The Exorcists (Part 1: Rock & Roll)

[Note: This is the first of a three-part series on the years 1974–’75, when I learned about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Some names have been changed to avoid pain to the living.]

In the summer of 1974, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist hit the local drive-in theater.

Rated R, most of us kids never got to see it. The scuttlebutt among my fellow 14-year olds—and confirmed by older kids who’d actually seen it—was that it was the most terrifying movie ever made.

I was a sensitive kid. There were certain Led Zeppelin songs I could not listen to without feeling traumatized (case in point: “When the Levee Breaks” still makes my skin crawl). Loud noises easily startled me; I hardly lived for excitement (the rare exception above left, first learning to ski-jump in our Minnetonka neighborhood during the winter of 1972).

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that fearful things—risk and the scary unknown—didn’t turn my head.

On the cusp of fifteen, I leaned into the fire of sex, drugs and rock and roll, the unholy trinity of all-things post-Woodstock and which brought terror and dismay to my parents’ hearts. My life has been undeniably altered by the events of 1974-’75.

By growing up and experiencing our newfound vices, we shared the room with unknown demons.

And since then we’ve had to become our own exorcists.

***

You really couldn’t call what I learned as rock and roll really rock music. Grandpa Adams gave me my first 45 record, Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “SS 396.” It was around that time that I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s show, and, by 1974, was introduced to prog-rock: Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and King Crimson.

An older neighborhood kid, John Price, had a lot of those records, and my friend Dan Rogers used to listen to them at his house four doors down from our place. Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery was the first LP I ever bought, in August 1974. It was followed by The Yes Album, Fragile, and ELP’s Tarkus. (I remember Grandpa asked about the tank imagery on the album cover, which I could only explain by saying it was “a concept album.”)

We came home from junior high to watch The Partridge Family and wondered what it’d be like to play in a band. There’s a photo (no longer extant) of Brian, his friend Derek and I mock-playing two guitars and a drum kit—we were already envisioning ourselves in the role of rock musicians, but from a ridiculously safe distance. I doubt we ever thought we were actually rebelling against anything, only trying on the look, which is about as far away from risk, danger and demons as a kid could get.

When I started high school in the fall of 1975, the music resource center (the “MRC” as we called it) was the hotbed of wannabe rockers who stole whatever chance they could to pick up a guitar or pound on the school’s only electric piano. Mom signed me up for piano lessons at the newly established Minnetonka Center for the Arts with a black-turtleneck-wearing aesthete named Don Standen, who all but withered when I told him I wanted to play like Thelonious Monk. After all, I was learning ragtime (after seeing The Sting and being taken in by the Marvin Hamlisch’s soundtrack). “Maple Leaf Rag” rang out from the piano in Mr. McIntyre’s band class, where normally I was 4th-chair coronet and every bit bored by it.

***

So, rock and roll can’t be “learned.” No how, no way. It’s in the living, the doing—the being. I’d never in the least admit I’ve had a glimpse of that world, of entirely opening myself to the risk and elation that comes with playing and living a life in rock music.

Rock’s true legacy of rock lay in the deaths of Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon … and, in September 2002, Derek, who died of alcohol and pills at 40, and who did learn the guitar and play for money on the street.

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~ by completelyinthedark on May 30, 2011.

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