There were two CDs that sat next to the stereo in the weight room in my high school in New Hampton, Iowa, through my entire career there from fall 1993 through spring 1997: AC/DC Live, and some other album I’ve long forgotten. I was in the weight room whenever it was open to students, which was most weekdays during the summer, Saturday mornings during football season, and after school a few days a week during basketball season. The door would open, the regulars would show up for an hour or two, the air would become humid with sweat, and we’d listen to radio stations from Waterloo, Iowa, or Rochester, Minnesota, the two biggest markets that reached us, almost always classic rock.
I worked hard in the weight room throughout my entire high school career, desperately trying to pack muscle onto my small frame. I played my senior football season at 156 pounds, despite the previous years of deadlifting, squatting, and bench pressing my ass off as many days as I could. Immediately after my senior football season ended, I gained 11 pounds of almost pure muscle, a joke from the universe just in time for track season.
In the ’90s, our area rock stations mostly stuck with classic stuff, and didn’t have a long or diverse list of bands, or songs by those bands. There was lots of Led Zeppelin, which I loved because I was going through my Led Zeppelin phase, but also thousands of laps of songs I never bought or listened to outside of the weight room because I’d heard them so much on the radio there: Anything by Pink Floyd, Heart, the Pretenders, Rush, ZZ Top, a bunch of others, and AC/DC. Sometimes I think back about the soundtrack of my teen years and how much of it was already 20-some years old while I was listening to it, which is probably good and bad. I listened to a ton of hip hop myself at the time, but if I had brought a copy of Illmatic or Midnight Marauders or Ill Communication into the weight room, I don’t think it would have lasted more than 60 seconds before my football coach, who usually opened the weight room for everyone, would have thrown it in the trash.
My sophomore year in gym class, my friend Justin Klunder was my partner for our weightlifting unit, which I think was six weeks. Justin’s parents had six kids, all with first names that began with J. One of his older brothers, Jimmy, was one of my bosses at the restaurant where I washed dishes and bussed tables through high school, and his sister, Jayne, was one of my other bosses. Justin and I weren’t the closest of friends, especially later on in high school after he’d had a baby with his girlfriend and stopped partying as much, but early on we got along well and traded CDs. Justin, in my memory, was a pretty good natural athlete, but didn’t spend a lot of time in the weight room.
The AC/DC Live album is two discs, beginning with “Thunderstruck”—or, beginning with the crowd at England’s Donington Park cheering for 95 seconds before Angus Young’s guitar starts ripping. You can hear a few faint chants of “thunder” before the band takes the stage, but then the distinctive guitar begins, and Brian Johnson leads the band, and the crowd, in the repeated “uh-huh uh-huh uh-uh uh uh” scat for about 30 seconds before the drums kick in and the rocket ship really takes off. The singing, then, before the actual lyrics of the song begin, is Johnson’s “uh-huh uh-huh uh-uh uh uh” scat, punctuated each time with him, and the crowd at Donington Park, screaming, “Thunder!”
In gym class, in the New Hampton High School weight room in the fall or winter of 1994-1995, someone would eventually pop in the AC/DC Live CD, maybe someone who hadn’t spent three days a week in the weight room for several consecutive months, and who hadn’t listened to AC/DC Live a bajillion times already. Maybe it was Justin, whose last name, Klunder, rhymed with “thunder,” and who would chant along with Brian Johnson of AC/DC and the crowd at Donington Park as they all screamed “thunder,” but Justin would substitute his last name, “Klunder,” ten times in a row, so that the song still lives in my head as “Klunderstruck” instead of “Thunderstruck.”
My friend Nick Kolbet and I washed a lot of loads of dishes in the back of the kitchen of the Pinicon Restaurant, listening to a tiny radio perched above the dish pit, speckled with bits of watery food one of us had sprayed off of racks of plates before we shoved them into the dishwasher for their cycle, the other one of us pulling them out the other side 90 seconds later to let them cool and dry for a minute or two before sorting them and then slip-sliding across the rubber mats on the kitchen floor. The radio was always tuned to a rock station, and Nick and I had many discussions about song lyrics, focusing mostly on Pearl Jam and Nirvana, two of our favorite bands at the time, because we were teenagers, and probably a little sad at the time. I mean, I can’t speak for Nick, but I did two different courses of Accutane in high school, a drug to take care of my cystic acne, which had the unfortunate side effect of depression and/or suicidal thoughts, so I was definitely sad, and Nirvana and Pearl Jam songs were right up my alley. Most Friday and Saturday nights and most Sunday mornings, I was in the Pinicon dish pit, in an apron covered in food grime, or in the front of the restaurant, frantically bussing tables and carrying tubs of dirty dishes back to the kitchen, trying to keep food grime off my white button-down shirt and tie. We made $4.85 an hour.
Every time AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” came on the radio, Nick would say something about it being our theme song, in the dish pit. I couldn’t argue with him, but I always did, saying it was some other song I can’t remember now. Of course Nick was right.
Every wedding DJ at every wedding I attended, at some point in the evening, whether the dance floor was packed or nearly empty but for three or four 5-year-olds and/or three or four 70-year-olds accompanying them, plays AC/DC’s “Shook Me All Night Long,” a song that is, unless I’m totally mistaken, 100 percent about two people having sex.
Hilary and I had been bouncing around Ireland for a few mostly rainy January days when we stopped in Galway. I was delighted to discover that whenever it stopped raining, musicians appeared on the streets of the Latin Quarter to play music in order to separate tourists such as myself from their money. In 30 minutes of walking around, you might encounter everything from a single person standing outside a pub singing a capella with an upturned hat sitting in front of their shoes, to a full four-piece bluegrass cover band setting up and playing to a crowd of a couple dozen people recording them on their phones.
We had ducked into a wool shop for a few minutes after breakfast one morning, so Hilary could shop for some gifts for her family. I dutifully followed her around the store, not being much help besides the moral support of agreeing with her that something she had picked up was interesting, or beautiful, or a good gift for her sister. It was fine.
Then, I heard someone plug in an electric guitar a few feet from the shop, and as the door opened and closed, I heard what I thought was the beginning “dun, dun-dun” chords of AC/DC’s “T.N.T.”, wasn’t it? I had still, at this point in my life, not ever purchased a single AC/DC album, or ever purposely even clicked “play” on an AC/DC song. I didn’t dislike AC/DC; it was just that their music was always around—on the radio when I was growing up, and now that I was grown up, on the speakers at the hardware store and the grocery store.
Yet, like a moth to a light bulb, I floated out the door to see what this guitar racket was all about, especially wondering if the guitar player was going to do the “OY. OY. OY.” chants that AC/DC’s lead singer (first Bon Scott, then Brian Johnson) let the rest of the band lead the vocals on, before launching into the song’s first line.
I made it out the door of the shop in time to see the guy, chanting “OY. OY. OY.”, blasting an electric guitar plugged into a small amp, playing his version of “T.N.T.” at 10 o’clock in the morning on a weekday, all by himself, before the rain started up again.
When Jay was born in July, the 45 consecutive minutes I held him in the operating room was my personal record for length of time holding a baby. I had never really gravitated toward babies, or small children, always feeling very out of my element. But now we have a baby. The three months since have been a blur, as we try to figure out how to keep a tiny human alive, and somewhat stable. Other dads have told me that for the first six months to a year, you’re basically an assistant to the mom. So I mostly focused on taking care of Hilary so she could take care of Jay: making food she can eat with one hand, shopping for groceries, doing all the dishes, cleaning, laundry, figuring out how to get brown stains out of tiny clothing items. When Jay and I hang out and it’s just the two of us, I make sure there’s music: jazz records, old and newer hip hop, classic reggae and dub, some Black Sabbath, some Fela Kuti, things that will capture his attention. If I want him to go to sleep or calm down, I sing him Jack Johnson’s cover of “A Pirate Looks at 40”, not the version with Dave Matthews, but the solo version with the missing verses, that I illegally downloaded sometime in the mid-2000s. If he starts getting fussy, I put on some music to distract him for a few minutes, and it usually works, sometimes, for at least a little while.
On our back deck, eating pizza that had just arrived, with my parents who were in town visiting, Jay started to get a little fussy in his bouncy chair. I grabbed my phone, held it just below his back, and randomly thought of a song: AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” I don’t know why, maybe because the opening chords were loud enough to grab Jay’s attention, maybe because I had recently listened to Dave Grohl’s memoir in which he stans AC/DC, or maybe because it’s stuck somewhere in my head from all the times I heard it in high school. Or maybe it’s just a good song for babies, and adults.