The Music Time Machine

Music can heal the wounds which medicine cannot touch.” – Debasish Mridha

The opening drum roll lead-in is brief, but it lays down the skeletal framework for the hard rock onslaught to come. Drummer Frankie Banali’s rattling intro slams headlong into Carlos Cavazo’s chunky guitar chords and bassist Chuck Wright’s muscular rumble (Rudy Sarzo was the official bassist, but he did not play on the track). Banali and Wright lock down the bottom end as Cavazo hammers out meaty blasts of chordage that give way to vocalist Kevin DuBrow’s fiendish wail. 

As “Metal Health,” from Quiet Riot’s 1983 multi-million selling album of the same name, erupts from the speakers, part of an ’80s playlist that spins often in my house, I’m immediately transported back to my early teens, a time of rebellion, discovery and high anxiety. It was the age of confusion, a hellacious moment that felt like it would never end; a day felt like a week, a week like a month (and so on). I was a kid who wanted nothing more than to be older and free from the shackles of youth. 

My hard rock addiction had recently taken hold, and Quiet Riot had quickly become a favourite. “Metal Health” was a battle cry for the damned, or at least teenagers balking at the authority of adult overlords like teachers, parents and anyone else we felt was old and out of touch. We were young and ready to take on the world, not realizing we were anything but. Few of us had jobs (I worked part time for my mother’s cleaning company), fewer still were old enough to drive. 

Music, at least for junkies like me, can often act as a time machine. Certain songs strip away the years and carry us back to epochal moments in our life. When “Metal Health” comes on, I’m suddenly thirteen again, trapped in an endless loop of anxiety. Both my school and home lives are more than unpleasant. My parents, stuck in a barely breathing and highly dysfunctional marriage, are too messed up to realize each of their three boys is turning to illegal substances to numb the pain. 

“Metal Health” echoed from every corner of the free world, even down the hallways at school. I can close my eyes and see the building as it stood back then, before a fire eventually gutted large parts of it. The long cement structure housed students from kindergarten to grade 12 and spanned several blocks. Despite being connected, the schools were split into sections: elementary, junior high and high school. It was a dead zone, a soulless indoctrination centre for me and those like me; we might as well have been locked up in Alcatraz. 

If school was a nauseating experience – one I cover in greater detail in my blog A Nickel In San Quentin – my home life wasn’t much better. Mom and dad were trapped in an endless loop of their own, one of misery and pain. Moments of joy were few and far between. It was music that got me through the dark days. While I was drinking and experimenting with dope at the time, music was still my drug of choice. 

When I was twelve, the Anne Murray hit “Snowbird” was the best song in the whole world as far as I was concerned (it remains a favourite to this day). Written by Gene MacLellan, the song finds the singer narrating the heartbreak of a lonely soul who longs to fly away and leave behind the never ending hurt of unrequited or unfaithful love. The lyrics might have been beyond my comprehension at the time, but the song touched my young heart; I would sing it over and over. 

When I listen to “Snowbird” today, I’m dispatched to my twelve year-old body and a place known as the Snodgrass House – Snodgrass being the last name of the people who owned the home my family rented (one of many we occupied during our time in Alberta). The red faux brick building had a main floor and attic-like upstairs. There were rental units around the back of the house and in the basement, although I don’t recall any of the tenants who lived in them. 

The Snodgrass House is where I had my first kiss. A pretty young blonde in my class stole my heart and, one afternoon out behind the garage, we locked lips in what was then an explosive moment of ecstasy. It was like nothing I’d ever felt before. You can only experience something like that once. The only thing that came close to matching that feeling, many years later, was cocaine. Once I learned to play guitar and sing, I found something even more powerful. 

A kind lady, the wife of the transport truck owner my dad drove for at the time, typed out the lyrics to “Snowbird” for me while we lived in the Snodgrass House. I cherished those lyrics; read them over and over again. A year or so later I made my first attempt at writing a song (after we’d moved on from the Snodgrass House). The late Gene MacLellan and his oft recorded composition was one of the things that made me want to become a songwriter. 

“Snowbird,” despite it’s sadness, takes me on a journey of joy when I hear it. That first kiss. Our Collie Laddie. The Christmas spent at the Snodgrass House when my parents bought me the racetrack I coveted, a Tyco set that arrived with cars missing. I have a polaroid of me and my dad sitting on the floor a few days later (after we’d gone to the store and bought cars) racing. Laddie, who would soon be shipped off to a farm outside of town, can be seen in the background. 

Music replays the past memories, awakens our forgotten worlds and make our minds travel.” – Michael Bassey Johnson

“Shootin’ at the walls of heartache, bang, bang/I am the warrior.” If you grew up in the ’80s, these lyrics are familiar. Sung by the golden-voiced (and sexy as hell) Patty Smyth, lead singer of the group Scandal, a band that briefly featured a young New Jersey musician by the name of Jon Bon Jovi on guitar, “The Warrior” is another throwback playlist gem that sets my mind on a crash course with the past. Some songs kindle cozy emotional fires, this one ignites a raging inferno. I loved (and still love) it. 

Smyth struts all over a typical ’80s arrangement of over-driven guitars, thumping bass and a straight four-four drum beat. The sultry singer’s silky vocals soar above the unforgettable melody. The chorus and lyrics might be a little silly and simple in nature, but combined with the bands razor-sharp delivery and Smyth’s passionate performance, the track is an addictive piece of ear candy that still hits me straight in the groin decades after it was released.

I was fourteen years old, living in a small two bedroom apartment with my brothers and parents, the same apartment we’d lived in when we first moved to small town Alberta four years earlier (not just the same building, but the exact apartment). At the time “The Warrior” was climbing the charts and spinning from radios across North America – the video for the song was also in huge rotation on Much Music (Canada’s answer to MTV) – my love for music was rivalled only by my love for hockey. 

By the time the white stuff arrived that winter and the streets were ready for epic road hockey battles, “The Warrior” was peaking at #1 both in Canada and the United States. A friend, a fellow hockey head, invited me into his house after a few hours of spirited stick play on the street in front of his family’s home. Once inside, he turned on a tv and slid a video cassette into a machine that was as big as a microwave. “Check this out,” he said as he pressed play. “The Warrior” video came on. 

“Cool. I’ve seen it lots of times.” I was unimpressed.

“Yeah, but you’ve never seen this,” he grinned before fast forwarding the song to one particular section. He restarted the video and did some sort of sorcery (my family didn’t own a video player yet) that nearly blew the top of my head off. The video moved in super slow motion. What the? My friend pointed at the screen and shouted, “look! Look!”

“What? I don’t see anything,” I said.

He rewound the tape and played the section again. “See!” He was very excited (a little too excited).

“Sorry, dude, I just see Patty Smyth dancing in slow motion.” 

“Look closer.” 

He played the video one more time. I finally saw it. If you looked close enough, you could see Smyth’s breasts bouncing in one scene. 

“Oh,” I said, convinced my friend had yet to see a Playboy magazine or watch a late night movie where bare tits had flashed across the screen briefly. Feeling more than a little weirded out, I bid my road hockey mate – whose last name was, coincidental, pronounced “wank-off” (which I’m sure was the first thing he did after I left) – farewell. It was the one and only time I remember being in his house. 

Music is the soundtrack to every good and bad time we will ever have.”― Alex Gaskarth

I’m not exactly sure how old I was when it dawned on me that not everyone listened to music with a prescient or eager ear. For most people music is at best background noise, at worst a mild annoyance. Music for me is breath, as important as the very air that feeds my lungs and keeps me alive. When I was younger I would tell people, “Jesus saved my soul, but music saved my life.” It may have been cliche`, but it was the truth. 

Music can make you horny. It can make you mad. It can make you happy or sad. A song can take you back in time or offer a brief glimpse into the future. Words and melody have been a lifeline, my only friend in times when I’ve felt abandoned and alone. Music has been a safe harbour in the darkest storms of the soul, moments when I was lost and drifting. When I walked through the valleys of sorrow, my favourite albums came with me.

Different songs evoke different responses. The greatest songs, the ones that slice through the breast plate and pull the beating heart from your chest, are often ineffable. For me songs like “The River” by Bruce Springsteen or “The Barricades Of Heaven” by Jackson Browne can cause volcanic eruptions of emotion that level the tops of the mountains blocking my path. Hot magma bursts forth from a hole in my soul and rains down upon the metaphorical villages below that threaten my well being. 

A happy song can bring forth sadness, a sad song can cause unfettered joy. There is no set reaction. Of course there are certain songs that will draw the same reaction every time you hear them. Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” never fails to send chills down my spine. I was only five years old when the famous Great Lakes freighter sank, but I remember the storm that sent her to her watery grave. 

The day after the violent event, I walked along the shore of Lake Superior with my dad. It was cold and the wind was blowing hard. By then we’d heard the news reports saying the mighty ship had been lost the previous evening. Each time Lightfoot’s tribute plays, it produces the same effect. I teleport to 1975 and feel the biting cold (the after effects of the legendary “Witch Of November”) slice through my clothes like an icy dagger and think of the 29 men who lost their lives.

Of course, music can elicit comical memories, too. I recall an argument with my mother in my late teens. This was after I’d been living on my own for awhile. During the fight I shouted out in anger, “there’s a song called “You’re Crazy” (by Guns N’ Roses); I swear it was written about you!” Without missing a beat, my late mother – God rest her soul – clapped back, “yeah, well that song “Problem Child” was written about you!” 

Mom didn’t know the first thing about music, nor was she known for having a quick wit. She couldn’t tell the Beatles from Black Sabbath, but she hit a home run that day, and she wasn’t finished. Before I could respond, she proceeded to do possibly the worst impression of late AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott as she gleefully sang, “I’m a problem child, a problem child” over and over. We both laughed. Well played, Momma, well played

A rangy teenage behavioural study, “Problem Child” was a track I lived.And AC/DC played a huge role in my growing pain years. Sometimes when I hear the song “Hell’s Bells,” I close my eyes and I’m sixteen, standing on a chair on the floor of the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, Alberta, surrounded by long hairs and short hairs, old and young. One of my friends hands me a joint, but I only take a quick toke and pass it back. I want to remember every minute of the show. 

At one point during the concert – a stop on the band’s Who Made Who Tour – a giant bell descended from the ceiling above the stage. The sold out arena knew what was coming next and went absolutely bananas. As vocalist Brian Johnson (who replaced Bon Scott after his death in 1980) hammered on the monstrous bell, guitarist Angus Young peeled off the haunting licks that open the band’s monster selling Back In Black album (more than 50 million copies sold worldwide). 

It was a show-stopping moment, another powerful memory stored somewhere in the dark depths of my music saturated mind. The time machine effect of that evening is like deja vu, only multiplied by a hundred. I can still smell the dope, sweat and hormones that punctured the air. The night’s events are as fresh in my mind today, more than three decades later.

Music is an elixir that can both intoxicate and heal. In those times when it doesn’t act as a link to the past – for instance, when I hear something new for the first time – it can act as a springboard. The first time I heard Jason Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires,” a well-crafted piece of Americana purity that comes as close to being perfect as a song can get, I was elevated, pushed forward into the future for the briefest of moments; made to feel hopeful. 

If we were vampires and death was a joke

We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke

And laugh at all the lovers and their plans

I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

Maybe time running out is a gift

I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift

And give you every second I can find

And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever

Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

Maybe we’ll get forty years together

But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone

Go to Spotify (or the streaming platform of your choice) and listen to the track on repeat. Let the lyrics trickle down like fresh rain water until they find a crack in your being in which to seep and flood your heart and soul (of course, you must first unshackle your mind and really listen). If you’re not moved in some small way, I suggest you get yourself to the nearest hospital as quickly as possible and have them check for a pulse. 

(May 2021)