Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sibling Assignment #184: Go Your Own Way

I assigned the latest of our sibling assignments and here it is:

Write about how your taste in music has changed over the years -- unless it hasn't -- then write about how it's stayed the same.  If it's any help, you might write about music you didn't care much for 30 or 40 years ago, but that you enjoy today.  Work with this assignment any way that is good for you.

I think Christy could have written forever on this subject, but she narrowed down her response in this piece titled, "Only the Beginning", here.

Just a little over two months ago, I'd been to the Fourth of July parade in Long Beach, IN, overlooking Lake Michigan, and returned to my brother-in-law's lake house and my nephew Ben poured me a ginger whiskey and I thought to myself, "This would be a perfect time to listen to music played on vinyl LPs" and I thumbed through the selection of albums and, inexplicably, I decided to play Fleetwood Mac's Rumours.

I loved it.

On the one hand, loving it didn't surprise me because the songs triggered some idealized memories I enjoyed of living on Mt. View Lane near Whitworth College in the first year of my first marriage.

On the other hand, loving it surprised me a lot and my liking it helped an inner conflict of mine surface, one that I don't expect anyone reading this to necessarily understand, but that I'm going to write about anyway.

For decades, I have been in awe of and heavily influenced by friends who I regard as having sophisticated taste in music -- especially in the huge arena of rock n roll/blues/pop/jazz music.

Their influence, however, has not always been positive. Often when they stated their strong, often fierce opinions about songs and recording artists, I dived into my soul's dark self-doubt about what the music I enjoyed, most often, without careful evaluation.  I am not and have not been a deep analyzer of music. I mainly go by what moves me, even it the music commits the sins laid out by my friends.

I wish I were clever enough to list something like the seven sins of recorded music, as my friends see it, but I can't come up with seven.

However, here are three of the sins that almost always disqualify music from admiration:

- too "poppy" -- a derisive term criticizing music for being shallow, aiming for sales, trying to be popular, lacking an edge.  A song that's too poppy can be too bright, too upbeat, too comforting, regarded as too tame, and having the bland qualities of vanilla ice cream.  I think some of my friends thought that when the Grateful Dead's "Touch of Grey" became a hit, that it was proof that the Dead had become too poppy and that something in the Dead-i-verse had been compromised.

-over produced -- this derisive term gets directed at studio albums that lack roughness, are too polished, seek perfection too obsessively, that are too removed from the excitement of live music.  This is a criticism commonly directed at Steely Dan, for example, as in "Yeah, the songs are on Aja are clever, but the whole thing leaves me cold. It's so over produced."

And..... Sin #3:  Another word used to deride songs that are too poppy and overproduced is formulaic -- it's as if there is a formula and if it is followed, a record is more likely to become a hit.  This criticism can be applied to genres has disparate as country and western music and disco and all styles in between.

Maybe more than anything, music that is too poppy or over produced struck my friends as inauthentic and so when a group like, let's say Chicago, released a new album, dread always underlay the moments between unwrapping the album and playing it because maybe Chicago had sold out, become too poppy, and were over producing their albums.  When a group crosses over into the dark side of selling out, a line of demarcation gets drawn between the "real" Chicago and the "sell out" Chicago and nothing inspires the disdain of the listener with high standards more than to conclude that a group has sold out, became inauthentic, has begun to chase sales, become too commercial.

So, to prime myself to write a little bit about Rumours, I've poured some brandy over the eighth of an inch of coffee and half and half at the bottom of my "bill and diane show" mug and I have the album playing in my ear buds.

Suddenly, I'm transported back to October, 1987.

Rolling Stone magazine turned twenty years old and they published an issue featuring the top 100 albums of their twenty year history.

I lived in a good sized house back then with some fun loving housemates and, with their permission, I planned and we put on a party that featured tapes I made featuring tracks from, I think, 98 of the 100 albums Rolling Stone had listed.

It was the best party I'd ever been to, let alone the best party I'd ever planned.

I published a list of the top 100 albums for everyone's perusal and taped the playlists on the living room wall of the songs featured on the tapes I made.

It turned into a raucous dance party with plenty of food and drink and joy as we danced to music ranging from T. Rex to the Sex Pistols to Prince to The Modern Lovers.

I don't remember which cuts I selected from Rumours, but I remember the disdain one of my friends expressed as Fleetwood Mac came on. He hated Rumours. I do believe he regarded the album as guilty of all three sins: too poppy, over produced, and formulaic.

I was in no mood to argue with him about this because all I knew was I liked the sound of the album and it reminded me of living with my first wife in our pine-paneled living room in our little mother-in-law rental house next to the Hunts on Mt. View Lane and how happy I was to be newly married and that songs from Rumours used to come on KREM-AM when my poker buddies at Whitworth and I used to sit down with cheap beer and Three Musketeer bars and play penny ante.

And, so, around 1987, and for many years to come, I felt dread when graduate school friends and I got together for coffee or talked casually in the halls of Prince Lucien Campbell Hall about music, dread that I was going to rouse the disdain of who I considered my more sophisticated friends because I loved Grand Funk Railroad or Aerosmith or Steely Dan, and, while I might joke about having no taste in music, the joking was a defense.

I felt inferior. My chief tormentor.

Out of fear of being regarded a low brow dolt, I just couldn't admit that I got dreamy listening to Rumours. I loved the sound of Stevie Nix's and Christine McVie's harmonies and underneath the "poppy" surface of those songs on Rumours was regret and sadness and loss and it all connected with my own history of regret and sadness and loss -- and still does. On other occasions, I couldn't admit that when the Styx sang "Come Sail Away" I felt transported in a way that had once been reserved for Grand Funk Railroad's "I'm Your Captain/Closer to Home", but I would have no problem admitting that in my pre-Walkman days in the winter of 1983-84 I used to walk down Stevens Street in Spokane on my way to the bus playing air guitar to the memory of David Landau's licks on Warren Zevon's Stand in the Fire album recorded live at the Roxy in L. A.

Warren Zevon: Authentic, raw.
Styx: Poppy, inauthentic, cliche

I love 'em both.

So, back to the question I posed for this Sibling Assignment:  how has my taste in music changed over the years?

I'd say the biggest change is that I have eliminated the phrase "guilty pleasure" from my thoughts about music.

I'm no longer interested in apologizing for my taste.

I prefer Tom Petty to Bob Dylan because Tom Petty's lyrics are straight ahead and I can understand him in the moment. I love the Heartbreakers for their economy ("Don't bore us, get to the chorus") and I love the Grateful Dead for how they stretch songs out, take me into a world far away and I love the way their songs transport me to an imaginary shady spot on the Long Tom River where I can hear Uncle John's band by the riverside and get carried away.

I came late to Pink Floyd.  My conversion experienced happened in August of 2008 when I heard the Floydian Slips at the Cuthbert in Eugene and since that night I love to find Pink Floyd tracks and let David Gilmour carry me away with his gorgeous, transcendent playing of the electric guitar.

I no longer apologize that he's my favorite of all.  I don't know if he's the best, but I don't know how to assess who is the best -- all I know is that no one carries me into more pleasant dimensions of feeling and remembrance and soul travel than David Gilmour.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions made albums forty years ago consisting of short tracks bursting with energy and emotion and I love them.  They are nothing like the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd, nor are the Ramones, but I'm pretty sure if I were offered a handful of albums to take to a deserted island, I'd say, "Please, let me take that 1976 self-named masterpiece, The Ramones."

My musical tastes continue to expand and contradict themselves.  I only have one standard:  does the music move me in some way -- to dance, remember, dream, think, see a story, smile, weep, hope, pray . . . . ? One day I'm moved to listen to Neil Diamond and drink cheap Sangria -- and on another I want to sit in the quiet of our apartment home and listen to Glenn Gould play The Goldberg Variations and then there'll be an evening when I want to sit at the bar in the Old Line Bistro and put in the ear buds, drink a double IPA and listen to Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughn, and Ella Fitzgerald, among others, as part of a jazz playlist on Amazon Music.

Here's what is for sure:

I go my own way.

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