The first time I heard a song that changed my life was in 1983. I was 7, and arriving at Valley Mill summer camp, a day camp outside of Washington, D.C. It was one of those places where kids canoe and shoot bows and arrows and dabble in survival skills from a different era.
A school bus would pick me up every morning and ferry me out to the semi-wilderness just past the suburbs. On one particular morning, I was coming down the stairs at the front of the bus when a sound hit me like a lightning bolt. It was more than a sound, actually. It was a tangy, lemony, electrical emotional wave. Have you ever dealt with skunk spray at very close range? It goes past being a smell — it’s like a wave of high voltage meat that engulfs you so fully that you can’t tell which of your senses you are experiencing. That was the intensity of this sound, but far from being putrid, it was pure exhilaration.
I looked up and there was a man — well, he may have been a man; anyone older than nine or 10 seemed like a full fledged adult to me, so chances are he was, like, 14 — and had shaggy hair parted in the center of his forehead which struck me as dirty blonde curtains. (It was a look I spent a long time trying to master, thereafter). On his shoulder there was a silver boombox, and coming from it was this unbelievable electric… thing.
There were no vocals, just stabs of a kind of synthetic, zapping voltage. It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.
When I got back home that afternoon, I said, “Dad, something has happened to me.” I sang him the song. The melody had been in my head all day. To his great credit, my father took me very seriously and we drove straight away to Tower Records.
He marched me up to the counter. “Damian, sing the song for the man.”
“Duh DAH! duh DAH! du DAH DAH DAH, dah dunNAT! DAT DAT, duh dunNAT!”►
“Oh, that’s ‘Rockit’ by Herbie Hancock.” He took me over to the 7-inch singles and grabbed a copy. I still have it. I nearly wore that thing out.
For my birthday that year, I asked for a synthesizer, and my parents got me a little Casio. I figured out “Rockit” by trial and error, humming it to myself and trying to figure out which notes went up and which went down. It turns out I learned it in the wrong key, but I’d figured out the melodic pattern. It’s funny, I remember doing the same thing with Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F” a few years later. I guess I had a thing for hooky, synth instrumentals.
My parents are both very musical people — my mom plays violin and my father is a voracious listener — so growing up there was always music on. Classical music, mostly, but with a lot of The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel thrown in. Until that day at summer camp, music had been pleasant — something that made a room nicer to be in, like having a window open on a nice day.
But “Rockit” was totally different. It was utterly transformative. Once my brain heard that, I needed it all the time. It was an itch that couldn’t be scratched by anything other than music. At first, it was just that one song, but then, of course, many others followed.
And here I am today, a singer in a rock band.
A few years ago, I met Herbie Hancock in the most surreal and absurd of situations: We were both playing President Obama’s 50th birthday party. I’m not sure how OK Go got asked to join that bill; I assume the President picked one of his favorites and let the kids pick something they liked, too. But backstage I was fumbling all over myself to tell Herbie exactly how profoundly he changed my life.
“No, I mean, it’s not just that I love that song, it’s that it actually altered me! That song was the difference between sound and music! It set me off on my whole life! It was the moment I woke up!” He seemed genuinely moved. I’m sure he’s heard many variations of my tale — he’s brought so much amazing music to so many people — but he seemed authentically pleased.
Of course, I felt like I was living in a dream. It doesn’t get much more surreal than playing a President’s birthday party in any case. That’s one of those moments where you go, “Am I really here?” And it was crazy to be able to answer, “Yes, I’m here. And it all started with that guy, right there. That man wrote a song that changed me forever. And that, that’s why I am here.”
Illustrations by Thoka Maer
Top Photo by Cloud Wang