The Misheard Music
It begins the way many stories about secrets could, with a boy standing outside his older brother’s door.
He listens hard, enthralled by the strange sounds coming from within. What is that? A harsh bark of guitar noise. A three wallops to the belt beat. A rumbling truculent bass. And what is that guy singing about anyway? How can he sound so angry and gleeful at the same time, so sneeringly mannered but utterly authentic, so infectiously mocking and completely committed to the incomprehensible things he’s saying?
Over the years, the boy keeps listening. The music changes and slowly he begins to change as well. His parents will pressure him to conform, to study and play sports, to accept authority and avoid confrontation. But the songs bulge and push against the limits. They surge out of quiet places and threaten to break apart with violent confusing emotions and long tangled instrumental passages. Sometimes they sound like church services with creeping organs and moribund voices. Other times feedback shrieks fill the air and vaguely African drumming is heard. But the mystery remains.
Even songs that are on the radio are somehow different with the door closed. Is Jimi Hendrix really saying “Excuse me while I kiss this guy”? Are the Four Tops torn up about “Bernadette” or being burned to death? Did the guy singing “Well Respected Man” really declare, “His handswipe smells of breast”? Ah, that must be why they call them the Kinks. And did Maggie May really wet the bed?
From the outside, he has to try to work out the connections for himself. He begins to make up stories and scenarios, filling in the words, creating pictures of what he imagines the musicians must look like and what stance they must take with their instruments. From behind the barrier, every other song sounds like a trailer for a movie that could change his life. He hears motorcycle rallies in “Kick Out The Jams,” great empires rising and falling in Atom Heart Mother, classical mythology in “Whiter Shade of Pale,” wild bitterly rancorous George Grosz-like cartoons in “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” the secrets of the universe and beautiful women in Astral Weeks. He becomes convinced that he could have it all, could understand it all and finally break free from the phantom zone of preadolescence, if he could just get on the other side of that door and hear the music more clearly.
Yet he fears the wrath of his brother, who he greatly admires, but who has warned him many times not to touch his vinyl. It’s not just the issue of smudging them with his grubby fingers. His hands often shake for no apparent reason and the risk of making a deep scratch while trying to put the needle down in the groove seems unacceptably high.
But once the idea of sneaking in takes hold of him, it will not let go. He begins keeping track of his brother’s weekly schedule, noting his times of arrival and departure, subtly urging his sibling to get more involved in extra-curricular activities after school.
Finally in senior year, his brother lands the part of Hamlet in a high school production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, with rehearsals that last until dinnertime. But still the boy hesitates. What if he knocks something over, or drops a record or leaves some small telltale trace of intrusion? The punishment will be severe and unrelenting. Worse than a beating: ridicule. Acidulous, scarring ridicule. Venemous sarcasm and ostracism not only at home, but at the school they both attend.
But after a few days of coming home early and standing in front of the door, trying to work his nerve up, he turns the brass knob and enters the inner sanctum. The precious treasures are stacked in milk crates next to the bed. Dozens of albums, all packed together, carefully arranged by group name in alphabetical order, and then within the band’s oeuvre in chronological order. The spines seem scuffed and marked by worldly experience, the titles bespeaking things that older kids mention in passing in the high school corridors, bits of grown-up sounding cynicism mixed with coded messages that only the hippest and most informed could unlock, and sometimes just the vaguest glimmer of transcendence. Trout Mask Replica, Forever Changes, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Surrealistic Pillow, In A Silent Way, Five Leaves Left, Younger Than Yesterday, White Light/White Heat, Music From Big Pink, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Village Green Preservation Society. A Love Supreme.
His fingers make the choice for him. Weasels Ripped My Flesh by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Even the song titles promise strange unsavory pursuits. Prelude to The Afternoon of A Sexually Aroused Gas Mask. Yes! He will listen to this and he will be become a different person. He will be initiated into the mysteries and no longer an ignoramus.
His hands tremble even more than usual as he slides the paper sleeve out of the cardboard cover with its lurid cartoon of a razor-toothed rodent tearing into a businessman’s cheek and extricates the vinyl. The label is an exotic shade of blue-green says “Bizarre Records.” By the time, he gets it to the Girard turntable on his brother’s desk, he’s shaking so badly that he can barely set the needle down into the groove. God help him if he should leave a telltale scratch!
He lowers the tone arm. The needle hops, jumps and then settles in, riding the groove. The hiss of anticipation fills the room. And…it’s…well…pretty good. No, really it is. Weird, dissonant, adventurous, sometimes sort of funny in a caustic way, occasionally even bluesy. But something’s missing. It all seems too literal, now that you can understand what they’re saying. Somehow the music has changed between here and the spot behind the closed door. It’s lost just a little bit of its mystery.
He takes off Frank Zappa and puts on Pink Floyd record, trying to get it back. Again, it’s not bad. Nothing like “The Night Chicago Died,” or Jackson Browne, or any of the crap on the radio. Strange, grand, spacey, maybe even a little hypnotic. But it’s hard not to notice some of the seams, places where the set looks a little flimsy. “If I was a swan, I’d be gone.” Is that what they were really singing all along? He tries something else. Some of the music comes on smoky and ethereal, but those words – “in the autumn of my madness…oh, the snot has caked upon my pants, it has turned into crystals…gonna tell him all I can about the ban of feeling free…” He thought these guys were saying something deep. And now that he can hear him more clearly, he wonders if Mick Jagger ever really believes what he’s saying.
He tries another and then another after that, trying to find that sound again. It must have been some other record that gave him that otherworldly feeling. He plunges into the obscure depths of his brother’s collection trying to find it. Past Trout Mask Replica and on into the works of Henry Cow, Eric Dolphy, and Wild Man Fisher. He discovers moments of brilliance, moments of insanity, and in the days and weeks to come, records that he will treasure and keep sacred the rest of his life.
But still…something is not quite there anymore. That sound. That feeling. Perhaps he’d only imagined it, daydreaming just outside his brother’s door.
Years go by and the exigencies of real life come calling. School gets harder. Girls become more interesting, though exponentially more elusive and confounding. Parents divorce and remarry. Friends come and go. A career begins stumbles, and then begins again. Attention must be paid, and so must rent. The luxury of living in a dreamworld can no longer be afforded. Responsibilities must be accepted and a more concerted effort must be made to at least appear to be more like other people.
And gradually, inevitably, music becomes just music; something to enjoy and even love, but not the Holy Grail that will reveal a way to actually be in the world. Over the years, he will see wonderful, transcendent performances by the likes of the Clash, Professor Longhair, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Al Green, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam and Dave, Richard Thompson, Dave Brubeck, Ralph Stanley, Television, the Ramones, Ray Davies, Bruce Springsteen, Wilco, Kirsty MacColl, and Nina Simone, among others. But there will also be books, and children, and the love of a good woman, and like so many other childhood misunderstandings, the songs he thought he’d heard so many years before became dark enchanted woods forgotten and then paved over to make way for a shopping center. And on most days, he’s too preoccupied to even ask David Byrne’s famous question: “Well, how did I get here?”
But still sometimes, late at night, after he’s done walking around the house, making sure all the lights are off to save electricity, he’ll stop outside his son’s door. The bands he’s hardly heard of before: Shadows Fall, Unearth. Life of Agony. Different times, to be sure. The rhythms are more brutal than the ones he remembers, and a few of the vocalists really do sound like Cookie Monster. But he’ll stay there for a while, trying to catch some of the words and figure out what they could possibly mean.