Play It Loud

I’m in the front seat of a convertible with the top up, my father driving the two of us home from the only Boston Bruins game we ever attended, and I can recall not a single moment of hockey from that night. Neither one of us is or will be a hockey fan. Perhaps my father figures this is the kind of thing you do with your 11-year-old son.

Hockey is not why I remember this, half a century later. Indelible in my memory is the sound coming from the radio, music that sounds unearthly, compelling and strange. I had never heard anything like it before — Junior Walker & The All Stars’ Shotgun.

“Shotgun!” wails a man’s voice. “Shoot ’em ‘fore he runs now…” What? “Do the jerk, bay-bee! Do the jerk now!” What is this impassioned singing? I’m riveted.

“We’re gonna — dig potatoes!” This doesn’t make sense… “We’re gonna — pick tomatoes!” As the car speeds through the darkness, I feel like I’m not supposed to be hearing this — it’s thrilling, confusing, and I sit still and listen.

The beat is powerful, insistent. The singer shouts, and the band hollers back, call and response, and a tenor saxophone sings, too, in a language that sends a charge through me. The intensity never flags, the tempo never quits, then it quickly fades out, over in less than three minutes.

I don’t know I’m hearing black music, a vertebrae in the spine of American song, Motown, this hit produced by label founder Berry Gordy himself, sung by bandleader Walker when the singer booked for the session failed to show. The Shotgun is a dance — who knew? What’s coming out of the car radio sounds dangerous, visceral, and barely contained. The hook has been set in an 11-year-old fish.

Back home, in the basement, is the wire-and-tube device where this trip began, a dark-wood double-doored family entertainment console, a still-shiny piece of outdated furniture that moved with me, my parents and two sisters from Worcester to Andover, Massachusetts. The minuscule black and white television on one side isn’t worth watching anymore, but what I love is behind the right-hand door: an automatic record changer to play my father’s 78’s, all lined up neatly beneath the turntable and radio that can’t get a signal down in the cellar.

This is the mid-60’s, well into the age of the LP, but I‘m not yet a teenager, haven’t started buying records of my own, and I’m satisfied stacking up 78’s, listening to records my father collected before I was born. The barbells I got for Christmas are motionless nearby. I seem to recall doing curls. I have no memory of getting muscular.

I listen to one particular 78, “Everything Happens To Me,” over and over, not knowing or caring that it’s The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra backing a 25-year-old Frank Sinatra. The lyric intrigues me –

“I make a date for golf, and you can bet your life it rains. I try to give a party, and the guy upstairs complains. I guess I’ll go through life just catching colds and missing trains. Everything happens to me…”

The lyric and the sophisticated delivery are incomprehensible to me, coded. The singer has nothing but bad luck: measles, mumps, weak bridge hands — and then, as far as I can tell, trouble with a lady. Which, it dawns on me, must be behind all this lamenting.

I don’t hear music like this on the radio. It’s big band music, corny and out of date, but I don’t know that. Smooth and controlled, a lot of instruments playing precisely, it doesn’t rock but swings, and feels restrained, callibrated.

Frank sings, “At first my heart thought you could break this jinx for me, that love would turn the trick to end despair…”

Isn’t he overreacting to a cold? Or is despondency a byproduct of becoming an adult?

“But now I just can’t fool this head that thinks for me, so I’ve mortgaged all my castles in the air.” What’s a mortgage? What does all this mean?

Again and again I play it, and study the record label, looking for further clues. Am I using the recommended Victor needles? Why is this song a Fox Trot? The mystery of it all persists.

In retrospect this record made me feel safe. In the middle of the school year my family moved into this house, making me the friendless “new kid” in third grade, left to hang around in the basement playing old records. I felt like a lonely loser, and so did Frank Sinatra! Music was our refuge. Everything happened to us.

I didn’t know it, but listening to his old records was also a way to get to know my father, he of turbulent temper, but also an absurd sense of humor, who suited up and went to an office weekdays, pushed the lawn mower or the snow blower around on weekends, and with my mother raised three kids with virtually no outside help, and hoped at day’s end to be left in peace to read the newspaper on the screened-in porch.

On I pedaled through fourth and fifth grade, listening to the radio in the car or the kitchen, until I unexpectedly inherited my older sister’s portable record player, a grey multi-hinged box, speakers opening out on either side, the top flipping up to reveal a turntable.

I started buying singles, then LP’s: the Four Seasons, then the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones. Behind my bedroom door I listened to Save Me by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. “Save me! Stop what you’re doin’ — you’ll be my ruin!” I cannot name most of the American Presidents, can recall no soliloquies from Hamlet or Lear, but this I recall.

Are all teenage boys uncomfortable in their skin? Do they all feel like freaks? I most assuredly was, and did, and music was my solace, my distraction, and my salvation. In its thrall music dissolved my awkwardness, removed my feeling of separateness, gave me something to talk about with the other Martians skittering through the school corridors, meandering around on their banana-seated bikes, waiting to grow up.

In ninth grade I went, for the first and last time, to Harvey Satin’s backyard swimming pool, where there were loudspeakers broadcasting music from an unseen radio. Harvey had a tan and a bunch of friends jumping off the diving board, so he was cooler than anyone I knew. As I stood there in my bathing suit, something unimaginable happened — Child of the Moon came out of the speakers, followed by a relaxed radio announcer’s voice.

What was happening? This was the b-side of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, the Rolling Stones’ single, both sides of which I’d been listening to obsessively since the afternoon I bought it. This track was not ever played on the radio.

“Uh, Harvey — what is this we’re listening to?” “It’s the radio.” Stupid.

It was an FM radio station, WBCN in Boston, and the announcer said that I was hearing “The American Revolution.” They were playing b-sides, and long tracks from psychedelic albums, and it seemed like every hour on the hour they played Also Sprach Zarathustra from 2001: A Space Odyssey without bothering to explain why. There were commercials that I’d never heard before, for Japan Air Lines and Buzzy’s Roast Beef — and the dj’s spoke like regular people, not frantic and echoey. One called himself Steve The Seagull and another was Old Saxophone Joe. What kind of a name was that? Cool, that’s what kind of a name.

The minute I got home I asked my mother if we had an FM radio. “I don’t think so.” I double-checked the radio in the basement — no help. Until that day, AM radio was the undisputed king — a powerful signal easy to tune in, installed in everybody’s car, pulsing through battery-powered transistor radios — AM was radio. FM was for classical music people, required finicky tuners, didn’t come blasting through the air with a lot of hopped-up talk and loud commercials surrounding every single song — but suddenly something unimaginable, something really cool, was going on, right in the air around me, and I couldn’t hear it!

I asked if we could get an FM radio.

“You can save up your money from caddying and buy one if you want,” my father said.

I hated caddying, and was relieved on weekends when it rained. On sadly sunny days I pedaled uphill to the Andover Country Club, checked in with Sparky the caddy master, prayed I didn’t get a double, got a double, prayed I didn’t get snagged for a second round after I got in from the first, and got sent out for another 9 or 18 holes. My parents insisted I have a job. Something about “not hanging around the house doing nothing all summer.”

But now I had a solemn mission, and I started saving the six measly bucks I’d earn for four hours of hauling two bags up and down miles of hills and dales to get that radio. It made standing around feeling like a weirdo in the caddy shack tolerable, out of sight of everything but the parking lot, waiting for Sparky to yell my name. For God knows how many weekends I pedaled past the barber shop and up that long hill, then coasted, exhausted, back home and put my dollars in the box on my dresser, and did not buy any singles or albums or anything else, until I’d saved the price of an FM radio.

Can I remember what that small radio cost? No. But I remember what it looked like and sounded like, and where it sat on my bedside table, and how late at night I’d turn it on very low, and dial around for something that would speak to me, the same way Junior Walker had with his reckless violence, the way Frank Sinatra sang smoothly of his perplexing misery.

I now had a portal to a secret dimension, one that my parents didn’t know about, a world without fast-talking announcers or cheesy commercials, where an adult named Darrell Martinie called himself the Cosmic Muffin and talked about astrology, signing off with “It’s a wise person who rules the stars, and a fool who is ruled by them — over and out.” Inexplicable and funny –regular astrology reports, as if it were weather or sports scores, and the guy making them said not to take it too seriously.

WBCN heralded rock concerts at The Boston Tea Party and The Psychedelic Supermarket, and announcers played whatever they wanted to from records I owned and records I wanted, not top 40 hits. Confident young people seemed to be in charge, grooving to songs about peace, love and revolution.

Cream, The Doors, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd before Syd Barrett went crazy, The Steve Miller Band before they sucked, Jeff Beck, The Moody Blues even if they sucked, Iron Butterfly which was not embarrassing if you were 15 — this FM signal, this seemingly endless stream of exciting music, defined a universe where I belonged. It was as if I’d been orphaned before I could remember, and was hearing ever-louder messages from my long lost tribe — my people! Like bats, we were using echolocation to find one another!

I needed to keep caddying, because now I had albums to buy. I’d make weekend rounds on my bike to every store that sold records -– did anything new come in? One album would deplete my savings, so every selection was painstaking.

The album cover for Absolutely Free by The Mothers of Invention showed more than enough promise. A long-haired, goateed face, its gaze penetrating and dismissive, loomed over a collaged pile of other heads, presumably the band members. This did not look like the Beach Boys.

Beneath this was a chaotic caricature of an American cityscape — graffiti art before there was such a thing, the album title towering over billboard ads and a crazy cartoon traffic jam. Copy superimposed on an American flag read “BUY AMERICA. Move your goods with patriotic sell!” Other signs read “Friendly Local Draft Board,” “Buy this,” and “This Tree is UGLY & It Wants To Die.” Most significant was a message in one corner: “You must BUY this album NOW — Top 40 Radio will never ever play it.”

Purchased, transported home and opened, Absolutely Free revealed a new dimension. A picture labeled “Clean American Version” showed Frank Zappa lifting up his shirt to reveal a hirsute stomach. Five guys in hippy garb lay in a pile at his feet — “the MOTHERS.”

Liner notes expressed this record’s subversive, mocking promise: “All the words on the record… even the little sneaky ones! Merely send money… as much as you can… how you get it we could care less (make sure it’s at least $1.00) for your very own libretto. A few freak maps are still available… same deal. Dump money into shoe box and tie securely.” An address is given, and this warning: “Be sure to specify libretto or freak map… if you don’t, we will probably send you a brown paper bag or something equally psychedelic… no C.O.D.s.”

Below that was a quote: “’The present-day composer refuses to die!’ –Edgar Varese, July 1921.” Capping it all was the headline KILL UGLY RADIO.

Already mesmerized, I lowered the needle onto the disc, which starts with a drum roll, and a voice intoning: “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.” Another voice: “Fellow Americans…” A guitar starts playing Louie Louie. The first voice again: “He’s been sick. And I think his wife is going to bring him some chicken soup!” An unruly male chorus howls “Plastic people! Oh baby, now, you’re such a drag!”

This record thumbed its nose at, well, everything! The government wasn’t to be trusted, the record business was suspect, commercial radio was a sham, Mom and Dad were sell-outs, high school status was a joke, getting a job was for jerks! There weren’t any hit songs to be found — in fact, there were long stretches of guitars and saxophone churning along with abandon, punctuated by absurdist humor, such as when Zappa, in a sincere and measured tone, preaches “A lot of people don’t bother about their friends in the vegetable kingdom. They think, ‘Ah, what can I say, what can a person like myself say to a vegetable?’ Well the answer is simple, my friends — just call, and tell them how you feel — about muffins, pumpkins, wax paper, Caledonia, mahoganies, elbows, and green things in general; and soon, a new rapport! You and your new little green and yellow buddies, grooving together! Oh no — maintaining your coolness together! Worshipping together in the church of your choice! Only in America…”

This was like nothing I’d ever encountered.

More caddying, so I could secure another record by The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out, with a liner note that was a treasure map: “These People Have Contributed Materially in Many Ways to Make Our Music What It Is. Please Do Not Hold It Against Them.”

The names that followed included Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg, Barry McGuire, Yves Tanguy, Lenny Bruce, Ravi Shankar, Roland Kirk, Wolfman Jack, Salvador Dali, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Spector, Don Vliet, Charles Mingus, Pierre Boulez, Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky, Willie Dixon, Edgar Varese, Howlin’ Wolf, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans, Johnny Guitar Watson, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Big Jay McNeely, Willie Mae Thornton, Lightnin’ Slim, Charles Ives and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I got busy.

In addition to my growing vinyl collection, I became intimately acquainted with every scratched-up album the Memorial Hall Library made available to borrow. If I wasn’t in school, doing chores or homework, or caddying, I was staring at an album cover for twenty minutes while side one played, turning the record over, and studying the cover for all of side two, then repeating that process, always worrying with my own records that I might be wearing out the vinyl. Despite my caution, I would sometimes drop the needle and create a pop or click that became a part of my memory of the track thereafter. If the song came on the radio after that, I’d notice the place where the song didn’t click, or repeat, or skip. It was a tiny agony.

In 10th grade I became a day student at Phillips Academy, where I discovered a concentrated population of music-obsessed teenage boys. I got a job at the school radio station, a piteously low-wattage operation barely audible a few hundred yards off campus.

One fateful afternoon, in the local hi-fi shop where I’d bought Save Me and Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Freak Out!, dutifully reviewing mostly records I’d seen the week before, I found myself holding a black album cover with just the name of a band I didn’t know, The Tony Williams Lifetime, which was a pretty cool name, and below that, in parenthesis, (turn it over.)

I did. On the back, type spiraled around in imitation of a record groove, and I spun it to read –

“Start here: The names of the players are Tony Williams, Johnny McLaughlin, Khalid Yasin (Larry Young) and Jack Bruce — “

Jack Bruce? The bass player from Cream? What was he doing on this record I never heard of? Who were these guys? The copy continued.

“The things they play on the first side are 1. To Whom It May Concern — Them (4:18) by C. Corea 2. To Whom It May Concern — Us (2:58) by C. Corea,” and continued, listing three more titles, and then — “PLAY IT LOUD.”

The copy spiraled on, listing four more titles, and then final instructions — PLAY IT VERY VERY LOUD.” At the center of the circular copy was a seated man gazing insolently back at me, as if to say, what are you waiting for?

I didn’t have enough money. What if somebody else bought this record before I could? I pedaled to the caddie shack, now hoping for a double, and a second trip around the course, and days later I hustled back to the record shop, where, thank God, nobody had noticed (turn it over.) Now it was mine. I took it home, shut my bedroom door, used the edge of my fingernail to break the shrink-wrap, removed the vinyl disc, opened up the portable record player, and dropped the needle into the groove.

What I heard didn’t make any sense to my ears. It sounded like rock music, very loud drums, very fast guitar, and an organ that sounded as crazy to me as Junior Walker had sounded in the car with my father — and where was Jack Bruce? No singing at all, and the bass guitar was here and there inside a cacophony of shifting music.

This wasn’t an entirely new experience. Many of the records I brought home from the library, using Zappa’s list as my guide, were difficult to penetrate. Eric Dolphy, Stockhausen, Webern — it was sometimes bewildering, but I wanted to crack the code. I knew Frank Zappa was hearing something. I knew Jack Bruce was hearing something. I wanted to hear it, too.

And I began to. I heard rhythm and blues in there, and Jimi Hendrix. I’d grown accustomed to The Allman Brothers long guitar solos, very simple improvisation, but this was harder to follow. The tempo was complicated, the chord changes weren’t just blues changes, and all the instruments were sharing the spotlight together — the drums were as surprising and free as the guitar. The organ wasn’t just playing in the background, its voice was as important as any other.

I started to hear what four serious musicians who paid close attention to one another could do when they played as if from a single mind. It was as if I were learning a foreign language by giving it my complete attention. I was in love with this sound, this band, needed to know who these composers were — C. Corea, J. Coltrane, A. C. Jobim.

An ad in the paper announced that The Tony Williams Lifetime was playing at the Newport Jazz Festival! My friend Joel and I took the bus. When the gates opened we were at the front, and we ran with everybody else, and sat as close to the stage as we could get. I’d never been to an outdoor music festival. There must have been a lot of people, but I couldn’t tell you anything about the crowd, nor do I remember where the bus dropped us off, nor how we got back to Andover from Rhode Island. What I do remember is what I heard.

Four musicians came out to polite applause in the warm afternoon sun, but who was the guitarist? I’d only seen album cover pictures of a long-haired, bearded John McLaughlin — who was this short-haired, clean-cut guy? Seconds after they began, there was no doubt — it was McLaughlin. They played looking carefully at one another, serious-faced then smiling and sometimes laughing, creating this ungodly loud music, at once precise and tight and simultaneously free and unexpected. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever heard.

The high point occurred when Jack Bruce moved to a microphone and began singing a song that grew in intensity, as he intoned, “One with the sun… one with the moon… one with the stars… one with the birds…” and on it unfolded, the tension growing, until it reached a pinnacle and the music shifted, and all four played a complex, lightning-fast musical passage, and the whole thing repeated itself, and it was. Just. Magnificent.

And I thought to myself — and this I remember with great clarity — I have to hear that again.

Months passed, the new prep school year commenced, and then, a miracle. On the front page of my prep school newspaper, there was a brief notice — The Tony Williams Lifetime was going to perform in concert in the school auditorium! (The students at my prep school were a pampered lot — big name entertainers like Cat Stevens and Albert King were routinely booked to amuse the offspring of the American Ruling Class, in whose midst I skulked, hoping to blend in.) The school paper ran a photo along with the upcoming concert information– not of the proper band, but of Cream, the now-disbanded British super group, with Jack Bruce. (Do these people know nothing?) Somehow, the most important group of musicians in my world were booked to play at my school!

The night arrived. The stage was set. The band was hours late. My best friend was the stage manager, which assured me a spot on the stage crew. I had carried Jack Bruce’s bass amp onto the stage of the Memorial Hall Auditorium, which made me feel akin to the assistant handing brushes up to Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. There were massive towers of speakers on either side of the stage. My friend the stage manager was worried that so many amplifiers would blow out the auditorium’s power circuits. The class freaks had dropped acid and were waiting in an altered state for the band to appear. A ripple passed through the hall — the band had arrived! It was about to begin. My breathing was shallow, and I was too distracted to carry on a conversation — I was almost afraid for the concert to start, so great was my anticipation.

The hall was packed with expectant prep school kids, who were primed to hear Cream or something like Cream — heavy blues-based rock music. Sunshine of Your Love. Politician. Spoonful.

The band walked onstage to enthusiastic applause, plugged in, and launched into what would be their penultimate performance — one more gig and they’d never play together again.

That night, they were playing for one another, and it was evident they were having a wonderful time. Each musician was not just technically proficient; Bruce and McLaughlin had played together in different British blues bands for years. The great Miles Davis had chosen Williams and McLaughlin for his latest mind-blowing band. Khalid Yasin had recorded plenty of amazing records under the name Larry Young, and had been with Miles as well, playing organ like nobody had ever imagined.

I’d spent hours on the floor with the portable record player and all these musicians’ albums, studying this music, and I knew it cold. From (turn it over) I knew what they were performing, that they were stretching out this section, condensing this section, playing with each other’s heads, keeping it interesting for one another. It was the loudest, most complex music I’d ever heard. It was transcendental.

I was no longer there. I was the music itself. I was the music watching the musicians smiling at one another as they created this enveloping sound. I was delighting in what each player was doing to me, I understood what was being communicated with thunderous drums and piercing guitar and a romping, high-pitched bass, and the Hammond B-3 organ, with its desk-sized speaker cabinets inside of which spun a double horn, creating an other-worldly sound — I was that sound. I’d been born in the front seat of a convertible years earlier. That keening organ was the sound of Shotgun.

Meanwhile the high school audience was pissed — what the hell was this noise? Where were Cream’s hits? At first confused, they soon began complaining, and in small clusters began to exit the auditorium. They weren’t hearing what they’d come for, couldn’t hear what I heard, and it riled them up. Was it like this when Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring debuted in Paris?

The band took no notice, and kept right on playing, so loud that any bitching from the audience went unheard. Jack Bruce stood at the microphone and started singing “One with the sun… one with the moon… one with the stars… one with the birds…” and I stopped breathing for a while. On they played. Up front, in Acid Row, the trippers appeared to be having a white light experience. At eighth row, center, I was having the greatest music night of my life.

After about ninety minutes, the band stopped. The hallucinating guys in the front row and I stood up and clapped and cheered — but after that deafening din, our cheering sounded like paper shuffling, and taking no notice, the band put down their instruments and left the stage.

I was mortified. No encore! My jerk classmates had disrespected the gods! Shame-faced and nearly vibrating in agitation, I walked with the stage manager to carry soft drinks down to the dressing room.

We walked in to where the four were unwinding from the performance. Finding myself in this underground Olympus, I was mortified, unworthy to speak to such as these men. I blurted out, “I’m sorry about the audience!”

“Fuck the audience.” It was Tony Williams, the face from the back of the album cover, looking at me, his face both amused and sternly dismissive. John McLaughlin smiled and asked, “Well, did you like it?”

“It was the greatest thing I’ve ever heard!” “Well, that’s all that matters,” he said.

I don’t remember what happened after that.

***

I went to hear McLaughlin often, over decades, after that night, and I saw Jack Bruce whenever I could. I bought every record any members of Lifetime appeared on, but that song, from Newport, from Memorial Hall, was not to be found. In college I recognized the melody on a Mahavishnu Orchestra recording, titled Resolution. It was fine, but it wasn’t what I longed to hear.

For years I wondered — had I noticed a recording truck near the stage at Newport? Might there be, somewhere, an air check of that performance? I moved to New York, and kept buying records, and then CD’s, and continued to go out to hear music. Larry Young died too young, possibly from pneumonia, in 1978. The other musicians moved along in their careers, playing new music with other musicians.

I stopped wondering about that song at some point — there was always something more to listen to, and my life was full of distractions and work and marriage and tiny daughters and playing music for them, avoiding at all costs the appalling, moronic, and relentlessly cheerful kiddy music cruelly forced upon small and defenseless children. I took seriously my responsibilities as a father, making sure they heard Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and The Weavers and of course The Beatles, James Brown, Louis Armstrong.

Another decade passed, and I read about an anthology being released, everything the Tony Williams Lifetime had recorded during that quartet’s brief tenure. This time I had the money, and I found it, and scanned the back of the CD case, recognizing all the track titles, except one.

I rushed into my bedroom and shut the door. No I didn’t — I entered my apartment like a grown-up, but it felt more like I was 16 than anything had felt in a long time. I fought my way through the cellophane, and put the disc into a player. I tried to remain calm. The unfamiliar track was titled One Word.

It starts with an odd guitar chord, Larry Young’s unearthly Hammond B-3 organ floating nearby, underscored by Tony Williams authoritative drum sound. Jack Bruce’s voice appears in a few seconds. “One with the sun… one with the moon… one with the stars… one with the birds…”

An instant of disbelief. How could this be? More than 25 years after I’d been thunderstruck in a field in Rhode Island, a quarter-century after a quartet nearly blew out the power in a high school auditorium, they were playing again.

It felt like a dream, like the morning I woke up listening to a fantastic, never-before-heard Beatles song interrupted when the alarm went off. It was ridiculous. I’d stopped hoping, and now, decades later, I was listening to it for the third time. I set the player on repeat, and listened to it, over and over, taking it apart, comparing it to my memory from two distant days.

The next morning, while it was still dark, I got up and went out for a run with a portable CD player, and listened to it for miles. I knew that no one would understand my happiness, the feeling of joy available only to teenagers in love, maybe to performing artists in the act of creation, or to a person in the grip of unreasonable elation. If I could share that feeling, I would. Wouldn’t you? Jack Bruce sang “one with the seas, one with the breeze, one with the sun…” and I ran faster.

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