight.
Red is grey, and yellow, white,
but we decide which is right,
and which is an illusion.

 I have been writing for as long as I can possibly remember (which, outside of these little blasts of the past, is not very far, due to repeated abuses and many years as a voluntary human punching bag.) Most of that time I have been writing poetry and, while I may be struggling with myself to harness my wordplay into a more readily accepted prose form, poetry was my first love and my first success as a writer. I can now trace it back to those moments in my childhood, wrapped in comfortable piles of paperbacks fictions and antiquitous copies of Victorian poetry pilfered from my Grandmothers basement, with The Moody Blues warbling through my $20 record-player-in-a-box. Those are the moments that multiplied and found purchase in my soul – that grew and prospered and sprouted roots in the very depths of me – turning me into the ridiculously verbose, highly dramatic and grandly romantic being that I truly am.

Now I look at the list of “5 Albums That Shaped Me” and I think about the little pile of records next to that clunky little blue and white box with it’s flip-up lid and $3 needles. I’ve always loved The Beatles (I recently took another quiz and mentioned ‘The White Album’ as the best Beatles album), back then I only knew two albums – Abbey Road, which is still my all-time favorite album – and a two-platter collection called ‘Beatles Love Ballads’. That was my idea of The Beatles entire discography. I heard “Michelle”, “P.S. I Love You”, “Girl” and “Norwegian Wood” over and over and over… I listened to E.L.O.’s ‘Time’, a bunch of early Steve Miller Band, Cream, and The Rolling Stones “Some Girls”, an album that was waaaay beyond my meager years when I listen to it now and hear lines like “black girls just want to get fucked all night” although that may have been a precursor to my predilection for F-bombs. The single strand that I find running through all of it is how it all ties into my romanticism, my love of storytelling and my off-kilter, slightly anti-social, usually anti-establishment sense of humor. Most of the things I have forgotten about myself, I can see in my 4 year-old son, and I can recollect through the magic of music I listened to almost 30 years ago. I am sure now, that I could piece together ‘me’ if I could only find the scattered shards and lost puzzle pieces that time and a bad memory have tossed in my wake.

I think we’re all searching for the true and perfect versions of ourselves, those 7 year-old selves that were unexpectedly complete despite (or maybe in spite of) our complete ignorance of the world. Those things are still there, hidden away like so many old postcards, stuffed at the bottom of a drawer full of remembrances. Little reflections of the way we used to be before maturity and discord and gravitas take hold of our once-gentle spirits. Those things are there, somewhere beneath the layers of thick skin and over-developed posturing that we use to hold back a world full of misery, hate, crime and deception. They are there, waiting to be unlocked and uncovered by a song, or a book or a picture of a summer long past. They are waiting for us to seek them out and lovingly restore them with a small investment of time and memory and a little bit of our hardened, jaded hearts. Shouldn’t that be the measure of a true work of art? That it transcends place and time and wholly cements emotion, catching lightning in a bottle and hiding it away to salve our bruised and battered souls ‘on such a winter’s day’?

I only hope that in this day and age of digital media oversaturation and any song in creation at your fingertips anytime of day, that my own sons get the chance to make these kind of memories, and have these little polished gems of nostalgia and pure, heart-melting happiness to find buried in their own dresser drawer someday. I think I’m helping – hope I’m helping – and play them everything and anything from Grieg to Marvin and from Ramones to Charlie Parker, but who knows what will stick, what will get lost in the iPod shuffle and what will get buried in their own subconscious to be revealed through a fortuitous June rainstorm and a fumbling grab at the back seat.

Like Big Lou said in the tune “Rock ‘n’ Roll”

…she couldn’t believe what she heard at all; she started shaking to that fine, fine music: her life was saved by Rock and Roll.

Here’s hopin’

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