Touched for the Very First Time

It’s a new year, new beginning, etc. Gross.

But after beginning 2011 with a typical PCHA dose of bitterness, let’s try to take a turn toward the positive. How? Good fucking question.

/Goes and listens to The Hold Steady’s “Stay Positive” 25 straight times, until all feeling has been numbed

OK, now I’m ready. In the spirit of starting fresh, and washing off some of 2010’s film of filth, let’s discuss first times.

It’s relatively rare that you remember exactly where you were the first time you ever heard a particularly song – and when you do remember, that’s often a sign that the song holds lasting meaning to you. Nobody remembers where they were the first time they heard Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” or the Black-Eyed Peas’ “My Humps,” or 99% of songs, good and bad, that pass through our musical lives. Even great songs don’t often have that initial oomph that burns in your memory banks. Most music takes time to seep in. Remembering the time and place you first heard a song is a combination of the power of that song and the randomness of life’s circumstance.

I recently wrote about hearing Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” for the first time – which was as much of a life-changing experience as hearing a song alone in your apartment could be for me. After the jump, 10 songs that I’ll always remember hearing for the first time – the musical equivalents of the JFK assassination or 9/11. (Stay positive, Dilemma!)

1. The Shins/Kissing the Lipless

In 2003, when Chutes Too Narrow was released, I had never heard of The Shins. I’d never gotten my hands on Oh, Inverted World, and Garden State was still a year from existence. In those days, before mp3 blogs took over the Internet, I still discovered music archaically. I’d read about it magazines, and I’d browse through what remained of record stores. The Chicago Virgin Megastore, on the corner of Ohio & Michigan, would set up listening stations where you could put on headphones and listen to their most popular albums and staff picks. Chutes Too Narrow was a staff pick. I thought the album cover looked interesting, so I gave it a try. When track one came on, I was impressed enough to listen to the song the whole way through without skipping ahead. And so it happened that I jumped on The Shins’ bandwagon just after all the indie kids, but just before Zach Braff and the rest of the world. There’s no joy quite like discovering a new band completely on your own, even if thousands of others discovered them before you.

I suppose it’s a little sad that my nostalgia for record stores includes and extends to the likes of the Virgin Megastore, but in fact I have fonder memories of that Virgin store than I do of the local record store in my hometown – which had a terrible selection and never sold CDs for under $16. It’s also apparent that remembering your first experiences with songs was much easier in the days of physical media. It’s easy to remember the act of putting on a recordor a CD — it’s less so to remember pressing play on your iPod for the fifth time that day.

2. Bruce Springsteen/American Skin (41 Shots)

In June 2000, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were about to play a record-breaking, sold-out, ten-show stand at Madison Square Garden. The run would close out the band’s 18-month, heavily hyped reunion tour – which itself marked the first full E Street Band tour since 1988. Throughout the tour, Springsteen played a relatively standard setlist focused on the themes of isolation and community, heavy on album cuts from his mid-career and short on big singles. Also missing were any new songs whatsoever, leading some to criticize the tour as an exercise in nostalgia and a cash grab.

At the two shows directly preceding the MSG stand, in Atlanta, Springsteen surprised many by unveiling two new songs: the middling “Further On Up the Road,” and the slow-burning “American Skin.” The lyrics to “American Skin” dealt with the 1999 Amadou Diallo shooting, in which New York City cops (they ain’t that smart) gunned down an unarmed man who reached for his wallet when ordered to show his hands. Investigators later determined the officers unloaded 41 rounds at Diallo. Springsteen lyrics paint the event as a cultural tragedy, showing sympathy not just for the victim but for the cops and residents of the city too.

You’re kneeling over his body in the vestibule
Praying for his life

Is it a gun, is it a knife
Is it a wallet, this is your life

Of course, when the New York tabloids got wind of the song’s existence, Springsteen’s intent hardly mattered. Even admitting he had yet to hear the song, the head of New York’s State Fraternal Order of Police called Springsteen a “dirtbag” and a “floating fag” for daring to broach the topic of Diallo, and daring to (supposedly) question the judgment of good police. The New York Post and the Daily News headlines screamed, Rudy Giuliani wailed, and the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association called for a boycott of the Garden shows.

Needless to say, there was no boycott, but as I stood in the back of the Garden the night of the first show I could sense legitimate tension. As Gorilla Monsoon might say, you could cut the electricity with a knife. About an hour into the show, unfamiliar music began and Steve Van Zandt and Clarence Clemons stepped up to their microphones and began to intone “41 shots” repeatedly. The atmosphere was more reminiscent of a sporting event than a concert, as loud boos mixed with cheers. An off-duty cop seated on the floor sprinted toward the stage with two middle fingers outstretched and was wrestled out of the arena. Eventually, the cheers and boos both died down, and the true importance of what was happening began to sink in: this was a new Springsteen/E Street song, and it was really good.

3. The Hold Steady/Your Little Hoodrat Friend

When The Hold Steady released Almost Killed Me in 2004, I thought the album was cool and interesting. I went to see them in January of the next year at Chicago’s old Bottom Lounge, a ridiculously dinky club on the city’s near North Side. Maybe 30 other people were there, of which maybe 15 actually paid the band any attention when they started. But Craig Finn’s unique style and enthusiasm, and the band’s hard-driving classic rock riffs, quickly won those 15 people over.

Still, it was hard to imagine this band ever being anything more than a fun one-off. Until the encore, when Finn introduced a new song called “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.” Amidst a raucous, casual atmosphere that included the band shotgunning beers on stage and chatting with individual members of the crowd, “Friend” stood out as something new for the band – more catchy and polished than anything off of Almost Killed Me. I left that night thinking that maybe – just maybe – The Hold Steady’s next album might be worth checking out.

4. Nirvana/Smells Like Teen Spirit

Yep, this is an obvious one. But it would be disingenuous of me to leave it off a list of songs that made an impact on me the first time through. I had heard of Nirvana, barely, but never heard them and hadn’t given the band any thought.

I was sitting in the backseat of a friend of a friend’s Jeep Wrangler in my Connecticut hometown. We were parked behind a convenience store, trying to stay out of sight while our underage companion attempted to buy some beer. I was already pretty drunk. It was a warm fall night and the Jeep’s top was off. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” happened to come on the radio.

I bought Nevermind the next day.

5. Pavement/Silence Kit

I spent my freshman year at the University of Georgia rooming with a kid who was, for lack of a better term, indier-than-thou. He scoffed at my R.E.M.-heavy CD collection and came back to our room every couple days with a new album by a band I’d never heard of. We were friends, but I considered him a musical elitist and he considered me artless and provincial. I’d heard of Pavement, but had discounted Slanted & Enchanted as a product of hype. When my roommate bought Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, he immediately returned and put it on the stereo. I was there (I was often there; I didn’t go to many classes.) and made a casually dismissive remark about Silence Kit’s derivative opening riff. He shushed me, and by the end of the song I knew I was wrong – about the song and the band. Although I still think most of what he listened to was discordant and pretentious, he did introduce me to bands like Yo La Tengo, Unrest and the Spinanes.

6. Billy Joel/We Didn’t Start the Fire

I remember playing the radio waiting for William Joel’s new single to come on. I remember hearing it. I remember experiencing disappointment in a beloved artist’s new material for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last. (Stay positive!)

7. R.E.M./Undertow

I became a huge R.E.M. fan during the era in which the band didn’t tour (circa Out of Time and Automatic for the People), so when they announced a massive worldwide tour to support Monster, I was beside myself. I waited on line for tickets and waited months for the shows in my area. No band has ever meant more to me than R.E.M. did during that particular time in my life. As my shows approached, the entire tour was postponed when drummer Bill Berry suffered a massive brain aneurysm on stage in Europe.

More waiting at that point seemed a cruel and unusual punishment. But wait I did, and when R.E.M. finally took the stage at an amphitheater outside Boston, it could have gone one of two ways for me: crushing disappointment because of insane expectations, or fanboyish approval of everything they did. My brain went fanboy. And when they launched into “Undertow,” a new song that would appear on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, I immediately deemed it the best thing they’d ever done and the best thing I’d ever experienced live. I never liked the album version much, because it could never match my memory of how it sounded on that one summer night.

8. Michael Jackson/Billie Jean and 9. John Parr/St. Elmo’s Fire

Despite the power of visual media, I don’t have many memories of hearing songs for the first time on television. Notable exceptions include watching John Parr perform “St. Elmo’s Fire” on some syndicated talk show, and watching Michael Jackson perform “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25 special. Much to my horror, “St. Elmo’s Fire” had the much bigger impact on me, becoming my favorite song for a couple years. Meanwhile, I wrote off Jackson as “girl music” because my sister loved it. MJ henceforth lived in the same ghettoized corner of my mind as the soundtrack to Annie.

10. U2/Elevation

I moved from Connecticut to Chicago in 2000 with my then-girlfriend, now-wife. On our way out of town to make the 14-hour drive, we stopped at a Sam Goody to buy U2’s new CD, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I’d already heard the opening track, “Beautiful Day,” plenty of times, and I don’t really remember the experience of hearing track two, “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” for the first time. But I remember track three vividly. We had just pulled on the highway when “Elevation” started, and the song sounded like rocket fuel. I felt like I was officially starting my life, legitimately moving away from home for the first time, having found a girl I loved — and this was the fucking soundtrack to all of it.

With the passing of years and the refinement of taste, I know that “Elevation” isn’t anything special. It’s a mid-level fast-paced U2 song; better than “Vertigo” but nowhere near “The Fly.” But I’ll always love it because it’s forever tied into that moment — and that speaks to the power that circumstance has on how we experience art. Where we are in our lives matters as much as what we’re actually listening to. Do we fight through that emotion to try to understand the true nature and value of the song, or do we just roll with it and let our experience dictate our opinions? I guess we try for the former, but usually settle for the latter.

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Filed under Music Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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