by Dan Oshinsky on February 11, 2011
I remember that I didn’t like music all that much. I’d spent my childhood listening to sports talk radio — to 570, and then to 980 when it moved up the radio dial. I’d come home from school, and I’d catch the last hour of Tony Kornheiser’s show. I’d start my homework, and Andy Pollin and a team of local reporters would be talking about Redskins season. I’d go to bed listening to Ken Beatrice, a host with a Boston accent that would’ve shamed the “Car Talk” guys.
There wasn’t a backing track to my childhood as much as there was a whine — a low drone of Washingtonians, watching their sports franchises sink further into the muck, their only outlet a radio call-in show that catered to the most neurotic, most obsessed among us.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I started listening to music. It started during a summer up on the Cape, when I’d discovered a classic rock station with good taste. I learned that I liked U2 and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I discovered the Guess Who, and I remember listening to a lot of J. Geils Band. I made my first — and only — radio call-in request that summer: Van Halen, “Hot for Teacher.”
That fall, with some coupons I’d been birthday gifted, I went out and bought my first two CDs: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Greatest Hits,” and Jet’s “Get Born.” My first car, my grandpa’s Olds Eighty-Eight, had been passed on to a cousin. I’d come into possession of another Olds, this one white, and with a CD player. For all of three or four minutes in the morning, on the drive from Wood Acres to Walt Whitman, I rocked.
Of course, this isn’t a story about an 18-year-old who gets an Oldsmobile and falls in love with a quartet of Australian rockers who ripped off Iggy Pop. That wouldn’t be much of a story, really.
No, this is about this one moment I remember.
I remember that I’d made a left turn that day onto Whittier. I remember that it one of those in-between days in late winter — maybe February, maybe March — where the words “unseasonably warm” come to mind. I remember that my friend, Alyssa, had burned me a CD of a band she liked.
I remember turning left in my white Olds, and the school day ending, and the windows down, and the volume a little too loud, and the sound I didn’t know I wanted to hear.
The band was the Black Keys, and the first song on that CD was “10 A.M. Automatic.” It’s the kind of song that jolts you if you’re not ready for it.
Three notes in, I wanted to know where this band had been hiding from me. They had this massive sound. The recording sounded like it had been aging for decades.
Why hadn’t the classic rock stations been playing these guys?
I went home and Googled them, and I learned two things:
1.) They weren’t an old band. These guys were in their mid-twenties.
2.) There were only two of them.
Two guys could make a sound this big?
I bought their second CD, “Thickfreakness.” Then their first. I got to college, and I started buying more blues albums: Sonny Landreth, Hubert Sumlin. I read that Sumlin had played with a Howlin’ Wolf, so I had to look him up. I read that Howlin’ Wolf had been a contemporary of a Muddy Waters, so I Googled him.
Then I started working as a DJ at the college radio station, and that opened up an entire library of blues artists I’d never known. They’re old friends now: Lightning Hopkins, Cephas & Wiggins, Townes Van Zandt.
The Black Keys came to Columbia, Mo., in the winter of my sophomore year. I remember them being loud, and at points, louder-than-loud. I remember smiling as big as I’ve ever smiled.
There was the other thing I remember, too: I remember wondering why more people didn’t listen to this band I loved.
How could you listen to a song like “10 A.M. Automatic” and not love these guys?
I remember staying up late one night, before we had DVR. It was back in my senior year, a few months after I’d heard the band for the first time. They were playing Letterman. YouTube wasn’t out yet. I’d never seen them perform before. I remember looking around the TV, trying to see if there was someone else back there playing guitar or bass. I just couldn’t see how two guys could make that much sound.
I remember the first time I heard one of their songs as a backing track on a TV show, but I don’t remember the show. It was either “Entourage” or “Friday Night Lights.” But I remember smiling, because I knew someone else out there was going to hear that sound and fall for it just like I had.
This year, the Black Keys released an album called “Brothers.” It was their third full album since “Rubber Factory” — the LP with “10 A.M. Automatic” on it — had been released. Their most recent album, “Attack & Release,” had been produced by DJ Danger Mouse, he of Gnarls Barkley fame. The two band members, Dan and Patrick, had each released a side project. They’d also backed a hugely ambitious rap project, called BlakRoc, that somehow worked.
I’d been listening to the band for five years, and I’d pretty much accepted the fact that the Keys weren’t going to ever go mainstream. And I was okay with that.
And then they went big.
They won a VMA. Ended up on “Colbert.” Played “SNL.” Had a few music videos top a million hits on YouTube. Stopped playing dingy venues and started playing amphitheaters and concert halls.
This Sunday, they might win a Grammy.
I hope they win.
The hipster’s dilemma, of course, is that I’m not supposed to feel that way. The Keys were the first band I ever loved, I ever felt was mine. And now they’re everyone’s. I’ll never get to see them play a venue as crappy as Columbia’s Blue Note again, and that’s where they’re meant to be heard. In a dungeon, preferably, or at least some place with exposed pipes and $2 PBR drafts. Last time they were in D.C., they played 5,000-seat DAR Constitution Hall. Next time, they’ll probably play Verizon Center, and 18,000 people will show up to watch.
They’re still one of my favorite bands, but they’re not just my band anymore.
But if they win this Sunday? Some kid’s going to go out, and… well, actually, no, that’s not entirely right. Some kid’s going to open up iTunes. He’s going to download “Rubber Factory.” He’s going to load it onto his iPod. He’ll go out for a drive. Maybe it’ll be a sunny day. Maybe the windows will be down.
Maybe he’ll hear those first three notes of “10 A.M. Automatic” like I heard them.
I hope he does.
I actually remember this one other thing. I was watching an episode of “Friday Night Lights.” This was about a year ago. It was one of those classic “FNL” montages — no words, just some light music and darkness falling and Dillon, TX, slowly melting away. I remember the music well: some fingerpicking on guitar, and a voice that absolutely ached.
I remember Googling the lyrics. The song was, “When The Night Comes,” by Dan Auerbach.
Dan Auerbach, the lead singer of the Black Keys.
And I remember feeling like I’d rediscovered that sound all over again.
You don’t forget something like that.