When I think of today’s pop culture, it’s often with disgust. Now that I’m older and wiser, I can’t pretend I don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction. There was a time when I embraced the current culture. But even then, it wasn’t always my culture that I embraced.
My high school years were turbulent, but I reckon that’s true for most people. Being from a broken home is bad. Living in one as it’s breaking is worse. When that home is miles away from nowhere, any form of culture is like a distant town. It’s sure nice to visit, but you usually scamper home before dark. But like most military brats with older siblings I was exposed to a variety of cultures at home. From the Bible Belt to Black Power and Hee Haw to Hawaii 5-0. I steeped in it. In grade school before my voice began changing I would sing Earth, Wind & Fire’s Reasons in my living room as it spun on 45. I got a guitar for Christmas when I was 13, and played a George Benson tune, Erotic Moods, at my 8th grade talent show. In many ways I was a normal black kid growing up in the south. In other ways, not so much.
I never quite fit the media-blessed image of black culture. I still don’t. At the time, my grades were good enough to get me noticed by teachers and labeled by other kids. “White boy” is a moniker I carried throughout high school. If being academically gifted wasn’t enough of a giveaway, the fact that most of my friends were white was further proof that I was an interloper. An Oreo. But the deciding factor was the music I listened to.
Almost every kind of music flowed in my household. But during the long nights of my childhood insomnia, my brothers’ soul and jazz station would fade to a rock station popular with the local military crowd. Complementing my daily diet of Isley Brothers, Herbie Hancock, and Ramsey Louis was a late night snack of Heart, Foreigner, and Peter Frampton. I was usually the sole audience member to appreciate the sound of Fenders and Gibsons wailing through Marshall stacks. The experience stuck and soon influenced the direction my guitar playing took.
It also influenced my circle of friends at school. Since I played guitar I soon hooked up with a group of metal and rock fans and players. Jimmy Castor and Gil Scott Heron took a backseat to Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osbourne. My guitar-playing chops improved and I became an authentic “head”. Mornings, lunches, and breaks were spent smoking Raleighs and discussing muscle cars with the other heads.
None of this behavior improved my standing with the black community (such as it was). But no one should suffer through high school alone. And it wasn’t that I was a typical teenage conformist. I enjoyed scholastics, especially English and History. I didn’t smoke pot. My drinking was limited to outings with my closest siblings. But for a few years, my musical tastes favored loud, crunchy, and obnoxious.
My guitar sustained me through many more rough patches. After my parents’ (first) inevitable separation halfway through high school, my playing improved even more. I still reach for the instrument when I’m down or just need to carve out a safe space. I’m not the metalhead I was in school. I don’t want to be. I don’t need to be. But for a few hot summers, years before Living Color broke AOR radio’s color barrier, I was able to bring a different meaning to “Back in Black”.