When Larry showed up at my house that day, I could tell he was excited. He had an 8-track tape in his hand and he insisted we go listen to something immediately.
The album was called “Song for America” and it was by a band I’d never heard of — called Kansas.
We were about 16 years old at the time. I had grown up in a home without much access to popular music. The only music I knew was my father’s old albums and the rare newer album he might buy. He didn’t like rock music — or anything that sounded more subversive than Frank Sinatra.
I had known Larry for most of my life. His musical experiences were completely opposite of mine. His father was a Baptist preacher and his mother played the church piano, but he was exposed to a wide variety of music — and he was determined to help me understand what was so great about some of what he was listening to.
Now, he had discovered the second album by Kansas — and he was at my house like a missionary, eager to share the gospel of great music with his friend who was lost in musical unbelief.
We went back to the den of the little house where we lived on Sixth Avenue in Jasper, Ala., and popped the tape into the player. He chose the second track of the album, a 10-minute epic called “Song for America.”
As the guitars and synthesizers swirled around us, I felt as though it was something like a religious experience for Larry. The beauty of the music took him somewhere else for those minutes. We didn’t talk.
I wish I could say that I immediately got the music, but I didn’t. I didn’t have the musical foundation. I was trying to skip too many steps — from simplistic and unchallenging music I was accustomed to all the way to powerful and sophisticated music which I wasn’t ready for. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t able to experience it as great or special. It was just a very long song to me.
Over the next few years, my musical horizons opened more and more. It started with listening to top 40 radio in the car now that I was old enough to drive. That wasn’t sophisticated music, but it was slowly teaching me to appreciate serious music.
The first “serious” song that I discovered for myself wasn’t that sophisticated for anyone else. It was mainstream pop, but Paul Simon’s “My Little Town” seemed to touch something inside me which was hard to explain. It wasn’t just music. It was something that touched my heart and made me identify with something in it — even if I had trouble knowing why. On my long walks in the evening, I thought about the song and thought about how honest that song sounded — and how it felt as though it could somehow be about my own little town.
I discovered Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” and somehow recognized something wistfully familiar in the feelings of the story, even if nothing in the narrative was anything like my own life.
At some point in my early teen years, my younger sister got an Olivia Newton-John album called “If You Love Me, Let Me Know.” (For our family, just wanting such an album was an act of rebellion.) To me, it was just a random pop album, but it was my first experience of being able to listen to a modern album all the way through over and over.
I still wanted to prefer the music my father told me that we liked — because I was programmed to please him — but my defenses were slowly weakening. I was learning to love pop music, at least the simpler kinds.
As we went through high school and college, Larry continued to share music with me that I needed to hear. He had a great ear for music and recognized greatness far before I possibly could. He recommended Queen and Electric Light Orchestra and Blue Oyster Cult — and far more — before I’d heard of any of them. Even though I was fully immersed in the pop music world, my tastes were too immature yet for the better music he was pushing me toward.
And then one day I had a religious experience of my own.
I had heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” before, but it had never clicked with me. That changed one day as I worked in a newspaper darkroom while I was in college. I had been in the dark developing film and printing photos as I listened to a radio. Then this song started — and it was as enough I was hearing something for the first time.
I still didn’t know what the song meant — at least as far as the lyrics went. I still don’t. Even today, I don’t know what it means to anybody else. But on that day, the genius of the song got through to me. Somehow, I got it.
I turned the music up as loud as I could and I felt something important — something spiritual — flow through me and carry me away. I finally experienced something like what I’d seen Larry experience that day with “Song for America.”
It was a turning point for me. I was still a baby in the musical sense, but I got more and more adventurous in the years to come. And music was a “gateway drug” for me into art. It was the beginning of letting the experience of beauty and creativity change me.
Music has changed me over the years. The experience of other art has done the same. But it’s hard to say that anything changed my ability to experience true beauty as much as the experience of learning how to listen to good modern music.
I’m thankful that Larry was patient enough to keep pushing me to expand my horizons. I’m grateful that he was talented enough and had good enough taste to show me what was worth learning to appreciate. (His college degree was in music theory/composition. He’s one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever known.)
So thanks for being patient with me, Larry. I was a little slow, but I finally got it. Thank you.