What was it that captured your heart when you were young, and still has a firm grip on your life? Who opened your eyes to the world, to art, to music, to transcendence? Who first touched the artist in your heart?
For me it was a rock band – Chicago – and hearing them changed my life. It was 1971.
Some of you have heard this story so many times you can repeat it back to me, but here it is again.
One hot summer afternoon in 1971 I was working in the backyard of our house on Thorpe Street in Hobbs, New Mexico. Up until that summer I had played trombone in the school band. I enjoyed band because my friends were there, but the idea of music hadn’t yet seized me. I was thinking about quitting. It was the summer leading into my sophomore year of high school and I was hungry for changes that would open up my world.
That afternoon I heard KCRS play a song by Chicago, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is.” I’d heard it many times before, but this time the DJ let the music play all the way to the end. For the first time in my life I heard the trombone solo that famously finishes that song … and, all I can say is, my life changed that day.
There’s no other way to say it. My life changed. It had to be a gift from God because no one else could have changed me so completely. The day before I heard that solo I was a goofy teenager ambivalent about everything; the day after, I was a musician. That event changed how I saw my future, it changed my thoughts about playing the trombone, it changed the trajectory of my life, it changed my heart.
It’s often surprising how so many of the things that define me as an individual started subtly. Teaching, writing, falling in love with Cyndi, moving to Midland, local politics, even how I found Jesus, the events that made the biggest differences were very quiet at the time they happened. It’s the same with music.
And yet, because of my backyard conversion in 1971, I still play my trombone weekly. I played last Sunday, and I’ll play next Sunday. Music still impacts how I write, how I see the world, how I teach, even the rhythm of my speech.
And so, this week, Tuesday night to be specific, Cyndi and I joined our friends to hear Chicago play at the Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center. And to my joy, the first song Chicago played was “Introduction,” the first track from their first album. As soon as I heard those distinct eighth notes, bump bump, a pickup and beat one, I was carried away, like magic. “Sir, I can name that song in two notes.” “Sir, I can be bought with two notes.”
In my high school years I used to lie on my bed listening to Chicago albums while studying the Sketch Scores – books with all the musical lines written out. I was fascinated how complicated the music sounded and yet how simple the actual orchestration looked on the page. How did they know how to do that? They turned simple four-bar interludes into magic, hitting the accents and dynamics together, horns and guitar trading ideas back and forth, with percussion pointing the listener to all the right places. How could they get so much energy out of simple, syncopated, unison parts?
Some people listen to music and pick up their instrument and play along. That isn’t what I did (but wish I had – I’d be a better musician now). I studied and analyzed the structures of the songs and hoped that someday I would make something happen that would be so cool. I was analyzing instead of playing. Maybe that’s why I became an engineer rather than a musician.
Here’s the thing. I’m not really writing about Chicago at all. I am writing about the power of music. I am writing about how we let something latch on to our soul and wallow in it for decades. Maybe for you it was soccer, or dance, or math, or mountains, or the beach. For me it was music, and Chicago made it happen.
If you’ve read any of my writing you know I write mostly about God and running and cycling and backpacking and spiritual growth and family and music and loving Cyndi. I can’t separate those topics. They are permanently interwoven. And to tell the truth, I like them all tied up in a Gordian Knot. I don’t care to cut them apart.
And so, I didn’t go to the Tuesday concert just to hear the same songs I can listen to any time I want. I went to reinforce a 42-year-old life-changing experience that still influences me every day. Music is one of our tightest family ties. Music is one of my deepest spiritual truths. I don’t want to let that slip away.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32