You don’t come of age in any measurable amount of time. Some people find they’re still passing through teenage well into their midlife crisis. Some find they never knew what teenage was to begin with.
Music was my barometric instrument for deducing some kernel of adulthood. I got a clock radio for Christmas, 1978. It was not digital.The numbers flapped down in imitation of a digital readout, but they were made of plastic. Sometimes they got stuck. The thing had a little one-inch radius speaker that blew the sound of tin when you raised the volume past halfway. What did I know about music? Donna Summer. Kiss. Rupert Holmes. If you like Pina Coladas…
My brother Jack had two and one half years on me. By the 80s, brother Jack was collecting records by the Rolling Stones and new wave false punkers, like the Police, and Elvis Costello. When a friend of his lent Jack a Ramones record, we both were saved. We chased each other around the house singing ‘Beat on the brat.’ But again, our choice had little to do in the matter. Punk was happening, New Wave had gone commercial. The radio spun sounds they knew would sell their advertisers fast and quick. We were demographics, and music was our mass marketed opiate.
I took to reading. For a few years, dyslexia had my reading skills on the ropes, so when I finally got it down pat, it was all I could do not to grab a book and switch on the radio. And man, I read fast. Books, magazines, pamphlets, cereal boxes, and liner notes.
The summer I turned eleven, I got a job rolling tennis courts.I kept it for five years. But at the age of eleven, I was too dense for any real meaning to be imparted from the experience. Most of the time I was pissed off because Jack never had to get a job, because our dad thought it would interfere with his athletics. Clearly, I was a different story. The old man thought my excess energy needed a proper outlet. So off I went each summer day to the tennis courts. And through work I discovered music magazines. At the time Rolling Stone was king. It would be a few years before Guccione jr. got his Penthouse publishing dad to bankroll Spin.
Rolling Stone was largely dedicated to all things pop rock, Madonna, the Clash, and Neo-Irish Christian boy wonders, U2. But sometimes an old musician would slip in a few hallowed words about jazz.
Originally my interest was piqued because I liked the way the letters looked on paper. J-A-Z-Z. It was like this made up word. I was thirteen when I asked my mom about it. She spun round and looked at me like I’d just solved racial inequality.
What do you know about jazz, she wanted to know. I shook my head.
I don’t. That’s why I’m asking.
She didn’t have any answers. Jazz to her was more of a mystical place, not something you could pinpoint with latitudinal lines, or a radio dial, somewhere well past Ella sings Cole Porter. And those records were where she left off.
Eventually, I heard John Coltrane’s name. I don’t know if it was the time of his first re-issues, or just that I had fine-tuned my internal radio to catch those brilliant waves, but, suddenly everywhere I went, someone was talking John Coltrane. First thing I discovered was that Coltrane was dead, had been since 1967. Here I was, sixteen years after the fact. Still it was patently obvious that the rock world lauded its dead icons with hagiographical esteem. Posters of Saints Jim, Jimi, and Janis hung on dorm room walls, coast to coast, continent to continent. Sure, they were only names to me, but they were names festooned with the harvest of idolatry. Applying the same kind of reverence to Coltrane seemed logical enough. People like to listen to music by dead people.
One night, instead of heading straight home from the courts, I pedaled off to the local record and tape store, deep in the midst of summer, the sky still light as I entered. I beelined for the the small section of jazz cassette tapes. Running my finger over the rack, I was surprised to find such supposedly revered music covered in a film of dust. Then my fingers landed on a used copy of “The Best of John Coltrane” on a label I had never heard of called Pablo. I snatched it up, and ran to the counter, paid for it, and was back on my bike with the sunlight just dimming overhead.
Once home, I brushed past the rest of my family, and headed upstairs.
I can admit a few things, some twenty-seven years later. Up in my room, I went for the liner notes. There weren’t any. That coupled with the cheap picture on the cover, and the fact that there were only six songs, well, my spirit spiraled downward. $3.99 plus tax was still a big chunk to me back then. A full twelfth of my take home. At the time I equated crisp packaging with good music. This was the dark age before digital downloads. The heft of a cassette tape, the fold out paper spoke to me in the same way a partially exposed thigh did.
Curiosity had the better of me. I had one of those portable tape players Sony pretended to have invented. The supposedly waterproof model I owned wore a bright plastic housing around its machinery, and was the size of those old McDonald’s styrofoam hamburger boxes. I slipped the tape into the canary colored machine, and put the headphones into position. Slowly some tape hiss took over. Our Great Dane was barking. I could hear Mom struggling to silence the dog when the music started.
This was definitely a different sound. The kind of sound that shuts out the rest of the world, like a photographer stopping down to better highlight the subject. I closed my eyes to let my ears divine the way. There was no 4/4 beat to grab cadence cues from, no angular guitars or synthesized rhythm track for guidance. Instead, the bass and drums and piano created a quilted fabric that floated on the wind of Coltrane’s virtuosic horn lines. But somewhere inside, I knew this jazz music was the sound commercial minded executives no longer wanted to embrace because of its stark individuality. That excited me. As Coltrane’s Afro Blue came to a close, the chiming of Coltrane’s saxophone colliding down a staircase built out of the meshed drum and bass work, lit by the pianist’s tinkering, I fell in love with the sound of jazz.
The Pablo release has a little history of its own. It wasn’t actually a ‘best of.’ In point of fact, it was selections from a live show Coltrane’s celebrated Quartet made in 1963, on tour in Europe. One of the songs lasted for almost eighteen minutes. I remember nodding maniacally as the pace changed, as the horn lines switched to rumbled bass riffs, as the cadence rippled dynamically down the back of my spine while the song swung through its seemingly endless changes. Bye Bye Blackbird.
And I was gone. Right there with them.
Later that night, excitement bore me on. I simply could not resist the urge to introduce my brother to this beautiful music. Such was its beauty I was blind to the truth. The truth was, brother Jack wore Izod alligator shirts, collars popped, underneath of striped oxford button downs. The truth is, he spent TIME on his hair. He proudly bragged how some girls had compared him to Michael Pare (Eddie and the Cruisers!) The truth is, I should have known better.
You have to listen to this John Coltrane tape, I said, trying to sound sophisticated.
Oh yeah, what label is he on?
Pablo, I said as shame blanched my cheeks for some unknown reason.
It’s jazz, I offered.
Oh, then no, he said, and went back to his mirror and comb.
We were at that age where what you looked like, and what you listened to were golden tickets for social interaction. A special kind of currency. That’s one dark fucking place to bank. Some people never make it back out of there. Instead, they send their fingers down the spines of your LP collection, shamelessly inspect the racks of your CDs, and snoop through your iPod for suspect songs, ready to silently reduce your quotient of cool. Only, these jackals traded not in music but in social acceptance, which was, at the time, not very strong in me. Music was.
So I ignored any modicum of restraint, and slipped my headphones onto Jack’s head, pressing play before he could react. He stared at me dumbly for about a minute. Then he swatted the Walkman to the floor.
It’s shit, don’t listen to that, he said slamming the door in my face.
But, I stammered, my Walkman. The door cracked open. His foot kicked it back to me.
Jazz just was not acceptable. Not in my brother’s crowd, which at the time was the crowd I thought the most of. Older, athletic, bronzed by the sun, these were the blessed elite, the dealmakers of our future. But it was acceptable me, and I stood at the cusp of a major decision. Could I embrace the unembraceable? More importantly, could I risk becoming a social outcast? Jazz sounded ok to me, I reasoned. In fact, it sounded better than ok. Better than any music I’d ever heard on B-104, and 98 Rock. My resolve had little backbone, and I quickly second-guessed myself. I knew that I liked the idea of tight ensemble jazz exploring the edges of creation a whole lot better than I liked stentorian men in tortoise shell horned rimmed glasses, and dark charcoal striped suits with pleated trousers telling me what I should be listening to. But what did a thirteen year old suburban kid know about music?
And so, I packed that Pablo cassette tape away, and did no further explorations in jazz until I made it off to college.
But ever so often, if the night became complicated by lonesome fits of uncertainty, I’d break out my old yellow songster, and click play, opening up the night skies with Coltrane’s inscrutably perfected horn lines charting the way.