From Terrible Noise to Beautiful Escape: The Transformative Power of Music
by Drew Holmes
“Dad, we need to go back to Target and get that guitar!”
“Buddy, I’m not sure we need one right now.”
We had been out Christmas shopping, and a toy electric guitar kit caught Timothy’s eye. Already having a drum set, I did not think adding another instrument to our stable of stars was a wise move. He has notions of our family forming a band, a-la The Partridge Family, and even has lyrics and song titles picked out.
Timothy recently started drum lessons, so he would be out drummer, and he decided I would play guitar, which is ironic. I’ve never been a great guitar player and unbeknownst to him I already have one that is currently sitting silent in the basement. Would it make sense to invest our scarce free time in this endeavor?
These questions were marinating in my mind when I read a recent Esquire article by John Wray titled How Heavy Metal Saved my Life. He recounts the formation and eventual demise of Asphalt Halo, the garage band he formed with two friends in high school. Garage may be an overstatement since they rehearsed in a carport on Sunday mornings, shirking the customary religious obligations of the early 1980’s Buffalo, NY area he grew up in.
Wray self-identified the band as horrible, a trait they eventually leaned into. Creating unorganized noise on pawn shop instruments, they made dissonance their musical goal and sought to be the best worst band possible.
Buffalo at that time was not a cradle of hopes and dreams. Today the area is rehabilitated into a desirous place to live, but back then crime, violence, sexism, and racism ran rampant. TV shows featured exciting people in glamorous places like Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City — not Buffalo. Escaping reality was the logical thing to do, but rather than find solace at the bottom of a bottle, Wray and his bandmates made music. Terrible music, but music, nonetheless.
This positive escapism gave them a reason to get together, a reason to rise above the real world, a reason to be accountable. Despite not having any talent or prospects of a future in music, they chose to try anyway. As Wray put it, “I’d rather suck at something than be dead.”
I wish his story had a happier ending.
He is now a writer and lives in New York City. Years after Asphalt Halo disbanded, he ran into one of his bandmates in a park in Buffalo, eating peanut butter from a jar and looking like he was altered on some substance or another. When he asked about their other friend, the silent smile he received told him he did not want to know. Since they had mutually decided to split up the band Wray was the only one who managed to stay on the path and find a better life. Music had given them all a rudder, but while he stayed on course his bandmates had abandoned ship.
I’ve spoken with many music teachers who have students who come to school only because of the opportunity to make music. When we discuss these kids, the conversation always revolves around providing the best musical experiences. Not once have we talked about if those kids are great musicians or even if they plan to continue making music after they have completed school.
Finishing the article, I thought back to my guitar. Why not bring it out of retirement? Who cares if I’m any good or if we make quality music together? When Timothy started lessons, Peter advised me to have no expectations. He is starting to learn to love music. Why not experience it with him and take that journey once again but through a different set of eyes?
Timothy is not growing up in the dystopian Buffalo of John Wray’s childhood, but a little escape from reality into music is a good thing. Maybe the time is right to dust off my guitar and join him.