Did you ever wish you could go back to the first time you heard a song? Back to where you were when “Thong Song” blasted out of your friend’s convertible one crazy midsummer night, or any of the wonderfully great rap songs of the 90’s that helped define summers. What about the first time you heard “November Rain” or “Sweet Child O’ Mine” ripping your eardrums open without ever thinking of turning it down, or seeing your first MJ or Bjork video? We can never go home again, we can’t know then what we know now. We shouldn’t. It might make those moments mean less to actually see them for what they were, instead of how we remember them after time’s filtering mirror has been shone upon them.
I remember the first time I heard The Doors. At the Jersey shore with a kid who was maybe 5 years older than me (which at age 9 feels like 20 years) and he put on the greatest hits album. I couldn’t believe how deep and cool Morrison’s voice sounded, alternately screaming and crooning along with the haunting, melodic piano of Ray Manzarek. A few years later, I remember looking at my Snoop Dogg CD and totally missing the “Doggystyle” joke as a 12 year old (but I knew it had something to do with those big butted pooches crawling in and out of the Dogg house.)
Now, American music pumps out of my gym’s speakers in Korea. Americans dance the tango to Latin words and rhythms. People around the world meditate to the Tibetan and Indian mantras and ragas. Music is a shared commodity.
Recently, at a fantastic display of traditional Korean dance, we watched the talented high schoolers do their thing for over 2 hours before taking their final bow and rocking out to LMFAO’s “Party Anthem.” They were shuffling, twisting and shaking it, all while wearing ballet slippers, tuxedos or hanboks. Music needs no translation; although the words may be a mystery, even if you didn’t speak English, you’d know Elliot Smith was depressed, Pink was pissed off, and R. Kelly was horny. Smells are intricately tied to memory, but sounds are pulled out of your own personal nostalgia every time you hear that one song from your middle school dance with your crush, or your first kiss song, or the song driving with your great lost love, or how a particular song helped you through a nasty breakup or death, or even helped you understand to keep on moving forward no matter who or what is holding you back.
A friend told me that Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” helped her realize, mid-jogging session, that all will be okay as long as she stays true to herself and keeps running, metaphorically and literally.
Music is not always a good story though. Like the times driving with my mom, when she asks me to explain a Notorious B.I.G. or 50 Cent song; it’s pretty damn awkward as a 17 year old to tell your mom the lyric that she misunderstood was: “your daughter’s tied up in a Brooklyn basement,” and it isn’t any easier when you’re 24 and she asks if the ‘candy shop’ where he will let her “lick the lollipop” is slang for some new drug she doesn’t know about and you have to set her straight that the seemingly obvious has passed right over her adorably naïve head, before she tells you, “I don’t like that.” But that isn’t her music. It’s ours. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, 90’s rap, Chili Peppers, Jewel, basically all MTV is all ours. For that brief moment in time, before reality shows and after hair bands, before the Iraq War but after the Gulf War, when Clinton was president and all was right with the world, we lived as know-it-all teenagers in a musical wonderland. Almost everyday we heard a great, new song for the first time, and we actually had to buy the music to listen to it unedited.
Then, seeing your first concert is an eye-opening experience too. My first was Steve Miller Band followed the next weekend by The Dave Matthews Band. The Camden lawn was a beautiful place. The Philly skyline gently reflecting into the Delaware River, the light breezes drifting off the coast ruffling the summer dress of the supple blonde girl next to you, and the methodical madness of youth in revolt powered by overpriced light beer. But, as always, you gradually get over the silliness of adolescence and then concerts become a way to hear your favorites with 5 good friends and 15,000 strangers.
It is the truth that when you learn to play music you make a friend for life. Sitting in any of my many apartments over the last 15 years since I learned to play guitar, I have always been soothed by the fact that I had that familiar instrument to strum and pluck to remind myself that no matter where I am, I am there. Be there, and be your past and future within the present. Just as music was, it will always be. I was watching SNL, and Josh Brolin said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Gotye.” And I watched for my standard minute as I always do to give the band a chance, and then another, and watched the whole song in a trance. That shaggy Australian minstrel was talking to me, he was singing of the pain I had felt. I had another moment of hearing a song for the first time and it was tremendous. Everything was new for those 4 minutes.
Music is the force that Obi-Wan could have been referencing when he said: “[It] surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Of course, Master Kenobi was speaking of the force that gives a Jedi his power; but, who’s to say Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, John Bonham, John Lennon or Sting is not a Jedi of a separate, musical order?
And, a side note, God bless the Grateful Dead for giving us an opportunity to hear a song we know, in a different way—every time…