Feels Like the Umpteenth Time

Every once in a great while, I get a sensation that begins at the base of my brain, one that starts out as a mild warmth but intensifies to a searing heat. The increase in temperature is accompanied by an increase in vibration, a distinct buzzing noise that is at first faint then stronger, at first curious, then distracting, then maddening. Buzz. Buzz! BUZZ! It's like that -- the sensation in my brain.

Many years ago, when the buzzing was still unfamiliar, I theorized that it was the result of acute emotional trauma. It happened when a childhood friend suddenly moved away. It happened when a favorite cat met an untimely end courtesy of a deranged El Dorado. But as time went on, this hypothesis broke down. Sometimes a major trauma would trigger no buzzing. Sometimes buzzing would occur in a time of bliss. Still, every once in a great while, I would get that sensation at the base of my brain, the mild warmth, the faint buzz.

Finally I decided to ferret out the culprit. I disappeared into seclusion with a calendar and my childhood diary. After hours of mapping synchronicities, I broke the code. The hot skull drone corresponded exactly with the release of albums by Foreigner or Journey. The departing friend and the departed cat were just random coincidences; the former left town the week Foreigner released Double Vision (1978), while the latter left this world the week Journey released Captured (1981). The new theory held up to even the most rigorous testing: The worst of my episodes, the Crippling Brain Hum of 1979, came midway between the releases of Foreigner's Head Games and Journey's Evolution. Head games, indeed.

Imagine my terror, then, when I opened the newspaper a few weeks ago and learned that Journey and Foreigner were touring again. Now double it. That's how terrified I was. Not only were the two bands back on the road, but they were sharing the same stage. I considered buying a gun or buying the stadiums and padlocking them against the invading hordes. (To be clear: I have nothing against these bands, except for the fact that they interfere with my normal brain function.) In the end I settled for a more moderate solution: I custom-ordered a special lead-lined helmet and gritted my teeth in anticipation.

A little background: Journey and Foreigner, of course, were among the most successful rock bands of the late '70s and early '80s. Journey, founded by ex-Santana guitarist Neal Schon, was a fair-to-middling Bay Area jazz-rock unit before hiring Joyce DeWitt look-alike and vocalist Steve Perry in 1977. The first album to feature Perry, 1978's Infinity, sold more than a million copies on the strength of two huge singles ("Wheel in the Sky" and "Lights"). Even more successful albums followed, including Escape (1981) and Frontiers (1983), which turned Perry's soaring tenor loose on a mix of driving rockers ("Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)," "Who's Crying Now") and poignant ballads ("Open Arms," "Faithfully").

Foreigner, founded by guitarist Mick Jones (formerly of Spooky Tooth) and multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald (formerly of King Crimson), rocketed to fame shortly after the release of its 1977 debut. With idiotically catchy hard-rock anthems ("Urgent," "Hot Blooded," "Juke Box Hero") furnished by the songwriting team of Jones and vocalist Lou Gramm, Foreigner sold millions of records before Gramm decamped for a solo career in the late '80s. Foreigner tried bravely to carry on with vocalist Johnny Edwards, but Gramm's vocal and lyric powers were sorely missed. The result? A step down, from moronic songs to submoronic songs (like "Flesh Wound" and "Mountain of Love," both from the 1991 LP Unusual Heat). A reunion with Gramm, 1995's Mr. Moonlight, did nothing except make my head hum.

From the comfort of my lead-lined helmet, I was able to ascertain that both bands have gone through some changes between their last chart appearances and the current tour. Foreigner, for example, has coaxed Gramm back into the fold and is billing this as the triumphant reunion tour. It is triumphant in two ways: In the mid-'90s Gramm fell into poor health and was eventually diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. Now having entirely recovered, he can once again punish the ears and brains of music fans everywhere.

To clarify: I do not wish Gramm any illness or any ill will at all. In fact I feel a certain affinity with him. Doctors -- some prominent in their fields -- have told me that his benign brain tumor may have caused symptoms similar to my Buzzing Brain Spells. "You know," one told me, affecting an affable manner, "you should get that checked out." I disagree. The fact remains that Gramm's tumor had a mysterious etiology, while the cause of my condition is well-known: Gramm's bleating vocals. More specifically: Foreigner vocals.

Just before I received my helmet, I went out and bought Gramm's 1987 solo debut, Ready or Not, fairly certain that I wasn't ready. The experience was bad -- how could it not be bad, with cookie-cutter power ballads like "Midnight Blue"? -- but my brain didn't even begin to buzz, and the whole experience made me a little sad, mainly because Gramm is now an older man and will never again be able to sport a lush cornucopia of curls, as he does on the cover of Ready or Not. Because of the tumor and the inoffensive solo album, I'm willing to make my peace with Gramm. I'm even willing to pass on making a joke about how "Urgent" now sounds like a jingle for adult diapers. But I'm not taking off the helmet.

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