The Echo of Our Lives

It can hit any time. Walking into a store, working at my desk, cooking dinner, I hear the bass crash into the piano keys, Eddie Van Halen’s guitar kick in–suddenly I’m fourteen, a suburban kid running with the devil, passing joints at my first rock concert. Loosely rolled doobies drip ashes that dot holes in my Izod.

Or I’m at a hockey arena, a neighborhood barbecue, maybe a beach when the unmistakable opening chords of “Smoke on the Water” whisk me to Dave Tolan’s house, music cranked, smoking fistfuls of pot pinched from the pound stashed in his older brother’s sock drawer. My purple bong gurgles, smoke on the water. I christen it Deep Purple.

Never mind the nose; I find ears the gateway to memory. Music plays out my past, ever present. Ever reminding me I am today the sum of all my yesterdays. I can’t rewrite my history, only relive it in a new way.

I might be at the grocery store or in an elevator when the Muzak version of “Low Spark of High-heeled Boys” lulls me back to Dave’s basement, fugitives from English class. Vinyl spins on the stereo, smoke swirls my brain, and my eyes fixate on the hanging lamp shade–a yellow sphere dotted with red glass. I blurt, “It’s a three-dimensional pepperoni pizza¬,” and we’re hysterical on the floor. Beats Chaucer.

“Any Way You Want It” carries me to the Met Center parking lot, tailgating sophomore year before a Journey concert. Chugging Wild Turkey with Grain Belt chasers. The Catholic school cure my parents prescribed hasn’t taken. It’s come with new friends who can party as hardy as the boys back home. Never mind the puke later, that’s the way I want it right then.

Clapton, “Cocaine”–summertime. If you want to hang out, stuff the speakers into the bedroom window, pull the Ping Pong table into the back yard, feel the sun warm your bare chest. It’s Wednesday afternoon–or maybe Thursday–and we’re making plans for the night. Maybe sneak into the Drive-In, cruise the Hopkins strip, or jump off the railroad bridge into the lake. Doesn’t matter so long as when the day is done we can ride on.

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The athletic interplay of guitar and bass in “Long Distance Runaround” sends me to Mike Mancini’s bedroom, transfixed in front of five-foot high speakers. Just smoked a bowl. Now grooving on the intricate sound in loud doses. His father opens the door, studies us, asks, “What’s that smell?”

Jim Morrison implores in his angry whine that we break on through, and that’s what I’m doing on a ski trip with classmates–back at public school–to Salt Lake City, New Year’s Eve 1980. We’re breaking through–drinking and smoking like it’s the end of time. I fancy myself Mr. Mojo Risin’, don’t remember where I wake up.

David Bowie rockets me to summer before senior year. I’ve called in to the Hut, too sick to make pizzas, I claim, because Scott Olson has scored some acid. We take a trip to the fairgrounds, and I’m mesmerized by Bowie over a loudspeaker, “Ground control to Major Tom …” The words dance inside my ears. Someone’s counting down. The guitars rhythm through my brain. And I’m floating in a most peculiar way.

Baba O’Riley on a boombox–who the hell is Baba O’Riley?–who cares? It’s only teenage wasteland! I raise a whiskey toast. To senior year. Dancing around a bonfire. Drinking our Daniel’s and–shit, cops! Running, stumbling. Then in the back of the squad car, cuffed, and it’s very quiet.

The clouds take many shapes, but mostly they block the sun and get in my way, Judy Collins reminds me, and I’m up and down, looking at my life. The counselors call us “baby dope fiends.” I walk the school hallway, trying to find my way, but old friends are acting strange. They shake their heads. Something’s lost and something’s gained, one day at a time.

Johnny Nash comes on the radio, and it’s a year later. Gazing across campus from my dorm, seeing clearly. And so it goes. Thirty years on, still sober, driving to a high school reunion, singing along, “Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.”

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John Rosengren is the author of A Clean Heart, a novel about addiction and recovery. Please send your 1st Person story to

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