Letter to my son: What do you hear when you hear the music that changed my life?
There was an alcove between the restrooms at a bar called Dizzy Duncan’s in the Morris County Mall. In the alcove, an old cigarette machine squatted mellowly in the thin golden light spilling out of the bar. Adjacent, a crash-bar door with no handle on the other side dropped you into an odd little subsection of the mall called The Village. Prefab walls created a little labyrinth of odd shoppes (yeah they were all spelled like that) we new teens and preteens used to run through after sneaking through Dizzy’s pretending to look for a parent and popping 60 cents into the cigarette machine for a pack of Kents, Winstons or Virginia Slims. What we heard in the bar and faintly through that crash door during our flight is the same music my 2021 16 year old listens to, well mostly, along with Drake, Post Malone and Juice World.
The year was 1979 and when you left your house, no one could find you. You could be at a sleepover at Michelle’s and your parents would be too embarrassed to call the house phone and check that you were eating popcorn and watching R-rated movies that left you feeling funny down there. You could, as evidenced in a meme from a few years ago, be dying from alcohol poisoning in a field with no one the wiser. And you’d do so to the strains of Queen’s Night at the Opera; Blue Oyster Cult, The Doors, Rust Never Sleeps and of course, the inhuman and stunning caterwaul of Robert Plant and Zep.
I assume kids are still getting drunk in fields. When my son had some kids over, he and his friends went outside in the crystal Colorado night, air and wind chill at a whopping 23 degrees. When they came home almost three hours later, I surreptitiously smelled their breath, pretending to be a “close talker” while trying not to embarrass my son. Not a whiff of the noxious cocktail we used to make in baby food jars from several bottles of our parent’s booze. The other night, I was unable to detect even a whiff of weed, a waft of whiskey. But I could hear Misty Mountain Hop, chipmunk version, emitting from the headphones hugging my son’s neck.
There could be scads of designer drugs they’re “partying with” that I can’t even pronounce. Psychotropic mood enhancers like ketamine and molly that we didn’t know about when I was 16—although the racier girls whispered about Quaaludes and “crank”—our picturesque word for what is now known as meth. I stuck to pot and Bud in keggers and occasional stolen hard liquor which would invariably make me yark. Jack’s friends and Jack have clear, windburn skin and normal-sized pupils and tell me they walked out to Academy and the chicken place where they each got a Caniac box that they ate outside on picnic tables, Jack’s friend Baden’s pocket Bluetooth speaker spewing music from the 70s made by men who are now themselves in their late seventies. My rock gods gone arthritic.
Metallica. All pretty pumped and sober now in their late fifties, early sixties. They came out a little later, I know. When I was dating this guy from the community college whose protracted silences and odd hours were a result of already having a girlfriend. Once he fessed up, he did so to tell me he really liked me and had broken up with her. Now, his reasoning went, we were free to go forward, our relationship unencumbered.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Jaime,” he said. He had lots of facial hair and not 2021 facial hair, Mumford beards and such. This stuff ran from his chest up his neck and sculpted his face in a shape suggesting the Yucatan Peninsula. I could tell he was just about to kiss me.
“You better go back to Jamie, then. If she’ll take you back you dirty filthy cheater,” I said.
I took a swig of the Jack Daniels pint we were sharing in his navy blue Dodge Caravan. We were listening to Metallica’s Ride the Lightning. I believe the song that was on was The Call of Ktulu. He took me home in silence. I yarked when I got there and went to bed, never to speak to him again. Every time I hear that song a wave of disappointment in the human race overtakes me. The guy had seemed so normal. I once asked Jack what he thought of when he listened to Zep or Floyd or the Stones.
“I dunno. It’s cool.” A veritable oration from my particular 16 year old.
The other night, Jack and I were down in the dart room, where we have a spare bedroom and he plays Call of Duty. He was yelling to his virtual squad about someone behind them in the warscape and banging his head to the Call of Ktulu barely identifiable from his phone’s tinny speakers on the floor.
“Turn it up,” I said.
He didn’t hear me.
“Turn that fucker UP!” I was feeling myself.
“M-OM! They can hear you!”
“Oops. Sorry.” Sheepish, I vacated to the kitchen and my Air Pods and my own private headbanging while sautéing some chicken and veg for dinner. Pink Floyd. Later, I asked him.
“When did you start listening to Metallica?”
“Since forever.” He was shoveling food into his mouth, staring at some You Tuber on his phone.
“No phones at the table,” I said absently. “Hey who is your favorite? In the band?”
“Who?” He sighed dramatically and switched his phone off.
“Like do you like the lyrics or—”
“The whole thing. It’s fire.”
“So who’s the drummer?” I was feeling mean. Kid slang does that to me.
“Lars ULRICH,” He blazed up at me a bit. He knew when I was trying to dog him.
“Sorry,” I said. “Are they your favorite now?”
“Aw come on. Humor me.”
“If I tell you you’ll just tell me a moldy story about when you were listening to them back in the day,” he said.
I gave him a look. THE look. He sighed.
“Panama,” he got up, grabbed a glass, filled it at the sink, turned around. Waited.
“Van Halen? Awww excellent!”
One beat. Two.
“Did I ever tell you about Roth’s ass-less chaps?”