Shawn Hubler

The sound of growing up, across the years

A choir performs to commemorate musician David Bowie during the 2016 Echo Music Awards on Thursday in Berlin.
A choir performs to commemorate musician David Bowie during the 2016 Echo Music Awards on Thursday in Berlin. The Associated Press

The year I turned 12, I found an antique radio in my grandmother’s attic. Or I think that’s where I found it. Memory fails.

It was made of wood, with cloth over the wire, and a plug that looked like it dated to the Roosevelt administration. I took it home and put it in my bedroom because Seventeen magazine said it was “in” to have old things as decorations. To my astonishment, it worked when I plugged it in.

Most of the dial was static. That was not surprising. Our house was hundreds of miles from any city, surrounded by 400 acres of strip mines and woods. Our TV only got two channels – the great frustration of my childhood had been that we didn’t get “The Patty Duke Show” – and the one FM station within range alternated between Paul Harvey commentary and polka music.

But one night, late, I bumped the radio in the dark and a signal came in, utterly clear, bearing a disembodied voice unfamiliar in 1969 to a rural adolescent.

I tuned in every night, the volume so low sometimes I could hardly hear it, listening the way adolescents do, listening for clues, listening for connections.

“Ground control to Major Tom,” it sang as I lay, wide-eyed in the moonlight under my gingham bedspread. I listened for as long as I could before my parents yelled to turn that noise off.

After that, that radio felt like a kind of connection to the future. The station was, as I recall, out of Chicago, three states away, and I still don’t know what electronic fluke brought it to my bedroom.

But over the next several years, it brought all sorts of voices: “Déjà Vu” and “Abbey Road,” Yes and Jefferson Airplane, B.B. King and “Okie from Muskogee.” One after another they came, like messages in bottles, each voice like no other, new and authentic.

I tuned in every night, the volume so low sometimes I could hardly hear it, listening the way adolescents do, listening for clues, listening for connections. Listening for me.

Time, of course, passed. I live far from that room now. The radio is long since gone to ashes, but the music it played is everywhere.

The sounds of my youth are like some old thing repurposed to decorate new things – commercials, elevator rides, Facebook pages, the music of younger people. The obituaries: The soulful man who, on a whim, dashed off the doggerel that became “Okie from Muskogee” died last week, on the heels of “Abbey Road’s” producer.

Chris Squire of Yes is, of course, gone, as is Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, as is Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Déjà Vu” drummer Dallas Taylor. And B.B. King. And David Bowie. And, I suppose, Major Tom.

Each death – Patty Duke, Paul Harvey – feels like the loss of some childhood signal, like a silence after some astonishing night sound. Each obituary feels like a message in a bottle, returned to the sea.

And yet, who knew that there were so many ways, and so many voices, through which we could be connected?

All these years, all these generations, we thought we were each of us all alone in the darkness, waiting for the future to sing us its secrets, listening.

Shawn Hubler: 916-321-1646, @ShawnHubler

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