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In the autumn of 1981, the band Journey released the multi-platinum album Escape. At the same time, I began sixth grade, entering my second year in an “advanced study program” (ASP) which selected certain students from grades 3-6 and placed them all in one, separate pod classroom. It wasn’t intentional, but it felt like we were miles away from the rest of the student population, instead of just on the other end of the school. All of the “cool” kids — kids I used to hang around with — labeled the ASP students the “ASS” students. The summer before I placed in the program, I somehow found the courage to voice my reluctance in becoming an ASS kid. My parents, only wanting their children to have the best opportunities, put me in there anyway. Whatever my feelings about the class structure now and then, I am appreciative of one thing: It was in the ASP class that I built the foundation of my two longest lasting friendships, with Matt and Steve.

Sixth grade was a year of growing pains and awkwardness as puberty reared its inevitable head. Over the summer, I had grown taller than anyone in my class, and my voice sank drastically, I shaved for the first time, began using deodorant and had hair sprouting out of places I wasn’t prepared to deal with. With Steve moving on to the seventh grade, I was oblivious to the great friendship I had in Matt. Looking back, I will always regret the need be “accepted” by the popular cliques. I believe it had something to do with being an ASS kid.

Matt seemed to understand that you can still have a good time even if you’re not one of the cool kids. I started to understand his attitude early in the year. In September, most of the sixth graders from the school went on a weeklong camping trip to the middle of Ohio. We spent the week sleeping in cabins, hiking, learning about nature, and watching chickens get their heads cut off. Unfortunately Matt didn’t go along, so I spent that week trying to fit in with some of the same guys who were calling me and my classmates ASSes. I’d had a falling out with many of them the previous year, so there were many uncomfortable moments throughout the week. For the most part, I tried to remain inconspicuous, thought it’s hard to do that when you’re freakin’ Goliath. The worst time of the week came during mandatory showers in the open showers they had at the campground. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had inadvertently packed a hand towel for me to dry off with. I did all that I could to sink into the corner and go unnoticed. I was a hairy monster compared to some of the other guys. It didn’t take long for one kid to notice me and snidely say, “You would have pubes.”

I dried off to snickers and stares and got the hell out of there. I felt like a social outcast, a mutant from the X-Men or Stephen King’s Carrie. Returning to school that Friday afternoon, I entered the ASP classroom to wait for my folks. I found Matt sitting on the floor with his back against the wall and his knees bent. A huge sense of relief came over me when he looked up and smirked, “Hey man.” Later, when I told him about the shower incident, we came up with a witty comeback I could use against any of those kids who tried to make fun of me: “At least I have pubes.” Although Matt and I thought this was hilarious, I never used it.

The school year seemed to officially begin the Friday I returned from the trip. Matt and I would become inseparable for most of the year, and Journey’s brand of melodic, mainstream rock and roll would accompany all of the outbursts, tears, heartbreaks and good times we had together.

The two of us had been fans of the band before Escape conquered the world; he owned earlier records Infinity and Captured, while I had the 45 of “Any Way You Want It” and a dupe of someone’s scratched Evolution LP. It wasn’t until Christmas, while we were visiting my grandparents in Florida, that I finally got hold of the new record. “Don’t Stop Believing” (the second single) was already climbing the charts, and Escape was on its way to becoming a phenomenon (solidified after the release of “Open Arms”). Since we were with my elderly grandparents in a condo, I didn’t have many opportunities to rock out that week. I spent most of Christmas break staring at the awesome cover art and running my fingers over the raised edges of the scarab spaceship and its shattering shell. On the inner sleeve, the band members — enigmatic lead singer Steve Perry, guitar virtuoso Neal Schon, keyboardist Cain, bassist Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith — were dressed like blue-collar guys, not leather clad metal heads or prissy pop stars. Thus, my first exposure to the album was visceral.

Upon our return to Ohio, I immediately headed downstairs to the basement to delve deeper into the music. This was the one that started it all; the one LP that created my obsession for music and all things related. Yes, there were LPs before Escape that I played over and over, but Journey’s music and the timing in my life made Escape the first true basement album. At the time, my brother, Budd, was spending less time at home as he became more sociable, so it was easy for me to seclude myself downstairs and listen to Journey. During this period, I also became serious about playing the drums, and Steve Smith was a perfect role model: any style seemed to come easy to him, and he knew how to play in the groove. I became a better drummer as a result of playing along with him, although to this date, I still mess up the unusual rhythm of “Don’t Stop Believing.”

Despite my ambitions to become a better drummer, and my affinity for the album’s cool visuals, it was simply the music that kept me coming back to Escape. The production isn’t overly slick, and the harder-edged songs have a “rough” quality that really place the listener directly in the studio with the band.

Side 1 is a perfect five-song set. “Don’t Stop Believing” is followed with the hard rocking “Stone in Love.” (download) Listening to that song conjures memories of heading to the city park on summer days, riding my bike through the neighborhood on the way to visit Matt or Steve, and most vividly, the homecoming fair that took place each August to signify the end of summer. It was the type of fair most small towns have every year, where the clankity-clank of chain driven rides and the smell of fried foods fill the air, and the rock and roll of teenage cover bands play on from the gazebo at the end of the fairway.

The album continues with “Who’s Crying Now,” with its majestic guitar solo, and the rock-heavy “Keep On Runnin’.” Side 1 closes with “Still They Ride,” (download) quite possibly my favorite Journey song. It’s a bluesy ballad featuring a quiet piano melody and Perry channeling Sam Cooke. Neil Schon’s solo is beautifully expressive; one can almost feel the calluses in Schon’s fingers crack as he pours all he’s got into those notes. My favorite moment can be found at the end of the solo, when he plays a quick triplet before breaking into an insane number of notes leading into the final chorus. I get chills every time I listen to it.

Side 2 is a much harder, driving selection of songs, perhaps a response from Schon to the abundance of pop-friendly singles on Side 1. The title track contains the best qualities of mainstream music from the early ’80s: it’s melodic, full of tempo variations and contains lyrics that speak of the hopes and dreams of teens and adults alike. “Escape” is followed by the anthem “Lay It Down”, which, had it been recorded in the late ’80s by a group like Tesla or Warrant, would have been a huge hit. Buried near the end of the album is the heartbreaking “Mother, Father,” (download) a song about a broken family. For the life of me, I never understood why this song appealed to Matt so much. It wouldn’t be until we were in our 30s and had downed several drinks that he would reveal his reasons. It took him all of those years to feel he could confide in me what had been bearing down on him his entire life. I guess there are just some things we don’t share with other people, not even the ones we love. Whenever I hear this song, I can only think of him.

The two of us spent the spring of 1982 trying to convince our parents to take us to the Greg Kihn/Journey show at the Richfield Coliseum. Of course, none of them wanted to step near what they must have thought would be a smoky dungeon of potheads and loud guitars. We came close, though, in convincing the school secretary in taking us to the show — an actual adult who liked Journey! I’m pretty sure it was Matt who suggested that she take us to the concert. He had the balls to ask things like that. If it wasn’t for a scheduling conflict (so she said), I’m positive that Matt and I would have made it to that show. Bummed as we were, a year later we finally got to see the band live. As Journey toured behind their next album, Frontiers, Matt’s mom relented and took us to see them (with Bryan Adams opening). Although Journey was starting to lose some of their luster (some band out of England named Def Leppard was starting to get everyone’s attention), that concert was still a dream come true.

Twenty-six years have passed since I first held the cardboard sleeve and the clean black vinyl of Journey Escape. There are so many nicks and worn-outgrooves on the LP, I’m not sure anyone would enjoy listening to it besides me. The inner sleeve has three layers of scotch tape along the sides and the album jacket has a tear along the bottom.

Looking back on those early years of adolescence, I hope to use my experiences to help steer Sophie and Jacob from the doubts and sadness that I went through. I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that, but I’ll try. As for Matt, well, although he was into esoteric music until the day he died, I do know he still had a small place in his heart for Journey. I found out from his brother that shortly before dying, Matt had attended a show. Hopefully they played “Mother, Father” that night. If they did, I know he would have been happy, and he would have been thinking about the good times we had together.