Good Vibrations

by Michael Channing

How you discover the music in your life is just as important as the music itself. Stumbling upon a particular song or band on your own is the best way to find music. You may also trust the occasional suggestion from a close friend, but anything handed to you by a mere acquaintance goes directly into your mental discount bin. Because music is more than just sound. It is emotion transfigured into physical vibration. And you don't want just anyone giving you vibrations.

Had you asked me when I was twelve what my favorite band was, I would have answered, "The Beach Boys." Because that was the only rock-and-roll tape my mom had. Somehow it was left among her collection of Oak Ridge Boys cassettes. I imagine that when she joined the Church of We Don't Even Trust the Smurfs and handed her music collection over for approval, the Beach Boys were overlooked due to something covering the first half of their name. Since the Beach Boys were comprised of young kids rather than Cthulhu-bearded hicks, I gave them a listen. They sang songs about surfing, racing cars, making out with girls--things I had never done.

Mr. Wizzard

To this day.

Though the songs were great, and the guitar solos amazing, there was a disconnect between the music and me. I couldn't make it a part of myself because I didn't know how to surf and I blistered at the beach like a cheap coffee table. Still, I would have told you the Beach Boys were my favorite because it was all I had.

But then in 1989 something happened. Something wonderful. The Rolling Stones put out a comeback album and launched a massive world tour, which is how I came to know Living Colour. Living Colour opened for the Stones on that tour, which is all I can tell you about Steel Wheels.

This was the band that first touched my soul like a pick to a string. Dear god, that riff in "Cult of Personality" was the manna I had been hungry for. Sure, I snacked on the cream-filled hits of the day, but never feasted fully on the marrow of Rock-and-Roll till I heard Vernon Reid shred the ever-loving shit out of his guitar. The clouds parted and I saw for the first time that music could full out rock and actually be about something. Sure, there was meaningful music already in abundance, but Living Colour was the first example I discovered and recognized on my own.

Still life with CDs and amp Still life with CDs, guitar, skull, and amp

Then I made a shrine to them.
This is a still life I made for my high school photography class. I'm still proud of how weird I was.

I also discovered that I was a little bit kind of racist. Because it surprised the hell out of me that my favorite new band was black. Wow, that sounds worse than it was. I wasn't taken aback by the fact that I liked black people, but by the fact that black men made that kind of music.

Listen, it was 1989. Music back then was very polarized. Your race determined the music you listened to and created. If you were black, you had rap, soul, and R&B. White people got rock and country. Crossovers like Run DMC appearing with Aerosmith or Public Enemy pairing with Anthrax were rare cultural bridges. So learning that the heavy metal band I had recently discovered was a black group blew my little developing mind. Black guys rap and dance. They don't play electric guitar.

Turns out black men invented how to play electric guitar.

Jimi Hendrix playing with his teeth Chuck Berry duckwalking

Or at least how to play it with style.

They also invented pretty much everything else about rock-and-roll, from the rhythm to the fuzz-tone. Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, those were names I'd heard, but it was only in reading about Living Colour that I fully came to understand their role in creating and defining rock music.

One song, caught randomly on the radio, turned me on to this new knowledge and fed my growing adolescent rage and need for noise. Which is why I then claimed Living Colour as my official favorite band. Until a friend handed me one even better.

Bob gave me Rush. I was still a teen at the time, and I did not take the opinions of others all that seriously. But Bob, well he's the Ren to my Stimpy, the Kermit to my Fozzie, the Bunson to my Beaker. So when he handed me the Rush best-of collection, titled Chronicles, I listened. And I asked for more. The lyrics said all the things I was trying to put into my own writing but didn't have the skill or experience to say. I heard songs about peer pressure, conformity, exploring the unknown, railing against societal norms, and flying a spaceship through a black hole to confront Greek gods. You know, the usual teenage fare. This was my music, my words. How did three guys from Canada hear and transcribe my thoughts?

That's the best kind of music, isn't it? The kind that seems to come directly out of your own head, your own heart. The kind that makes you drop to your knees for a wicked air guitar solo or grab a pretend microphone and spill your blood all over a pretend stage. The best music makes you want to participate, to create your own. I listened to all the Rush that Bob gave me and said, "That's mine. I'm doing that." I took up the bass guitar and wrote as many science-fiction-literary-socially-conscience songs I could. Because Rush had a twenty year and fifteen album head start on me.

The biggest hit makers of that time, before grunge came along and knocked their frizzy hair off their pointy heads, were Motley Crue, Poison, Guns N' Roses, Def Leppard, and they sang about partying, drinking, doing drugs, picking up sleazy chicks.

Mw in my Wendys uniform wishing I could transform

Again, not my thing.

You know what? I listened to that crap. I couldn't escape it. Everyone at school drew the logos and album covers on their notebooks, book bags, and arms. I put up posters of Max Headroom and drew D&D characters. Where was my music? Where was my portal out of this place? Oh, here it is. Thanks, Bob.

Check your own CD rack. Peruse your own iPod. I hope your music has more to offer than a catchy beat. 'Cause I've got Warren Zevon, and he looked death in the face and told me all about it. Rollins here is my personal anger manager. And Rush, well they've mapped out worlds for me, and I still haven't seen them all yet. I'm going to close my eyes and rock out, and the whole world will disappear. And here's the thing; I don't even have to turn my music player on. Because it's all here inside. Does your music speak to you from within? I hope it does. If not, you have some exploring to do. Or maybe you need some better friends.

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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing