06 May 2013

Magnetic North: The Compass Moves

Let me set some scenes for you:

It is 1973, not long after my third birthday. I am in my grandmother's living room, watching PBS. Sesame Street is on, and The Electric Company, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and ZOOM are soon to follow. I'm only dimly aware of this, as I am of most things having to do with the adult world--my grandmother changes the channels and decides what we watch. (This is why I watched so many Chicago Cubs games in the 1970s. Yeah, I know. My therapist says I'm almost cured now.)

I'll address Sesame Street and TV for kids in some future post, but for now let me just say that back then, the show was different. Not better, necessarily--I'm generally not one to engage in false nostalgia, especially not when talking about a show I by and large stopped watching when I was six or seven. I will say that I'm not fond of Elmo or the direction the show has taken in the last ten to twenty years, but plenty of little kids love it (including mine), and since they're the target audience I say more power to 'em. There's no way I could compare my foggily-remembered childhood to theirs and sound sensible, so to hell with it.

But the show was different, yeah. There were a lot of segments they showed then that they don't show now--the number painter, for instance, or the the strange little films that would crop up--like the stop motion short of an orange singing an aria from Carmen, for instance. That kind of shit surely must have annoyed parents in the 70 as much as Elmo annoys me today. But I’ve wandered afield, and I'm supposed to be setting a scene for you, aren't I?


I'll be damned if I remember much about the day, other than it was, as the Sesame Street theme song liked to boast, sunny. I can't even remember what else was on the show that morning--the number painter, probably, he was almost always on the shows in those days. And probably the original "one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten" cartoons, which I later learned featured music by Grace Slick and the Jefferson Starship or Airplane or Wheelchair or whatever version it was at that time--you can see the cartoons on YouTube if you want to engage in some rosy-eyed, sugarcube-laced nostalgia. Bert and Ernie and Big Bird and Bob (who’s still on the show today, looking extremely long in the tooth) and David (remember David? he went batshit and beat some woman up and had to leave the show for a while, poor bastard) and Grover and Prairie Dawn and Henry the Blue Monster and the Count were all there I'm sure--along with the late, fondly remembered Mr. Looper (“Hooper! Hooper!”). But no way can I remember what any of them said or did. And I'll tell you why.

Because sometime during that episode, this happened:

Yep, that's Stevie Wonder, with his band (featuring a young Ray Parker, Jr. on guitar!) turning Sesame Street into his own personal playground of funk. And seeing him do that pretty much knocked everything else out of my head for the day.

I'd heard the song before. It was on the radio pretty much constantly that year. Hell, even the AM radio stations my grandmother listened to were playing it, so it had to be special--not that I knew that at the time, you understand, but in retrospect this song was a huge hit. I liked the horns and the melody, but I had no idea what superstitions were, really, or what the song was about. Hell, I was three. Cut me some slack here.

And then Stevie came on Sesame Street by dint of whatever programming or marketing miracle that put him in touch with the Children's Television Workshop, and knocked my tender young skull into left field someplace with a six minute jam on this song, and I can still remember it now. I watched him, watched his band play, and listened to what they were playing, and for the first time in my life I understood what it was that musicians really did. Or better, what they really could do. How powerful music could be, how thrilling and energizing and enthralling it could be in the right hands.

Don't get it? Go back up to that video, watch it again. And look for the kid dancing on the fire escape. The other kids in the video are dancing and having fun, but that kid is lost in the music, lost in the best way, swept up by the beat and the melody and Stevie's clavinet and that awesome descending horn figure, and he is gone, baby gone. Look at him, banging his shaggy little head, rocking his ass off. He's having the time of his life up there. (I sometimes wonder what became of that kid. Wouldn't surprise me a bit to find out he grew up to be Anthony Kiedis.)

I wanted to be that kid. Not necessarily to stand on a fire escape on some TV soundstage and do a dance that was somewhere between headbanging and a mild epileptic seizure while Stevie funked up the room, you understand. But I wanted to have that kind of fun. I wanted to get lost, and stay lost for a while. I didn't know what escapism was, not then, but I had just discovered it on that spring morning in 1973. And I took full advantage of it.

I think my grandmother came in to watch Stevie play about halfway through, though I can't remember for sure. I was swept up, lost in the music, gone, baby gone. I might even have been dancing around in my diaper. Not much is clear to me except my memory of that performance, because that was what I was fixated on for those six or seven minutes of my life. And yeah, I guess you could say it was a life changer. To this day I still can't hear that clavinet riff without thinking of Stevie's performance. (And god bless the folks at CTW for making it available online so middle aged farts like me can engage in some nostalgia.)

When the performance ended, Sesame Street moved on to its next segment, but for once I didn't move on with it. I was still stuck with Stevie Wonder, still hearing that song--my very first earworm. And in a way, I'm still hearing it. Its never quite left me. I hope it never does.


It's 1974. I'm in the car with my Mom, and we're listening to the radio--the AM dial. We didn’t have a car with an FM radio in it until 1976 or '77. We're somewhere in my hometown, a little suburb called Schiller Park, half a mile from O'Hare Airport. It's notable for being the birthplace of the Hostess Twinkie, for being home to Touhy Avenue, one of the few streets outside of Cicero* to be named after a major crime boss, and for fuck-all else.

We were probably listening to WLS--the rock station back in the days when I was a kidling. Or so I thought. Looking back on it now it was pretty much a top 40 station that played rock because rock was always in the top 40. They also played a lot of James Taylor and Captain and Tenille (and later, Barry Manilow and BeeGees) and songs like "Brother Louie" and "Billy Don't Be a Hero" when they were in the top 40. So WLS was really pretty much a flavor-of-the-moment kind of station. Later when I discovered FM radio (and I was lucky enough to come of age right at the tail end of FM radio as a driving force in true musical eclecticism) I got exposed to stuff beyond the top 40--college radio, progressive FM stations like WXRT (which used to play everything and its weird sister back when I was a teenager, and which used to run a great TV commercial with Monty Python's Michael Palin in it), dance pop, heavy metal, country, classical, and god help us, the Doctor Demento show on WLUP every Sunday night at 11 pm. (I live in New York now, and the good Doctor is no longer on the radio. He streams his show on the internet these days. It’s not the same. Nothing is. And that’s as it should be. But I miss the old Westwood One Radio Network broadcast just the same.)

At the time all this was in my future though, and my mom controlled the radio, not me. Which was probably a good thing, as I would have annoyed the fuck out of her playing with the radio dial instead of picking a station and listening to it. And if I had done that I might have missed "Killer Queen."

In the mid-70's Queen was busy turning rock on its head with songs like this. Tight vocal harmonies, overdubbed to produce a chorale effect, combined with and caromed off of Freddie Mercury's music-hall showmanship, Brian May's hard rock chops and signature guitar sound (seriously--if there's a rock guitarist around aside from Chuck Berry who has a more identifiable style and tone I can't think of him), and the lock-step rhythm section of John Deacon and Roger Taylor: that was Queen. It was one of the first times I remember linking a band to their song, and realizing that a band could have such a distinct, recognizable sound. I didn't know anything about overdubbed vocal harmonies or how they were goofing on vaudeville tunes or that Brian May was using "bell effect" chords in his guitar playing. I just knew it sounded strange and wild and I liked it. Nothing else on the radio sounded like Queen.

From then on, if we were somewhere that had a jukebox, and my mom would let me have a quarter, I always played at least one Queen song--this one if I could. (I also played "Love Will Keep Us Together" a lot, but don't hold that against me. I was a kid, man.)


1978. January. Wednesday night. In the car with my mom again. She'd just bought a powder blue Nova late the previous summer (which Chevy was reportedly unable to sell in Latin America and Spain because the name translated as "Doesn't go"), and she was either taking me to my grandmother's for a visit or to spend the night because she had to work the night shift at the postal sorting facility where she was employed at the time. I can't remember which now, and it doesn't matter. What matters is that it was radio time again. I still wasn't allowed to control what we were listening to--though as I recall I was allowed to change the station if Mom didn't like the song ("Oh God, turn that shit off, Jay. Put on WLS again!"),and at this point we had AM and FM on the car radio, so stations like WMET, WZRC, and WLUP were suddenly at my hand . . . or at Mom's hand, really.

There wasn't much radio dial shifitng that night though, as it was snowing like a bitch and the wind was kicking up the dickens. I didn't know it at the time, but we were driving at the beginning of one of the worst blizzards ever to hit the Midwest. All I knew was that it was snowing hard and there probably wouldn't be any school the next day. As it turned out, there wasn't any school for most of the next week, which I spent at my grandmother's watching bad daytime TV and reading Pippi Longstocking books--when I wasn't building a small army of snowmen or jumping off the sizable mountain the plows had left on one side of the front yard. But all this lay ahead of me. For now we were in the car, the snow was already thick and getting thicker, and Mom was struggling to drive.

Just the same, when a particular song came on the radio, she smiled, reached out, and turned up the volume. "Listen to this," she said.

"This" was, as you might be able to guess, was "Strawberry Fields Forever." Mom had just started introducing me to the Beatles in the past year--possibly having grown tired of my love of the Captain and Tenille, Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie, Queen, and Kiss (yeah, I was a weird kid). She'd let me stay up to watch A Hard Day's Night, Help, and Yellow Submarine, earlier that summer, and later gave me the first real rock album I owned--a sleeveless copy of Hey Jude, which I played to death for the next year, along with a copy of the Monkees' Headquarters that also found its way into my possession thanks to her.

I didn't know who was doing this song, making this amazing and strange music, and so i asked mom who they were.

"The Beatles," she said, still smiling.

"That's the Beatles?" I said.


It was the first time I'd heard "Strawberry Fields"--or at least the first time I'd had it pointed out to me and been encouraged to listen to it. And I took in as much as I could: The elusive, elliptical lyrics, the backwards hi-hat in the second and third verses, the sudden intrusion of the orchestra in the second chorus, the long fade-out at the end. It would take several more years and dozens of listens before I spotted the edit that joined one version of the song to the other (and once you hear it, you sadly can't unhear it; it's the musical version of a sore thumb), picked out the tape loops at the end, marveled at Ringo's frenetic drumming in the fadeout, and agonized over whether John was really saying "Cranberry sauce" or "I buried Paul" at the end. (The second volume of the Anthology albums finally removed all doubt on that account, but even before then I was pretty sure John was just grooving on cranberries.)

To this day all I have to hear is those opening bars played on the mellotron, and I'm right back in Mom's powder blue Nova, battered by the wind, skidding a little on the icy pavement, the thick snow swirling and skirling around the high streetlamps on Mannheim Road as we passed, O'Hare Airport inert and mostly dark on our right, letting itself be buried alive. And the music filled the car and made my heart warm, and took me out of a snowy Chicago night and dropped me into a verdant English garden, and no one I think was in my tree . . . and for the first time I began to understand what music could do, what music was for.

And now here I sit at the age of forty-three, listening to the Grateful Dead on my iPod, and reflecting on that night, seeing the swirls of snow, part of me wishes I could go back to that moment . . . and the other part of me is equally glad I don't have to.

It was cold.


These are all frozen moments (literally in the third case!) from early in my life, examples of what I like to call finding magnetic north--the moment when something happens and you feel something shift inside you, like a gigantic compass needle in your brain suddenly swinging around and pointing you the way you need to go. Others call it the “aha” moment or “seeing the light” or “the nickel dropping” but it all amounts to the same thing: something is speaking to you, whispering or perhaps shouting in your ear, and it so compels you that you cannot ignore it. Sometimes it speaks in a language foreign to you, and you have to seek out translations, learn your first halting syllables, and form crude baby-talk sentences in that language before you can begin to understand what it means to you. Other times, it is the language, the voice, the song you have been waiting to hear your entire life, and you know it as instantly, and as intimately, as you know the beat of your heart in your breathless chest as you listen, as you dance, as you sing.

I have been fortunate to have a life littered with such moments. From time to time on this blog I hope to talk about some of them, what they mean to me and why. You may have different ones, you may have the same ones. You may not have any. Whatever the case, I hope you seek some of these out and discover them, or rediscover them as the case may be. And see which way your needle swings.

*To my knowledge this is actually not true, I just like to rag on Cicero. Everyone needs a hobby.


  1. Love this. I can totally relate.

  2. with ya on this one. Im not sure when I started to really *listen* to some music, but there are other things I sure remember. Remind me to tell you about Schrodinger's Cat and the Internet sometime. (you know - that sounds like it could be a great album title too :) )

    1. Schrodinger's Cat And The Internet is the name of my Kraftwerk tribute band! ;)