Would you be my companion, is there even a chance?
You been talking in circles, since I been able to cry--
there's never been any reason for never telling me why.
Save my life I'm going down for the last time"--old Head East song
"Stop! There's got to be a million girls like her, but I can't think of one.
So at home she says you butler well and at work she says you're typing well
and at play she says you caddy well"--old Sparks song
I watched tonight the talent show "Rock Star: INXS", which, if you don't know the show, if a curious kind of Ted Mack amateur hour in which a twentysomething bunch of kids who should have their own bands sings songs popular when I was 13 in an audition to join a band comprised of people my age whose lead singer committed suicide some years ago. I imagine, sometimes, New Order trying to hold a reality show to reform Joy Division with an Ian Curtis replacement, but the whole thing escapes me.
I am not so age-ist as to imagine that this is wrong, and I really enjoy hearing old chestnuts. I also find it interesting how many old hits are not old chestnuts. "Rock the Casbah" comes immediately to mind. But opinions vary so much. To me, many of them can be rendered as theorems, such as: "Jam, not Clash". I am going to spare this post the weight of my portentous formulate such as how Minnie Riperton could pull off something with a song nobody else could have made listenable, or how prog rock was really great, if only you understood it and liked music in 17/13 time signatures. Yet music matters so much to me.
But I think instead of how much more music was a fabric of my feelings than it is now. I still listen to an awful lot of music. I buy popular things and obscure things. Music listening is important to me--and I am a fan and consumer and a listener, not the kind of person who only downloads and never buys.
But when I was, let's say, 13 to 35, I think that music had more day to day impact in expressing my feelings than it has in the decade since those halcyon days.
I remember a rocky relationship point being summed up for me by Soft Cell's "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye". I remember driving to my tenth high school reunion with
REM's Reckoning album blaring out the speakers of my parents' car, and feeling so much more in touch with who I was than when I graduated high school. I remember a Summer in Los Angeles driving back streets on Sunday afternoons to "Exile in Guyville", another Summer spent with Sheryl Crow's "All I wanna do (is have some fun)" and yet a third interval in which Bill Nelson's "Chance Encounters in the Garden of Light" soundtracked all my thoughts and dreams.
But I think it's when one is a teen or young twentysomething that music seems like such a mainline to the inner soul. I remember seeing the Dream Syndicate when I was
25, and then playing the live EP version of "Tell Me When it's Over" as a kind of existential statement for months thereafter. In the same general era, the "Solitude Standing" tour showed me a kind of poise that a mildly awkward girl from New York/New Jersey could exhibit, which impressed me.
My first rock concert was Grand Funk Railroad. Grand Funk was an interesting act, because they had a lot of hit singles, signed perhaps the most artist-unfavorable management contract of any of the 70s rock bands, and yet managed, somehow, to hire
great producers and put out entirely interesting music after their star had largely fallen. They were from that tradition of midwestern barnstorming bands I admired and admire, because they played 300 dates a year, in rock auditoriums where the tickets went for 5 dollars (that's about 15 dollars in today's dollars, I'm guessing), and really focused on nothing more complicated than entertaining kids who worked at mundane jobs for a living and kids whose parents worked at mundance jobs for a living.
I liked how in my teen years, a dance party at someone's house might start with Alice Cooper's "Killer", segue into Seals and Crofts's "Diamond Girl", roll on into "Superfly", and then finish with Dobie Grey. Kids could and did listen to Frank Zappa's "Freak Out" and America's "Homecoming" back to back, and never sense any asynchrony in the choices. I think that the iPod generation has a lot of kids like that, too, but all too often narrowcasting seems to fragment musical tastes among little crytals of division.
Rock concerts in that time, more than perhaps in this, were so permeated with controlled substances as to create a virtual state of anarchy, right in the local coliseum more used to sales conventions. To this day, I've never smoked a cigarette or tried anything illegal, but I'd watched concerts in which the second hand marijuana smoke hovered like a mushroom cloud, irradiating all within its reach.
I loved those times. Kraftwerk, fresh from its triumph with "Autobahn", might open for Pink Floyd. ZZ Top played Little Rock three or four times a year. Joe Walsh still played for the James Gang, not the Eagles, and there was nothing more fabulous than seeing Edgar Winter with one of those odd guitar-strap keyboard things strapped around his neck, wheedling out the sax line to "Frankenstein".
I count my past times by what I have seen, but also what I failed to see. I am glad I used to see REM every year in their earlier days, stopping only when their fame made the halls they played so large as to lose the interconnection that used to make their shows so rewarding. But I'm sorry that I missed out on Be Bop Deluxe, on concerts by vintage Pink Floyd, and on Lynyrd Skynyrd. I miss, a bit, watching Natalie Merchant grasp her ear while staring at the monitor, trying to find the pitch, although she almost always seemed on pitch to me. I'm disappointed, a bit, that my one Springsteen show was in the Cotton Bowl for "Born in the USA", when it would have been so much fun to see him in Deep Ellum during "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle" tour.
By the time I saw U2, a band my circle all embraced from the first moment on, they no longer were a new experience, but "everybody's property". Yet I saw Dylan quite recently, and found him rich and engaging. The best concerts I have ever seen included a Kinks concert in 1980, after they had ceased to "matter so much", and yet they entranced me and x,000 other souls at the Hammersmith Odeon. I'll never forget the first time I heard a Sibelius symphony, and imagined, as suggested in the program I do so, that each portion of the melody was a rocket of color bursting emotionlessly into the Finnish sky, right there in Little Rock, Arkansas.
I'll never forget the thrill of the 13th Anniversary Residents tour, nor the cringing and wincing disappointment at watching one of my up-to-then favorite guitarists, Mark Knopfler, mug and do what I can only revile as a Ted Nugent imitation on the "Brothers in Arms" tour, replete with the song about a guitarist who is strictly rhythym, he don't make it cry or sing, accompanied by a shameful ten minute noodling solo. They didn't even play "Skateaway". I'll never forget the exhilaration of Billy Bragg, not listed on the bill, unknown to any of us, singing "New England" while hopping around in jeans with a guitar and no backing band. Amy Grant also hopped around, but I believe that was because swinging her hips was considered sinful, and it's very hard to dance anything but a kind of pogo if you can't move your hips. Music is not always confined to "good" acts--I loved seeing Andreas Vollenweider, one of those odd Windham Hill new age artists, play his harp as if he meant it, and the most fun band I ever saw was perhaps the band Bulldog, who did a heavy metal "Rockin' Robin".
I'm intrigued by the way, with how many acts became "hits" after the band ceased to exist. Fanny and Pure Prairie League had both given up the ghost when the DJs discovered them, and had to reform. I wish our current radio system did such a good job of resurrecting talent.
Although I am a total David Bowie fan, I always think it's a shame that talent show people cover his hits and not his other great songs. Tonight I watched a woman suffer through "Suffragette City", but she'd altered the lyrics to delete the gender-bending ironies which are at the heart of the song. Somehow her "suffragette" became just some guy, and I wondered if anybody knows what time it really is, and if anyone cares. Bowie himself covered and covers other artists generously, and with a sensitivity that shows he knows exactly what works, and what doesn't. The aesthetic tone deafness that amazing vocalist sometimes exhibit intrigues me. If I had a good singing voice, I'd use it to do covers which do not sound like Holiday Inn note-for-note copies but like insightful originals, and I'd cover "Killer Queen", rather than "We are the Champions".
Speaking of Chicago, I liked one of those "behind the music" shows, in which the fellows lamented the fall inherent in going from being "the cutting edge of jazz rock" to being the kind of people who top the easy listening charts. I still wonder how Phil Collins sleeps at night, for that matter. I think of Joni Mitchell and Todd Rundgren and Neil Young, all people who could sell pop records without trying, but who declined to do so, with varying alternative choices. I think of Madness, whose songs were so wonderful, but who inspired imitators so much worse than Madness.
There are always the "what ifs". What if the Go Gos had kept off the junk and been allowed to record non-radio-ready things? What if they had let someone better than Jon Anderson write Yes lyrics? What if the Buggles had made ten more albums like their first one?
Then there are the more esoteric questions--why is it one can't see a Partch orchestra, yet one cannot escape cute girls singing brainless music like Hillary Duff? Why do so many modern "original provocative indie artists" sound so pallid next to even a casual listen of "Horses"? How could Stevie Wonder put out those three great albums and yet all but disappear? How could Prince sound that good on his first and second outings out of the box?
Yet tonight, predictably, I'm staring a bit at my own navel, and remembering songs that mattered a lot to me when I was down. Break-up songs, and Roxy Music songs about how we are all too fragile to live in this cruel and tacky world, and "Letter to Hermione". Things hurt so much at 17, and 19, and 21, and 23. The pounding thud of "She's Lost Control" or the liberating joy of "I will Follow" or the slashing broad parody of the Third Reich n Roll album meant so much to me in those times.
I still listen to a lot of music, and music matters a lot to me. I love to listen, and to sing, and to daydream about ideas in lyrics. But I remember when my heart was on my sleeve, at 17, and it danced along to sad songs and songs of liberation. Perhaps that's where childhood ends--but what remains is not a Starchild, but just a rather prosaic middle-aged man.