Known Johnson

June 16, 2008

Re:Collection – Europa String Choir: Lemon Crash

Filed under: Baby makes FOUR,Music,Re:Collection — Tom @ 3:20 pm

I awoke at 3 am and that was it. My sleep was over. I laid awake for hours, mentally shaking an invisible, frustrated fist at the darkness. It wasn’t the first such night; it won’t be the last.

In moments of calm coherence, I thought to myself, “Think about Lemon Crash, think of something to say.” I’ve been trying to say something for weeks, wanting to come up with something clever and meaningful about it, pairing it with relationships. Europa String Choir’s Lemon Crash, you see, is one of these oddball albums that few know about yet ranks as one of my all time favorites, and I continually feel a need to spread the word. Not quite classical, and not rock, it straddles a weird line between the two that is perfectly comfortable territory for the group, who, with like minded peers such as Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Kronos Quartet, mix in instruments that fit in multiple genres, play with typical rock abandon, yet approach their music with orchestral grace. ESC’s two guitars, violectra, and Warr Guitar yield an unusually lush sound.

But that’s the thing. That’s as far as I can get. In being one of my favorites, it sits closer to me than I can comfortable speak about, occupying a space that is almost sacred. It’s a safe-haven album – hectic times call for Lemon Crash soothing, lulling beauty. And lately life has been hectic.

In speaking about Lemon Crash, I wanted to mention the power of growing lineups. Europa String Choir began, like any relationship, as duo, and grew over time to be a trio. The trio, as I have always been fond of thinking, is a powerful, strong unit. Triangles have great strength over their three sides because no one side can easily be crushed – all three sides divide up the stress, supporting the structure of the unit. Each side, however, is responsible for more work. We can see this in most rock trios, where each member has to make up for what an additional member might have provided. I can easily point to Rush here – a band of great musicians to fill the space between them with strong, supportive music, and it’s a relationship that has worked for nearly 35 years.

For Lemon Crash, Europa String Choir grew to a quartet, adding the 8-string touch guitar talents of Markus Reuter on Warr Guitar. It’s Reuter’s work that keys me in on this album – where I found the previous trio album, The Starving Moon, a bit dry, here his rich, deep basslines provide an anchor around which everything pivots. Sometimes trios simply need to expand to quartets for it to all make sense, and that’s what makes Lemon Crash make sense.

I’ve been thinking about trios and quartets a lot lately. Alissa and I form a trio with Amanda, and come December, we’ll be expanding our lineup to a quartet with a tiny new addition. It’s new territory for me, an only child, part of that venerable trio I spoke of earlier, and old-hat for Alissa, one of a sextet, the mechanics (and sanity) of which I still have a hard time grasping. Where we go from here, however, is anyone’s guess. The sheet music is blank, but I’m sure the air will be filled with a lot of sound.

April 2, 2008

Re:Collection – Pink Floyd: The Division Bell

Filed under: Music,Re:Collection — Tom @ 8:46 pm

I’d never realized there was a market for fast-food art, but there I was, in Burger King, washing down my Whopper with an unironic Diet Coke while staring at comic-book style illustrations of hamburgers, fries, onion rings, and soda cups. I’m not sure what the message was – “our food is art,” or “we’re too cheap and uninspired to do something remotely creative.” Possibly, it was just the junction of the two that happens when budget collides with modernizing. I know what they want us to think, but it was ugly. The art looked better than what I was eating. The smell that beckoned me in was better than it actually tasted. Such is Burger King.

January 9, 2008

Re:Collection – Rush Permanent Waves (Mobile Fidelity edition)

Filed under: Music,Re:Collection,Reviews — Tom @ 10:52 am

I’ve spent the past couple of days re-devouring my few Mobile Fidelity discs, awaiting the arrival of their latest offering, Rush’s Permanent Waves. If you’re not an audiophile, and not many people are, these discs are not for you. They’re expensive, for one – nearly $30 each when new, then usually skyrocketing in price when their limited production runs end – but they have been given so much delicate handling with regards to the remastering that they are very worth the investment.

As I said, I have been reinvestigating my MoFi discs – the previous three Rush installments, which are 2112, Moving Pictures, and Signals. I picked these up, one by one, many years ago, when I saw them used, quite cheap, I might add, but unfortunately when you give the discs a good look, it’s obvious why they’re cheap. They’re scratched. Who would buy these discs at those prices and then treat them like that is an idiot, but that’s beside the point. They’re playable, but Moving Pictures is in the most worrisome condition – it actually has pinholes through the reflective gold layer, which is a scary thing indeed. Good thing MoFi will be reissuing these discs over the next year, but unfortunately in their new “mini LP sleeve” packaging rather than the original “lift-lock” case that their discs were known for.

Life-Lock Case

I remember when my friends and I first found the elusive “gold discs,” as we simply called them. Back then, when we were teens in the late 80s, it was widely believed that the high sound quality of these releases was due to the gold reflective layer that became so symbolic of Mobile Fidelity CD products. I mean, it made sense – we didn’t understand mastering and stuff like that. We just knew that the other CDs were silver, and these were gold, and these sounded great, therefore gold=great sound quality. It turns out that the gold was used because it was a superior reflective layer – it didn’t have the tendency to age and tarnish like aluminum did in regular CDs. Oh well. It sure is pretty, however.

I picked up the Rush discs for prices between $8.99 to $15.99 over a period of a couple of years. Unknowing owners dropped them off on the trade counter at Zia, getting a measly amount of money for what had been quite an investment. I didn’t pick them up because I was any kind of audiophile. I picked them up merely because I wanted them – being a dorky completist fan, that’s all, and, really, at the time, before the remasters came out, these had better liner notes than the bland original CDs did. And, you know, they were pretty gold.

The discs sat in my collection, surpassed as favorites by the 1997 remasters, until a few years ago when I was trying to conserve space and moved them. And then kind of forgot about them. Oh, I saw them sitting up there, on top of my big CD racks, but I never grabbed them to listen to. I had already made up my mind – the remasters sounded great, why bother?

The dorky completist fan in me made me salivate over the thought of this new MoFi Permanent Waves. For whatever reason, those long-ignored gold discs on my shelf suddenly grabbed my interest again. In the days before my order arrived, I pulled those discs down and gave them a listen. Audio nirvana – all those years listening to the remasters that I thought superior was erased by the calming, soothing, beautiful mastering of the Mobile Fidelity issues. I couldn’t believe my ears. I jumped back and forth between the remasters and the MoFi discs, and, in the case of Moving Pictures, the original, unremastered CD. Things were different, very different – everything sounded better, clearer, brighter, cleaner . . . the soundstage is wider and more relaxed. Most of all, they were a pure joy to listen to. There’s that weird thing I like to call “room sound.” Some people I talk to know what I’m talking about, others don’t. The MoFi discs reveal the room in which the instruments were recorded – one can sense the walls and space around them, especially Neil Peart’s drums, which practically sound alive.

Permanent Waveshas arrived (stamped with #00398 in gold lettering – sweet!) and has gone through the same process – A/B-ing with the 1997 remaster – and the conclusion is the same. The latest Mobile Fidelity offering will not, however, find itself forgotten like the other Rush MoFi releases did. Nor will the previous three – they have found a permanent home on my Ipod, ripped in Apple Lossless format for the highest sound quality possible on that iconic little box. And what aobut you? The right listener, the picky listener, especially the Rush fan audiophile, on the right equipment, is going to have a second Christmas.

As for that new packaging style, it’s beautiful. I’ll always miss the cool and smart Lift-Lock cases, but these mini-LP replicas are very nice. But . . . unfortunately there has to be a “but” . . . for some very strange reason, while Mobile Fidelity focuses so much time and energy recreating the original packaging, with nice, sharp images used for the cover and all photos, they really fudged it when it comes to the lyrics book cover, which is the same as the album cover. Instead of being the same crisp, sharp image, it is a murky, blurry, off-color red. Truly baffling – but it’s relatively minor when everything else is so nice.

I’m older, maybe wiser, but certainly by now my hearing should be worse, not better, right? Isn’t that how things work? You get older, and time and exposure takes its toll and things start wearing out, right? Perhaps that’s not as it seems. Maybe as we get older, our hearing may start to go, but maybe there’s a grace period where we’re given a chance to really experience things the way we should. Maybe before it starts to deteriorate we get more sensitive. Or maybe I’m just lucky that I decided a decade ago to really start taking care of my hearing by watching the volume and wearing ear plugs at concerts. There are a million maybes. What’s certain is that I’m lucky that I decided to give those discs a chance again. I might have missed this window of opportunity all together.

October 11, 2007

Re:Collection – Radiohead: In Rainbows

Filed under: Music,Re:Collection — Tom @ 5:54 am

It’s hard not to think about Radiohead’s latest album as a test of one my favorite quotes – “Expectation is a prison.” The intention of King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp was toward music, of course. Listeners tend to make assumptions based on their previous experience with music about what will soon be coming to them from an artist, and then are disappointed when what they expected is not delivered, rather than leaving themselves open to the possibility of surprise. However, in a way, it’s easy to see that perhaps some of us expected too much from Radiohead when they announced that they would offer their album for pretty much any price you were willing to pay (aside from a 90-or-so cent service fee.) Given absolutely no information of what to expect, I, and many others, expected that Radiohead was thinking along the same lines as I was – that we’d get high-bitrate mp3s, and some artwork of some kind. Alas, the reality, to many of us, was a bit of a “let down,” to use a Radiohead song title.

The secrecy, it seems, had lead many of us to get bigger ideas than the band had planned. It is this that takes me back to a project at my first major job, just out of college, where I’d been given free reign with my division’s website. It was all mine to do with as I pleased, and I planned on blowing everybody away with something huge, complex, and beautiful. So I kept it all quiet, and when asked in meetings about it I would politely, but excitedly related that I couldn’t reveal much, but that it would be big. It took a while – hand-coding the HTML in notepad (because WYSIWYG editors barely even existed at the time,) cutting all the images in Photoshop (and these were the days before Photoshop came packaged with tools to help you do anything for the internet,) and a lot of trial and error finally yielded a beautiful website that boasted the company colors (the vivid corporate scheme of blue and white) and many changing photos of the aircraft we proudly built. It was gorgeous – rollover images everywhere, all kinds of eye-catching crap all over the place. The team was going to go nuts.

I sent out the email announcing the launch of the new site. I waited and waited for the praise, but little was forthcoming but from those I worked immediately with. The proverbial crickets scraped their legs in sympathy at me. Shortly after this, my manager pulled me into his office and quickly set me straight. “Mr. Johnson, you don’t do this. You don’t surprise people in places like this. What people want is to be informed and to be a part of every decision. It’s a very nice site, but some of the people who work around here feel as if important input has been left out of the final product.” As frustrated as I was, I would grow to understand what he meant. My ego got ahead of me – I wanted to be the focus of a lot of praise and good attention. Like any young kid out of college, I thought I had all the answers, I was certain of it, and I was equally certain everyone else would know it too. I was wrong.

I can’t help but look at the two situations – Radiohead’s In Rainbows launch and my floundering website launch – and see something similar. Radiohead kept details about the album quiet because it made it more exciting and mysterious that way – much as I hoped it would with my coworkers – and that mystery would drive people into a frenzy, wanting the album so bad they couldn’t wait to pay something, whatever amount, even if it was some piddling amount, just to be a part of it. And it worked for them – people talked, people speculated, and the news certainly paid attention. Of course, the band revealed a day before the downloads were to begin more details, and many of us balked. It wasn’t the hope-for, speculated, hyped-up, paradigm shift we’d wanted – it was just some middlin’ quality mp3s, not the higher-bitrates we’d hoped to see. Oh well. The revolution may have to wait a little longer – maybe someone else sat up and took notice of what happened here and will take that next, big step soon.

Expectation is a prison. It holds us back and prevents us from truly seeing what can be. It goes both ways when it comes to music, however. As fans, we can’t expect our favorite artists to turn out exactly what we want, and the artists can’t expect that we’re going to understand or agree with their every move or decision.

Obviously, I, just a young web designer at the time, simply didn’t have the notoriety or fame to pull off something big like Radiohead can. Fans are eating up the new music, and, based on the music alone, we should. In Rainbows is a great album, and it’ll be in heavy rotation for me, and for many of you, for ages. When the CD inevitably comes out next year sometime, the question will have to arise: just what did they accomplish, besides beating the leak and making some money off of it? I know I learned from my experience a decade ago, but will anyone be able to say we gained something particularly special from this?

August 29, 2007

Re:Collection – 2005: Death Cab for Cutie/Opeth

Filed under: Music,Re:Collection — Tom @ 9:34 pm

Looking at this past two years, it’s simultaneously amazing to me that two years ago was just two years ago. On the one hand, it’s been incredibly fast, and it’s hard to believe it’s been two years, and on the other hand, two years ago seems like a lifetime ago. In a way, it was.

On the very day that the nation watched hurricane Katrina roll through the south, steamrolling New Orleans, Alissa and I were oblivious and would essentially remain so for another couple of days. We had no idea the destruction that took place, no idea about the devastation of lives that occured, and we were perfectly happy about that. Not maliciously so, understand. We were just a little preoccupied: at 2:53 pm on that day, we welcomed our little girl into the world.

So, when I say that two years ago feels like a lifetime ago, I mean it. They say life-changing events have a way of altering your perception, and I agree. There was the previous 32 years and 6 months, and now there’s the last 24 months, and counting. I’ve lived two lives in one, and while one life afforded a certain amount of freedom, this new one, 24 months young, sacrifices that freedom for the kind of beautiful dependence a child has on her parents. And let me emphasize that those 24 months have been amazing and incredibly entertaining in ways I could never have expected. People warned us about what we’d be giving up, that we needed to get out and enjoy our freedom because it would be nearly two decades before we’d get it back – but that our sanity would likely never return. On that last point, I have to agree. Being a parent is as stressful as it is fun, but I wouldn’t give it up for the world. It’s good stress.

You may wonder what Death Cab for Cutie and Opeth, a disparate pairing of bands if there ever was one, have to do with all of this. On the day after Amanda was born, these two albums were released. Tied up in the hospital with our new responsibility, I, of course, neglected these two releases for a few days, but, when out to purchase some kind of baby-related items at Target – the first of many, many trips in coming weeks – I slipped across the street to Best Buy where I grabbed a copy of each (Plans and Ghost Reveries, respectively).

As so often happens, neither album is my favorite by either band, but, for a couple of weeks there, these two occupied my drives pretty much anywhere, and I got to know them in a way that I might not have had I not been so preoccupied with our new daughter. Lacking the ability to concentrate, or really even think, I simply left the discs in my truck for quick access. They might otherwise have slipped into the collection in lieu of other, stronger things to listen to. The timing and the intense exposure to only these two albums leaves me with a very soft feeling toward the two. I simply can’t be critical – memories of that time are inextricably tied around the music, and the music is tied to that time. Any attempt to separate them is like any attempt to separate your child from your life. It all becomes wound up, everything together in a big, beautiful knot of complexity. I’m perfectly fine with that.

August 22, 2007

Re:Collection – 1987: Hysteria

Filed under: Music,Re:Collection — Tom @ 9:23 pm

There was a time in high school during which I insisted that Def Leppard trumped all comers. Sitting on the brick tree-planters spread around my high school’s courtyard, my friends and I would debate all matters of great concern: cars, girls, and, of course, music. And, as far as I was concerned, cars were nothing compared to trucks, girls were a complete, unsolvable mystery, and Def Leppard was it.

This is not entirely true, at least the part about girls: Jamie and I had declared Virginia, who we frequently saw passing the same spot during our lunch period, to be deemed worthy of the nickname of “The Virgin.” This was not based on any evidence that would support this nickname – neither of us were lucky and/or cool enough to know her in any capacity, let alone one which would have earned us the privilege of learning this first hand, so to speak. No, it was based entirely on the fact that she was a rather unfriendly girl, cold, even, seemingly delicate like porcelain with a skin tone to match, and hung out with a small, but decidedly odd crowd of dysfunctional looking outcasts. The latter part of this pretty much summed up my crowd, too, but “The Virgin” had the benefit of being extremely hot. We, as can easily be assumed, were not. Regardless, somehow we came to the conclusion that, due to being named Virginia and all of the other factors added in, including that we were complete dorks with unrestrained imaginations, she must obviously be that mythical creature found only in movies: the entirely ignored yet extremely hot young lass who, being entirely ignored, was obviously as pure as fresh snow, and equally obviously saving herself for one of us. Perhaps it made us feel better to think that someone else, far more attractive than we were, was in the same predicament, too.

Music was not just a topic of discussion but of deep, often prickly debates. A frequent point of contention was that topic that still fuels many a musical argument: who was the best guitarist? The names tossed around back in those days were so casually used as to suggest they’d already reached the plateau at which it was unquestioned that they would always remain among the greats – George Lynch, Steve Stevens, Jake E. Lee, Kirk Hammett, etc. And I would always offer my pick – Steve Clark from Def Leppard, not based on any particular knowledge of guitar playing. I simply based my criteria on the fact that I loved Def Leppard and therefore Clark had to be the best. This insistence often led to many an argument, with the others tossing names out to challenge his position at the top of the guitar pile.

“What about Randy Rhodes?” one would ask, and I would dismiss him.

“Yngwie (Malmsteen),” another would toss out, and I would shoot it down. “Come on, Yngwie is without a doubt the best. Who else can play that fast?”

One of the guys leaned in and whispered something to John, who threw out what surely must have been a joke with a bit of a laugh: “David Gilmour.”

“Come on, the Pink Floyd guy?” I asked incredulously. And then, with a dismissive shake of the head and a simple, insulting “no,” I laughed off the suggestion all together. Def Leppard was my band. I defended them where need be, and there was no trumping them. And that was that.

However misguided I may have been at the time, Maybe I was on to something that I wouldn’t truly understand for many years. I mean, I realize now that I was brushing off musicians who were obviously the cream of the crop when it came to technique and speed, but I might have been listening for something that wasn’t such an important aspect in late 80s hard rock and metal: being the right musician playing the right things in the right context. I can’t think of a single solo in Def Leppard’s music that stands out as particularly emotionally moving or technical, but I can’t think of many other guitarists who suited the situation as well as Steve Clark did. With his death a few years later, it became even more obvious just how important he was to the sound and style of the band’s music. Vivian Campbell made a suitable replacement, at least in being able to replicate Clark’s parts, but the new music made with Campbell lacked what Clark brought to the band. There is a charismatic swagger missing in post-Clark Def Leppard, which is what made the band so vital in the 80s. That the musical climate was changing when Campbell jumped on board is beside the point. Def Leppard died when Steve Clark, and returned to life as a new band with Vivian Campbell.

It wasn’t until long after I’d gotten heavily into jazz that I really began to grasp what was driving my appreciation for guys like Steve Clark. Jazz, to me at first anyway, simply felt like an equation consisting of a bunch of solos held together by the parenthetical statements of the head of a song. The answer was always dependent upon who made up the band in question, but early on, it was an answer that took higher math than I was prepared for. After years of listening to it – and a music appreciation class in college focused solely on jazz – I really began to hear what jazz was really about: supportive musicians doing exactly the right things at the right times, the end result being a circle of trust between everyone involved. The musicians trusted each other to not only not step on each other’s toes but to also egg each other on, and we listeners trust that the musicians are going to keep up their halves of the equation. The success of projects hung on the need to make sure the delicate balance of that equation was maintained. So while jazz, on the outside at least, is all about musicians soloing, it really is more about collaboration and trust.

I can see now that, while I may have been wrong about Steve Clark as a shoe-in candidate for “best guitarist,” he formed a part of an equation in Def Leppard that was easily overlooked by those seeking the best, fastest, craziest guitar solos. I started back then learning to listen for what truly mattered to me – good chemistry – in the music I surround myself with. Def Leppard were certainly no jazz band, and are about as far removed from jazz as you can get, but their simple formula equated to something that would drive me deeper into music as time went on.

I quickly learned how wrong I was to dismiss David Gilmour and many of the others who were paired up with my choice of Steve Clark. While I can’t say that the same can be said of many of the others we discussed, I can say that I still feel pretty good about backing Clark for so long and against the ridicule of my friends. The music of Def Leppard, from that era at least, has ascended to “classic” status in my mind, and I still find myself frequently cuing up Hysteria and Pyromania. The band lives on, of course, but it’s the music they made back then, and with Clark as a vital part of a driving force, that seems to only grow in fondness for me. I doubt I’m alone.

Great guitarists continue to be talked about today as a typical topic of discussion all over the internet where often angry battles flare up. I never see Steve Clark mentioned.

Oh, and as for my friend Jamie and I, we drifted apart in the latter couple of years of high school. I saw him one day on my way to class, appearing from around the lockers. I caught his eye and he smiled a quick, odd smirk, and when I passed, who did I see by his side but “The Virgin.” I can only guess what the smirk meant, and, at the time, it was easy to dismiss as simply a sly smile about our shared joke. I have my suspicion now, however, that he may have found out whether the nickname was fitting or not.

August 4, 2007

Re:Collection – Dire Straits: Communiqué

Filed under: Music,Re:Collection — Tom @ 10:16 pm

Check out guitar George he knows all the chords . . .

Having picked up a used copy of Communiqué a short time ago, I had shelved it for a while when I realized that I just wasn’t all that in the mood for Dire Straits at the time. I’ve been enamored of Mark Knopfler’s guitar playing for a while now, but I’ve taken the slow route when getting into Dire Straits. There’s something too iconic about the Brothers in Arms material, specifically the way overplayed “Money for Nothing,” complete with it’s “I want my MTV” tag, two elements that instantly drive me away from albums, if not bands. Overexposure is my enemy, having destroyed relationships with music I have loved but with which I shared a more fragile connection. There aren’t many songs that will survive this unfortunate side effect of a band achieving sudden, widespread fame, but once in a while I manage to not let it get to me.

The Shins, for example, may never be overexposed for me – I love their music and while Garden State threatened to topple the beautiful friendship we’d forged, what with the whole “they’ll change your life!” BS, I managed to ignore it. I simply put their two (at the time) albums away for a while and let it blow over. Now Wincing the Night Away has been out since January and we can see the results of that overexposure: many disenchanted listeners who jumped on for Chutes Too Narrow and that soundtrack now find the Shins’ beautiful, subtle new album too mundane for them.

It’s harder, however, to encounter something that had long ago reached icon status, such as the aforementioned “Money for Nothing,” and not instantly stamp the entire band’s output with the feelings associated with that one song. It became a kind of soundtrack for exactly the opposite kind of crowd than the song was written for – the story of an “everyday joe” type dreaming of achieving fame and success – when the yuppie-types in the 80s latched onto the song, if not the band, as somehow representative of themselves, and completely ignored the message behind the song.

So when I crumbled to Mark Knopfler’s charms, it was via his last few solo release, not Dire Straits, whose music I continued to resist. It was stumbling upon “Sultans of Swing” that did it, however. That familiar Knopfler twang rings out throughout the song and carries us through to one of the finest guitar solos I have ever heard – a real “goosebumps because it’s so powerful and emotional” kind of moment. Live at the BBC found its way into my collection, followed quickly by the self-titled first album, much of which is found on BBC. And then it was Making Movies, and, most recently, Communiqué.

But Communiqué had to remain on the shelf for a little while, not because of a fear that the overexposed Dire Straits I used to fear would rear its head, but simply because music like this takes the right circumstances to come to life for a listener like me. Many albums I can hear and appreciate, but it takes that special moment, and a certain spontaneity, for some things to really click. Today was that day for Communiqué, where I was able to hear it without the fog of expectation hanging over me, and it was able to reveal itself as an album full of the delicate subtleties that makes Mark Knopfler shimmer – that deep tobacco-soaked voice, the quick, fluid guitar, and the wit behind many of his lyrics.

Knopfler possesses the too often ignored ability to understate just the right elements and come out with something that knocks the attentive listeners on their asses. It’s a gift that has never been overly abundant in popular music, but when it’s discovered, it’s a rich, abundant source of beauty. Communiqué is precisely that kind of album – it has the reputation of being one of the lesser Dire Straits offerings, and yet, it seems, for the right listeners, it ascends to status of “favorite.” I may start considering myself one of those listeners.

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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