The magic of music…and memories

I’ve loved listening to music as long as I can remember, but growing up in a conservative baptist home I had to sneak around to listen to my music of choice: rock and roll. Surprisingly I don’t remember any “first time tunes” from the late 50’s when I was clandestinely listening to Top 40 countdowns on St. Louis’ KXOK.

During my lifetime I have listened to thousands and thousands of songs, and I did hear each and every one of them a first time. Some of these songs would make my “desert island list.” Most of them wouldn’t. But the memory of the first time I heard some of them is list-worthy. And it’s more than just the song. It’s the experience associated with hearing my “First Time Tunes.” FTTs.

Perhaps it’s because my “first time tunes” are a combination of the music and the place, and often the FTT also involves the person I was with at the time. There is always a lyric component too.

The most distant first-time-tune memory is from a Sunday night in late November, 1964. I was with my high school friend Robert Rice, heading south on Springfield, MO’s Boonville Avenue. We were heading for the city’s square with the radio playing one Beatles tune after another. But the cabin of his Dad’s Oldsmobile was soon taken over by Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” That’s exactly where we were headed…to the downtown square. We drove around a couple of more hours that evening hoping they’d play the tune again. They did. We loved it. It probably happened a few more times during the next several months, “Downtown” on the car’s radio while Robert and I were cruising toward the square…or wherever, but I’ll always remember that first time. “…forget all your troubles, forget all your cares…go downtown, where all the lights are bright…”

There isn’t another first-time-tunes memory until the spring of 1966. There were 4 of us in the car. We turned left and headed up the little hill into the Monett, MO city park. 2 guys and 2 girls. Not a double date. Just four friends cruising town on a Saturday night. A very middle class seating arrangement: guys in front, gals in back. I don’t remember much else from that night. I know who was driving us around in his dad’s car, and I can only remember who one of the 2 girls was. I did have a crush on her. But there was not a “Groovy kind of love” with her that night, or any future night. The Mindbenders were singing the song by that title that night, after Wayne Fontana had left the band. I don’t know when I heard the song the last time, and I never listened to the Phil Collins cover. That spring night in western Missouri, the first time I heard that song it had me shivering and quivering.

The August before I left home for college, several of us were hanging out in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen at the corner of Central and Cleveland in Monett. A song that summed up the weather we’d been having, but not the place where we were, caught my attention. Monett was, and is, small town mid-America, but “Summer in the City” was perfect for that place and time. It was a hot time that night, in lots of ways. Don’t you know it’s a pity that I can’t remember more of that night…at least nothing that I want to share….

Nine or ten months earlier a song by the same band, The Lovin’ Spoonful, grabbed me, and it hasn’t let go till this day. It was a Sunday night. It was in an Oldsmobile. But it wasn’t Robert Rices’s dad’s, and it wasn’t in Springfield. It was Buz Tennison’s dad’s car, sitting in the parking lot of the Temple Baptist Church. My dad was the pastor; Buz’s dad “Doc” was the song leader. The song was “Do you believe in magic?”

That evening I did. Today, I still do: believe in magic…believe music can free your soul…believe that there is magic in music.

I was living at my grandma’s, attending junior college, when I heard “For what it’s worth” by Buffalo Springfield for the first time. Actually I saw it for the first time. The tv show was called “Where the action is.” Paul Revere and the Raiders were on the show often….I don’t have a first time memory of any of their songs, but I always liked to hear “Kicks.” I only remember seeing the Springfield that one time on “Action.” I’ll never forget that show, that day. I’ll always remember Neil Young’s jacket. Later I got one like it myself with the fringe. Something was happening…here, there and everywhere. It wasn’t clear to me then, and it isn’t now. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll always love everything about that song.

The first time I heard the Beatles “White Album” was just after Thanksgiving in 1968. It was during a weekend in Kansas City, where a friend of mine had recently moved to pursue his desire to become a pharmacist…which was just a stepping stone on his way to becoming a radiologist. I wasn’t sober for much (any?) of that weekend. Contributing to this was my friend’s offer to “try a few of these…” We listened to the White Album a lot that weekend. The one song that I remember the most, the one that played in my head when the turntable wasn’t spinning (but my head was): “Rocky Raccoon.” That album got mixed reviews at the time, but is now considered one of the greatest of all time. I doubt that “Rocky Raccoon” would be picked by any music critic soon after release, or now, as the best tune on the album. Not by me either. Today my favorite songs from the 30 on the album would be “While my guitar gently weeps” or “Happiness is a warm gun” or maybe a couple of others. But I don’t remember the first time I heard them. I do remember sitting on the floor, drinking an 8 ounce can of Schlitz Malt Liquor when the spoken word intro began. It hit me right between the eyes.

A lot of things happened in September of 1970.

George Harrison released “My sweet lord.” I don’t remember the first time I heard it.

I was drafted and sent to Ft Leonard Wood for basic training.

Jimi Hendrix died. I do remember the first time I heard him, but that didn’t have a lasting impact on me like the song I heard that day in late September standing in the evening mess hall line. It made an impression like almost no other FTT. As we stood in the line to eat after a long day of being physically challenged and mentally indoctrinated, the juke box at the PX was blaring. Many of us in line ended up in Vietnam, and some of us in body bags. Probably all of us expected to die for the ill-conceived war. I got lucky and never left the states.

It wasn’t the first song that I heard that day while standing in the mess hall line, but it’s the one I’ll always remember: “War” by Edwin Starr. It’s also the one that stuck in my head while, and after, we ate. I have no idea what we had to eat that September afternoon; I probably couldn’t have told you 24 hours later. And I don’t know when I learned who was singing this song. The person feeding the juke box played this song repeatedly. I heard it a couple of times that first day, and other times while in basic training.

What is the song “War” good for? Absolutely everything. Say it again.

It was after I had been discharged from the U.S. Army after my stint of 1 year, 6 months, and 6 days…thanks to the “Vietnamization” push for early outs in 1972. We were leaving Farmington, headed north. Not sure to where; me & Jennifer. (Wonder whatever happened to all the letters we wrote? I know what happened to us soon thereafter, and to her eventually, but not where she is buried.) The radio was on KSHE.

It was the first time I ever heard my favorite singer-songwriter. Jackson Browne was singing “Doctor my eyes” as we merged onto Highway 67. The lyrics of that song grabbed more than any of my other first time tunes. KSHE played a couple of other songs from his debut album that night too, and while I’ve listened to that album many, many times, I couldn’t tell you what the other songs from that night were. I hope to never awaken from that dream and never to lose that memory.

After the Army, I enrolled at Southeast Missouri State in Cape Girardeau. I was living in a dorm-like apartment at the edge of campus. The apartment had 2 bedrooms, each with bunk beds, a tiny kitchen, and an even smaller bathroom. This tiny place was designed for 4 residents. I started the semester with a roommate, but fortunately he dropped out of school and I had the crackerbox apartment to myself.

I often spun vinyl while studying, but usually I had the radio on for background noise. When this next song came on, it snared me immediately. The voice…the lyrics….the beat. I knew the song wasn’t about anybody I knew, that it wasn’t about me, or anybody like me. It was almost 40 years until the speculation ended regarding the subject of the song. But that never really mattered to me. Not then, in late 1972. Not in all the years that followed. All I know is that I was out of my seat, cranking up the funky little receiver so that I could not only hear, but also feel that song: “You’re so vain.”

It was about a year later, in the fall of 1973. I was still in Cape Girardeau. My hair had gotten longer….lots longer. I had met several people who had me thinking more critically about lots of things. The country was a mess, thanks to Tricky Dick Nixon and his band of henchmen. My favorite authors were Hunter S. Thompson, Jean Paul Sartre and Kahlil Gibran. I was burning the candle at both ends.

I was thinking about leaving the USA, but I was dirt poor. My favorite singer was Jackson Browne; he still is. He had released a new album, and I had to have it. My live in girlfriend (later my wife) was at her waitress job when I listened to it the first time, sitting alone in our shabby little 2 room apartment, where we slept on a pull out couch. The first few lines of the title track, which was the last song of the album, said exactly where I was at the time: ready to leave with the light of the morning. “For Everyman” was sad and true, but hopeful.

This next song had been out awhile before I ever heard it, or at least before it registered with me. It was early in the BiCentennial year, of that I’m sure. It wasn’t on KSHE, and I’m sure of that too, but I don’t know what station it was. It was most likely KXOK, since I was in my 1972 VW bug, which only had an AM radio. We were on Hiway 47, somewhere just south of St. Clair, heading to the Lead Belt for a visit to each of our parents. I was working as a high school math teacher at Union, MO…a short lived career for me.

The title of the song wasn’t spelled the same as the name of cute student who I thought of when I first heard it, and who I can still see in my mind’s eye when I happen to hear this song on Pandora. I’ve never owned any music in any form by Pure Prarie League. But their song “Amie” made me smile that Friday afternoon in 1976, and still makes me smile whenever I hear it.

Same time frame….early 1976. Same scenario, i.e. I might have heard the song before but it hadn’t registered. Same highway, but this time on 47 between Washington and Union, MO. In a VW, but this time it was her’s and the FM radio was on KSHE, on the way to work Union (Mo) High School. The song took me to another place that morning. That was a very good thing, as that high school teaching thing and me weren’t a great fit. I would have welcomed being flown away to the bright side of the moon, or any place on the other side for that matter. The song? Gary Wright’s “Dream weaver.”

Lots of years passed between between that song and my next “first time tune.” I moved to Oregon later in 1976, to Florida in 1989, back to OR and then again to FL. I never stopped listening to music. I heard lots of songs for the first time. I attended LOTS of concerts over the years, especially when I was in my “work hard, play hard” period in Orygun before transferring to Sarasota. But I never had another musical experience that stuck with me as a FTT until 2011. I was living in Missouri again….something I never expected to happen.

I’ll write about those more recent FTTs, and my return to MO, another day. But right now, I’m gonna crank up the stereo and enjoy the day….and the magic of music.

“Downtown” by Petula Clark.

“Groovy kind of love” by The Mindbenders

“Summer in the city” by The Lovin’ Spoonful

“Do you believe in magic” by The Lovin’ Spoonful

“For what it’s worth” by Buffalo Springfield

“Rocky racoon” by The Beatles

“War” by Edwin Starr

“Doctor my eyes” by Jackson Browne

“You’re so vain” by Carly Simon

“For everyman” by Jackson Browne

“Amie” by Pure Prarie League

“Dream Weaver” by Gary Wright

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