Anyone who knows me more than just casually, will know that I’m music mad – always have been, probably (hopefully) always will be. I heard my Mom tell this story a thousand times; when I was a toddler, I had a toy plastic guitar that I called my Monday Monday, – named after the 1966 song by The Mamas & the Papas. Whenever a good tune was played on the radio, I’d ask, ‘Where’s my Monday Monday?’, find the plastic guitar, and then play along with the song. So evidently, before I was two years old, I was being led around by my ears. I was raised on a predominately rock n roll music diet (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beatles), but my folks also listened to a bit of country as they got older (Charlie Rich, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash). I consumed everything they bought. I listened to the songs and I studied the record covers like they were sacred texts. Through the years, I’ve gravitated towards people who are similarly obsessed, and I’ve been perplexed by people who are indifferent to music. If your answer to the question ‘…so what do you listen to?‘ is, ‘…Oh you know, whatever’s on the radio.’, then we probably can’t be friends. At best, I’ll regard you with mild suspicion. On a bad day, this could escalate to verbal abuse. But don’t feel bad – my hostility would be based on fear. I’d fear you like I’d fear a Trump voter – I just don’t understand you. What’s that?… you can’t name Depeche Mode’s studio albums in chronological order? You don’t know John Lennon’s middle name? What the fuck is wrong with you? These are important issues.
Wondering why the music magnet pulls harder at some people and not others is futile. Why are my eyes red and not green? These traits and characteristics are parts of the operating system installed in us at birth. I could’ve been born with a capacity for solving complex equations, or for generating crates of money. Instead, I’m gifted with the ability to remember that the other two Supremes were Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, and that Laurie Anderson was married to Lou Reed. You know, really useful shit like that.
There is an upside though. Some people are born with organized and analytical brains. Some of us get something even better…something magical. It’s a substance that flows with the blood in our veins. An additive that fizzes like sherbet when it’s mixed with good music. It’s called The Funk – a divine, innate narcotic that exhilarates, nourishes, heals and sustains. It’s the stuff that makes you close your eyes, nod your head and bliss out when the right song is played. That involuntary foot tapping when you hear that naked drum beat at the start of Billie Jean? That’s The Funk. Those irresistible air drums you play in the middle of In the Air Tonight? – That’s The Funk. The strong urge to get up and break something when Joe Strummer first snarls, ‘London Calling’? Again, The Funk. The stunned giddiness you felt the first time you heard Kate Bush sing Wuthering Heights? You guessed it…The Funk. If you were an only child, it turned music into the siblings you longed for. If you lived in chaos, it was the serenity you escaped to.
I can’t remember the days of my Monday Monday, or my first encounter with The Funk, but I was old enough to remember another brush with the power of music. On Sunday nights in 1981 (I was 15/16), I would spend hours listening to a music radio top 20 chart countdown. Our home music centre at the time was a cheap turntable/tape deck/radio unit combo which allowed me to record songs directly from the radio. The turntable lived under a see-through plastic lid and the radio dial on the front had a faulty green backlight that would flicker on and off. The host DJ would irritate the shit out of me by speaking over the start of the songs I was trying to record. His smooth but creepy and intrusive voice made the crackly radio sound even worse. As a song I was recording neared its end, I would hover my finger over the pause button and then quickly press it as soon a he started yakking again. Just one example of the diabolical, high tech music piracy of the day.
One Sunday night, a new entry on the chart, a basic synth-pop tune with classical ambitions, gave me my ‘Road to Damascus’ experience. This atmospheric, pompous little song lit me up like an incoming call. It was ‘Vienna’ by Ultravox. The song is built on a simple drum machine beat punctuated by echoey cannon claps and a warbly synthesizer line. The first, ‘Oaahh Viennaaaa’, ignites a series of shooting Roman Candle explosions – on that night, I could see as well as hear those Roman Candles – and a grand piano that sounds like it’s being played by a guy in a white wig and ruffled shirt cuffs. The tempo quickens at a heavenly middle string part and then drops you back down to Earth before building to a dramatic final crescendo. Towards the end, when Midge Ure repeatedly and proudly declares, ‘This means nothing to meee…’, I thought I was hearing the apex of all musical endeavours. I was sure it couldn’t possibly get any better than this. Eyes closed, laying on the carpet in front of that old hi-fi, the song left me stunned – it was four minutes of pure ecstasy. It was rapture. That night, a deep intuition said, This is it. For better or worse, this is who you are – accept it. It was a feeling of happy surrender – a carefree stage dive into music’s welcoming arms. I put up a white flag and resigned myself to the fact that I’d always be hypnotized by good music. It was a transcendental, spiritual experience. Either that or somebody slipped me a roofie.
That night was the equivalent of a heroin junkie’s first hit and I’ve spent all the years in-between chasing the dragon, hunting down the same bliss. I’ve never found it again, but I’ve come really close…and I’m still searching.
Believe me, runner’s high is a real thing. The boffins talk about endorphins, cortisol and opiate receptors, but I don’t need to know the nitty-gritty. What I know, is that after a crappy day at work, even a short run, or any other aerobic exercise, improves my mood. Getting active, plugging into some good tunes and blocking out the world for an hour, lifts me better than a six-pack ever did. Longer exercise sessions produce more feel-good chemicals. I’ve done a bunch of endurance events, and without fail, during a long training session, marathon or ultra-distance event, I experience a burst of euphoria that makes all the physical pain disappear…all be it briefly. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, the euphoria moment coincides with the right song and the combination bounces me into the twilight zone.
The Long Tom Marathon is a tough ultra, run from Sabie, up over the Long Tom Pass and down into Lydenburg. The year I ran it, the weather was atrocious. Standing in the pre-dawn rain at the Sabie Town Hall, waiting for the start, already the water was gushing out of my running shoes. Towards the top of the climb, fog swallowed us up and a wicked cold wind was trying to blow us all off the mountain. It was bleak; runners were climbing into the rescue vehicles in numbers, throwing in the towel. I was miserable and my legs were sore. The appeal of a warm, dry and comfortable van was growing with every step I took. In my head, I was rehearsing the excuses I’d be laying on everyone at work on Monday. Then, The Funk hit me with its rhythm stick – I’m not sure what came first, but a combination of exercise euphoria and Radiohead’s ‘The National Anthem’, saved the day. Suddenly, I wasn’t getting wet…I was out running in the rain. This aural steroid carried me all the way to Lydenburg.
Another grueling run is ‘Om Die Dam’ – a 50km race around the Hartbeespoort Dam. Anyone who’s run it will know all about ‘Saartjies Nek’, – a nasty hill about 33 km’s into the race. One year I made the novice mistake of starting the race in untested shoes – it turned out they were half a size too small. By the time I’d dragged myself over Saartjies, the front of my shoes were the same pink colour of raw mince and I’d lost a number of toe nails. With around 15 km’s still to run, I was in pain and struggling to continue. The song that saved me that day was UB40’s ‘Lambs Bread’ from the Present Arms album – ‘da wicked man, da wicked man, deh’ pon da street’. Years before, I was crazy about that record but I hadn’t heard it for decades, so when it started playing through my earphones it felt like I was catching up with an old friend. I set the song on repeat and shuffled to the finish with a smile on my face.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you music gadgets don’t have a sense of humour. On the Comrades up run, about 20 km’s out of Durban, an early test of legs is Field’s Hill. At this stage of the race, a reasonably well-prepared runner should still be feeling strong, but it’s a long, steep hill and with 70 km’s still to be covered, it fills you with trepidation. One year, running on the highway to ‘Maritzburg, halfway up the hill, I thought I’d try to calm my nerves with a few songs. I opened a playlist on my phone and pressed ‘shuffle’. The first song piped into my ears was AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’. The second? ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, by The Cure. Random selections, my ass – the phone was taunting me.
Probably the most important thing I’ve learned from all these endurance events though, is that describing them to non-runners/bikers, can induce narcolepsy or even coma. So for anyone still awake – I’ll move on.
I’m aware that the use of words like rapture, ecstasy and spiritual, could be seen as trespassing on religious property. Indeed, some might accuse me of slipping coins right out of the collection plate. To be fair, it goes both ways, as there are many overlaps between music and religion. Just recently I saw parts of a church service on TV where they chanted some of the lyrics of the song, ‘In My Room’, from the Yazoo album, Upstairs at Eric’s. Cheeky bit of ‘sampling’ there – I hope Vince Clarke knows about it.
The parallels between music and religion are significant. I know that the state of hyper euphoria through music, as described above, has long been reserved for reports of religious conversion. Music fanatics like myself take the same solace from lyrics that believers do from parts of scripture. People gather in numbers to listen to musicians as well as preachers deliver their messages, and to appreciate the beauty they find in both. The question that occurs to me is, – when are we going to establish a formal music church? Just think of the benefits:
- No need to waste money on tithing, expensive places of worship and legal fees for dodgy priests. We could meet up in groups at someone’s house every week to swop good albums and talk shit about bad ones.
- No cruel, magical deities. Unless we decide we’d like one, then I propose we use Our Lord Bob Dylan. Poet, musician, philosopher, Nobel prize laureate and a conduit to the divine. He also pulls off the ‘silly hat’ look way better than the Pope.
- No unnecessary killing or wars between different groups. I’ve never heard of a Rastafarian filling his pockets with nails and ball bearings, strapping on a bomb and running into a Pavarotti concert shouting, ‘death to de classical infidels mon!’
- We have, way more hymns than the devout, and ours are much better. Imagine a huge choir of people singing Kate Bush’s ‘And Dream of Sheep’ – ‘Let me be weak, let me sleep…and dream of sheep’. What about Frankie’s, ‘The Power of Love’? – ‘Dreams are like angels, they keep bad at bay, love is the light, scaring darkness away’. Or even the strange beauty of Bjork’s, ‘All is Full of Love’? Call me crazy, but I prefer the sentiment expressed in these, over the angry and tedious, ‘Onwards Christian Soldiers’.
Weddings and Christenings? We skip the boring bit where the guy gets up and tells lies for half an hour. We go straight to dancing, eating and drunken punch-ups with family members. Also, no dreary religious funerals at the music church. I’m thinking more along the lines of extended wakes with a DJ and psychedelic drugs. More of a Woodstocky type farewell – Ashes to ashes, funky to funky, we know Major Tom’s a junkie…
No guilt, no fear, no fairy-tales. Robbie Robertson said it best – ‘That voodoo stuff don’t do nothin’ for me…’
Of course, we’ll need a name for the music church. At this point, I like ‘The Reformed Unorthodox Fellowship of Funk’ (or RUFF), but I’m not married to it. I’d welcome any suggestions, but please remember – any names deemed irreverent or offensive, will definitely go to the top of the pile. We’ll also need to organize our ‘services’. I like the structure of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings – a congregant could stand, give their name, and then share a story about their addiction to music – “Hi, I’m Toby and I’ve got The Funk.” Then maybe quote some lyrics or whip out a phone and play us all a tune. At the end of all services, congregants should join hands and chant in unison, the words of the late, great, distinguished English poet and philosopher, Sir Ian Dury:
‘Had a love affair with Nina, in the back of my Cortina,
A seasoned-up hyena, could not’ve been more obscener,
She took me to the cleaners, and other misdemeanors,
But I got right up between ‘er… Rum and ‘er Ribena’.
So endeth the service. Bob bless us all.