“Smoke on the Water” b/w “An American Childhood”

March 14, 2010

My memoir A Brief History of Sex Education begins in junior high and since much of it is woven with my music obsession, this blog below is a prequel of sorts . . . where it all began.

An American Life b/w “Smoke on the Water”

“The great outer world hove into view and began to fill with things that had apparently been there all along: mineralogy, detective work, lepidopterology, ponds and streams, flying, society. “

–Annie Dillard, writing in An American Childhood, about the world she wakes up to when she turns ten years old.

Annie Dillard’s list of discoveries at ten years old is certainly impressive, as is her memoir, one of the building blocks upon which almost any modern American memoir has been written. But I confess that the one time I attempted to write in the style of Annie Dillard, my teacher actually pinched my essay between his forefinger and thumb as he handed it back, because it really did stink that much. So it’s no surprise that my discoveries at ten years old were vastly different than Annie’s and not just because I still have no idea what lepidopterology is. . .

At ten years old, my joy was listening to records during break time in elementary school. Only fifth graders were awarded this privilege and we all brought in 45’s and albums, taking turns playing them on the little brown record player that was usually closed up in a corner of the classroom. Boys played air guitar along to Kiss or cracked themselves up pretending to be Alvin and the Chipmunks when they turned the 33 rpm albums up to 45 and sang along in pipsqueak voices; girls reenacted the drama of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” or taught each other the Bus Stop as we listened to the Bee Gees or Andy Gibb or Shawn Cassidy.

I loved music and dancing far better than sitting at my desk doing math problems or grammar exercises, but the music we listened to was nothing more than background noise to me, a beat to move my body to. My discovery at ten years old, my awakening to the great outer world, came during a rainy, indoor recess in a classroom that had yet to fill with students still trickling in after lunch. When Chris Smith slipped Deep Purple’s Machine Head out of its sleeve and dropped the needle on “Smoke on the Water,” I walked over and stood directly next to the player instantly drawn by those fat, pulsing opening chords.

“What is this?” I said to Chris, and he handed me the cover so I could see the strange, stretched-out photo of the band all clouded in purple, these five dark guys looking nothing like the smiling Shawns or Barrys or Andys of the world, or even the cartoonish freaks from Kiss with their makeup and glittery clothes.

“Is it new?” I asked and Chris just pointed to the date on the back cover that showed the song was already five years old. I stood, transfixed by the heavy beat and the growl of the lead singer, wondering how it was I’d never heard anything like it before. Five years “Smoke on the Water” had been around while I’d been listening to Barry Manilow and watching American Bandstand and cutting out pictures of Elton John from Dynomite magazine to put up on my wall. All that time wasted. What else had I missed out on?

“Where did you get it?” I asked Chris, and he smirked and said, “My house.”

“Ha, ha,” I said, embarrassed that he’d had enough of my grilling him, but undeterred from my new obsession. Maybe a lot of people think the song is just a cliche now, and maybe I have heard better songs since, or seen better bands play right in front of me, but that song was where the world cracked open, where it would never be the same again. I stared as the vinyl spun around on the turntable, then I closed my eyes and let the music fill me up. When the next song got underway, I handed the album cover back to Chris and told him, “Play it for me again.”

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