Do you remember your first time? Is the place etched in your memory, the sounds, the smells, the people you were with? Is your first time a permanent piece of you, a fixed and unforgettable slice of time?
Firsts are important. They define our understanding, shape our future expectations, lay a foundation for what will come. You only get one first time, and it needs to be important, big, explosive. My first time was when I was but 4 ½ years old.
But let me explain.
I was living in Germany, courtesy of the U.S. Army, at Patrick Henry Village, an American housing base. Everything was self-contained – it was possible to live a quintessential American life without ever leaving the fenced-in compound. We had a theater, bowling alley, PX (a small store) a library. And the NCO Club. An NCO is a non-commissioned officer, an enlisted service member with management responsibilities. And they had their own club, a place where you could take the family, get a good burger, have a drink at the bar, maybe see some live music.
I can still feel that excitement of going there for dinner with my Dad, a sergeant in the U.S. Army. It was a muted place, smokey, the lights low – and the smells! The aroma of food was wafting out of the kitchen. Burgers and fries were the order of the day and you know how that can overwhelm the olfactory organs. We sat at our little table, Dad, Mom, brother Mike, and me, and waited for our order. Bear in mind, in 1962 eating out for a non-com was a big deal. The military did not pay much in those days, but membership had its privileges, plus it must have been payday, the one time of the month that enlisted men had money.
And that is when it happened.
I heard something, something mysterious and mesmerizing. Otherworldly. It was music, but nothing like I had ever heard in my short life. Not a piano, not a church organ, not a guitar, but something from another reality. Something from space.
It was my first time – I fell in love. With a song.
In the Cold War of the early 1960s, space was the hot topic of discussion. It was certain that the country that dominated space would rule. In the wrong hands, space domination could spell the end of freedom. That is why we were in Germany. We (actually, our dads) were the first line of defense for the expected Soviet invasion. We had tanks and soldiers, we had missiles and aircraft. And we were ready – but space could change everything. A war without borders, a bleak dystopian future of terror from the skies.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the time. All I knew was that song had occupied my brain in that magical moment, and would never leave.
That song was Telstar, by The Tornados.
There was another side to space, and the Telstar satellite was it. For the first time, transatlantic communication could happen wirelessly. Television could be transmitted without a cable over vast distances. Telstar was the future, but a peaceful, joyous future of progress. In 1962 the successful satellite brought hope of global unity, of the sharing of ideas and science and progress, in real time, around the entire world. So, the obvious happened.
The Tornados, a British band, launched a hit record.
Unlike other hits, it was not a sappy love song, or a broken-heart ballad, or my-dog-and-pickup truck-left-me ditty. It was an instrumental, and the featured instrument was a keyboard, a clavioline, the precursor to the analog synthesizer. While there would later be vocal variations, this was the first big hit without voices. How big? Over 5 million copies sold. The first UK hit in the US, 16 weeks on the charts. People were smitten with the satellite named Telstar, and people were smitten with the song of the same name.
And I was in love, for the first time.
I asked my dad if he could play it again, and he dutifully dropped his dime in the jukebox for another go. The song starts mysteriously, as if something is coming, and out of the static you feel it rushing by as it completes another orbit of our planet. The keyboard melody is captivating and lyrical, even as it is relentless. And after 3 minutes and 2 seconds, it ends with the reverse of the intro, fading out into its unvarying orbit, and leaving behind in its trail of imagined space dust, the soon-to-be future of communication.
My memory tells me we sat and listened to it all night. Of course, that didn’t happen. But the impression made by my first-time encounter with music of this level informed my later tastes. The expression of ideas, grandeur, majesty – without words! – opened a whole new world of communication for me, just as Telstar opened a new world of communication on Earth.
It is impossible to forget your first time, and later I would explore Prog Rock, Fusion, Art Rock, Jazz. I became a steadfast fan of instrumental music, a passion that extends to this day. I rarely read the words of a song, letting the music, instead, speak to me. If you can’t tell your story, expose your passion, make me feel, with your music, the words won’t save it for me.
I hope your first time was good for you. I hope your first time was pivotal, impactful, thrilling. I hope your first time changed your outlook, shaped your understanding, molded your future.
My first time was in 1962, and the first time is the best time.