How Def Leppard Saved My Life

If you ask most people, “adolescence” marks that time in life between childhood and adulthood. By that definition, I was not yet an adolescent by the time I’d reached my fifteenth year.

This isn’t to say I hadn’t engaged in the kinds of activities associated with adolescence. Like many in my cohort, I’d had my share of cigarettes, dates, the occasional beer (who remembers Lowenbrau?), and several furtive games of truth or dare.

However, I still predominantly (and much to my chagrin) managed to keep the more or less exclusive company of males. For a straight boy, this was beginning to feel like a death sentence.

Of course there were girls in my chemistry class, a couple with whom I played Dungeons and Dragons on a regular basis, and even one who enjoyed Ozzy as much as I did. But to me, they were always just friends.

One of them went on to become a TV news reporter. When I saw her on TV about seven years after graduation, I began imagining she always liked me but never had the courage to say so.

At a reunion the next year, she confirmed the worst of my fears. Yes, she’d always seen me, too, as nothing more than a friend. Rats.

Anyway, desperate measures were needed if I were to have any hope of breaking out of childhood by my sixteenth birthday. I’d begun taking guitar lessons in a desperate attempt to garner some much-needed social skills and the kind of female company everyone else seemed to be enjoying.

Problem was, the girls I liked were listening to people like Depeche Mode and Duran Duran, both of whom I detested.

You see, I liked Ozzy. And Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and a lot of similar heavy metal groups all with one thing in common: hordes of predominantly male fans. And I was absolutely taken with the work of Randy Rhoads, Ozzy’s guitarist, determined to learn everything he’d done note-for-note.

To this day, I insist the most pivotal moment in rock history is when people like Randy, Ritchie Blackmore, Michael Schenker, and Wolf Hoffmann, started using harmonic minor scales in place of the old blues riffs.

The blues gave and continue to give rock its bite and soul. The harmonic and Hungarian gypsy minor scales, however, gave it symphonic majesty, by providing entirely new ways to create and resolve musical tension.

Listen to the solo on “Smoke On The Water.” That’s your first clue that people are starting to add some odd but interesting notes to the five-note blues scale. Now check out Accept’s “Metal Heart” or the orchestration on Metallica’s “Orion” and you’ll really hear what I mean.

Anyway, I was a total guitar nerd and had no time for mushy glam bands like Night Ranger and Loverboy adored by the girls.

Ugh!!! What to do? I couldn’t pretend to like this music! But I didn’t want to be a monk either!

Then, one brisk March day, the answers to my prayers arrived.

I’ll set the scene for you. The year: 1983. The place: a suburban basement, just after school, late on a Friday afternoon. The setting: a dozen or so teenagers gathered to play Intellivision, watch MTV, and be rowdy.

What happened that afternoon and evening will forever go down in history as the Day My Adolescence Officially Began In Earnest.

The girls had commandeered the stereo, and were listening to Duran Duran. While I and the other guys were taking turns containing and displaying our revulsion, someone suggested we head out to his sister’s car, parked in the driveway.

This car, you see, was special. It was a Camaro, it had leather seats, a very loud stereo, and a Def Leppard cassette in the tape player. As soon as it was cranked up, I knew something wonderful was about to happen.

Now I’d heard “Bringing on the Heartbreak” before, but not given it too much thought. This, however, was different. It was the Pyromania album, and by the second song, the basement had emptied and the girls were partying with us.

With us. Yes, that meant me. Shaking heads and hips to music in a way that would have given Darwin religion.

And we didn’t even have beer!

Soon something became quite clear: this music was awesome, eminently worthy of learning to play, and the bridge to the future.

Some years later, in college, I would pick up a book by Rudolf Otto called The Idea of the Holy. When I read the words mysterium tremendum, I smiled knowlingly, happy to have made her acquaintance that day in my neighbor’s driveway.

Anyway, my like-minded pals and I quickly realized that the high school cover band that could play these tunes was sitting on top of riches the likes of which we could only dream, based on years of extensive research from magazines.

I know, it’s awful. Even my nightmares are airbrushed now.

So we set out to learn this stuff at once. The first order of business was untangling Mutt Lange’s “wall of sound” approach so we could replicate it on stage. It turns out there was a fair amount of overdubbing, of vocals as well as guitars (remember “Crazy Train”?), with a clever hitch: some of the overdubs were ever so slightly out of tune with one another.

Listen to the opening of “Too Late For Love.” We played that with an octave pedal and delay set to refresh really, really fast (that’s what you do, apparently, when you don’t have a phase shifter). And when the guitars played together, same thing: harmonies just a quarter of a cent out of tune with one another.

Soon we discovered these weren’t the same alternating major and minor thirds first brought into use by Thin Lizzy (“The Boys Are Back In Town”) and later popularized by bands like Iron Maiden. No, sir. These were thick, heavy, dissonant harmonies we explored, night after night, when we should have been doing our homework.

Oh, but we were. And the rest is history. No, I didn’t come close to realizing my Darwinian dreams. But I did manage to find the lady I’d date throughout most of high school. I also learned how to dress, groom, and talk to the opposite sex, skills that have stood me in good stead ever since.

Some months ago, on the way to preschool, my three-year-old asked me to play her favorite song for her, “Rocket” off of the Hysteria album. This is one of the albums that did for me in college what Pyromania had done for me in high school. (Roxy Music’s Avalon is the other. Shhh. Don’t tell.)

That day, being in an unusually good mood, I decided I would play that song for her. Over and over again, just the way toddlers like.

It was still going by the time we rolled up to the drop-off. When her teacher asked me what that song was, I told her. She’d never heard of it.

Of course she hadn’t. She’s half my age.

I took the CD out, gave it to her, and told her she could give it back to me when she was done. She smiled and thanked me.

Suddenly, there I was again, inside a minivan pretending to be a Camaro. Except this time I turned on NPR and headed home, with a 1-year-old in the back, to make lunch for myself and a wife who, quite possibly, rocks even harder than me.

Of course she does. She’s half my age.

And I haven’t seen the CD since.  That’s all right, I have more at home.

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One thought on “How Def Leppard Saved My Life

  1. You perfectly articulated the transforming experience of discovering Def Leppard as a teen. Loved the vivid descriptions of the setting, your friends, and how it all evolved. Had my own defining Def Leppard moment when Hysteria first came out, so I can absolutely relate to the impact. Thanks for writing this post. It’s actually a tremendous tribute to the band!

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