Have you ever seen the film Almost Famous? Do you recall that scene where a pre-teen William Miller (played by Michael Angarano) stands on the front lawn of the Eisenhower all-American dream home next to his overly protective mother, observing his older sister’s rebellion against what he considers to be a perfect familial setting? He struggles to comprehend his eighteen-year-old sister’s instinctive desire to break-free. Sean William Scott, an unknown at the time, encompasses the image of a late 60s rebel, loading boxes of his new girlfriend’s belongings (played by another unknown actress/singer at the time—Zooey Deschanel) into the trunk of his brand new Chevy. The sister looks back towards her old home, sympathizing with her confused little brother. She then approaches him, looking him (us, the lens) deadpan in the eye:
“One day, you’ll be cool,” she promises. The older sister then pulls her little brother close to her and whispers in his ear, “Look under your bed. It will set you free.” Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” plays in the background. A warm embrace ensues, before she runs to the car and her new life of freedom ‘on the road.’
Of course, for anyone who has seen the film, we all know what the little prodigy finds under his bed—a leather case full of LPs: Pet Sounds, Live Stones, Zeppelin II, Hendrix, Cream, Joni, Blonde On Blonde, and finally Tommy—which comes accompanied with a hand-written note from the older sibling that reads, “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will forever see your future.” Cut to high school five years later—William Miller is cool.
I was raised in a family of four children. But what made this extraordinarily interesting is how close in age the four of us were—only two years and eight months separate my older brother from my younger, my sister and I falling somewhere in between. Although together in high school for a few years, there was the one-year that my older brother and sister were part of the high school scene while my younger brother and I were still in grade school. It was during this time that my sister started dating some of the sophomores and juniors at the school, plunking her in the middle of my eldest’s renegade crew. I guess it is fair to say they began to discover music, if not together, at approximately the same time.
I can remember being in the eighth grade and inserting blank tapes my father had purchased into my parent’s stereo system in our family room to record directly off the radio, DJ overdubbed intro included. In 1989, it was all about listening to the Top Six at 6:00, aiming for chart-poppers “The Humpty Dance,” “Let Your Backbone Slide,” “On Our Own” (the new Bobby Brown track from Ghostbusters II), and “If I Had No Loot” by Tony! Toni! Toné!. My parents had this high-tech stereo system that was capable of such technology that our measly bedroom clock radios could not compete with. As I anticipated which songs I wanted to ‘tape,’ I’d fiddle with mixer and amp settings, my mother always there to remind me “not to mess anything up” on her beloved new stereo system.
I can also remember, once having captured such musical wonder, lying in bed late at night with my sister’s tiny tape recorder, playing Maestro Fresh Wes over and over and over again; furiously writing down lyrics so I could commit them to memory and rap along with him at the next Safety Patroller Dance, increasing the value of my ‘rad’ stock.
[To venture off course a little bit, I feel I must share what I just experienced: The power of memory is funny, or shall I say just pure incredible? As I wrote the last sentence I couldn’t resist the urge to go on Grooveshark to hear the said track. As soon as the first a cappella tri-lined rhyme came through my speakers (“This is a throw down, a show down. Hell no, I can’t slow down. It’s gonna go—down. First Offense…”) the words flooded back to me. Yes—twenty-one years later and I can still rap the entire song word for word. Embarrassing or empowering?]
Back to the point…
Somewhere during my days of imitating Canada’s newest and only hip-hop voice, I noticed a large collection of old records kicking about the same aforementioned stereo (which had an amplifier and mixer that hooked up to a brand new LP deck—just try to fathom the pure awesomeness of that technology!). I don’t remember the exact day I discovered the dusty cardboard sleeves kicking about, but I can remember as close as to the month it happened, and I can certainly remember the suspended moment in time, when I stopped, got onto the floor, and began thumbing through a canon so foreign to me I may as well have been looking at somebody else’s family photo album.
Who is this funny looking boy-faced man with dark Einstein hair and a motorcycle tee shirt? What’s with this glass prism on black, a light shining into one side and a rainbow coming out the other? Why is this black dude lighting his guitar on fire dressed like Merlin? What the hell is all of this?
You see, the four of us kids had an uncle, my mother’s younger brother, who had a DJ business in the seventies called Simple Motion. I later found out that my sister had contacted him asking to borrow some of his records as her own music-discovery was beginning to blossom (inspired by a long-haired, acoustic guitar-wheeling, high school senior named Jeff no doubt). All of a sudden I was surrounded by concepts and ideas I had never known existed. Sure I had heard the words “Bob Dylan,” “Neil Young,” “The Doors,” “Pink Floyd,” “The Velvet Underground,” and “Led Zeppelin” before, but they held as much weight as former Presidents and historical battlefields. Saying names like ‘Bob Dylan’ or ‘Neil Young’ was like saying ‘Lyndon Johnson’ or ‘Richard Nixon;’ hearing the couplet ‘Pink Floyd’ was no different than hearing ‘Agent Orange’ or ‘Green Beret;’ and locations like ‘Woodstock’ or ‘The Village’ were synonymous with places like ‘Normandy’ and ‘Vietnam.’ All of the above are terms a pre-teen knows to be historic and is aware he/she should recognize, but lacks the intelligence and knowledge to separate the meaning from the expected recognition.
Later that year (or perhaps it was the next) my older brother received the brand new Led Zeppelin Four-CD Boxed Set for Christmas. When he wasn’t home, I would sneak the discs out of his room to play upstairs through headphones so no one else would know I was stealing from my brother. At the same time, my sister continued to receive mixed tapes from older high school boys, compiled of more Dylan, CSNY, Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Paul Simon as if meant to impress and woo her (a courting tactic I would later imitate to a tee, while preying on the unaware desires of ninth grade female innocence). Her tapes too, I would sneak out of her room to hear while she was out discovering alcohol and bush parties.
Needless to say, that summer the curtains of pop-radio had forever been torn away from the window. I never went back to recording The Top Six at 6:00 again. Like Alice, I had fallen into the spiraling hole of musical Wonderland and began a downward tumble into the history of American sound. Unlike Alice, my fall was without flap and has yet to stop. It is more like a descent into the depths of an ocean with a diver-like grace. It isn’t head over heels panic, full of disillusionment, but rather natural and fluid, with the freedom to get off along the way and explore tunnels branching away from the core tube.
Currently, I am getting my master’s degree in the history of American music and I DJ on two different radio stations here in New York, as well as write on music for other numerous outlets. I am also applying for a Ph.D. in the same field. I can’t help but wonder where I would be if it wasn’t for my older brother and sister (and by association, uncle) placing that music right under my nose so many years ago. I think it is part of our nature to like the music one likes, the corner of pop culture one finds themselves in, is into the fashion, film, sports, or whatever someone admires, because of an older sibling influence. Adolescence wears that inseparable cloak called ‘impressionable’ for a long time before being able to shed it completely and waltz through society confidently naked. Naturally, younger brothers and sisters are out to earn the respect of an older one, and are constantly imitating that which they observe. For me, it was through music. If Greg and Kelly were going to listen to Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Dylan, then so was I.
Today, I am only left to take pride in the fact that they may now come to me for musical guidance. I just hope I don’t let them down and can offer them as many windows into happiness through music as they presented to me over twenty years ago. I can’t even begin to imagine what my life would be like today had I not “looked under my bed, to be set free.”
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– Kory French