When The Light Came On

A lot about me comes from my dad. My name, first of all. The way I think, my sports fanaticism, my appreciation for reading, my appetite for learning. My love of good food and desire to produce good food. Our family structure was somewhat different, you see -- mom worked, dad stayed at home. (He won’t admit he agrees, but I say the smartest thing he ever did was marry a doctor.) This meant that dad was around whenever I was, and it’s unsurprising a lot of him is reflected in me. Perhaps the most important lesson he imparted -- one for which I’m incredibly thankful -- was about what music really is.

Dad loved music in his pre-children days. His library is wide-ranging and impressive: drawers upon drawers in random storage areas, boxes upon boxes in garage corners, thousands of files semi-legally downloaded during the Napster era. When my future son Declan Ray Kataja is 22 and writing for a fledgling music blog, my entire music library will probably be contained on a chip I have implanted in my wrist or behind my eye or something weird.

Having kids put a bit of a damper on dad’s ability to extensively listen to and accumulate new music. Priorities, I guess. When your baby cries every 2 hours to eat (that’s me; I was a fatty), eliminating the sound of crying must become far more important than listening to the sounds you like. And then it was the “all sports phase,” where I was planning on going pro in soccer, baseball, and swimming, and my dad was planning on how to get away with “disappearing” all the annoying kids in the carpool. A somewhat depressing tidbit I learned from dad is that from birth until middle school, parents can just block off their calendar for 12 years with “trying to keep offspring alive and reasonably happy,” even if they stay at home. Hell, especially if they stay at home.

At 12, though, offspring reach some threshold level of self-sufficiency, and me-time becomes more of a thing for parents again. Luckily for my dad, his resurgence in availability coincided with my burgeoning interest in music. I started playing guitar. I had a fairly built-out iTunes library of deliciously middle-school songs. I started wearing tighter jeans (shouts to swimming for de-fattying me) (Ed. Note from Ian Porter: shouts to swimming for de-fattying me, too). At 12, I thought I knew what music was about. In one night, with one album, my dad took that notion and basically said

I think it was a weekend. I know it was just him and me -- my mom and sister were elsewhere. It was dark outside, after dinner. Normally, I’d be playing video games or IMing girls I was too nervous to talk to in person.“Darren, come in here with me. I want to show you something.” Ugh, okay dad. * Puts up away message on AIM *

“In here” referred to our media room, which was the focal point of an addition to our house. This room was pretty state-of-the-art for its time. Big TV, lights which were controlled by the remote, a DVD player (!!). Most importantly, surround sound technology with top-notch speakers. The main couch was located in the prime listening zone; the middle cushion was the epicenter of the whole system. We both sat there. Dad turned the lights off, turned the volume to 11, and started playing Abbey Road, the great Beatles album from 1969. The ensuing 47 minutes and 23 seconds were soul-shifting.

This wasn’t the first time I had listened to Abbey Road. It was certainly the first time I heard it. The opening bass riff of “Come Together”, bellowing out below John Lennon’s ever-so-slightly crazed whisper, hit me in a way no other song had hit me before. The album continued, through the desire in “Something,” the weirdly playful murder in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” the painful breakup in “Oh! Darling”, the fantasy world of “Octopus’s Garden.” Each song loud in surround sound, uninterrupted, pounding away at 12-year-old me who had probably listened to Panic! At The DIsco earlier that day (still listen to them, btw). I loved every second of it, but I didn’t fully understand exactly why this experience was so different from every other time I listened to music.

The moment of clarity come during “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” (Note: best listened to loud. Like, bug your roommate loud.)

This song is just under 8 minutes long and has exactly 13 words, and it may be the most powerful song I’ve ever experienced. Everything about it is packed with emotion. The opening guitar conveys the same desperation as the vocals. The organ and bass add to the frenzy. Every instrument is saying the same thing: I want you so bad, it’s driving me mad.

Sometime during this song, the light came on for me. It wasn’t a light that relieved me from darkness, but one that made me realize I had no idea I was in the dark. This is how music is supposed to be. Listening to music is an activity done by your ears. Hearing music requires your ears, but also needs your mind, your heart. It gets at your soul. It makes you think. Damn, I’ve never felt what John Lennon felt to write that song. Those girls on AIM don’t have me feelin like that. When will I feel like that? Will I ever? Did he even write it about girls? Bruhhh...

I could go on forever about what else I took away from that playing of Abbey Road, and you should listen through it yourself if you haven’t, but everything comes back to this: really engaging music with everything you’ve got makes it so much better. A simple lesson in hindsight, but a powerful one when really understood for the first time. My dad taught me a lot of lessons -- including not to eat yellow snow, which has come in handy these last couple weeks in Chapel Hill -- but few were as important as this. When Declan is 12, he’s in for a treat.