Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Uncool musical memories

Over the last year or so, I've received three infusions of music from friends, largely music for road trips (mine, theirs or ours), which has led me to realize that despite having historically hung out with musicians, music junkies and music snobs (or combinations thereof), I myself tend to listen to whatever music falls from the sky. I always have music playing in the car (partly to avoid actually learning anything factual or concrete on NPR), but it's most often random radio. So I know all the words to some Lady Gaga songs (hard to avoid right now) and am sometimes caught car dancing at stoplights. But I don't follow bands, don't explore much, don't pursue music that interests me, and seldom see it performed live.  Mostly, I just hope the good stuff comes by again.  I find that unpleasantly passive, so on occasion, I've hassled music folks for something New. And they've kindly provided. 

Unfortunately, rather than help me establish my own musical taste, it's mostly just established that I can recognize my friends' musical tastes. Mine remain wildly eclectic and largely situational to the occasion on which I encountered the music.  I'm very clear that I loved the Indigo Girls and Suzanne Vega in 1988 in college, precursors to my affection for Ani DiFranco in my mid 20s, but how much of that was the necessary response to hanging out with my feminist awakening cohort?  True, I still tend to prefer women's voices, but that's largely so that I can warble along with them. I just had a good ole Sheryl Crow sing-a-long when an old friend was in town.   

There's kindly nostalgia for past eras in general, music and memory being intertwined. In college, my roommate liked Modern English. A Boy I Liked liked the Smiths and Depeche Mode.  Everyone had that Cure poster on their dorm wall.  Alternative was in.       

When I was a kid, my mother liked the Beach Boys, and so I had their music, along with many 50s compilation records so as to avoid the horrors of disco ("Disco Duck" - need I say more?).  I actually liked the Beatles over the Beach Boys, but considered them, at eight, roughly the same, which is slightly hard to fathom now.  But maybe here's is the glimmering of personal taste with the fab four: the first cassette tape I purchased, right before boarding school, was the Beatles 'red' album.  But the Beatles got swallowed up in another friend's John Lennon obsession in high school and I lacked that kind of cataloging mind. I am more big picture than memorized minutia, which makes me a lousy audiophile. 

A portion of my musical scattering is related to theft and loss.  All the random tapes a friend gifted me when he went CD only, along with my own collection of mix tapes from high school, were stolen (along with almost everything else I owned) out of my car when I was traveling through New Orleans in 1993 or so.  The collection was never replaced, not even close. There are still tapes that I miss, if only in theory, obscure music from that era that's hard to find, and mixed tapes of sentimental value (the love letters of the late 80s). 

Sometimes, rediscovering can be disappointing.  When I was, oh, five or so, my favorite song was "Delta Dawn" by Helen Reddy.  My parents had it on 8-track (yes, I'm old, thanks for mentioning it).  I finally dug that up on iTunes, as the tune still randomly pops up in my head for shower singing to this day.  And, oh my, it's an awful, awful arrangement, country choral ho-down, and while I still sing it in the shower, I can't stand the country twang.  Tastes change from five years old, I suppose (thankfully, lest we all be singing along with Barney the purple dinosaur). 

But then, my first musical memory is playing my "Joy to the World" 45 by Three Dog Night on my Big-Little portable mono record player over and over and over and over and over again until my mother finally begged me to stop.  Perhaps she was flashing back to my endless requests for the "Itsey Bitsey Spider."  I guess she didn't care that Jeremiah was a Bullfrog and a good friend of mine. 

So there's an aspect of my taste in music: repetition. There are very, very few songs that I latch onto immediately with that ah ha! of happy. I loved Norah Jones' voice the first time I heard it (yes, I know, I'm middle-aged and she's a little cheezy, but really, such a voice, you have to admit). Some blues tunes, perhaps with the built-in comfort of the blues repeat, send me to happy fast, e.g., Guy Davis's "Sometimes I Wish." Plus, that song has just the perfect combo of yearning and resignation, impending grief. Mostly, however, songs just seep into me, bit by bit, and are connected with a good memory, or the 20th time on the radio, it becomes an old friend, or on the right day the right lyric reaches out and grabs me.

I played some classic 70s easy listening on that Big Little record player: The Carpenters and John Denver come to mind ("Country roads, take me home, to the place, I belong").  For a long time, I got John Denver and Elton John confused, which also makes my head hurt a little bit now.  Imagine my surprise when I found a Carpenters' song  ("Superstar") remixed into some British electronicy song a music-y person was listening to.  It's like a haunting, ten minutes of going, good heavens, why do I know this?  I remember that band's name, but now I've discovered Sonic Youth covered the song too, in a vaguely creepy pedophile way.  Wow.  Eventually, if you wait long enough, everything is circles back around.     

A lot of my musical reticence boils down to Cool - which is why I've made a point of exposing some seriously unCool memories here, because Cool is a ridiculous concept as a grownup.  But it was not cool among my high school crowd to like the music that everyone else liked (a sort of contradictory moment, if you think about it...I mean, there may be a reason people like the music, although yes, I get that there is a watering down with masses as well).  I can tell you it took me a long time to acquire a taste for hardcore punk rock, the music of Washington, DC in the late 80s.  I managed, but it was not really what I was into, and truth be told, I haven't listened to Minor Threat in a decade or two, and I liked Husker Du's more melodic songs. Sure, I liked Suicidal Tendencies "Institutionalized," but anyone who was a little offbeat in high school did.  (All I wanted was a Pepsi).

With a boarding school friend, I went through my metal phase, glomming onto her musical library and running endless hours around the tiny indoor track listening to the Scorpions, AC/DC, Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult on my Walkman.  Of course, I was also studying to the mellow tones of the very unhip but very soothing James Taylor in the evenings.  I still listen to Cat Stevens. 

I'm talking a lot (and in no particular order) about childhood, high school and early college in terms of memories and tastes, and maybe that's the reality, that we tend to latch onto bands at times in our life where we need the directed passion that music provides.  Hearing someone speak to our longings and rages and goofiness is perhaps most crucial when we're a lot closer to sixteen than I am right now.  But that doesn't mean it's not still important now. And you could make an argument that it's more important now, that holding onto passions makes us more enthusiastic and engaged people.  But I'm arty, so of course I'd say that.  But I mean to make my pursuit of music, and art, more directed and engaged than it has been. 

Enough rambling...If you know of good music, tell me. If you've got a crazy or sweet or bizarre musical memory, feel free to share.  Send me songs. Drag me out to see bands.  Because really, I'm sick of Lady Gaga.

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