I shared a room until I was thirteen and a bed until I was nine. The television was in our room. We got used to sharing it — cartoons Saturday mornings, Carol Burnett Saturday evenings, Cowboys games on Sundays. During the week, we’d call through the house any time HBO’s Video Jukebox came on, crowding into our room for that rare glimpse of a song from the radio on TV.
Our room didn’t have a stereo. We had to go upstairs to listen to my brothers’ records — Van Halen Fair Warning, Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes — and sometimes dad’s Beatles greatest hits album, the one with the before & after LSD photos on the front & back covers.
I loved my family. I cherished alone time.
Long bike rides past the school, down by the 7-11 and back again, the dust kicking behind me as I pedaled hard then stood up to coast home, the gentle tread rumbling beneath me. And hours kneeling by the bed, Legos spread across the sheets, the gentle creative snapping of pieces that I can feel on my fingers even now. And especially those moments late at night, the house dead quiet, the chinaberry dappling its shadows onto my window, and the Rock Island Express whistling a mile & a half away, rolling through my hometown at a gentle clip, never stopping, carrying men & things somewhere I’d never know.
Music was not me time. Until October 1983.
Nickelodeon wasn’t known for its teen market. I couldn’t tell you why I was watching it that day, but I can hardly imagine happening upon Livewire by accident. It was a talk show for teens. The host was not cool, but he wasn’t condescending or cheesy either. He had a thick shock of white hair parted to the side — white, not blonde, white. He wore button down shirts and neutral slacks. We didn’t have the term yet, but he was business casual. More weatherman that veejay, earnestly introducing a band and then joining the studio audience on the dance floor.
The drummer had an authoritative snap, no big fills or flash, and he was constantly pushing the band forward. Nobody was on the back end of the beat — this thing moved with a kind of urgency that wasn’t menace or anger, with a purpose that wasn’t political, with a longing that wasn’t nostalgia. They rocked in a way I couldn’t figure out, the guitar & bass mixed in a way I hadn’t heard, their Rickenbackers slung low.
Rickenbackers were broader bodied than anything my brother & I pulled off the racks at Murphy’s Music on the weekends. In an era of Van Halen striped primary colors on Fenders & heavy black Les Pauls, these guys had wood-grain gear with f-shaped sound holes, a look of another era. The bass had a melody all his own, not just following the guitar. The guitarist was all jangle and quick picking, throwing his elbow way up to strum before resting his palm right back on the pickguard just in time, right on time. They were constantly in motion, an edgy pacing up to the edge of the stage & back, that wasn’t quite dancing but instead a constant bridging of the space between the band & the audience, an angular unplanned tight motion & energy framing the singer, who barely moved at all.
The singer’s curly hair was in his face, covering part of his glasses (not sunglasses) and he held the mic stand with both hands, his feet crossed at its base. The pose & hair reminded me of Jim Morrison but without the ecstatic me-me-me preening & leaping. This singer was not trying to rock us or woo us. He was tense, assured, contained, unintelligible.
I couldn’t understand what he was singing until the chorus, which was about boxcars pulling out of town, and I thought of the Rock Island Express the night before.
I fought back tears that I didn’t understand, praying that nobody would come in to break the spell or change the channel.
Later that week, I took my paper route money and went with my big brother’s friend Carmen to Bill’s Records, an amazing (ergo, now closed) record store way north in Dallas, where Bill himself (I heard, and later saw) smoked weed at the counter, and nothing had any prices on it. Anything you wanted to buy you brought directly to Bill, in this case the band’s debut EP with only their first names on the back. Bill would look at the thing briefly. Then, he studied you, really studied you. Then he’d tell you what the thing would cost you, in this case, eight dollars.
In the car on the way home that fall afternoon in 1983, I prayed that what was in my hands would match what I saw & heard earlier that week. It did. It does.
PS: This performance that changed my life in 1983 was filmed at the Ed Sullivan Theater — the site of life-changing, pop-culture defining performances by Elvis Presley in 1956 & The Beatles in 1964.