Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Epilogue: How to end a story

It's been many years since I lived in Sandy.

I've lived away from Woodchuck Way longer than I lived on that street, and still it has more power than any place I've ever been, to pull me back.

It's barely recognizable to me anymore. The homes are older. The trees are taller. Even the shape of the streets themselves seem different. Only memories remain.

Places change, memories last.

And, I have to figure out how to end my story.

The story I've tried to tell, is the story of how my life has been shaped. It was formed, in no small part, by my childhood home. It was a magical place and time, and I don't use that word lightly. When I think about the streets I walked, and the friends I knew, and the adventures and experiences we shared, it feels deliberate. It feels like it was meant to be. It feels like it was written somewhere -- maybe in the stars.

It feels like magic.

And the most magical thing of all was finding a match and a compliment, to my own soul.

There are best friends, and then there are best friends. It's a hard relationship to explain to someone who has not experienced it. Aaron Ball changed my life. He shaped my life. He's not my neighbor. He's not just my friend. He's not my brother.

Those are inadequate terms.

Best friend is the best we've come up with, but it doesn't scratch the surface.

It's not enough to say I'd give my life for Aaron. If I get wherever we're going after this life before he does, I'll be saving his place in line, and he'll cross that threshold first. That's the way it should be.  I owe him that.

The story of my friendship with Aaron will never end.

But, when you write a story, there has to be an ending...

Are we like Butch and Sundance, going out in a blaze of glory?

Are we Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, receiving accolades and applause?

Or, does this story end like the end of a Peanuts Special -- with Aaron and I standing at a brick wall, reflecting on what we have experienced, and what we have learned?

Or is it like Pooh and Christopher Robin, reticent to to leave, pledging our unending loyalty to one other?

Actually, there is a perfect ending.

It's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

White washing the fence. Or chasing pirates on far away islands. Or lazily dangling feet off of a raft, in a cool river, on a lazy summer afternoon. Pledging blood brotherhood. It's mischief without the mayhem. It's never ending loyalty. It's forever looking at horizons, and dreaming of the next adventure.

Tom and Huck, barefoot on a dusty backroad...the sun shining bright...the sky deep blue...walking toward the future, and never quite stepping out of the past.

Leaving one story behind, just in time to start writing the next one.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Conclusion: Ghosts

I'm surrounded by ghosts.

They crowd around me as I write, and whisper about all the things I've forgotten.

When I go back to Sandy, they appear to me, and they follow me. The streets fill with children I once knew.  I see them as they would appear on a summer morning -- in cut off jeans, striped socks and tennis shoes. I can taste the acrid puff of smoke, from a cap gun. I can smell the pungent odor of a new rubber bike tire. I see a phantom apparition of the street I grew up on -- Woodchuck Way. The trees on our block in this vision are young. The yards of the houses are not fenced. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my face and arms, and the mountain breeze blows out of the canyon, and through my hair. 

I can hear the clink of empty glass soda bottles in garages, and smell that faintly dusty smell of an unfinished basement. All the colors are different. They are sun bleached, and faded. And they are colors we don't use anymore...rust and goldenrod and brown. I don't see any parents. I know they're there, but I don't see them. They're behind the doors and windows, doing things that grown ups do -- worrying, sacrificing, paying...and forgetting about us...

I can taste the light, empty flavor of Wonder Bread and Oscar Mayer Bologna and Kraft Singles and the tangy zip of Miracle Whip. I breathe in the powder of unmixed Tang -- I drank a lot of Tang, because astronauts drank Tang.

I can smell the very distinct vinyl smell of a newly opened Star Wars action figure.

Other times the ghosts are walking our long streets, on a dusky October evening. The western sky fades away, as the darkness in the east is pulled across the sky, like a blanket of clouds and stars. The last of the fallen leaves are kicked up by an autumn breeze. Skeletons and pumpkins and goblins stare down from the windows of the houses, with red eyes, on the hundreds of children letting screen doors slam shut behind them, on the way to the greatest trick-or-treating neighborhood of all time.

The ghosts fade in and out. Some are holding on to the bumpers of cars, as they slide down the street, on a slushy, snowy day. Others are walking to school, endlessly walking to school, day after day, in their own tribes. I see the apparitions of Cub Scouts and Brownies.

Houses disappear, and fields upon fields of sage brush and scrub oak grow in their place like the world is spinning in reverse. Kids on plastic wheeled roller skates, whir by on the sidewalk, and boys with dirt bikes jump the curbs. There is still a large boulder near the canyon, painted like an American flag. I can smell the briny odor of the Great Salt Lake, on the edge of a summer thunderstorm. I can feel green shag carpet between my toes. I can smell the tar from a repaved street.

I see girls and boys playing together. Games in the street. Hide and seek in the backyards. Kissing tag. Kick ball. I can hear the click, click, click of a plastic jump rope, hitting the schoolyard blacktop. I can hear the crunch of gravel, as pretty girls do cherry drops off of the monkey bars. I can feel the wind in my face, and strain of pumping my legs to go higher and higher, in the playground swings. Back when we weren't afraid of playground swings.

Sometimes the apparitions are somber. Images of families that moved away. Families that didn't stay together. Friends that left our neighborhood and our lives too soon, some for inexplicably sad reasons. The memories are bittersweet, but the faces of these friends are youthful, and smiling -- the way they want us to remember them. 

The scene I see from above, is a constellation of homes, shining brightly. They are the houses that I knew from floor to ceiling. They are the houses where friends lived. The brightest star is the one at the end of Woodchuck Way, where a red headed, freckled force of nature lived.

The ghosts beckon me to stay, and I think I want to...

It's tempting to think that things were better in the past. Time softens our memories, and rounds off the sharp edges. We know that we didn't fully appreciate what we had. We thought everyone had it as good as we did, and now we know that not everyone did. We have learned that our neighborhood, and our friendships were extraordinary. We have come to know the worth of our treasure, and we feel it's lost, stuck in a memory, caught between worlds.

Like a ghost.

But, the truth is, it's never been far away. Those ghosts that gather around me to whisper about the things I've forgotten, also show me that what is most important never left me. The treasures of greatest worth are the ones that become a part of you.

We are the sights and sounds and smells of our childhood. We are our memories. We are sculpted by the experiences we have, and even more, by the friends with which we surround ourselves. We are the product of one another and we are each other's greatest masterpieces.

I like to visit with the ghosts, and I love to hear their stories, but the greatest treasure of my childhood is the story that is still being written. The story of friends who are still friends.

The story of friends, born in a new world, raised in optimism and innocence, who played and laughed and ran and jumped...who saw the world as a big, wide opportunity.

It's the story of friends who will always be friends.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Icons: The Painted Rock

Early on, in the history of our neighborhood, there were only two ways in or out -- you could go west to the freeway, or east to Wasatch Boulevard.

Going east, meant climbing the steep incline of 9400 South, which leveled off as it approached the small community of Granite. This was the gateway to the canyons and the ski resorts, and La Caille -- the french restaurant so expensive and swanky that no one who lived within twenty miles of it could afford to dine there.

Actually, Aaron and I went there for senior prom (not just with each other...we had dates), and all we could afford was desert -- twenty bucks a person. There's quite a story here, but it's rather embarrassing for me to tell, because it involves the awkward hormones of a teenage boy, and the revealing french peasant girl costumes of the female servers at La Caille...

Incidentally, La Caille means "The Quail."

Go figure.

But, I'm derailing my own train of thought...

As you traveled east, before you got to the canyon, and just past the road that led to Granite Elementary, and the little chapel on the right...just on the left, where the road bends, there was a giant boulder. This boulder was not just a rock in a meadow, it was a community sign post.

You couldn't miss it. It was painted -- not with graffiti (per se), but with pictures and messages. And it changed, sometimes frequently, and sometimes it stayed the same for months. I never saw anyone paint it. I assume that it was done clandestinely at night, but I could be wrong about that. I don't think anyone was necessarily trying to hide the fact that they were doing it.

It wasn't vandalism, it was a genuine, organic piece of folk art.

We called it the Painted Rock. Because we were clever like that.

The images I remember most clearly revolve around the holidays. It was the perfect shape to paint into a giant jack-o-lantern. On Independence Day you would often find a flag. In 1976, it was painted as a flag, with the a 76 in the field of stars. I assume it was probably an Easter Egg and a Turkey too. The Painted Rock was always someone's art project. But, it was more than that...

The rock was a community billboard. This was where the newlywed and the newly born were celebrated. This was where those returning were welcomed home. It's where important things were remembered.

After some digging, I found that there is more to the story than I ever knew. Ten years ago, a man from Granite, named Allen Bishop, wrote the story (all of the pictures here are from his article). It was his father who commissioned the first paint job -- while trying to relieve the boredom of some of the young men under his watch, as the bishop of the ward in that area. Bishop and his friends were often the ones who painted the rock, especially early on -- including the Bicentennial Rock. That first paint job was in 1964.

Allen Bishop was writing in 2002, after the rock had been unceremoniously dumped in a hole and buried by a local developer, with little input from the community. His story was an exercise in civic government, and an attempt to explain to the local city council that the rock was a community treasure, and deserved to be exhumed. More than eighty percent of the locals polled agreed. The county government (as well as UDOT)  got involved, and agreed that the rock could be exhumed, provided the people paid to dig it up, and found a different place to put it. All of that was accomplished...and yet...

Twelve years later, the Painted Rock remains buried where it fell.

There are no plaques to commemorate the rock, or what it meant to the people of Sandy and Granite. There is no memorial of this treasure, or to the people who cared so lovingly for it, for 38 years. Graffiti was not unheard of on the rock, but it never lasted long. Someone would always make it beautiful again. I wish there were more pictures, or a book to commemorate all that this boulder meant to so many.

The Painted Rock was as much a part of our community as our homes and churches, our schools and our grocery stores. It was identifiable and unique. Returning from anywhere, it was the Painted Rock that always signaled to me that I was almost home -- including in 1991, when my best friend Aaron, and I assume his merry band of vandals, welcomed me home, from my mission. It was a treasured piece of us, but sometimes treasure is taken for granted...

We passed the rock every time we went up the canyons. I drove past it every day, on the way to high school. It was always there. It always would be.

And then, I took my eyes off of it, and it disappeared.

As the years wore on, the painting became less artistic, and more of a mess. I don't know when I saw it last. One day, it wasn't there anymore.

Maybe it was right to bury it. Maybe progress has to progress. Homes are built, and streets are widened. Maybe it was a piece of history that lived it's life in a simpler time. Maybe something as quaint as the Painted Rock has no place in our world today.

And maybe we should have appreciated it when we had the chance.

And then again, maybe we did.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Sev

I know it by the smell. 

If you took me into a 7-11, blindfolded, I would still know where I was. They all smell the same inside, every one of them. And they always have. 

Our little neighborhood in Sandy was a developing residential area. We didn't have a main street, or a shopping district. There were no small town stores or movie theaters or comic book stores or fire stations or barber shops -- just houses, a few churches and a couple of schools. If we needed groceries, there was a Smith's Food King, out on 9400 South -- the main road that bordered our neighborhood on the south side, but that was a little farther than young kids dared to venture -- you had to cross a vast dirt field to get there by foot. 

Which means if we, as kids, had some birthday money, or weekly allowance, to blow, we had only other option....

Attached to the last street of our neighborhood, like a barnacle, or a growth, stood the 7-11. 

The Sev, we called it. 

In those days, our 7-11 was a small town American Main Street rolled into one location. 

It was our malt shop -- our soda fountain. In the 70's and 80's, malts were Coca Cola flavored Slurpees, and Big Gulps. You could have the 32 oz. Big Gulp, the 44 oz Super Big Gulp or, starting in 1988, the 64 oz Double Gulp. The last one was so big, that at first it came in something resembling a milk carton. 64 oz doesn't seem so big these days. That's kind of sad, now that I think of it...

It was our corner candy store. And the candy was the kind to catch a kid's fancy -- Fun Dip. Nerds. Wax Cola Bottles. Tootsie Pops -- supposedly the Indian and the Star got you a free sucker (or bag of suckers, depending on which urban legend you subscribed to...I never got a free sucker). Candy necklaces -- it's hard to eat something you're wearing. Pixie Stix. Hubba Bubba Bubble Gum. Bubble Yum Bubble Gum. Big League Chew. Fruit Stripe Gum. Jolly Ranchers. 

And the most taboo candy of all: candy cigarettes (you couldn't pretend to "smoke" for very long, because they were pure sugar, and dissolved instantly in your mouth. 

The 7-11 was our book store. Or at least our magazine store. Ok, our comic book shop. Right there on the rack next to Us Weekly, People Magazine and Soap Opera Digest, sat the latest comic from Marvel -- The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones. Or Spiderman. Or Superman. Or the Archie gang. 

It was also our arcade. There were always two video games in the corner of the store, back by the cooler, just inside the front window. Pole Position. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Pac Man. Galaga. And, my personal favorite, Karate Champ. 8 bits of electronic glee!

It was our delicatessen, and our bakery -- though I could never bring myself to try one on the hot dog like items, turning endlessly on the heated rollers. I'm not convinced they were actually hot dogs...they were so dehydrated and shriveled that I'm not sure you could actually bite through them. 

And, maybe most importantly, the 7-11 was where we got free air for our bike tires. 

The one thing as ubiquitous as kids in Sandy, was the ever present sticker -- the Tribulus Terrestris, also known as the Goat's Head thorn. 

This weed was everywhere, and it produced a nasty, spiky little thorn. We got them in our feet. We got them in our hands. But mostly, we got them in our bike tires. Every kid in Sandy learned to patch a bike tire, and after you got the patch on, you pumped in just enough air to get you to the 7-11, because there you could inflate your tires to twice the recommended PSI. Even if you didn't need air in your tires, if you were at the Sev, you let some air out, so you'd have an excuse to use the hissing air hose. 

Hey, free air. 

On a hot summer day, a trip to The Sev was almost a given. We'd start out, and often pick up friends on the way, and there was a good chance once you arrived at the 7-11, any number of other friends would be coming or going. You stopped and chatted. Swapped candy and stories. 

The 7-11 was the closest thing we had to a social gathering place. It was where we went to feel like grown ups. It was where we satisfied our sugar cravings and got a head start on the root canals of later years. It was where we drank in the taste of summer, and caught up with the latest news and gossip. 

I've never quite figured out what it is that makes a 7-11 smell the way it does, but maybe, just maybe, that is the smell of small town America, with a suburban 1980's twist, sprinkled with Slurpees and free air, and the tangy metallic taste of a quarter dropping into Karate Champ, intermingled with Grape Bubble Yum, and candy cigarettes, topped off by the fragrance of kids in various states of cleanliness and the odor of ten day old hot dogs. 

Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's it. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Three is a magic number: Ami

I've alluded to this, but it's time to put it into words.

I have a lot of friends. I always have. It's a natural result of genuinely liking almost everyone I've ever met. If you ask me what the secret to a happy life is? It's a simple answer.

Just one word: friendship.

Friends celebrate the victories and milestones by your side, and carry you over the crevasses and through the dark hollows of life. The highest compliment I have in my vocabulary is the word friend -- not because it's something special to be my friend, but because of the privilege it is for me to know you as a friend.

I have one friend, that I've known longer than any other -- even longer than Aaron Ball.

Ami Quintero (now Jackson).

It is one of the great privileges of my life, to have known Ami as a friend. Both Aaron and I have talked about this at length. In every picture of the great experiences of our childhood, Ami is there. It was the three of us. It was not right, if it wasn't the three of us. When one of us couldn't be there, the other two just sort of milled around and waited...

Of all the things we did together, one moment in time became legendary. I suspect all three of us remember it like it was yesterday...

The scene: 1980; The Quintero's carport -- it wasn't a garage yet.

In these days of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and G-Force, our imaginations were fertile ground. We craved adventure, and the greatest adventures we could find were within our minds. At the time of this story, our current project was making up our own radio dramas (for lack of a better term), and recording them on a tape recorder. Very recently there had been a television special called Battle Beyond the Stars, which I don't think any of us saw, but we co-opted the title -- with a twist.

Title: Battle Beyond Space. 

All of these dramas were made up on the fly, and stuck pretty close to the same script -- the three of us in a space ship, or on some far away world, battling alien armies. We were going on eight and nine. It was just as good as you imagine it was. We did our best to edit on the tape recorder as we went, but there were a lot of pauses and ums and a whole lot that made no sense at all.  Everything we recorded was on a tape recorder that Aaron swiped from his dad, and a handful of Bonneville tapes that we found laying around his house. As you can imagine, despite our earnest attempt at creating believable science fiction, our budget for special effects was non existent.

Which is what makes this story legendary (in our minds...)

On this particular day we were telling the story of a spaceship battle. We were locked in mortal combat with aliens from a distant galaxy. Our little band of three stood between the alien menace, and the loss of freedom in the universe. It was a desperate struggle. Shots and tense glances were exchanged. The outcome was in doubt, and as we fought, high above an unknown planet, our ship took a direct hit...

At this point, Aaron exclaims into the microphone:


And, at the perfect moment -- as though there was a director of screen yelling "Action!" -- a very noisy motorcycle went tearing down Woodchuck Way, and our little tape recorder picked it up...

I remember distinctly all three of us stopping, and staring at each other.

Did that really just happen...?

Then we all went for the tape recorder at the same time, everyone's fingers going for the rewind button.





That ship was going down in flames! Never had three people been so happy to be aboard a crashing spaceship. To our seven and eight year old ears, that sounded like a big time Hollywood sound effect.
It sounded like something we would hear in Star Wars.

We stopped right there. That was the end of the story -- our heroes went down in flames. I don't know that we ever recorded another show, but for days afterward, we listened to that ten seconds of tape so many times, that the moment is burned in my memory forever.

(Ami, I don't know if we ever told you this, but about ten years later Aaron and I found an old box of Bonneville tapes in his room, and started listening to them. We found this recording. It was as magical to us at seventeen as it had been at seven).

There are more memories of Ami than I have words or space to write. She was there in the snows of Hoth, and the forests of Endor. She transmuted with us aboard the Fiery Phoenix. She trekked through the scrub oak "jungles" of the Dirt Hills with us, as we played Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Ami even made up words to the Raiders March (Main Theme, from Raiders of the Lost Ark), and here they are (you know the tune):

Here comes Indy -- ana Jones
And his wi --ife, Mari -- uh-un too
Not to mention, little tots
And they're off to adventure,
And happiness
Eh-eh-very where!

I can't listen to the music from Indiana Jones without hearing those words. :)

My life is infinitely better for knowing Ami. She was a softening influence on two boys, who were all boy. Because of Ami, I am a kinder and gentler person. When I think of her, I think of drinking shasta on my back patio, and jumping on the trampoline with the sprinkler underneath. I think of eating plums off of the tree in her back yard. I think of turning over our bicycles and churning the pedals to make "ice cream." Eating the worst cereal of all time on a Saturday morning and watching The Super Friends.

She was the pretty girl across the street, with the brown eyes and the long dark hair, and the exotic name: Aminta Christina...the first girl I ever kissed (when I was all of about six), in my bathroom, with the door shut, on my tiptoes, because she was six inches taller than I was...

(Ami, you may not know this either -- Aaron and I used to stage boxing matches in his basement. The prize was always a girl -- and often it was you. No doubt, you're flattered :)

In my memory Ami is sunshine and smiles and sweetness. She's Leia and Wonder Woman and Princess. She's softness and sleepovers and space ships. I remember laying out on her back porch, on summer nights, when the only care in the world was making sure that tomorrow's adventure was better than today's. We would look up into the blackness of space -- the place we all longed to go -- and watch the blinking stars. We would trace the constellations in the night sky, and talk late into the night, until slowly, eventually, we'd drift off to sleep.

Then morning would come, and we'd start it all over.

Ami and I have followed paths that have led us far from each other, for many years. But, in the years she lived across the street from me, she became one of my best friends.

And, in my world, that means that you're never far away.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mixing it up

And, while we listened faithfully, hour after hour, for that one song -- the perfect song -- sometimes you just need a certain song, at a certain time...

The right song at the right time is the difference between a great moment and a legendary one.

A moment is not simply a measurement of time, it's snapshot of life. It's a memory, and we know that the more of your senses you employ in creating a memory, the better chance it has to last. Think about that dance from when you were a kid. You know the one I mean...

You see the whirling lights, and the girl there before you (this one is mine, sorry).

You see the crowded dance floor.

You see the fog machine.

You feel the hardness of the gym floor, beneath your feet.

You feel her close to you.

You feel her hand in yours.

You feel her head on your shoulder.

You smell a potpourri of perfume, cologne, hairspray, sweat and whatever that smell is from the fog machine (I swear they were blowing deodorant onto the dance floor...).

But it's the song that ties it all together. The melody moves you. The lyrics inspire you. It's the song that takes you back there, even now.

And that's the power of the right song, at the right time.

It's immortal.

Before iPods, before play lists, before itunes and napster, there was the mixtape...

Let me back up and get a running start at this, for anyone reading who maybe unfamiliar with what a tape is. A cassette tape, to be precise:

Cas*sette (kuh-set)
1. Also called cassette tape. A compact case, containing a length of magnetic tape that runs between two small reels: used for recording or playback in a tape recorder, or cassette deck. The word came into usage in the 1950's, and is derived from the french casse, meaning box.

Basically it was like carrying around your own reel to reel tape machine. It was revolutionary. It could record music. It could be erased and re-recorded. We didn't buy records, or albums, or CD's -- we bought tapes. It could get tangled, and then things went south fast. It could break, and if you were very careful, it could be repaired. Most importantly, it was portable.

Recorded sound had been around for roughly a century, but until the cassette tape, it was never more portable than the clunky phonographs of the previous generation. (We're not going to mention 8 Track Tapes -- even though I may, or may not, have spent hours listening to an 8 track recording of Debbie Boone singing "You Light Up My Life." Don't judge me). But the small size of a cassette tape enabled you to carry music everywhere you went -- in your car, in your boom box, in your Walkman (that's a whole other post -- a Walkman was a primitive iPod, for the uninitiated).

After portability, the next best thing about tapes and tape recorders was the ability to create a personalized collection of music, from all of your individual tapes.

The Mixtape was born.

You could put Van Halen and Kool and the Gang on the same tape. Why you would do that is beyond me, but that's beside the point. The Mixtape could be anything. It was a declaration of independence.

The Mixtape was freedom, and freedom is the overarching theme of youth.

The Mixtape was created by, and, in a very real sense, is almost exclusive to, Generation X. Our grandparents had the giant, cathedral-like radio, in the corner of the living room -- it was, literally, a piece of furniture. Our parents had phonographs. Our children have iPods. But anyone who uploads a 300 song playlist on to their MP3 player, owes a debt to the teenagers of the 1980's.

A mixtape might be a collection the biggest hits of the day, or a mass of songs, that fit a certain mood or style -- ballads, head bangers, glam rock, new wave (gag me with a spoon).

A mixtape often was a love letter. If you couldn't compose your own sonnet, let Steve Perry and the boys do it for you.

And when you couldn't depend on the DJ at K-whatever-station-you-listened-to to play the music you wanted to hear on a regular basis, your best bet was the Mixtape.

And it wasn't easy to make. Here's the problem: Tapes came in basically two lengths -- 60 minutes and 90 minutes, but every song is a different length, and you wanted to fill up as much tape as possible. No one wanted a length of silence at the end of the tape, you wanted the music to end, right as the tape did. This required precise calculations and timing.

And you thought math would never come in handy...

It would take hours of rewinding and fast forwarding (remember rewinding and fast forwarding?) and synchronization to create the perfect combination of music.

A great mixtape is like a great meal -- timing, seasoning, the right ingredients and everything prepared just right. C'est Magnifique!

And, whether you were breakdancing or slow dancing, rocking out, hanging out or making out, or sitting on the hood of your car, watching the sunset across the valley from Zarahemla Drive, with mixtape in hand, properly queued up to the right song (or combination of songs) you were ready to face the world.

You were ready to create a moment that would last forever.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Marconi Plays the Mamba: Listen to the Radio!

"Lyrics dude, recite 'em some lyrics!"

                                                                                              --- Bill S. Preston, Esq.

Since the invention of radio, the youth of the world have defined their generations by the music they listen to.

Music is our poetry and our prose.

It's how we tell our story, before we have words of our own. It's how we express joy and sorrow, rage and love. It's how we celebrate the vibrancy of life, and mourn the unfairness of it all. Whatever the mood, whatever the situation, whatever the reason...

There's a song for that.

Radio has been around for about 120 years, and popular radio programming for about a century. In our grandparents' youth, the radio was a cathedral like piece of furniture, that the family gathered around to listen to programs like Little Orphan Annie, and Jack Benny.

The Baby Boomers took music to new heights (and depths). They plugged in their guitars, and cranked the amps. The artists of that era revolutionized music, and radio took Elvis Presley and the Beatles, into every corner of every home in the world. Music drove the culture, and the tinny sound of an AM radio was replaced by the blowtorch sound of the FM stereo.

Our own generation was the last of the great radio listeners. Our children live in a world that has been revolutionized again, when it comes to music -- their music is completely customizable (as is so much of the rest of their lives). That seems ideal, but when I really think about it, I wouldn't trade the days of sitting in front of the radio, waiting for the song that I thought I wanted to hear, for anything. There were no iPods, no iTunes, and unless you had the record (or, more likely, the cassette tape) of a certain band, the only way you were going to hear your song, was by catching it playing on the radio.

And, in the process, you were exposed to a wide range of music. Sure, you could call the radio station and request a song -- one of the great experiences of youth -- but let's be honest, the song got played when it got played. So, while I was waiting for "Faithfully" I got to hear "We Belong", "Come Sail Away" and "Rosanna."

Our music, and our lives for that matter, had an element of surprise and serendipity. We had something to look forward to and something to hope for. There is real joy in anticipation. Ask any kid in December. Anticipation is why Christmas Eve is more fun than Christmas Day. As long as there is anticipation, hope lives forever.

The music coming from the radio told us about our world. Right or wrong, the radio was the piper who played the tune, and we danced.

And what we danced to in the 1980's was unlike anything that had ever come before. The music scene of our youth was strange and varied, to put it mildly, and the voices fighting for our attention were legion, but in our world, in the Salt Lake radio market, there were two voices that were louder than all the rest:

KRSP: Rock 103.5 

In it's prime, KRSP played straight arena rock and roll -- Journey, REO Speedwagon, Van Halen, Poison, Billy Joel... as well as the genre already being termed classic rock: The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Doors.

And KJQ -- somewhere on the other end of the radio dial -- that catered to a more eclectic sound; the alternative, modern, new wave sound that came to represent the faction of society that believed they were the counter culture. They weren't. They were as emblematic of the generation as the top 40 music.

The two dominant musical genres of our age -- Rock and Alternative -- were two sides of the same cassette tape. One preferred it's music loud, the other preferred it's lyrics loud. And together they created the soundtrack of our lives.

The songs on the radio were our voice. Sometimes that voice was happy. Sometimes it was angry. In the 1980's there was good chance that voice was flat out bizarre -- the title of this post, Marconi Plays the Mamba, is taken from the song voted as the Most Awesome Bad Song of All Time: We Built This City, by Starship. (I'm sure the other fifty songs on that list came out of the 80's too). Marconi was the inventor of radio, and a mamba is a poisonous snake. Maybe they meant to say mambo (a type of music) or samba (another musical genre), but they said mamba. The voice booming out of the radio said the creator of radio played with poisonous snakes.

And we stood up and said "HELL YES HE DID!"

That was music, and we loved it, despite -- probably because of -- the high weirdness of it all.

 Those voices coming from the speakers also said what we wished we could say -- to our parents, to our teachers, to our crush.

In my world, three voices were louder than all the rest: Duran Duran, Michael Jackson and Van Halen.

Duran Duran was the breakout music for Aaron and I -- it was the first music that we listened to, that our parents didn't. It wasn't John Denver or the Carpenters. It was't the Beatles or the Bee Gees. They didn't understand Duran Duran, and that was good enough for us.  Frankly, I wasn't sure what Reflex  Simon Le Bon was talking about, or why the Union of the Snake was on the rise...but he and the Taylor boys convinced me that it was something I ought to care about, and maybe look into, on my way to Rio.  Duran Duran inspired many backyard jam sessions -- on trash can drums and tennis racket guitars.

The next voice is the game changer. The one that reinvented everything:  Michael Jackson.

When I look back at my life, certain music appears, like sign posts, reminding me of certain times and places. Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is like a billboard.

Thriller was released in 1982, and it set the world on fire. It is still the best selling album of all time. Thriller changed EVERYTHING. I wanted to look like him. I wanted to dress like him. I wanted to move like him.

No one ever moved like Michael Jackson. I have one indelible Michael Jackson moment. It's the moment that everyone knows. The Motown 25th Anniversary television program. I was watching because I knew Michael Jackson would be performing "Billie Jean."

There was the glove.

The white socks and loafers.

The hat.

The sequins.

The song and the dancing.

And then...

He moved backward.


That was the first time I had ever seen someone moonwalk. It was surreal.

The next day I -- we -- everyone -- found a new use for our sunday shoes. I practiced for hours -- days, months -- trying to learn to moonwalk. I remember watching myself in the glass of the sliding door on my aunt's deck. And one time -- only one -- did I move smooth enough to feel like I had done it. It feels ridiculous to say so, but that was a real highlight for me as a kid.

Then came the jackets with the zippers, the Thriller video, the Eddie Van Halen guitar solo on Beat It. We are the World. Michael Jackson was everywhere. He was a cultural juggernaut that I think, for my generation -- this generation called "X" -- was only eclipsed by Star Wars.

Michael Jackson was a beacon. He was a pop culture god. He gave us dance. He introduced us to music we had never heard before. He launched, for better or worse, the world of music videos. Michael Jackson was our Elvis, our Beatles. And like they had been for the previous generation, he was our great departure from the music of our parents. Without any exaggeration, he was the King of Pop.

There will never be another phenomenon like Michael Jackson. The music world is different. No one can maintain that kind of supremacy any more, there are, simply, too many choices.

The last voice is the loudest: Van Halen

This is the Sammy Hagar version of the band. I have nothing against David Lee Roth -- well, I do, but that's for another time. Aaron and I came to Van Halen the same time Sammy Hagar did. If Duran Duran was the music that our parents didn't understand, then Van Halen was the music they didn't understand -- very loudly. The guitar work of Eddie Van Halen blew the doors off of rock 'n roll. No one had ever played the way he did, and everyone since is imitating him. All due respect to Neil Peart, Alex Van Halen was the best rock drummer of all time. And Sammy Hagar managed to sing the soundtrack of our teenage lives.

Van Halen was the pinnacle of the 80's four man arena rock group. One lead guitar. One drummer. One bass player. And one lead singer. That was the formula for success.  And they all sounded better when you turned the volume knob to eleven. 

Aaron and I saw Van Halen in 1988, on the OU812 tour. Come to think of it, I think it's the only concert we ever saw together. We were sixteen, we were out without parents and we were ready to do some damage to our ear drums. 

Van Halen was the sound of summer. It was the sound of fast cars, and pretty girls. It was the sound of freedom. It was the thundering beat of the heart. It was the sound of life.

Music, and the radios that brought it to us, changed our lives forever, maybe like never before. We learned to love what came before, and anticipate what was coming next. We still search for the perfect song. We still thrill to hear the old classic. We still think in lyrics. 

Turn the dial. Tune in. And blow the speakers.