Tantalus: A king from Greek mythology, he angered the gods and was punished for eternity in Hades, where he was made to stand chin-deep in a pool of water, with a branch laden with fruit above him. If he tried to eat the fruit it would rise out of reach. If he tried to drink from the pool, the water would recede.
Whenever I ask people when their A-Ha moment happened, or, if there was no A-Ha, how old they were when music started to really mean something to them — when they learned about music beyond jingles on TV commercials, children’s songs sung at school, hymns in church, etc., when they first heard music that they might still be listening to and enjoying today — the occasional Suzuki Method prodigy notwithstanding, most people tell me they were around 12-13 years old.
My A-Ha moment came in 1973, when I was 9 years old. We were living, my family and I, in a soulless New Jersey suburb, the only music I was aware of was Top 40 A.M. radio, and it didn’t grab my interest in the least.
But then once, when my parents were gone on a weekend getaway, and my younger sister and I were left in the care of our older sister, five years my senior, I had the brilliant idea of staying awake as long as I could, to wait until I was sure that my sisters were asleep, and then sneak downstairs to watch TV shows that I normally wouldn’t be allowed to watch.
And while you’d think that with a set-up like that this was going to be one of those “what could possibly go wrong?” stories, wherein pretty much everything goes wrong, well, not so. Not so at all.
After goodnights were spoken and lights went out, I laid in bed and could hear my older sister watching TV downstairs. But, like any self-respecting 9-year old, I had a flashlight, and so I hid under my covers with a huge wad of baseball cards, flipped through them over and over again, looking at the photos of the players on front of the cards one by one, and reading the stats on the back.
Every so often, when I didn’t seem to hear the TV any longer, I’d creep to my door, open it as slowly as I could, just a crack, and listen close, the first two times the TV was still on, only quieter. Shortly after that, I could hear my sister’s footsteps coming up the stairs, followed by bathroom sounds, and followed, finally, by her bedroom door.
Then came two more checks, both times I could see light coming through the space at the bottom of her door, but at the third check…darkness!
Wearing socks to soften my footfalls, I walked slowly down the hall, down the stairs, and into the TV room. I pulled an ottoman over and placed it right in front of the TV, and before turning on the set I turned the volume knob all the way down. As the TV warmed up and an image began to appear on the screen, I could immediately tell it was nothing I’d be interested in, some old guy in a suit behind a desk, another man in a chair beside the desk, it seemed all they were doing was talking, and so I turned to the next channel, which, much to my disappointment, displayed nothing but a test panel, indicating that, for that channel at least, the day’s programming was over.
The next channel, also a test panel, made my heart sink with the thought that all my sneaky effort will have been for nothing. But the next channel, well, within seconds, I really didn’t know what exactly I was looking at, but I was captivated.
I knew it had something to do with music, I mean, I’d heard music before, I knew what singing was, and people were certainly singing. But, I hadn’t heard music anything at all like this, and I hadn’t seen people like this, anywhere, certainly nowhere in my hometown.
On a massive stage, below multicolored lights, and a sign that read “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” there were 4 guys — or at least I figured out after a minute or so that they were guys, confused at first by the fact that I’d never seen men with hair that long! They wore the tightest pants I’d ever seen, revealing additional clues of their manhood, and up top they sported the most outlandish clothes, comically garish colors, patterns of flowers and paisley, there were scarves, and fringes, and hats with feathers sticking out.
Hanging from straps across their shoulders, three of the guys had what I later learned were electric guitars, two 6-strings and a bass, and as they strutted around the stage their hands wildly moving around on their instruments, the fourth member pounded on his drums as if out of violent anger, punishing them, crashing the cymbals, an electrical storm of rhythm.
Most of all, it was the guy playing a 6-string that stood out to me, more specifically the rhythm guitarist, who was also the lead singer. He appeared to be in command of an awesome power, a power that at my age I NEVER felt, a power that, it seemed to me, 9-year olds were not permitted to wield. Using what I’d eventually understand to be distortion effects and powerful amplifiers, every strum on those strings let loose a sound that was somehow simultaneously gritty and beautiful, and the singer’s voice as he sang was filled with an intensity of passion that I’d never seen or heard expressed before.
The whole glorious noise of it all stirred something deep inside of me, and I was forever changed, but only tantalizingly so at first.