Growing up, my brother, Mike, was mad about his music. He’d lock himself downstairs in the basement of our home for hours cranking Jackson Browne, Leo Sayer and a whole lot of James Taylor.
We didn’t communicate much in those days, him a senior in high school, me, eight years younger, just a knot of nerves with nothing to say. But telepathy entered in through the music, and I grew as he grew because the music he played downstairs, because well, he didn’t hold back on the volume. Seemingly always there, before school and after, cutting through the gloom and good times in our home, the music Mike played reached me in ways that still influences me today.
The simple beats, the heavy thinking wordplay, the triumphant hero leveled by a life less given. These songs filled me with a kind of beautiful sorrow that I wanted to drink in, feeding me in ways that didn’t require a textbook or instruction by some equally unnerved individual with a hint of narcissism. There was much more to this music than just listening to it. It was a subculture, a new way of thinking where you didn’t ask for approval any longer. You stole your identity or you made it up, because nobody was going to knock on your front door and hand it to you. The pump, the emotion, the life force within all that music is what kept the wolves at bay for me.
One time I came home from school having been called “Rudolph” by nearly every person that passed me in the halls. A day earlier I had tried to lance a zit on my nose using a threading needle and a heavy splash of Brut Aftershave and ended up with a massive bleeding welt on the tip of my nose that lasted for weeks. The teasing I had to withstand was monumental, a mad force of cruelty. So, I went home, slapped some toothpaste on my open sore and hid inside my bedroom and listened over and over to one of Cheap Tricks’ greatest records, Live at Budokan and waited for the humiliation to subsided.
It worked. Nothing could reach me. Nothing but the music.
In the kitchen, as I tiptoed around my mother reaching for a bag of cold cuts and a tub of mayo in the fridge, the music my brother played that crashed through the basement door was never Top 40. Not progressive rock or metal either. Mike mostly liked the singer-songwriters. Like many of the ones from all around New Hampshire that I get to interview each week on my radio show “Granite State of Mind.”
Jackson Browne was smart, but a little too casual for me. His wordage was spot on, especially when I ingested hours of listening to one of my favorites by him, “Lives in the Balance.” Still, he just wasn’t a “deserted on an island” must to me. Leo Sayer was a party, a spectacle of sorts that inspired you to not give a darn what others thought. Just dance. Crank it up! And brother James Taylor with his long smooth fingers and perfect nasal pitch made me think of a home I didn’t know existed in Massachusetts.
Fire, rain, love, all of it shot up from the basement where Mike played the music of his life, the music that raised him up and separated him from the masses. I liked his approach to beating back the belittlement, we, at times, endured at home, so I adopted it. And although at the time Mike didn’t much like me outside of the required love an older brother must bestow upon his little squid of a brother, we had this silent understanding that music was one of the only ways out of this emotional roller coaster we lived in.
Degradation, manipulation, intimidation, they couldn’t touch us, not when the music was busy pumping hope and promise in our veins. Let that music, all those images, all those power chords and ballads, let them play heavy on your mind. This is what I told myself. Tenderness, anger, abandonment, all the classic themes of rock and roll, let them rattle inside your head, your heart, your mind, because they are there for a reason.
(Rob Azevedo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)