Saturday night, I heard the most amazing version of “Sympathy for the Devil” ever, but not because it was an award-winning piece of artistic gold. I mean, it sounded pretty damn good and all, but it wasn’t the song itself that killed me so much as who was playing it and why.
Watching a certain group of guys rockin’ out on stage together for the first time in 20-plus years transported me to the back entrances of the Red Barn and Tewligans circa 1989. I vividly remember hauling guitar cases and random pieces of drum kit as the invested groupie in a few up-and-coming bands in the Louisville music scene during the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Those were some of very best of times of my young adult life, without a doubt. It would be accurate to say that the pangs of nostalgia on Saturday night were palpable.
I recently wrote about how much I cherish my days in high school band, marching on the football field and tooting my flute. But what I didn’t write about in that post are the offshoot experiences I gained from being in the band, and how being musically inclined and spending time with other musicians shaped not only my musical tastes, but also my outlook on life.
Let me explain. See, it was through school band that I hooked up with my very first boyfriend, Tony. He was a charismatic trumpet player with an attitude I met in middle school, during which time he made it his mission to antagonize our long-suffering band director, Mr. Spiegelhalter. I was both mortified by Tony’s behavior and mesmerized by it. (At age 12, I began a lifelong affinity for bad boys.)
Sparing the details, the summer before my junior year at Waggener High School, Tony and I began a tumultuous romance that lasted almost five years. During that time, Tony graduated from trumpet to strings — both guitar and bass, depending on the band he landed in. I stopped playing flute after high school, though I did study music theory in college.
Between high school and college, Tony played in no fewer than five ensembles. From a thrash metal group called Brain Salad to a jam band along the lines of Phish and Widespread Panic called Ninth Wave (this one was my favorite because they wrote their own songs), I went to a lot of basement band practices, open mic nights, battles of the bands and random barroom shows, all the while thrilled to carry amps and effects pedals, or stand at rapt attention during many long and boring sound checks.
I loved every second of my devoted fandom. Part of it was because I was thrilled to support my virtuoso boyfriend, whom I adored more than was emotionally healthy for either of us. (Hey, I was a needy teenage girl. Sue me.)
Part of it was because I loved (and still love) being on the periphery of invention. There is nothing quite like being in the room when magic happens. Part of it, too, was that I finally felt like I had a voice.
My opinion actually mattered to Tony and the guys, and I took that shit seriously. I was, in many ways, the fan they wanted to please. Were the vocals loud enough? How was the sound mix? Did the rhythm guitar sound sharp?
And part of it was the music itself. My world got rocked by simply being exposed to music I may never have heard if I had been left to my own devices.
Here’s a perfect example: the first Grateful Dead song that ever graced my ears was not a recording of the song by the artist. Nope, I heard “St. Stephen” as played by Tony’s band during a random practice session at a throw house on the Ball State University campus. I was hooked before I even knew what it was. I am convinced that I never would have been open to that kind of music if I'd been introduced to it any other way.
The thing about dating a musician is that we couldn’t just listen to a song. No, musicians have to dissect it, note by note. And then they submerge themselves into every piece of music ever composed by that artist until they are so intimately familiar with the artists’ entire body of work that it’s like they took a blood oath as kids.
That method of active listening rubbed off on me, and still tends to be my approach to music appreciation today. Some other artists that would not be so deeply rooted in my musical lexicon if it weren’t for my time as a band groupie are: Living Color, The Cure, Pink Floyd, Jane’s Addiction and my all-time favorite, Sting and The Police. (Yeah, I would like to publicly thank Tony and the guys for giving me the gift of great music.)
My passion for music in general definitely grew out of that time in my life, and that passion saved my life on more than one occasion since then. My love for music composition also led to other forms of artistic appreciation – theater, painting, sculpture, dance, etc.
In some weird way that I’m not quite sure I can explain, music also instilled in me a sense of self-assurance and self-love that I had never felt before. Yeah, it’s safe to say I got a ton of intangible gifts out the five years I spent as a garage band super fan.
During those five years, Tony and I grew up together in a lot of ways, and then we grew apart. Today, I am proud to say we are good friends. He lives in Chicago, but we chat on the phone and try to see each other once or twice a year.
Anyhoo, back to Saturday.
When we were still in high school, Tony answered a “bass player needed” ad in the paper for a old-school rock cover band, the name of which became The Shermans. They would wear white button-down shirts and skinny black ties, and cover The Who, The Knack, The Stones and other great stuff in the original “pop rock” genre.
Apart from Tony, I kept up with a couple of the guys over the years. Dennis, the drummer and sometimes singer, invited me to come out to celebrate his 50th birthday on Saturday, and I knew his current band would be playing that evening. I also knew that one or two of the other former Shermans might be there. But what I didn’t know was that Tony planned to come in from Chicago to surprise Dennis.
So there they were … all four Shermans in a room together for the first time since the early 1990s. They got together on stage for only one song, but what a song it was.
A friend of mine who had never met any of the Shermans and did not know the back story came with me that night, and I had to wonder if what he saw was just a bunch of middle-aged rockers with families and day jobs reliving their glory days.
That’s not what I saw at all. No, I didn’t see graying beards and thinning hair. What I saw was a group of passionate, talented men opening their souls to me and everyone else in the audience, just like they did 25 years ago. It was a glorious thing to behold, and I am grateful to have been there to witness it.
I love to go to the live shows of professional musicians, but this brief Shermans reunion reminded me how special it is to hear people play who do it only for love, and not for money or fame.
That right there is the real music to my ears. So keep on rockin’ guys. And please don’t make me wait another 25 years to hear you play again!
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After nine years, she's still just saying.