I don’t know how many people can actually point to a single moment that changed their lives forever and for the better. Yes, many would point to traditional milestones such as a graduation, wedding day, the birth of their children, etc. All valid events and experiences, to be sure.
I’m talking about something different. Something that might be best termed, to quote Robert Fripp, a “point of seeing.” A singular experience that truly alters your life’s course, where you can look back on that point, that one moment in your life where “your earth” seemingly moved under you. Everything in your world, everything you know, the very lens in which you viewed the world forever changed because of that moment.
Many might cite a religious experience as fitting the bill described above. For me, it was a musical experience.
First, a little backstory…
As a pre-teen kid from around 1978 to 1980, my musical “sun” rose and set with KISS, a band I spent hours upon hours listening to, reading about and talking about. I drew their iconic logo on anything I could find, thumb-tacking any poster of them I could come across on my bedroom walls and ceiling, playing air guitar and drums to them, dressing up like one of them (Ace, circa “Dynasty”) for Halloween, and just staring at their album covers for hours on end. As a beginning drummer, I first picked up the basics of rhythmically separating both hands and feet playing along to “Strutter” while on a family vacation.
Despite this level of fandom, my level of music appreciation probably wasn’t too different from most kids growing up at that time. Having been born in the late 1960’s to parents who parents who kept a couple dozen albums – “Meet the Beatles” and “Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite” among others – in the record bin of their furniture-sized record player/stereo (yet didn’t really use it), I cut my musical teeth on late-70’s pop, AOR and disco that came across AM radio. Artists such as Styx, Foreigner, The Bee Gees, Cheap Trick, AC/DC, and a couple others were among my first active musical experiences as opposed to passive ones.
That all changed In the spring of 1981 in a Northern California suburb, when a kid two doors down from me invited me over one afternoon following school to hear some music from a band called Rush. I knew nothing of Rush save for an entry in a late-70’s World Almanac that showed a number of their albums going gold or platinum. That was it.
I walked into my friend’s parents’ family room, sat cross-legged on an off-white, plush carpet floor as he took out an album, placed on the turntable and sat down near me.
The next 4 minutes and 33 seconds changed me forever.
It was “Tom Sawyer,” the leadoff track from Rush’s new album, “Moving Pictures.”
The blend of instruments, how every instrument fit perfectly into this new (to me) music, the spacey sound that triggers throughout and, of course, a level of drumming I hadn’t heard before. It was rock and roll, yes, but the sound that spilled out of the stereo speakers was on a level of which I had no prior knowledge.
Without knowing anything about Rush, without knowing anything about the genre of music I was experiencing for the first time, I was hooked on this music.
I hadn’t even begun to decipher what was sung, but no matter; to paraphrase another quote of Fripp’s, “…music leaned over and took me into its confidence. I honestly can’t remember if my neighbor played it again after the first listen or not; for all I know, I probably went home in a daze.
Whenever I “came to,” I’m certain my first order of business was to ask my parents for some money so I could go to my small town’s record shop and see if they had “Tom Sawyer.” Despite it not quite being a Top 40 single in the U.S., it had been released as a single and the store had a copy in stock.
So, for the next month or so, I proceeded to listen to my “Tom Sawyer” 7-inch single over and over (not so much the B-side, “Witch Hunt,” at the time), never tiring of it and surely wearing out my family who heard the same song from my bedroom every weeknight and weekend.
Later, with school out and with some half-decent grades, I was rewarded with the opportunity to buy a couple albums and “Moving Pictures” was, of course, the only album I really cared about owning. The rest of my summer was mostly spent holed up in my bedroom, playing one side of “Moving Pictures” and then the other, over and over, every day.
With what was possibly my first album lyric sheet, I first memorized the lyrics to the six songs with vocals and later began to draw mental pictures of what Neil Peart wrote (with Pye Dubois’ help on “Tom Sawyer”) and what Geddy Lee sang, most of those pictures still vivid all these years later, available simply by playing any of the songs on the album…the “repeatable experience” that Peart has commented on.
I’ve never been able to recreate that first-listen experience, no matter how many hundreds times I played it again that year and the (likely) thousands of times I’ve heard it in the last 33 years. It was almost like the Nexus in “Star Trek Generations,” where Guinan explained to Captain Picard that being in the Nexus was like “being inside joy,” prompting one to do ANYTHING to get back to that place.
“Tom Sawyer” gave me my first exposure to a philosophy put to music:
“No his mind is not for rent…to any god or government.”
What a WAY of thinking for an impressionable teen! Only years of maturity keeps me from determinedly thrusting my fist into the air any time I hear that line sung.
“Red Barchetta” was the first telling of a short story put to music I had heard, “YYZ” was my first rock instrumental (rock bands PLAY instrumentals?) and “Limelight” seemed like the perfect side closer. Really, is there a better album side (of songs) in progressive rock? In all of rock?
“The Camera Eye” was the first epic I ever heard; the intro to it remains one of my all-time favorite intros. “Witch Hunt” initially served as a perfect soundtrack to drawing up AD&D adventures in my bedroom – yes, I was THAT kind of kid – and much later I came to really appreciate Alex Lifeson’s riffs on that track. Finally, while reggae was an unknown genre to me, I came to like “Vital Signs” as something different, more “digital” in the sequencers, shimmering chords and tight snare in the track – and boy, would we be treated to something different on their next album!
The front and back covers of “Moving Pictures” are legendary images to me, as are the sleeve notes, lyrics (down to the fonts) and the images of the band playing their instruments; until that point, the only pictures of them I saw were the ones from the “Tom Sawyer” single and I didn’t who played what!
Aside from being exposed to a couple Rush classics such as “Fly By Night” and “Working Man” – both doing almost nothing for me as they lacked the modern sounds and playing of “Moving Pictures,” my next Rush album was “Exit..Stage Left,” then I moved backwards to take in – in order – “2112,” “Permanent Waves,” “Hemispheres” and “A Farewell To Kings,” all before “Signals” came out in the fall of 1982.
“Moving Pictures” turned out to be the first of four albums that would define and dominate the soundtrack of my life: 1982 brought me “Asia,” in 1983, Yes’ “90125” was released and soon after I got my first listen to their previous masterwork, ‘Drama.” While these albums might not carry the same level of adoration for many that numerous progressive rock albums of the ’60’s and ’70’s do, they set me on a musical journey that continues today, pointing me towards a genre of music where MUSIC is valued above all else.
However, I can trace my love of music in general – which, to me, is like breathing – as well as anything I do musically, back to those 4 minutes and 33 seconds on a spring day in 1981, when I experienced “Tom Sawyer” for the first time…
…because you never forget your first time.