The older I get, the more I appreciate past spaces. Rooms have a certain and specific “energy” to me. It’s a feeling I get when I walk into a space in which I have spent a lot of time. Recently, I visited my childhood home. My brother and I walked around the house that our mother built the year after our father passed away. Each room felt as if they carried memories and energies that were decades old. There were certainly meaningful remembrances that were brought to the surface during that visit.
When I walked into my old bedroom, I looked immediately to the spot where my childhood stereo was located. It sat on a built-in shelf, and the speakers were mounted to the walls. Later, in my teen years, I used the money I made working as a radio station disc jockey to purchase a better turntable, receiver, and speakers. The room felt the same as it did back then. The music posters had been taken down, the paneling had been painted over, and the shag carpet removed, but the energy was there. It still felt like a little “rock-and-roll” hideout.
My relationship to music and memory is as inner-connected and intertwined as the recall associated with my sense of taste and remembrance. When I hear a song from my childhood, it takes me back to the place I first heard it, to certain rooms in specific places. Once I turned 15, new songs were first heard in cars – except for the occasional summer-song heard over the tinny whine of a transistor radio near a swimming pool. In my 20s, new songs were heard in apartments. For anything after the age of 30 years old, new music was experienced in my home or office.
I have great musical memories of almost every place I have ever been. Though nothing compares to the early years, hearing new songs and new music styles for the first time. The time period from 1966-1974 – from 5 years old, until the year I turned 13 – holds a special place in my memory. Those specific artists, songs, and albums became indelibly associated with the rooms in which I heard them for the first time.
It was in a small bedroom on 22nd Avenue in Hattiesburg, Mississippi – in the house where I was born – that I first heard the Beatles. The first record I ever owned was a 45 single of the song, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The year was 1966. I was f5 years old, and the song had already been playing on local radio for 18 months when I purchased it on a trip with my grandmother to Pal’s Music in downtown Hattiesburg. At that time, the extent of my record collection was that Beatles 45, several Disney albums, the “Meet the Monkees” album, and a 45 single a babysitter had given me of Herman’s Hermits’ “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.” If pressed, a 5-year-old Robert would have told you all of that music was equal in quality and import.
It was a few years later before I heard an entire album of the Beatles. I remember when I heard the “Please Please Me” album for the first time. I also remember, very distinctly, the room I was sitting in when I first heard it. It was in the living room of my mother’s friends, Mamie Lee and Pete Jones. The living room and dining room were connected in the front of the house, and against the front wall was a large piece of furniture that held one of those huge, wooden console stereo systems that were popular in those days – big as a sideboard and twice as heavy, with a turntable dropped into the top, built-in speakers and storage for albums underneath.
As I remember there was a Dino, Desi, and Billy album with a very bubble-gummy cover of “Hang on Sloopy,” a 45 of a song called, “Fujiyama Mama,” and the “Please Please Me” album. While my mother had cocktails, cigarettes, and hors d’oeuvres and visited with the Joneses, I played with their boxer, Brutus, kept a constant watch out of the window to see if one of the knock-dead gorgeous Kennedy girls might be playing outside, and listened to that Beatles album over, and over, and over, and over.
The title track of the “Please Please Me” album, and “Love Me Do,” were the biggest hits on that record, but the songs I listened to most were, “Twist and Shout,” and the lead track, “I Saw Her Standing There.” The song from that album that still makes most mixed CDs burnt on my computer, George Harrison’s “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” still takes me back to that living room on Arcadia Drive in Hattiesburg.
I am old enough to have listened to classic rock when it was just called, “rock.” Actually, I was a plugged-in and active listener when all of that great music was released. That is what is so great about being my age – I witnessed the world’s greatest shift in music, and grew up, side-by-side, with the genre. My memories are of the songs, the album art, and the lyrics of that era. But they are of the rooms, too.
I first heard the Who’s album “Tommy” in my next-door-neighbor, Johnny Ferrell’s room. He had a black light, a lava lamp, a lot of albums, and a huge “Mad” magazine collection. I could sit in his room for hours re-reading the same copies of “Mad,” while listening to Pete Townsend’s guitar and Keith Moon’s kick drum. I didn’t know what the songs on that record meant – and still don’t to a certain degree – but I knew that the album was important, and so I listened to it over and over.
It was in Kim Dodder’s second-floor bedroom that I first heard Led Zeppelin. I am tempted to type a statement such as, “the first notes of Robert Plant’s wailing on ‘The Immigrant Song,’ from ‘Led Zeppelin III’ changed my life,” but it would read like an overstatement (even though I believe it to be true
My mother was having cocktails, cigarettes, and hors’ d’oeuvres downstairs with the Dodders (there were a lot of cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and cigarettes back in those days). The Dodders’ three teenage boys were out doing what teenage boys did in 1970 on a Saturday night. I was left to roam free throughout the house. The Sears Christmas catalogue was kept year-round in a cabinet under the television in their den. Once I had dog-eared the toy section and committed the female lingerie pages to memory, I wandered up to Kim Dodder’s room, where the best music was located.
The first time I heard Creedence Clearwater Revival was in that room. It was the “Willy and the Poor Boys” album that had the overused Viet Nam movie anthem, “Fortunate Son,” a cover of “The Midnight Special,” and – my favorite at the time – “Down on the Corner.” CCR was good, but the first time I dropped the needle on “Led Zeppelin III,” it changed what I thought and felt about music from that moment forward. It was so heavy. Jimmy Page’s guitar riffs were driving so hard I thought I might blow the speakers. I had never experienced anything like it. Was Plant singing about Vikings? That guttural wailing was like nothing I had ever heard. It was awesome. I was hooked. Rock-and-roll became a meaningful part of my life from that day until this one.
I was in my friend Phil Tolbert’s room the first time I heard the Pink Floyd albums “Dark Side of the Moon,” and “Wish You Were Here.” Those two records opened a whole new musical realm for me.
It always amazes me how much rock ’n’ roll changed in those days immediately after the Beatles landed in New York. In a matter of three years, The Fab Four went from singing songs about holding hands and stealing kisses to something as intricate and deep as “Strawberry Fields Forever.” A year later, they recorded “Helter Skelter.” Just a few years later Page, Plant, Bonham, and Jones took it to an entirely different level.
I heard the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” in my childhood dining room on another one of those large console stereos at our first house on 22nd Avenue. It was on my friend, Forrest Roberts’ portable 8-track tape player in his corner room that I first heard “Stairway to Heaven.” I was in Stan Hall’s room when I first heard Steppenwolf and Johnny Cash. It was in my 10th-grade assistant football coach’s backyard that I first heard songs sung by Waylon Jennings.
I still have all of my albums and most of my 45s. What I don’t have are the spaces in which I first heard those great albums and songs. I do, however, have the memories of those rooms and those times. I am at an age now where I think about things like energy in rooms. Though I’ll never be too old to rock ’n’ roll.
Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur, author, speaker, philanthropist, father and husband – but not necessarily in that order. In addition to being the brainchild behind the Purple Parrot Cafe, Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, Branch, Tabella and Ed’s Hamburger Joint, he’s also the founder of Extra Table, a non-profit organization created in 2009 with the mission of ending hunger and obesity in Mississippi.