“What was the first song you fell in love with?” Anticipating Valentine’s Day, a musician friend asked me this simple but difficult question via email. I had to think about it a while.
Somehow, this struck me as if it were two questions, as if she asked me who was the first girl I ever kissed and who was the first girl I ever loved.
The first song I ever kissed was an Elvis song, “One Broken Heart for Sale.” I sang it at a talent show in high school. This was at the height of early Beatlemania when we all had seen footage of massive audiences of teenagers screaming, dancing, going into hysterics at concerts.
Well, I was different from all the other contestants in the show; I was the only one who was not a musician. Everyone else could read music, had endured piano lessons and similar torture for years. I was just some guy that wandered in with a guitar. That meant that I was the only one who sang a rock and roll song.
So … the audience went crazy. They yelled, they clapped, they stomped their feet. Which was a good thing, because I was not a good singer in those days, nor was I a good guitarist. But maybe that didn’t matter, because the audience made so much noise that it covered a multitude of musical sins.
Baby, you can drive my karma. I had stumbled into the right song at the right time. I didn’t win any of the prizes that they awarded, but the memory of that experience is what I will always treasure. I did have an unfair advantage over the other contestants. I lucked into playing a type of song that people wanted to hear. I even had an unfair advantage over Elvis. He could never sing that song convincingly because who could imagine a lovely lady ever dumping Elvis? But me? I could sing the song with a great deal more sincerity from actual experience. Eat your heart out, Elvis!
But not so long before that, there was the song that I fell in love with but never kissed (which is to say, I never attempted to sing it). When I was 14 years old, I lived in Birmingham where a local radio station had a thing they did. They would pick what they thought was the worst song on the current play lists. They would pronounce it to be “the bomb of the week” then play it. That was the first time I heard a song by the Beatles. It was “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I fell in love immediately with the song and with the sound and I said, “I don’t care what a bunch of old people (they were in their 30s) at a radio station might think. I like it!”
I was vindicated quickly. A week later it was the No. 1 song in the country. To this day, I tell folks, “I was Beatles when Beatles wasn’t cool.” People look at me skeptically, but not as much as when I try to claim that I was the fifth Beatle. That is a lot to stake on just hearing a song and really, really liking it. But where would rock bands be without us fans to love them? In that sense, we were all the fifth Beatle.
So this is what falling in love with a song can do to you: it can drive you to obsession that sometimes may be put to good use. That was the song that made me harass my parents into buying me a cheap but foundational acoustic guitar. That was the song that made me sit in my room for hours every day practicing the four or five chords that I knew. That was the song that made me brave enough to sing something by Elvis at the talent show.
But I never actually tried to play and sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” until decades later. I just assumed that I wouldn’t be able to do it. It seemed to demand the magic of the Beatles. It was like the girl you fall in love with that you assume is out of your league. And so you never even call her.
Many, many years later, I did learn the song and I enjoy singing it now. It’s like going to your 50th high school reunion and finally talking to the girl that you were never brave enough to ask for a date when you were young.
But that was the song that made me get a guitar and learn how to play it. And that led to over a half a century and counting of musical enjoyment. And even today, I look at my granddaughters and think, “I want to hold your hands…and show them how to make guitar chords.”