When I was around 10 or 11, I went with my parents to Gibson’s Discount Store, strode past the TV sets, garden hoses and washing machines, and bought my first records with money I had made from mowing lawns: The Best of the Guess Who, Led Zeppelin (first album), Grand Funk Railroad’s equally helpfully titled Grand Funk (the one with the red cover), and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Cosmo’s Factory. I tried not to let my parents dwell too long on the covers – one of the Guess Who members was plainly smoking something, and two of the guys in Led Zeppelin looked as much like pre-Raphaelite girls as boys. But rock music had very convincingly cast its spell, and deep down I knew I really didn’t care what they thought about the covers, or the music. Thanks to an AM radio disc jockey, I had discovered a bunch of long-haired strangers who understood me, and I had to find a way for them to stay in our house so I could get to know them better.
For a couple of years I had been listening to music only on an AM transistor radio, a little miracle of hard blue plastic about as big as my hand. Often I would listen intently as I played on the swing set in our back yard, one hand on a swing or the slide and the other on the radio as it periodically threatened, in random bursts of static, to lose the signal of the only station in town. Dave Holley was the name of the evening show DJ, and the Dave Holley Show was a grotesquely loud and glorious celebration of popular music, soul and funk and rock and pop and crossover country novelty tunes all pouring out of the same tiny speaker of my radio courtesy of Dave, who talked at the speed of light over the beginning and end of every record and detonated the occasional shout, advertising jingle, or goofy sound effect in an explosion of reverb.
Dave lived around the corner from me in a red brick duplex, and occasionally he and his wife would play bridge with my best friend’s parents. We would wander through the kitchen as they sat at the breakfast table, hunched over their cards, and it was a little dismaying to learn this somewhat quiet, short-haired man with the soft chuckling laugh was the same Dave Holley who jumped shouting and cackling out of my radio speaker nearly every night like some super-caffienated hyperdemon.
The albums I bought were a chance to hear many of the tunes Dave played nightly, freed of his machine-gun patter and echo. I didn’t have a stereo of my own, so I played them on my parent’s portable RCA record player with built-in speakers that sat on a small console in our den. I cleared out space among the Herb Albert and Firestone Christmas albums in the console drawer to store my own four records, and began to play them repeatedly whenever I got the chance.
I quickly discovered a world that had been obscured by Dave Holley’s breathless patter over the endings of songs, a world that drew me in as much as any combination of opening chords: the world of the fade out, when you could hear the band continue to sing and play as the song began to disappear. It was as if the musicians were slowly turning to ghosts before your eyes and ears, yet still rocking hard and even in some cases sounding as if they had only been marking time up to that point, that they had waited for the engineers to begin slowly twist the knobs downward, winked at each other as if to say, “Right, let’s get started,” and then the real song began, somewhere away from my hopelessly straining ears.
Was Burton Cummings really singing, as The Guess Who’s hit single “American Woman” slowly faded into crackling vinyl, “Goodbye American Woman/Goodbye American Shit”? That’s what it sounded like to me, as I moved the record player tonearm back to the song’s final grooves over and over again, deciphering a coded message surely sent only to me. Which is what fade outs always felt like: the band was still playing, but not for everyone anymore. The geography of the fade out was explored and charted only by pre-teen boys behind the closed doors of their rooms, searching tirelessly for obscenities and secret worlds in everything, restless to solve every mystery.
Some groups exploited the fade out to deceive or play a joke on their listeners, taking advantage of the underlying tensions of the fade out, the expectation of the unexpected. Probably the classic example is the end of “A Day In The LIfe”, at the end of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonelyhearts Club Band: a final smashed fist of sound fades slowly, slowly into silence, followed by more silence … and then a loud, gibbering tape loop knocked the unaware, the sleepy, and the stoned onto the floor, A true fade out disciple like mystelf felt initially betrayed by this bit of cleverness, and yet I couldn’t help but admit how well they knew me. It made me feel closer to them, even though they were, in essence, making fun of how I listened for what wasn’t there rather than for what was.
Bob Dylan sort of did the same thing in many of his early press interviews, giving nonsensical answers to journalists digging for more profound but misguided interpretations of his song lyrics. But given its sudden and elemental impact on my life, there definitely had to be more to this music. I could never just take it at face value, or accept the fade out as anything but a smokescreen, a way to keep me from discovering the wizards behind the curtain.
Instead of carrying hidden messages, other fade outs hinted at worlds beyond. The shards of light spilling from Jimi Hendrix’s guitar at the ends of “Purple Haze” and “All Along the Watchtower” were like someone running away from me holding a flaming 4th of July sparker, the metallic gleaming at the tip growing ever brighter even as the light moved out of my sight. I imagined him still weaving breathtaking clusters of notes and chords, furiously conjuring his Andromedan blues somewhere beyond. I could see the engineers slowly turn their knobs to zero, lean back in their chairs in a sort of exhausted, uncomprehensing surrender, and stare open-mouthed as Hendrix shook his afro and pushed his band even harder, soaring into that dangerous redline realm where the record-buying public could not possibly be trusted to wander.
The thundering symphonic sweep of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Yes’s “Heart of the Sunrise” set me adrift on rivers of Amazonian proportions, carrying me past monumental alien vistas and toward the fade out’s endless horizon, where I imagined both bands playing on and on, on and on, as the cosmos swept above and around them in endless galactic cataracts of sight and sound. These fade outs were not doors to hidden, darker rooms where adults did the awful, wonderful things adults did, but were trails leading to even greater, more spiritual realms, kingdoms of psychedelic barons. It was the fade out not as forbidden gate, but as doorway to discovery. Years later, I experienced the same thrill when I stood for the first time on trailheads on the edges of forests, running as fast as I could on their uneven surfaces for the sheer thill of not knowing where they would lead or what I would see next.
As I grew older and learned more about the recording process and the darker sides of the lives of my rock heroes, the fade out lost its mystery and fascination. I began to see the fade out as a cop out, a way for bands to dodge the challenge of providing a song with a proper ending. It wasn’t until I was at a friend’s house and heard J. S. Bach’s Art of Fugue for the first time, and listened in disbelief as the final fugue trailed unfinished into quick silence, that I heard a fade out that, to me, sounded like a real ending, a summation. I have heard recordings of several artists attempt to finish that final fugue, but none of their proposed endings ever affected me the way that the unfinished version did, like one of my forest trails that, after winding and twisting in increasing elaborate configurations for miles, suddenly ran into a wall of alarmingly sudden and unknown construction. The idea that classical music could have its own version of the fade out — and, given it was probably Bach’s final work, one that seemed to fade directly into the grave — showed me that fade outs could have their own sense of finality, that they could be heard as a door slamming firmly shut as well as one opening wider.
I became a lifelong classical music fan as a result, and Bach’s Art of Fugue, with that final fugue always trailing off into the same uncertain silence, is still one of the works I turn to most often. It is perhaps comforting to me now to know that, even if left unfinished, our work can find a kind of grace in incompleteness, that the endings we seek are not always the endings we are left with, but can still be viewed as full and perfect in their own way, in ways that those left behind can continue to appreciate by pressing repeat, over and over again.