The best thing about a big house was that my wife and I could keep all our toys downstairs. That left us blissfully ignorant of the mess a constant flow of teenagers created upstairs. But it was getting close to the holidays and it fell to me to make that long climb to assess the damage.
I found Chris in the game room on the PC. He was surrounded by the usual assortment of plates and glasses, but on the whole the room and its assorted tech gadgets were faring pretty well. In the midst of giving him a hug I noticed a curious screen on the PC.
“What are you up to?” I queried.
“Nothing much. Searching for a song on Napster. I know how it goes but I don’t know the name. It’s frustrating,” he replied.
Out loud I said, “Gee, I’ve heard of Napster but I’ve never used it. Can you show me what your doing?”
But inside my fire roared, “Fuck, Fuck, Fuck, FUCK!!!” I’d let my son wander into a mind field not even knowing there was a fucking war!!!
I was nine on Christmas day. Technically nine and a half but that was just because my cousins were in town and Philip was a few years older. Adding the half helped me feel a little more in his league.
Christmas was always a big day for me and my two brothers. This year however, with my two cousins, aunt, uncle, and grand parents in town, the sight was completely mind boggling. Dazzling ’70s colored boxes spilled out from under the tree to fill the entire living room. Somewhere in that pile, I just knew, was the one thing I wanted more than any other. A shiny new radio.
Transistor radios were oh so cool! The Japanese had turned stodgy old AM tech into a colorful mod rage. Panasonic advertisements were all over TV with everyone dancing and singing to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. I wanted to find it, tune it, crank it and go running through the neighborhood blasting tunes to call out my friends.
It’s an ironic sort of torture opening one cool toy after another while waiting impatiently for your ultimate wish. Finally, making it seem almost like an oversight, my father handed me one last gift. It was surprisingly heavy, but I just knew that it must be the one!
I tore into the paper but didn’t find what I’d expected. Instead of a svelte blue Toot-A-Loop I found a large, somewhat clunky looking wood grained box. It had knobs buttons and dials all over it. I had no idea what to make of it.I guess my face sagged a little because both my parents and Phil came over to explain. It was both an AM and an FM radio. “AM’s dying, FM’s the way of the future! But there’s more! It also has a built in cassette recorder and a hand microphone! You can make your own recordings and play them back! It’s the latest, greatest, coolest tech available! None of your friends will have one!”
I knew they were right. It was Texas. My friends got safe toys like guns and machetes. My parents, on the other hand, discouraged us from playing war. Only my twelve year old, slightly precocious, cousin seemed to recognize the irony.
As the festivities wound down and I sat intently figuring out my strange new box, Philip came over and said in his geeky way, “Important safety tip! Don’t record music. It’s illegal!” I laughed. It seemed silly to propose that a kid could push a button on a radio and break the law. “No,” he assured me, “It’s true!” He was never one to joke about geeky things. “There’s this thing called copyright. Only musicians are allowed to make copies.”
Explained by a preteen, copyright seemed both vague and far fetched. I’d no idea what to make of his warning. I’d broken my share of rules but those were just family guidelines. As a nine year old *illegal* was way out of my league. Yet, I saw little reason to worry. It was simple enough to comply. I hadn’t even wanted a tape recorder. No sense making a federal case over it. All the music I’d ever need came right over the airwaves. That was the entire point of a radio.
Parents don’t send you to bed because you’re tired. They send you to bed because they’re tired. Unfortunately for me, they got tired just before “The Odd Couple” came on TV. After losing a whining fit to stay up late, an idea popped into my head. I put the cassette recorder in front of the TV, leaned the microphone near the speaker, and pressed record just before quietly going up to bed.
The plan worked brilliantly. My parents left the gizmo alone and I came down in the morning and replayed Oscar and Felix before school. I thought it was the coolest thing! I replayed it so many times I could parrot back the dialog.
That was my first personal salvo in the war. Of course, I’d no idea I had fired a shot. It must have missed because both Felix and Oscar came back on TV the very next week.
I wouldn’t actively take up arms for more than a month.
“Who’s Mashevie?” Eddy asked.
“It said, drove Mashevie to Dalevie but Dalevie was dry.”
Eddy had moved from France a couple of years before. He still stumbled on the occasional English phrase. I had to admit that this time it was justified.
“Drove MY Chevy to THE levee, but the levee was dry.” A levee is a kind of dam to stop floods,” I clarified.
Don McLean’s “American Pie” was both my favorite song and a maddening nemesis. I could sing the refrain by heart, but at eight and a half minutes long, I found it impossible to grasp all the words. We all knew the song was deeply symbolic,
“We sang George is in the dark.”
“The Beatle guy, with Lennon.”
“No, it’s Lenin and Marx. The communists.”
but since my friends and I could never agreed on the lyrics, its meaning became a constant source of arguments.
I couldn’t go anywhere without catching a few of its notes. It seemed to be the soundtrack to life in 1973. Rarely, however, was I able to listen to the song in its entirety. Eight plus minutes meant it rarely played in the AM top 40 rotation. “Try those FM hippie stations,” Eddy had suggested.
I flipped the switch and scanned the FM dial. Sure enough two thirds through the high band there it was. “…Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie…” we sang reflexively. It was halfway through as always but at least now I knew where it lived.
I’d spent only two days on the upper band, but I could tell I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. “F M ——no static at all,” Steely Dan would later sing. This had to be Oz. At first listen everything sounded bright and clear. Yet venture inside and the world seemed fiery and dark. I knew I’d felt my face, already ghostly, turn a whiter shade of pale.
Then suddenly I flushed. No it was more than that. I had goosebumps. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!
Time to pay the bills, but hang around cool cats. Coming up in the next hour, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Roundabout from Yes, some Baba O’Riley, Eagles and a little of Don McLean’s Pie for dessert. Stay tuned!
Yes, finally! Hey? No. Could I? No. But? No, it’s ill… Well, maybe it’s not? I’d never actually double checked. Nobody else had mentioned it. Phil’s not in charge. Hum, better do it quietly just-in-case.
My radio took six D batteries so it normally sat unloaded and plugged in on the shelf. This, however, was way too risky to do inside. I clicked the bedroom door shut and silently flipped the radio over. I gently pressed each battery into place as if loading a rifle clip. I slung the radio over my shoulder, tiptoed down the stairs, and slipped silently out the back door. The backyard had an area behind the garage where we kept a camping trailer. There I’d get clear reception, but no one would be able to see or hear me.
I set the radio on the trailer’s step, gently raised the antenna and twisted the switch. “…don’t need to fight, to prove I’m right. I don’t need to be forgiven.” I listened impatiently waiting for my moment.
The recorder has a safety just like a rifle. To make a recording you had to press down both the record and play levers at the same time. They said it was to prevent me from recording over my treasures accidentally. But at that moment I saw a different truth. It was so they’d know I was doing this deliberately.
“…got a world of trouble on my mind…” My heart was pounding a million beats a minute. My fingers rested gently on the twin levers. “Take it easy, take it easy…”
“Don’t let the sound…” the levers made a soft click as they started the reels. “…make you crazy.”
If I was going to break a law, I was going to get every second.
Somewhere out west a record executive fell. He’d never even seen it coming. His compatriots went on to call this, “The day the music died.”
I felt certain of these things years later when I saw them hoist their banner.