Journey Totally Changed My Life, Man!
May, 1982: Fourth grade was winding down, and a glorious Rocky Mountain spring was in full effect. Robins hopped among the buttercups and greening grass. Baseball gloves and BMX bikes had been dug out of storage. The snow and mud and cabin fever of another long winter were giving way to the hopeful duo of rushing creeks and croaking frogs. All this plus the fact that I was in love with a girl named Denise, or what passes for love at age 10, which is to say an unquenchable longing for the scent of her strawberry Bonnie Bell lip gloss as I gazed at the tiny square of her school picture tacked to my bedroom wall.
As a kid from a small town in Colorado, a trip to Denver with the grandparents was a big deal, for it meant that at least three good things were going to happen.
First: the weather was going to be warm, or at least warmer than my hometown of Fraser. Everyone knows that Denver is the “Mile High City” and most associate it with skiing and blizzards (and weed), or images of the Broncos trudging through snowdrifts on Monday Night Football, but that much vaunted mile above sea level was more than three thousand feet lower and tens of degrees warmer than Fraser — a place known for July frost and winter temperatures that might hit 50 degrees below zero. In summer Denver was hot and stinky, but between September and May the elevation change offered us mountain kids a welcome respite from the bitter cold. For a few hours we might even be able to don shorts and t-shirts in the unthinkable month of March, or at least leave the parka and mittens in the car.
Second: We were going out to eat at a fast food restaurant. During my 1970’s and most of my 80’s childhood, the trio of small towns that passed for civilization in our mountain valley contained exactly one chain restaurant: Pizza Hut. This lone corporate outpost had a jukebox, a few video games (Ms. Pac Man, Tempest and Defender) AND a salad bar — high caliber amenities to be sure, but it was still just another sit down restaurant, and one that my trailer park family could not afford to visit more than once or twice each year anyway. Denver offered up honest to goodness fast food and the chance to order an actual Happy Meal at an actual McDonalds, complete with underwhelming prize and bland burger that I ordered regularly with the expectation that one day it would rise to the wondrous experience I saw on tv commercials. It never did, but that didn’t take away from the novelty of it all.
Third, and best of all: my grandparents would buy me a toy. Once in Denver, my grandparents made the requisite stops, which almost always included some kind of department store. I’d make a beeline for the toy aisles and began the deliberation process…G.I. Joe? Star Wars? Baseball bat? Model airplane? Plastic machine gun? I never paid attention to the prices, but intuition kept me below 6 dollars, as anything more than that was sure to draw scrutiny from my grandmother.
This basic going to Denver pattern — the warmth, the fast food, the toy — was as reliable as the Fords that got us there, but over time there were a couple of changes: Taco Bell instead of McDonalds, and the purchase of music rather than a toy.
I discovered music at a young age — country music — and by second grade I had taken control of the family record player in the living room and would spin my mom’s Waylon Jennings albums for hours at a time. I was kind of obsessed with the guy, even telling my mother that I was going to stop brushing my teeth so they’d be a little bit yellow just like Waylon’s booze and nicotine stained choppers on the cover of the Rambling Man record. By the start of 4th grade, circa 1981, I still loved country music, and could sing along with Waylon and Willie both, but curiosity was nudging me towards “rock” music, which nearly all of my classmates deemed to be much cooler than country — especially since the only other boy in my class who listened to country was Billy Williams, a high-strung descendant of Texans who curled his hair on picture day.
My explorations of so-called rock music began with the radio, and before long the country records were collecting dust as I slowly turned the tuning dial on the family stereo in search of something that wasn’t news, classical, or country. As I discovered the right stations — say “KBPI rocks the Rockies” in a metallic/robot sounding voice for full effect — I wrote down the frequencies, taped the list to the stereo, and delved into an entirely new realm of music.
At this point in pop culture history “rock” was an all encompassing term that included almost anything involving electric guitars, and the “rock” radio stations broadcast combinations of music — completely normal at the time — that seem a bit jarring today. “Nostalgic rock” songs from the Who and Led Zeppelin (the term “classic rock” did not yet exist) were sandwiched between the latest from the likes of Pat Benatar, Juice Newton, Judas Priest, Devo, Marvin Gaye, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Loverboy, Donna Summer, The Go-Go’s, The Motels and the endless list of 1960’s and 70’s super band rock stars putting out coke addled solo albums. It was all new to me, and soon I began capturing tunes I liked on an recycled 8-track tape…
sitting patiently through commercials…
until the first chords of the next song started…
then make a split second decision and hit the record button….
Sometimes the song was a bad one, and I’d have to play the 8 track through an entire cycle to cover up the mistake, as there was no real rewind or fast forward, but other times I lucked out and excitedly recorded a song I’d been waiting for, or randomly discovered a new one, and I soon had a couple of 8-tracks loaded with rock music.
Then our aging stereo broke, and we got a new one from Montgomery Wards that boasted — wait for it — a cassette tape player. This great technological leap forward changed everything as the battered 8-tracks gave way to the sleek Memorex. I could now sit before the stereo with gigantic padded headphones over my ears and record songs to my heart’s content, secure in the knowledge that a crappy tune by Kenny Loggins could be dubbed over in a flash, and that, thanks to the blessing of an actual rewind button, I could listen to, say, Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero” over and over again, or at least until the cassette got “eaten” by the stereo and the hot blooded hymns morphed into a tangled mess of eternally crinkled tape.
There’s no accounting for taste when you’re 10 years old, and that’s a good thing. You like what you like and that’s it. To be sure, modest peer pressure had nudged me towards rock music, but now that I’d made the leap these explorations unfolded in a judgment free zone. This was mostly due to the fact that nobody in 4th grade had the street cred necessary to rank rock bands by coolness, not yet anyway, and the genre had not yet been divided into the billions of categories and subcategories that now render the term “rock music” meaningless. This would all change in the 6th grade, when Greg Smith, inheritor of vast knowledge imparted by two older brothers, began lecturing us on how to tell the cool bands from the lame ones, and introduced us to terms like “new wave” and “heavy metal”…but for now it was all rock music, and if you liked it then you called it good and if you didn’t then you simply erased it from your tape.
This meant that my 4th grade self proudly sang along to songs by bands that would have made my high school self cringe, and even makes my 40-something year old self somewhat hesitant to commit to the public record. Styx. Asia. Toto. Kansas. Boston. Olivia Newton John. Air Supply. Saga. Night Ranger.
May, 1982: My grandparents had taken me on one of their monthly trips to Denver and we ended up at Target. For the first time ever, instead of heading for the toys I made my way to the music section, where row upon row of cassette tapes were stacked in alphabetical order, from ABBA to ZZ Top. Eventually, the sight of so much music would lead to extended, soul-searching agonies as I debated the options. But this time, this first time, I knew exactly what I wanted, and I plucked a single cassette from the stack…Journey’s Escape.
It’s painfully easy to make fun of Journey now. Their name is silly, their futuristic album artwork overdone, their music boring and the lyrics cliche or even corny, but at the time, thanks to drugs and alcohol for the adults and youthful ignorance for the kids, the band seemed like a powerhouse of musical talent and poetry. When I got my Journey tape three songs had been in heavy rotation on the radio for awhile: “Who’s Crying Now”, “Open Arms”, and “Don’t Stop Believing’, and almost four decades later all three see regular action on karaoke machines around the world, proof positive that the pain of lost love, the bliss of falling in love/reuniting with a lost love, and the search for love are timeless emotions that everyone can relate to, even 4th graders.
I played that first tape until it broke, and for a year or so I proudly called Journey my favorite band, but in the end the tape’s lasting impact wasn’t the music but the actual cassette itself: a compact nugget of sound protected by a durable plastic case. Armed with a portable tape player and my Journey tape, I migrated from the public space of the living room stereo into the solitude of my own bedroom, where I embarked on a decade and a half of daily introspective/air-guitaring music listening sessions that provided solace as I sailed the storms of middle school and puberty, high school and teenage rebellion, and an inexcusably long period of stoned adult slackerdom.
Starting with the Escape tape, and evolving onward through Duran Duran, lots of bad hair metal, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, hardcore punk and beyond, all the way to the Grateful Dead and, eventually, BACK to Waylon Jennings, my ever expanding music collection framed my understanding of how the world worked. For better or worse, the search for deep philosophy in cheesy Journey lyrics, and the pleasurable shot of dopamine triggered by catchy Journey guitar riffs laid the groundwork for a ritual that would shape my life for years to come: spending hours alone in my room listening to music and thinking about stuff.
Deep stuff like the meaning of life: “Working hard to get my fill, everybody wants the thrill.” Rebellious stuff like fighting the man: “He’s on the street, breakin’ all the rules, I’m tellin’ you that he’s nobody’s fool.” And, of course, sappy stuff like falling in love: “Lying beside you, here in the dark, feeling your heartbeat with mine”…imagining the day I could be alone with Denise and hold her, just like in Open Arms. Pining for the smell of her strawberry lip gloss. Dreaming of the moment when our nervous hands might reunite within a popcorn bucket at the Silver Screen Cinema…and our fingers clasp in greasy union…just one more time.