I imagine our long-term memories as being like small art galleries with limited wall space reserved for life’s most mind-altering moments. These memories stay with us because we’ve stored them in a prominent place. They continually reshape who we are because they are always available to be viewed, recontextualized and reconsidered.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard Living Colour’s Cult of Personality.
I was riding the bus home from a high school baseball game. It was 1990 – my senior year. I rode a lot of buses home from games that year, but this is the only one I can recall. I have no idea what team we played that day or who won the game, but the music blaring out of the bus’s ceiling speaker made an indelible impression.
The song was equal parts catchy and confusing. It made my brain work. The riff was unmistakably heavy metal, but the vocals were full-throated soul. The drums hit hard but laid back off the beat just enough to feel funky. I had never heard anything approaching such a combination before. To a child raised on Motown with a burgeoning interest in heavy rock, this felt like revolution. What made it all the more special was my sense that no one around me was experiencing this new music in quite the same way that I was. This revolution felt personal.
And the guitar solo. It opened my mind. I can’t make out all of the notes, and I don’t care. Vernon Reid plays the guitar like he’s wrestling an alligator, and to this day when the solo crescendos (at the 3:45 mark), I experience a nearly overpowering urge to break stuff – in the best possible way.
It’s no exaggeration to say that hearing Cult of Personality for the first time was a transformational experience. It permanently altered my appreciation of music.