I was sixteen years old, a sophomore in high school in the tiny mountain town of Durango, Colorado, and I was in a community play called Godspell. Godspell is an absurd play, with religious stories told in a 1970s setting, with goofy songs and strange choreography. My mother was in the play too; she had a small supporting role, and she did some of the choreography. It was supposed to be a bonding experience for her and I, because at that time we were often at each other's throats, and home life wasn't so great. Parents divorcing, me being suicidally depressed, hating myself and everyone in school -- this is where I was at in my life. I played guitar and wrote songs, constantly, as I always have since I was very young, so that kept me afloat somewhat. And there was theatre. I was the lead in the high school production of Les Miserables, as Marius, and there was Godspell that I was in, too, around the same time. Theatre was a necessity for me then; I had to do something extracurricular, to stay out of trouble and off of drugs (which only lasted so long, anyways).
So, the scene is set for this goofy play called Godspell. I was John the Baptist/Judas (they're the same person in the play, some kind of dopey symbolism or something), and I was the youngest kid there. Everyone else were middle aged parents, even grandparents, and for a lot of them, it was their first play ever.
I met Marc Arbeeny through Godspell. He was a middle aged New Yorker who had recently moved to Colorado with his wife and daughter, Maggie. Durango is the type of small town that even though I didn't know Marc, he had seen me as Frederick in a production of Pirates of Penzance a year earlier, where his daughter Maggie was one of the sisters in the play. So, he already knew who I was when we started talking during the Godspell rehearsals. Marc was funny: he had this thick New York accent, and he was kind of a goof. Godspell was his first play, his first introduction to the world of the performing arts. Marc Arbeeny would completely change my life, but I didn't know that then, of course.
So we would talk and laugh during the rehearsals, and one day my mother takes Marc aside and asks him if he wouldn't mind spending some time with me here and there, mostly because my stepfather wanted nothing to do with me, and there was a lot of drama between us at the house. Marc had said sure, but tentatively. He picked me up after school one day, across the street from the high school. We went out for lunch.
We talked about music. Marc knew a lot about music. Like, a whole fucking lot. He was a big Dead head; he'd been to over two hundred (yes, two HUNDRED) Grateful Dead shows. That amount of Dead shows alone would be enough to seriously damage your brain, but Marc seemed to recall a lot of his Dead days. So, we talked about the Dead, although I didn't really care for them, and I still don't, even as I write all this out over a decade later, and he told me that he might have some music for me to listen to.
The next time I saw Marc, he had a collection of burned discs, each one titled for me personally, with an index card detailing the track names, the artist, the year, and the album. He had handwritten all of this out. Casey's Jazz. Casey's Zappa. Casey's New Wave. Grateful Dead, three disc live album, Madison Square Garden. Casey's Dylan. This is back when everyone had cds. Cds meant something back then; what a vinyl record must have meant back in the seventies, cds meant the same to me. I had a walkman (with anti skip protection), and I started listening to the cds that Marc had burned me.
Here's the thing about my sophomore year. I missed the fucking bus every day. Like clockwork, I'd miss the bus. I was sixteen, but I didn't get my license for another year. So, I'd have to ride my bike to school. I had a nice Diamondback road bike, and even though I lived seven miles out of town, if it wasn't snowing, I could make it to school in under an hour. And I was able to listen to all of Marc's cds as I rode my bike to school. I still hear certain songs even today, and it takes me back to the exact moment where I was when I first heard it; where I was riding, I remember the location and the sensation. I remember all of it. Sophomore year of high school, my brain was a sponge. It needed new music to grow. Marc gave me more music than I ever could have imagined.
The jazz album was amazing: different artists, including Pat Metheny, whom I'd never heard before. The Zappa took a little bit for me to get into: "Trouble Every Day" was a good track, "Let's Make the Water Turn Black" was cool. "Sexual Harassment in the Work Place", that song rocked. Eventually I knew all the songs on that mix. Marc's Zappa mix would set me up for a lifetime of listening and studying Zappa's music. I fucking love Frank Zappa. That's because of Marc.
But the one that really changed me forever was the new wave album. It had bands that I had never heard of before: just reading the notecard Marc had written out for me, I knew no one on there: Television, Richard Hell, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, the Clash (I listened to the Clash, sure, but only their radio hits). Riding my bike, the cd starts. The first three tracks are Television, a new wave band from New York in the 70's: "See No Evil" and "Venus De Milo": the guitar work is dualistically complex; each ear hears a different section of the song. The vocals are pitchy and strained, not punk exactly -- too tight and complex, too strange and, what's the word, artsy -- but definitely not pop. What is it then? It's Television. And then the song "Marquee Moon" comes on, the third track off of the New Wave compilation. And man, you hear that song once, and you're hooked. The guitar solos sing like screaming bluebirds streaking across the sky, so emotive and passionate, a wandering journey of mixolydian scales, notes that sustain and move in strange yet fluid patterns. The song clocks in at over ten minutes; a tour de force of art and music that transformed my youth as I rode my bike along the backdrop of mammoth mountains on my way to high school. Television is still one of my all time favorite bands.
And then, Richard Hell plays next. ("And that's really the guy's name?" I think to myself, reading the handwritten notecard. "Richard Hell? What kind of name is that? Is it a band? A person?" I would soon figure it all out.) I remember the first time that I heard the song "Blank Generation" by Richard Hell and the Voidoids: the guitar starts the song in, and I stop riding my bike, stupefied by the shattering sounds of Robert Quine's guitar: I remember thinking "Is this guitar? Is that a guitar that he's playing? Is he playing with a shard of broken glass as a pic? How the fuck does he make it sound like that?! I’ve never heard guitar like that before." The sound was ugly, bright and thin, grating and offensively raw. I'd never heard anything like it, and then the bass plops in and the drums explode like a machine gun, and suddenly Richard Hell is screaming in spitting poetic articulation of words and images, an emotional onslaught of poetic nihilism set to a swinging punk rock groove.
I was hooked. That very moment, listening to "Blank Generation" changed my life forever. That was the thing with the music Marc had given me: I had a never ending treasure trove of undiscovered wondrous music. My brain was soaking it all up, it was constantly evolving and growing and shifting with new experiences, new emotions brought on by music I had never heard before. Hell's song "Walking on the Water" comes next on the disc, the same kind of duplicitous ugly beautiful music that Richard Hell could make without even trying. And just to contrast with the song, Marc puts Creedence Clearwater's version of the same song: two songs for the price of one. Both unique, both different, each one its own song, its own expression of a story.
Patti Smith comes next: "So You Wanna BeRock and Roll Star"; "Free Money"; "Dancing Barefoot." The poetic prowess of the slender Patti Smith is alluring, sexy, provocative and subversive. I can feel the sensuality of her words, the movements of sound and beat poetry put to rock music.
After Patti Smith is Lou Reed, who later in my life would become a kind of musical God to me. The new wave mix featured just one song of his, off of his '89 album New York, the opening track "Romeo Had Juliette." I would forever know his voice after that. The cool famous talking/singing style of his, the dirty street walking drug shooting sunglasses and attitude Lou Reed. The dirtier and edgier Bob Dylan. It only took that one song to open me up to Lou Reed; it just cracked open the door, before I would blow the door open with dynamite at age twenty six and go as deep as I could with Reed's music.
The first time I heard the Velvet Underground, not even knowing that it was Lou Reed's band, it was on the new wave mix: "Temptation Inside of Your Heart," an innocent, simple grooving track that gave me the impression that VU was a hippy kind of band, love and sun and fun. Wrong. Later on, at age twenty, the Velvet Underground would become my favorite band, surpassing the Red Hot Chili Peppers even -- the obsession continues to this day. The influence, the legend, the artful power and the amazing music of the Velvet Underground and all of its incarnations fascinated me. It became an area of intense study. (Clinton Heylin's book From the Velvets to the Voidoids is an illuminating and indispensable history of American punk rock, beginning chronologically with the Velvet Underground.)
And here's the thing: No one my age was listening to Television and Richard Hell in high school. I don't know what they were listening to, (Blink 182, Green Day, maybe. Gag . . .) but I know that no one was blasting new wave punk into their ears night and day. I was alone in my life: surrounded by other students in high school hallways, I was popular and charismatic, I hated myself and everyone around me. I was alone, but I had this music. It was a secret level of existence that no one could fuck with; headphones pressed securely to my head as I walked through the halls, Patti Smith and Lou Reed and Zappa and Television blasting in my ears.
All of this music had planted seeds in my brain that would eventually take form years later; it would later turn into an aspen forest of interconnected roots, roots of facts and artists crossing over each other, through time and culture and albums, a huge single organism of never ending potential musical knowledge and experiences.
And Marc didn't just know about this music. He had SEEN it all too. He had lived in New York during the 1970s; he went to CGBGs all the time. He'd seen the Ramones over twenty times, Television and Patti Smith and Richard Hell dozens of times -- he saw Lou Reed and Bob Dylan more times than all the concerts I've been to combined. He'd seen Zappa over what, forty times, fifty times? And he REMEMBERED it all -- that was the shit I couldn't even grasp. Talking to him -- and Marc could talk; it wasn't really us talking as much as it was me listening to him talk. Which was fucking GREAT. Talking about live shows he'd been to in his thick New York accent: "I sar them" (not saw -- Marc SAR bands), and then he'd wrap up each story by saying quickly "At any rate . . ."
I'm smiling as I write this all out. Because I love Marc. Father figures were few and far between for me. Marc sharing this music with me was a kind of generosity, of love even, that I had never felt before. He'll never know how much that music meant to me, how much it changed me and saved me, and continues to do that all to this very day, this very second.
Another thing: Marc made me a four disc collection of Bob Dylan, each disc was colored a different hue. Dylan Blue, Dylan Red, Dylan Green, Dylan Yellow. After high school, I ran away from home and was living out of my car, out of a trailer with friends, no place to go, no direction; drugs and alcohol were already starting to dominate a big part of my life. And these Dylan cds became the soundtrack to my life at that time. Dylan green, with songs like "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" (my all time favorite), "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall," and "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts"; Dylan Blue was my favorite: a deep and emotionally profound collection of what would become my favorite Dylan: "Shelter From the Storm", "Seven Curses", "Visions of Johanna", "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" . . . another story for another time. A story of my first love and drives through the Arizona desert, smoking cigarettes as I sleep in my car in an abandoned parking lot, age eighteen, listening to "Shelter From the Storm." Dylan Blue, Dylan Green . . . The music comforted me, it was my solace, my one source of light. It was just me and the music.
Marc still sends me cds. Just last year he sent me seventeen albums, many of which were double or even triple disc. He included with the albums a book of paperwork an inch thick: printed material from wikipedia and the internet, detailing the albums and the background info, the discographies and the track info. Just this month he sent me an eight disc collection of more Zappa (I can never get enough Zappa). It means as much to me today to receive new music from Marc as it did the first time he ever handed me a cd. The feeling is exactly same.
I make cds for my friends now. I still sit at home, burning playlists of my favorite artists, and writing out the info for each song, each album. I want to share the wealth, even a fraction of what was shared with me. I feel it's the least I can do.
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