The Year You Turn 13

I have this theory about popular music. Whatever’s in the air the year you turn 13 can penetrate deep. What you let in then stays with you – even defines you – in a way that can’t easily be matched.

Me, I came of age in the mid-70s, deep into the long, slow decline of the American dream. The era of Berlin, Horses, and Desire, New Skin for Old Ceremony, and On the Corner…

Lenny, at the time, was touring Europe’s festival and madhouses, and getting only spotty respect back home. But he straightened his tie and looked right into me through that hotel mirror, speaking ancient truths and tortured yearnings.

Melodies so spare you’d almost think it was the poetry alone. But despite scanty English, my German cousin – who saw him at the Isle of Wight! – says he too listened transfixed.

Remarkably, he also spoke to my kids when they reached their teens. Particularly the darker, more elusive songs. “Picking up the jokers that he left behind you’ll find he did not leave you very much, not even laughter…”

I can still hear Lou, much eulogized of late, growling his invitation to throw your life away. Miles, haunted, taciturn, stooped, dropping glowing jagged shards into the magic swirling about him. Bob leading his jubilant circus of hard rain and rolling thunder.

Into all of that burst Patti, brashly throwing God the gauntlet. “My sins my own,” she crowed, and you have to have been raised religious to feel the full trembling spirit of that outburst.

She’s a wise one now – can you be a rock ’n’ roll elder? I was too young to ever catch her in her CBGB’s days, but she emerged from a long silence at Toronto’s Phoenix theatre just weeks after my younger daughter was born. She opened not with a barn burner but with a tearful lullaby. “Little blue dreamer, go to sleep…”

To tell the truth, though, I scarcely listen to music anymore. The robins and cicadas. A toddler’s babbling. A slow train emerging from the underpass – why compete?

But still, I internalized that marriage of music and the performer’s word. It’s not a stretch to say it informs most everything I do.

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