Near where I grew up there’s a place where the Mississippi River is narrow enough for a ten-year-old boy to step across.
And I did so, as many times as I could, because it’s not often that a young boy gets to dominate something as huge and powerful as that river. I don’t know if I gave any thought to the city at the other end of the river’s 2500-mile run, but it’s a pretty thought now, looking back, that I might have pictured New Orleans, the French Quarter, Bourbon Street and the bawdy back alleys where so much American mythology was born.
I know that late at night, after all my brothers and sisters had gone to bed, and I should have, too, I would listen to the family’s old AM radio, a hefty wooden tabletop model, and the sound of those Louisiana musicians would come bouncing up from down there, ricocheting off – what? – clouds, or the ionosphere, I don’t know, but I knew then that in the night, AM radio traveled farther. Mysterious and riding waves of static, fading in and out, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Professor Longhair, Freddie Cannon, Fats Domino, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Ernie K-Doe… Magical voices that sang in a strange tongue of village queens and gris-gris, and played with a wild laid-back freedom that thrilled the kid that I was, bent over the table with my ear to the speaker.
In the daytime I listened to the local rock stations, although they probably weren’t called that then: KDWB (Channel 63, went the jingle) and WDGY, known as “Weegee.” I fell in love with Patsy Cline on the school bus. I had no idea what she meant, but she was crazy for tryin’, crazy for cryin’, and when I heard her haunting voice, so was I. For some reason which I didn’t understand, kids had powerful loyalties to one station or the other. You were classified by which one you listened to. I just switched stations to the one that was playing the best music at any particular moment, which made both groups mistrust me. But I didn’t know, so I didn’t care.
Later as a teenager in Los Angeles, the stations were KRLA and KFWB. In ninth grade I had a tiny transistor radio and I carried it everywhere. “What’s Your Name?” by Don and Juan, “Surfin,” Gene McDaniels’ “Tower of Strength.” I was new in town, and for a while I had no human friends. All my friends were in my radio, and they carried me through that first lonely year.
Suddenly it was The English Invasion. Elvis disappeared for a while, returning later as a bloated caricature. Beatles, Stones, Animals, Zombies, Pacemakers, so much action on the airwaves, these guys practically grabbed me by the throat and forced me to pick up the guitar. It was then that I made the transition from listening to making music. I became a player, but I never stopped being a fan.
We are all into different kinds of music, different styles, different artists, but I think what we love, what we call our music can be traced back to what was the soundtrack of our lives during the formative years, the teens and twenties. We become citizens of the world during those precious years, and we are open to new sounds and sure that we are right about everything, and the music embeds itself and stays with us for the rest of our lives. Each new generation identifies with some particular strain, and all the rest of us call it noise, and go back to our favorites.
Listen to your kids’ music. Really. And listen to your parents’ music. I’m serious. We are all people, and in our music we have been saying the same things for millenia. We come at it in slightly different ways each generation, but only slightly, and in these songs we celebrate, we mourn, we teach and learn.
Right now it’s the middle of the night, and I think I can hear, somewhere way down the river, Little Willie John singing “Sleep, Sleep, Sleep.”