Until I was in high school, every music concert I attended, from Madonna to George Michael, was a huge event. The performer was on stage -- singing, writhing, running, dancing, flirting -- but the music and the musicians were obscured. Music was sexier than anything I'd ever known; it made me dizzy and restless. I formed a guitar out of anything (a grandparent's cane, a Little League baseball bat) and I'd strum the air. I would fake keyboard moves on a countertop and sing into hairbrushes. But the music I was hearing and the concerts I was witnessing were also mystifying and inaccessible. The music was in the room and in my body, but I had no idea how it had been assembled or how to break it apart. It was the '80s, after all, and much of what I loved was synthed-out pop and Top 40 music, programmed more than it was played.
If I wanted to learn a Madonna song, for example, I'd get the piano sheet music and plunk out a wholesome version of it on the keys. But what fun was it to basically re-virginize "Like a Virgin"? Well, it was hardly any fun at all. Alas, I remained merely a fan, an after-school bedroom lip-syncher and a family-gathering thanks-for-humoring-me entertainer, with no means of claiming the sounds as my own.
What changed, of course, was buying my first guitar and seeing my first punk and rock shows. Beginning in 10th grade, when a few of my friends were old enough to drive, I started making my way out of the suburbs and into Seattle on the weekends. Some of the shows we saw were still at bigger venues, like The Moore or Paramount Theatre: The Church, Ramones, Sonic Youth and The Jesus and Mary Chain. But most of the time, we'd go to smaller venues, like Party Hall or The OK Hotel, and we'd see Northwest-based bands like Treepeople, Kill Sybil, Hammerbox, Engine Kid, Aspirin Feast, Galleon's Lap, Christ on a Crutch and Positive Greed.
Aside from the obvious musical differences, what separated these shows from my early concert-going experiences was being close to the players themselves. I could see how the drums worked with the guitars and bass, I could watch fingers move along the frets and feet stomp down on pedals, I saw the set lists taped to the floor, and sometimes I was close enough to see the amp or pickup settings. I observed the nature of the bands, their interactions, their relationship to one another, as much as I listened. It seems obvious, but it was the first time I realized that music was playable, not just performable; that it had a process and a seed, a beginning, middle and end.
Everyone who plays music needs to have witnessed it; to have a moment that ignites and inspires them, calls them into the world of sound and urges them to make it. And I suppose that witnessing could happen aurally; perhaps it's as easy as hearing a John Lennon riff or a Bob Dylan phrase and knowing intuitively how that all works. Then you form those sounds yourself, with your own hands and your own voice. Or you could see it on a video, in footage of a musician who finally translates and unlocks what you thought was a mystery.
For me, however, I needed to be there: to see guitarists like Kim Warnick and Kurt Bloch of The Fastbacks play chords and leads, to watch them form songs that weren't coming out of thin air or from behind a curtain. I needed to press myself up against small stages, risking crushed toes, bruised sides and the unpredictable undulation of the pit, just so I could get a glimpse of who I wanted to be.
Please share the moment, musician or show you witnessed or heard that made you want to play music. And, if you don't play music, please share what first made you wish you could.