Love At First Listen: A Memoir

David Carroll

When I was four years old, my brother, who was 13 at the time, came home one night with a movie he had rented from Blockbuster.

My life at the time, as was the life of any younger brother, was to be as much like my brother as I could. I wanted to see everything he saw, play the same video games he did, wear the same kind of clothes. Everything. Most of my attempts went unanswered, but on this night in what I assume was 1997, my parents seemed very enthusiastic about letting me watch this movie my brother had rented. You’d love it, it has tons of car chases, they told me, knowing my infatuation for cars, and more particularly, my love of destruction.

So that night, as a family, we piled onto our green couch made of fake leather, popped the tape into the VCR, and watched The Blues Brothers together. But it wasn’t the car chases that stuck with me, or the profanity I didn’t quite understand yet; it was the music.

From the moment the gates of the Joliet Prison opened, and Jake and Elwood Blues were reunited, the moment the first song of the movie began to play, a rendition of blues-great Taj Mahal’s “She Caught The Katy,” something began to happen inside my head I couldn’t quite grasp and wouldn’t be able to for a long time. The sounds were completely foreign to me. Never before had I heard an electric guitar, or a horn section, or a harmonica, or John Belushi’s gravelly voice, much less had I heard any of them work together to produce a sound like the one I was hearing as I sat on our green couch that night. Nothing was ever the same after that.

Sometime in the days following that night, my dad opened the bottom half of our TV stand, a place I had always been curious of, to reveal a large, black metal box. Although it would be a dinosaur by today’s technological standards, it was a CD player. He had found, in his CD collection, the soundtrack to the movie, and told me I could listen to the music by itself instead of having to watch the movie each time I wanted to hear those songs. He handed me a pair of headphones, plugged them into the CD player, and told me to put them on. Though they swallowed my head, I soon found comfort in them as I sat Indian-style on the floor in front of the entertainment console completely taken by this new experience that playing with blocks or coloring or watching Nickelodeon couldn’t in their wildest dreams stand up to. At the time, I didn’t know what the feeling I felt was, but I would come to realize it was pure love beyond any expression.

It’s been 14 years since that first time I put on headphones and was overtaken by the soundtrack to The Blues Brothers. In those 14 years, music has come to define my existence, and continues to do so more and more with each listen. Just as I mature and gain new insights, new feelings, and new outlooks, I find music with which these thoughts can pair comfortably. Music, to me, is how I quantify my experiences and emotions. If I can’t express something, I can find a song that can. I find absolute meaning for my personal existence within the feedback of guitars, the poetry of well-written lyrics, and the energy of pent-up emotions set free. There is no experience similar to music, in my life, that provides the same sense of fulfillment or enhancement.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been at comfort with the sound of the accordion; my father’s instrument and creative outlet since he was eight years old. Having an older brother who played the piano, I was surrounded by loving family who found solace and a sense of meaning through letting their thoughts and energy run wild through instruments. Growing up with a teenaged brother who, like millions of others across the world, used Napster when it was young and innocent, I also had a world of new music at my fingertips. I wasn’t old enough to understand the potential legal repercussions of illegal file sharing, or even to understand the lyrics to the music that I heard in a video game or on the radio, but being a first grader with unlimited computer access and a yearning to be older than I was, I downloaded music and listened up a storm.

I went to my first concert on my 14th birthday; my dad took me to see blues guitarist Buddy Guy at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. Blues has always been one of the strongest musical bonds I’ve felt with my father. It was the first form of music I experienced with him, and a genre I always felt bridged the gap between sophisticated, mature musical genres and younger, more openly energetic musical genres. Blues concerts aren’t deafening, and they don’t have moshpits or stagedives or destruction, but they carry the same emotional and energetic impact. That night, I sat mesmerized as the space within Whitney Hall became thick with the guitar tone of Buddy Guy.  I thought I knew what it was to experience music, but that night, it all changed. I witnessed someone completely open up to an audience and communicate their thoughts through notes on a guitar. That was the night I realized what it meant to play music, and the level of respect and commitment at which playing a musical instrument should be treated; I had lived with it for my entire life, but only then did I understand what it meant to be a musician.

After that concert, I began to play my guitar more often. A lot more often. I’d begin to play and by the time I looked at my clock, hours would have passed. Regardless of schoolwork or outside commitments in my life, I began to enjoy playing music to the point that I’d play at least two hours a night. I still do. It’s my escape from reality. I play music and get so lost in the notes, in the sound of my tube amplifier and Fender Telecaster, and in the satisfaction of my mind reorganizing itself that I lose all track of everything and everyone else. When I play music, I realize what matters to me and what doesn’t. It’s more than being able to recite something to an audience, or even create something new; for me, performance is the centrifuge by which I separate all unnecessary thoughts from my mind, and lose myself in a new state of being.

There are times when I’m at concerts, playing my guitar in my room, or even simply listening to music that my mind goes to another place. It’s a real place, too. I can’t see it, or describe it in words, but that doesn’t detract from its realness. My thoughts are at ease there; everything is clear and makes absolute sense. I’m so intently playing, witnessing, or listening that I become absolutely entranced. It’s like reading a book and forgetting you’re reading. In hindsight, you know you were reading, but you don’t remember reading; you remember being within the story. I live for moments like that. I seek moments like that in my daily life, and I rely on them to make it through the day. I’ve found music to be my key to unlocking deeper thought and enhanced perception of living.

Music has always been there for me when others weren’t. I’ve spent many nights on the edge of my sanity, playing music as a way of sorting everything in my life out. I’ve never had a steady, strong friendship with extremely open, established communication, so I’ve always looked to music as a source of counseling in times when I couldn’t figure things out. It’s taken on a medicinal power for me. It’s something I can always rely on that won’t betray or mistreat me. It’s something that I find reminds me of my purpose as a human being and as a member of society. If I can share my love of music with just one other person, and open them up to the feeling I get when I’m completely lost in music, I will be entirely content and happy with my life.

I’m on the verge of my life flipping upside-down. I’m on the verge of college life, of new people and new experiences completely foreign to me at the moment. I’m at the end of my high school years, at the end of nearly everyone I know and every routine in my life. But as I look into my future, I find comfort in knowing whatever happens to me or wherever I end up, I’ll still have my iPod, my guitar, and my hunger for music that knows no boundaries and welcomes change.

Because of music, I’ll end up okay.