Tag Archives: childhood

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.

The lost book

At school, I spent a lot of time in the library.  I could be dramatic and claim that I was hiding from this and that but I wasn’t.  I loved the silence, the dust motes, the smell of the shelves of slowly settling paper.  I loved the oddities and the books reserved for “Sixth  Form Only” (like Chekhov’s short stories. Why?)

I couldn’t claim to have read every book there but I read many of them.  I can recall a lot of the covers and writers (Andre Norton, for example, revisited earlier the autumn). It’s where I first read Moby Dick when I was thirteen (time I read it again) and Geoffrey or Heny Treece’s marvellous historical novels.  I also found a book of illustrations by science fiction artists of possible pictures of other planets.  This book I loved in particular and for one specific picture above all the others.

It was a landscape, a vision of a green, habitable planet.  Under a night sky of strange stars, oval domes with little glowing doorways sheltered recently arrived settlers.  The moon was different and there might have been two of them.  The planet was far, far away. A thousand light years from home.

It always looked like home to me.

Even now, I ache for that place, the strange stars, the grass that isn’t quite the texture or shade of own grass, a place with no other human beings save those I arrived with.  A place where I can stand outside my geodesic dome, look up and recognise nothing.

I can’t remember the name of the book. Perhaps it’s just as well.  Like the girl in the poem by Stevie Smith, I might be tempted to simply step in and walk away.