If I tug the elastic band of memory until it’s fully stretched out over the almost sixty years of my life, I can just about recall the first music my ears took notice of. Surely there were tunes that came to me within the dark and watery orb of my mother’s womb. But those would be garbled and muted, the background music to the myriad other sounds an infant learns to recognize in utero. In the house of my childhood, music was a constant. My parents were still young enough to want to go dancing on the occasional Friday night. Saturday nights were spent in front of the television watching Cowtown Jamboree and Live From Panther Hall. We sang carols on the way to my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve. My maternal grandfather sang Nat King Cole when he got drunk at family gatherings. My mother loved Boots Randolph and Floyd Cramer. Daddy preferred Ernest Tubb and Patti Page.
From the beginning, I rarely heard music I disliked. Even Lawrence Welk and Liberace made the cut.
Although I did learn to draw a line with Wayne Newton.
That first sharp hashmark was carved into the elastic band of memory in the early 1960s. Sharp and clear, some of the words are lost, but they dangle around my earliest memories like lightbulbs on a wire. Mares are eating oats, some girl named Susie is having trouble waking up, there’s a dog in a window for sale, and Tom Dooley’s fixin’ to hang for murder. I became aware while submerged in goody-goody music. Clean, all-American stuff. We were still in the age of innocence where everyone had faith in the government, the artwork on our milk cartons was colorful and included a cow named Elsie, nobody locked their doors at night and the only people stealing cars were horny teenagers.
Unaware, I was busy memorizing the words to “Puff, The Magic Dragon” while outside my little bedroom window, a wave was rising. There was a transformation on the horizon of which I remained totally ignorant for much longer than most of my peers and all of my family. The Beatles were about to cross the Big Pond. The Beach Boys were taking driving tests in hopes of borrowing Dad’s Woody for a day in the sun, sand, and waves. The war in Vietnam was well underway and protest-song writers were finding their voices. When it finally hit, I was overcome and left standing in the middle of the road with no idea what had just happened.
I may be slow, but I am steadfast. Between the 1960s and the turn of the next century, I hash marked that elastic until it began to resemble an old pair of underwear. I watched the Elvis movies and Ed Sullivan. I knew girls the world over were kissing their pillows at night and dreaming of being the next Mrs. Popstar. I became aware that I was supposed to follow suit. I just couldn’t. I took an alternate route, leaving most of my friends behind, tacking up Teen magazine photos of Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy on their bedroom walls. While they swooned over Paul McCartney, I was busy trying to look like John Lennon. When Hendrix died, I wanted to be a black girl. When Leon Russell hit that tight-wire, I wanted to be HIS black girl. I was fourteen when I snuck into my first concert. Led Zeppelin had just finished the Stairway To Heaven album and Robert Plant’s voice was toast. I could have cared less. I was parked in a balcony seat in the old Memorial Auditorium in Dallas with no ticket stub, thumbing some handout publication and trying not to look like someone who’d just cheated a ticket. All around me, beach balls bounced from upraised hands, balloons sailed between the floors, and the packed house waited in anticipation of the coming show. I had on a pair of block-heeled platform shoes I’d conned my mother into buying, a pair of Landlubber jeans with bells so big they engulfed my feet and the platforms, my baby brother’s favorite snap-closure western shirt, and hair I’d worked half an hour on to mimic Marc Benno’s. Absolutely none of my schoolmates (of which there were few) would have been able to come up with such an outfit or hair. I was alone in my own fashion rebellion. The houselights dimmed and the show took flight. Unknowingly, I sneezed my way into my first contact high. The deeper the night became, the more I wanted to never leave that seat. Unless it was to get a Dr. Pepper and some Cheetos. Eventually, the people responsible for me having such an experience came to sit near my spot so we could all walk out together. The band hit the last chords, the notes faded away, the house lights came up. We were all grinning like a pack of ‘possums. Coming down the stairs, I spied a guy devouring a Pink Thing (the newest craze in ice cream bars for grade schoolers and druggies). I could not take my eyes off the guy. It seemed to be taking him forever to make any progress on this stick of frozen wonder. Suddenly, I stepped into thin air and fell down the five steps leading to the main lobby. Behind me, people continued to file out of the auditorium, stepping politely around my prone form and murmuring “excuse me”. My friends were somewhat concerned, but mostly embarrassed. My cool was completely trashed. I scrambled to my feet, silently cursing the chunky shoes and too-long jeans. I don’t recall the ride home. I do know that the experience forever cemented my view of music. I’m not a mainstream kind of person. I don’t listen to anything simply because it’s what people are listening to. Music has to tell me a story. It has to find a way to attract my interest and hold it. I need to wake up with a tune I can’t name in my head so that finding it becomes an obsession. Or, maybe, I just need another couple of hours with Robert and Jimmy and that guy with the ice cream.