And as we wind on down the road

I can’t think of a song that I’ve heard more often–or that I have more memories about–than Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s almost a rock-n-roll cliche, because it’s been played and played and played again in the forty years since it was released. But it is the epic rock song by the greatest rock band there’s ever been, so maybe it deserves all the attention it gets.

I bring this up because this afternoon, I drove into downtown Chicago. I had a teenager and two younger kids in the car with me, and they wanted to listen to the hit music stations as we drove. And yet, after about ten minutes in the car, we reached the northernmost reaches of Lake Shore Drive.

The hit stations all had commercials on, so I tuned the radio in to the Loop, which I’ve listened to for decades now. And they’ve probably played the song as many times over the years as any other station has, and more than   most.

I remember a radio station in Albuquerque a few years ago that celebrated a change in its format by playing “Stairway to Heaven” repeatedly, over and over again, for 24 hours straight. At about eight minutes a play, that’s about 7 plays per hour, or more than 150 plays over the course of a single day. But if the Loop plays the song just once a day–which seems reasonable enough to me–it’s been played well over 10,000 times over the years. And it will be played 10,000 more times in the decades to come. It’s a song that I’m sure will always find an audience.

As I got onto Lake Shore Drive, the song progressed through the verses, and none of the children in the car wanted the song to be changed. Perhaps they weren’t paying attention to it, and perhaps they liked the song. But whatever the reason was, I didn’t get any resistance to it.

By the time the drums came in, just before the “if there’s a bustle in your hedgerow” line, we we’re starting to get closer to downtown, and the skyline was coming into view. The first time that I saw the Chicago skyline from Lake Shore Drive was back in the late 1980s, and I’ll never forget I was in a car with U2’s “Bad” playing on the radio. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen, in the purplish glow of an early evening. I told myself I had to live in Chicago someday, and I have done that for more than twenty years now.

As we approached the overpass at North Avenue, Jimmy Page’s guitar solo took flight. I’ve often though that the music soars, however briefly. There are certainly longer guitar solos, and possibly flashier guitar solos, but if there’s a better one at bringing a song to its fullest potential, I’ve never heard it. And after 30+ years of listening, that’s saying something.

The song came to its conclusion, as Robert Plant crooned the final few notes, just as we had crossed the Chicago River. I couldn’t say how many times I had heard the song before, but the visual treat of hearing it on my way into downtown Chicago made it just that much better.

The kids didn’t need to ask for the radio station to be changed when the song was over. I changed it myself, knowing that whatever the Loop played next was going to pale in comparison. Some things just can’t be improved upon.

Yes I’m back

At the end of a long and uneventful commute to work this morning, I had to stay in the car for an extra minute or so. I was in the middle of listening to AC/DC’s Back in Black on the radio, and nothing I could find in the office would be any better than that.

It’s funny what you can remember sometimes. This morning, once I turned the car off and headed into the building I work in, I recalled the very first book I ever read as part of a class. It was 1981, and I was struggling to get through eighth grade. I was a geeky, awkward kid, and I was transitioning into adolescence. It sucked to be me back then.

But I was beginning to get into music a little bit, and AC/DC was a big part of that. Back in Black was, and probably always will be, the album that I could always put on and listen to, start to finish. I wonder if, in the thirty-plus years since the album came out, that there’s ever been a day where a rock station like the Loop in Chicago hasn’t played at least one song from it. It wouldn’t surprise me if the answer to that was “no.”

So back to the geek-boy for a moment. My 8th grade teachers had assigned us all to read “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck. I’m not sure how I learned of the existence of Cliff’s Notes, but I acquired a copy to help me understand the parts of the book I didn’t get. Cliff actually helped me get through high school, now that I think about it.

But on the cover of my Cliff’s Notes for “The Good Earth” were dozens of handwritten AC/DC logos, including the lightning bolt between the letters in the middle. I just thought that looked especially cool, so I made sure to include it. Somewhere on this planet there’s a Cliff’s Notes covered with AC/DC logos, courtesy of a confused and awkward young kid in Springfield, Illinois. I actually smiled at the thought of this, too.

So whenever one of the songs from that album, or any other song that AC/DC ever did, comes on the radio, I make sure to listen to it. And I’m glad that music takes me back, not to a time that I would ever want to re-live, but at least to a time and a place that I can still remember, while appreciating all that’s happened since then.

Just gotta get out, Just gotta get right outta here

I was pulling my car into the garage this morning, after taking my daughter to her insanely early school bus. The semester ends this week, so progress is being made on her education, but I’ve never been–and will never be–a morning person, so getting out of bed so early certainly does suck.

Anyway, I was listening to my long-time radio station, the Loop in Chicago. The Loop is like an old friend to me, and even if I turn to other stations once in a while, I always come back to 97.9 FM. I hope that everyone has a station like that in their lives.

Back in the late 80s, when I was in college and new to Chicago, there were really only two radio stations I could listen to: the aforementioned Loop, and WCKG, which was the “Classic Rock’ station at that time. Today, unfortunately, that station is no more. Well, it does still exist technically, but it’s the sister station to the local news station, the one that gives the traffic reports every few minutes. You probably have a station like that where you live, too.

Every few minutes, the news station will repeat its call letters and frequency, for both the AM and FM stations, and it’s a bit jarring to hear the one-time “Classic Rock” station now grouped in with the AM news station. But change is inevitable, and life always goes on.

All of which makes the Loop that much more remarkable. They’re still where they are, playing the music that I’ve loved since I was a teenager. Stability is important, and the Loop has certainly given me that.

Why do I bring this up here? Well, because Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was playing on the Loop  after my daughter’s bus arrived, and pulling the car into the garage gave me a chance for a “Wayne’s World” moment. Here it is, in case you want to have one for yourself. Enjoy!

Then and now

After taking my little one to skating practice this morning, lacing up her skates and listening to the details from a sleepover party last night, I went out to the car and found a penny in the parking lot. As I have written about before in this space, I picked it up and looked at the year the penny was minted. And the year I saw–1986–may well have been the most momentous one in my life to this point. In fact, it was the turning point.

The picture above shows me as I was in 1986. I’m in the middle column, at the bottom of the page. The picture was taken by a local photographer, and it appeared in my high school yearbook as well. Seniors had their pictures published in color, while everyone else had to settle for smaller pictures in black and white. Rank has its privileges, both then and now.

The book that this page was taken from appeared in was what we all called the “Freshman facebook.” It’s funny how today everybody knows about Facebook in a different sense. But I, and all the rest of my classmates, were in a facebook of a different sort. And this is helpful for getting at who I was back then.

My name appears along with my nickname and home address. I never actually lived in Springfield, Illinois, but in a small village–a suburb, actually–that bordered Springfield. In hindsight, I wish I had just put Jerome, Illinois as my mailing address, since it did set me apart from nearly everyone else that I knew back then. But setting yourself apart from the herd is not something that the 18-year old version of me wanted to do. Thankfully, I’m more willing to do that now.

Below my address (and somebody lives there today, but not me or my family) are my interests which, if I had been completely honest about it, would have also included drinking beer, but I couldn’t publicly own up to that. The interests that I was willing to share with all of my soon-to-be classmates are kind of funny: basketball (Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, particularly), baseball (anyone who’s ever read this blog knows about that), and rock music (see yesterday’s post about Van Halen’s tour for evidence of that). The basketball interest has faded somewhat, but the other interests are still right up there, a quarter of a century later.

Below my interests are the place I graduated from high school (which no longer exists) and my intended major. I viewed political science as my pre-law major, and even though my school didn’t have a pre-law curriculum, I had every intention at that point in my life of becoming a lawyer some day. Fate had other ideas, as it so often does, but without fate I wouldn’t have been in Northwestern’s freshman facebook to begin with (there’s more about that here).

I drove home from the skating rink, turning 1986 over in my head, and thinking about how different I am from the person who occupied that space at the bottom of page 52. I wondered what the 2012 me and the 1986 me would say to each other. That sort of thing pops up on Twitter every so often, with a hashtag like “#thingsIwouldtelltheyoungerme.” I have become, in many ways, what the younger me wanted to become, but would never say so publicly.

I’ve lived into my 40s, which I’ve learned that not everybody gets to do. I have a family, with a wife and a dog and two kids I would do anything for. I also own a house in a historic part of a city that I love almost as much as my family. I drive two cars–a hybrid and a minivan–which didn’t exist back in 1986 but serve their purpose very well. I have seen some of the world, which the 18 year me had not yet done. I have a career that has allowed me to do some interesting things, while not also consuming my every waking moment. I drink coffee–which the 18 year old me would have thought impossible–but I don’t drink  alcohol, which the 18 year old me would have though equally as impossible. And I still love rock and roll, and am looking forward to concerts by some of the same performers that I listened to back then. The 18 year old me would have really loved the Loop.

The place I’m at in life today is the result of the course I began charting back in 1986. I was on my own, for the first time in my life, and I enjoyed all of the freedoms that came with this. But I stayed on the path, not knowing where it was going to end up. And this morning–as I’m hearing my older daughter laugh with a friend in the next room while writing down some thoughts to share with the wider world–I must say that I am happy with how things have turned out.

One of my favorite songs back in 1986 was “Foreplay/Long Time” from Boston’s debut album. The lyrics of that song include the lines “I’ve got to keep on chasing a dream/or I may never find it”. I left my parents home in 1986 to chase a dream that I couldn’t define very well back then, but what I’ve found since then fits the bill better than anything I could have imagined. I’m not a millionaire or a celebrity or anything that a typical 18 year-old fancies himself to be one day, but I am a middle-aged, middle class dad who knows what really matters in life, and has everything that he needs to have. And I’ll take that every day of the year.