Known Johnson

July 19, 2007

Re:Collection – 1989: I am made from the dust of the stars

Filed under: Music,Re:Collection — Tom @ 7:20 am

Ever since I saw Contact, I think often about the long, graceful opening sequence that threw some viewers. A burst of sound is heard, like a radio rapidly changing stations, as we glimpse the earth, and then we are drawn further and further away through space as the sound begins to simplify and coalesce into things we can recognize. We pass the planets of the solar system, head out into deep space, then pass other stars and galaxies, and finally we drift into deep, black space, and that’s where the radio signals end. In the radio signals we hear our recent history – our successes and failures, but mostly we hear the things that simply entertained us.

I like to think about that because, while this is obviously simplified for the film, the idea is real. Out there, somewhere in the deepest reaches of space that man may never visit, are the ambassadors of the human race: our radio and TV signals. For good and for bad, the first impressions any alien civilization is likely to have of us will come from what we’ve blasted out into the universe from our TV and radio stations. And, out there in the darkness, in all that mess of music and television signals, are the things that touched us in some way. I know that, somewhere untold billions upon billions of miles from here, the most important music of my life drifts unimpeded toward the unknowable.

As a teenager, I never went to bed when I got in bed. I would always lie awake for another hour or so, listening to something on my Walkman, trying to time the moment when I would become irrefutably sleepy with a particularly good song, the rationale being that whatever was the last song in my head before I fell asleep would be the song I’d have in my head the next day. There’s no better reason to make sure it was a good song than that – no pressure, of course. I never actually fell asleep to the music. I just allowed it to take me up to the edge, where, hopefully, I’d found just the right song, and then I’d quickly set my Walkman and headphones aside and attempt to get to sleep quickly while the song was fresh in my head. I can’t say it ever really worked, I don’t remember actually having the “last listened to” song in my head the next day, but I sure tried.

More often than not I listened to a cassette in my Walkman, preferring, as I do now, to hear an album over a bunch of songs that the radio has to offer. But once in a while, I’d listen to the radio as I drifted toward sleep, hoping to hear something good, if not something new. On a rare occasion that something new did pique my interest, I’d hope against all good sense that the DJ would actually come back in and tell me who that was that I’d just heard, lest I be damned to possibly never know just what that song had been.

It was, however, those occasions when two irritating phenomena would somehow come together and both prevent me from hearing the whole song and getting the name of the band from the DJ that were most frustrating. For weeks around Christmas in 1989, I’d been plagued by hearing just the very end of a particular song – and I wanted to hear more. Every time I would go to the radio, hoping to hear the whole thing, the song never came up in rotation. It only appeared when I least expected it, and always just as I turned on the radio I’d run into it in the closing moments of the song. And, so, that December, I found myself listening to the radio more often than usual as I sought sleep, hoping to hear that song, in its entirety, again. And one night, I finally did.

The song that had been haunting me talked, strangely, in those last few moments I always caught, about magic wands and second sight, things that any good, young, hard rock listener in the 80s would eat up, but something was different. There was a maturity in the music that I wouldn’t have quite understood at the time, mixed in with furious blasts of drums and a soaring guitar solo over top of the texture of acoustic guitar, and a singer with a particular, unusual voice. Something in this mixture spoke to me, but, after many nights hoping to catch the name of the band, or the name of the song, something, I was beginning to think I’d never hear it again.

One night before Christmas, I settled in to bed with my Walkman. The station played a few inconsequential songs, commercials, and then the DJ announced some song when the opening strains of guitar, bass, and drums kicked in. Something tickled at my brain momentarily, but it was when the voice appeared that I knew this had to be it. “Wait!” I thought, frantically. “What did he say? Did he say Rush? Rush?!”

He had – the band I’d been pining for all that time had been Rush, the very band that just a couple of years earlier I’d thought people had to be knuckleheads to listen to – not based on any actual evidence other than that a couple of lunks in shop class in my freshman year of high school had liked them and talked incessantly about their then-new album. “Hey man, didja pick up the new Rush?” I recall one lunk saying to the other, and, in response, he received, “Hell yeah, man. Can’t wait for the tour.” This was accompanied by the kind of familial sharing of stories about seeing the band, listening to the music, their drummer, etc. These guys were not the cool kind of rock listeners, obviously. Everyone knew rock was all about the guitar solo, and I hadn’t heard these guys mention guitar solos yet. This, clearly, was not a band I was going to be interested in, I thought at the time. And I never gave them another thought.

As luck would have it, when the song finished, the DJ delivered, just to make sure I got it – “Once again, that was Rush with the title-track from their new album, Presto. We’ll be able to catch them on tour sometime next year . . .” Rush. Well, okay, I reasoned with myself. Why not? It sounded like great music from really good musicians. It didn’t rock in the way that most of what I listened to did, but there was something else going on there that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time. I simply found myself undeniably intrigued, and I knew that I was going to have to have this album.

Unfortunately, Christmas got in the way, so I had to wait until a day or two afterward when, while preparing for a trip to see my aunt and uncle in Colorado with my parents, I disappeared to the Wherehouse. I made my way to the R section and grabbed the Presto cassette from the shelf, briefly pausing to look at the other albums. There was the one those guys in my class had talked about, Hold Your Fire – the cover was . . . three red balls on a red background? This was what they were getting so excited about? I guess I couldn’t say much for Presto, either – it was just a bunch of rabbits in black and white. What the hell was that about? I didn’t understand any of their imagery – it was so not rock ‘n roll – and the song titles didn’t hold out much hope either, but I bought Presto anyway.

I spent a good portion of the next few days getting to know the album. It took a few listens, but it was pretty quickly deemed good. Really good. And really different from anything I’d been listening to – Def Leppard, Scorpions, Dokken, Cinderella . . . everything seemed a bit different to me in the new light shed by finding Rush. I didn’t know it then, but I was on the cusp of a very big change in the way I listened to music. Rather than music simply washing over me, the music of Rush took me in and involved me. I could not resist listening in such a way that I focused like never before on everything going on – the intricate and heavy drums, the weaving bass, the yearning quality of the guitar, and, of course, the lyrics and vocals, the very things that I would come to find out later that put off so many people (and the very things which I would find so much solace in for so much of my life.) For me, it all meshed perfectly, grabbed me in a way I could never have imagined before, and it never let go. In years to come, Rush would affect me in ways no one could have guessed – one day I would have that band to thank for the most important things in my life.

Somewhere, out there, so far away that most of us can’t even begin to imagine the distance, the very broadcast of the song that I have come to think of as changing my life travels on and on, unstopping and unstoppable. Out there are the songs that touched every one of us in some way. If, as some scientists believe, and I hope, there is life out there, and they are sufficiently advanced, they may one day hear and see the things that affected our lives. Songs we fell in love to, songs with which we took out our anger, songs that brought us together and songs that drove us insane. Mine’s out there, I know that. Maybe whoever or whatever hears it won’t understand any of it at all, and surely they won’t be instant Rush fans like I was, but at least they’ll have the answer that many of us have been looking for: the signs that someone out there has been listening and watching and waiting for a sign, too.


This begins a new series focusing on the music of my life. It won’t always be serious, it won’t always be this long, but it will always be something meaningful to me that happened around the music that has filled my life for so long. Rather than a boring list of songs or albums from a particular year and why they were important, I thought it would be a lot more interesting not only for readers but for me to talk about the music that meant something to me.

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