What music did you first listen to? (Ritual and initiation)

Tara over at Sticky Fingers posted an intriguing question – “What music did you grow up with?” Unsurprizingly, I’ve got a lot to say on the subject but I’m sticking to two points of time – the first rock album I bought into the house and the first record I remember hearing and feeling.

My parents were not musical and music was not an important part of their lives. They owned a piano (which my equally unmusical sister inherited) and my father could play one tune on it – a show tune of some kind. I didn’t get lessons until I was eleven, by which time it was too late to establish any good practising habits.  We did own records, however – Bing Crosby, South Pacific, ‘Music For Pleasure’ light classical (like Handel’s water Music). Later, my mother got into racier stuff like John Denver and Sky – I think it was a genuine effort to try and connect with me at some level as an adolescent as I spiralled into more and alien sounds and spaces, out of their reach. I tried as well – John Denver had some pretty good tunes and latterly, thanks to Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon fame, a measure of credibility. But it didn’t work.  The damage – my damage, good damage – had been done when I was thirteen. I wrote about it on my old blog when I attempted to recapitulate my entire listening life one album at a time:

In 1976, I was thirteen and someone else in Scouts lent me a home-dubbed cassette tape of Hawkwind’s Space Ritual (which was actually released in 1973).  I was already a fanatical science fiction fan so the song titles (‘Space is Deep’, ‘Orgone Accumulator’, ‘Welcome to the Future’…) resonated but it was safe to say that in a house that routinely switched off Top of the Pops and which regarded the Rolling Stones as the veritable incarnation of evil (“What must his poor father think?” my father would say, every time Mick Jagger’s face appeared in the Daily Mail), no-one in my family had ever heard anything remotely like this. I remember listening to it on a tiny little player in the kitchen.  It was the most marvelous noise I had ever heard in my my life.  It was also thoroughly, repulsively offensive to my father and mother who couldn’t understand why anyone could claim this cycling, droning, pulsing melange of heavy metal and the BBC Radiophonics Workshop could be something you could hum.

“That’s not music.”

Oh yes it was.

I dug it out again recently and it still has a kind of primal, blunt instrument power the equal of anything early Black Sabbath issued but with a quicksilvery blur and velocity that’s pure punk rock. Large quantities of amphetamines probably played a supporting role.  ‘Born To Go’ erupts out of a nest of space rock noise (Tangerine Dream’s entire oeuvre compressed into thirty seconds).  And then it gets better.  ‘Down Through The Night’ invents freak folk thirty years early. ‘Brainstorm’ sets the template for black metal. And so on and on.  Brain-melting stuff for a thirteen year old catholic boy whose sole previous rock form had been a Music For Pleasure covers album of Bill Haley standards.

It’s the literal truth to declare that this was the album that changed my interior landscape forever.  I haven’t played it to dudelet yet and in any case, he’ll have to find his own ‘Space Ritual’.  Wonder what it’ll be?

A year later (have I really only been doing Dad Who Writes since May?), I find nothing in this to disagree with. But is isn’t the earliest memory I have.  That would be this.

I was sleeping on the sofa in our living room in a 1940s house*  in a seaside town in the north (not Blackpool).  It was summer, I’m sure of that, the same summer that we’d had to repel repeated invasions of ant armies.  My father had tried to hunt down all the nests in the cracks around our house and drown them in boiling water but evidently the ants had deep, catastrophe-proof shelters as they kept coming back. I would wake up to find the sofa and my legs covered in ants.  I don’t know why I was sleeping down there – perhaps we had visitors or my room was being redecorated.  The sofa was rough, coarse nylon and grey as old tarmac.

One morning I must have been waking from a fever when I heard what I later tracked down as being Donovan’s ‘Jennifer Juniper’.  “Jennifer/Juniper/Flowers in her hair” and so on.  I’m pretty sure this dates it as being when I was four and a half.  I didn’t want to rush off and buy a guitar – that came later. My response, struggling to retrieve it as I sit here and try and project myself backwards through more than forty years into that space, that tiny, fevered little body – my body – was a sensual one.  I felt grass and heat and saw a little girl, my age, a friend.  She was the first romantic template or archetype I became aware of and for a while after that, every time I met another girl my age I wanted to be closer friends with in the innocent way of small children, the song would murmur in my head.  I suspect it still does.

I remember reading** in Margot Adler’s classic account of modern occultism, paganism and witchcraft, Drawing Down The Moon,  about how she witnessed an initiation ceremony that seemed tawdry and unspiritual to her yet how at the conclusion of the ceremony the girl being initiated was glowing with empowerment and wonder.  The initiation is our own, deeply personal business and the source of it is irrelevant – it’s the power it can take on internally that count.  Girls Aloud, Led Zeppelin, Happy Mondays, Sam Cooke, Steeleye Span – it doesn’t matter. Something of that rhythm, melody, the vibrating force of the human voice gets under your skin and you are never the same again.  And initiations, as my experience at thirteen shows, can happen over and over, at any point in your life when you need them.  Perhaps we should seek them out more often.

Anyway. Donovan and Hawkwind, the cornerstones of my musical sensibility. Funny what sticks.

*Identical to the one in the Imperial War Museum – it always makes me tear up when I visit.

**Reading twenty years ago and this is from memory, by the way.


About Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

Writing, reading, listening, parenting... On Twitter as @dadwhowrites. View all posts by Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

18 responses to “What music did you first listen to? (Ritual and initiation)

  • Mwa

    I love Donovan. Highly underappreciated. “Little Tin Soldier” was one of my favourites when I was a kid. (I was a bit serious.)

  • Fran

    The Beatles, the Beatles, the Beatles for me. My mum had me at 16 and was really just a teenybopper. I remember watching her singing all the words off by heart and wondering just how she did that.

  • BugginWord

    I LOVE that John Denver qualifies as “racy.” Donovan was a big one for me, too. I still feel like a giddy kid when I hear Riki Tiki Tavi.

  • Tara@Sticky Fingers

    Oh wow. I love memory-driven posts like this. “It was the most marvelous noise I had ever heard in my my life” – love it.
    Thanks for picking up the theme (and writing it so much better than me, goddam you) x

  • Mizmell

    Ah music! My youngest game me satellite radio for Christmas last year and it has made my hour commute bearable! I keep it on Classic Vinyl and relive my youth daily listening to The Doors, Lynrd Skyrd, Beatles, Rolling Stones and the like.
    My early remembrances were probably Elvis–my mother was one of nineteen and her younger brothers were teens and big Elvis fans when I was in elementary school. My two older sisters introduced the Beatles and the Doors. That speaks volumes about my youth, doesn’t it?
    The first young man I dated was a big Allman Brothers fan. He was a musician and played a great deal off James Taylor and Jim Croce. (Incidentally, that’s the man I am married to NOW)
    These days, I prefer Eva Cassidy and early John Mayer or Alicia Keys…

    • dadwhowrites

      Musicians. Enough said.

      You might want to check out the Bower Birds and (especially) Neko Case. I missed out on all that classic stuff as a backdrop because my parents thought it wa immoral or listened to by ‘the rabble’.

  • J

    My mom tells me I used to ask for side two of The Beatles ‘Revolver” before I could talk. I remember singing along to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” in 1st or 2nd grade, though I had the lyrics wrong. I can listen to them every day, and not get tired of it. Really.

    I remember listening to Abbey Road over and over again whilst babysitting my cousins, though that was the late 70s or early 80s. So I maybe came to it late (and early), but my favorite is the Beatles.

    BTW, my mom saw them in concert at thair last live performance, Candlestick Park near San Francisco. She said they were just four tiny guys that you couldn’t hear because of the screaming of the fans. Quite different from today’s big screens and LOUD speakers, right? She won the tickets on the radio. Nice.

    • J

      Oh, and appropriately enough, my FIRST concert was Simon and Garfunkel. Truly awesome. My next concert a few weeks later was The Police, The Fixx, The Thomson Twins, Madness, and Oingo Boingo. It was years later that I finally realized that concerts could suck. Because those first two really flavored my experience.

      • dadwhowrites

        The Police at the height of their origin pomp must have been pretty impressive. I saw the Thompson Twins when I was working behind the bar in a nightclub and they were filming something. We were told on pain of firing not to talk to the mighty celebrities. Who were unbelievably short.

  • lifeslightlyused

    That is Brilliant and beautiful – Inspirational too. I’m such a lyrics girl. Thats what I’ve always been attracted to in music…Hmmm…might have to write one of these myself, although I don’t think Neil Diamond or Madonna had much of an impact on my actual musical tastes….

    • lifeslightlyused

      oh – I remembered – the first song I related to was “Mull of Kentire” and one that had lyrics that ran something like “and if she asks you why tell her theres rainbows in the sky, castle walls…” any ideas?
      I loved, loved, loved those – the words resonated deeply and made me melecholy although I wouldn’t have recognised that feeling then.

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  • nonlineargirl

    The two records that stick with me from childhood are Fats Waller (I think the album was Ain’t Misbehavin’) and James Taylor (greatest hits). These aren’t ones I picked from a store, but they were ones we played all the time (from my parents’ record collection). Still very important records for me.

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