Rambling about Love and Familiarity — Music and Appreciation

When I was twenty years old the Repo Man soundtrack became a staple in my listening diet. It was 1985 and I had thoroughly enjoyed the wacky, low budget, semi sci-fi, comic adventure and I’m not going to bother reviewing either item here as I recently heard it discussed on some National Public Radio show and realized that the artistic subversion the film might have had the right to inspire in that decade had long since passed into a forgotten yawn or belch. I will quickly say that there are several solid numbers on the soundtrack, Iggy Pop doing the titular track has never left my psychic playlist with, “I’m looking for the joke with a microscope” as a conspicuous refrain. There’s a terrific cover of an old Johnathan Richman number from when he was a modern lover called “Pablo Picasso” by a band I never learned anything more about called Burning Sensations. They were probably very good. I love the sax. Fear has a track and it’s much what Fear do, sounding like heel pro-wrestlers. The Circle Jerks do a hilarious vamp of a song about welfare and lazy poverty that I had never quite noticed was tinged with fairly heavy Reaganesque conservatism. Somehow it was just funny at the time with lyrics about five pound blocks of government cheese, and unemployment lines all wrapped up with grandpa’s kitsch, “You gotta duck when the shit hits the fan.” It fit the dystopia of the film perfectly. I have always liked the term “dystopia” using it whenever I want to conjure the opposite of utopia. Though I’ve never really bothered to look it up and grok it precisely. I’ll get around to it eventually, or not (some years ago I enjoyed reading that Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann was sick of looking up the word hermeneutics every time he had to debate creationists) And we won’t even get started about the purported use and meaning of “post-modern”.
Do you love Jonathan Richman? I wasn’t really intending to talk so much about him, but I went through a phase where, for a time, I felt that every sweet thought I’d ever had was better expressed by his nervous, talky lyric delivery which ended up inspiring bands like the Talking Heads (and one of The Modern Lovers ended up in that band). All this to say that I had no idea where Richman came from. I mean he makes it clear he’s from Boston and that was fun, especially when he references things I grew up with like Stop and Shop, but, I had not realized his almost total devotion to all things Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. All the hipsters shake their heads and roll their eyes at me, sure, but let’s face it, The Sex Pistols did not cover “Sunday Morning” they covered “Road Runner”. And so, my musical journey leaped over Lou Reed. It wasn’t until the late 80s into the 90s that I knew anything about all that dirty NYC street kid life that ended up steeped in the CBGB sounds and possibly entirely accidentally. When I was a kid I mostly loved The Talking Heads and later mostly loved The Ramones while secretly adoring Blondie. Now I’m certain that Blondie was the best thing that came out of that scene, despite my lack of interest in anything post Parallel Lines. So there you go, you can argue all you like, right? This is just a matter of taste. It didn’t hurt that Debbie was a knock-dead, flat-out, no arguments NYC Venus who made my young head spin with every image I saw of her.
So, The Velvet Underground being a decade older, and in an age that pre-dated the internet, I had no idea about anything Lou Reed except that “Take a walk on the wild side” was something I heard him rap on the radio a lot (along with “the colored girls” singing “doot do-do doot”). And I understand, I do, I know that in the midst of so many candy-coated nursery rhymes percolating out of the so-called British Invasion and the garage-rock, psychedelic movement that erupted in that wake, that Reed and company were doing some very gritty street level lyricism mixed with a shocking amount of electric noise (There are only a few songs on that White Light/White Heat album and the piece de la resistance, “Sister Ray”, is seventeen minutes long). You have to wade through a fair amount of forgettable flotsam to get to it, but it is incredible and at least somewhat inept something like a live take gone awry. Especially when taken in context. Later, when The Fall was doing “Repetition” on that cranky organ, I had imagined it revolutionary, but is anything rudimentary really revolutionary? Is a one chord jam really revolutionary? Can a one stringed guitar be revolutionary? It can shock the zeitgeist because we’re so much more refined, etc. But you can’t pretend the baby banging on the pots and pans, or the feed-backing, string scratching guitar are revolutionary, because these things are happening anyway. They are fundamental. Experimental is fundamental, fundamental is experimental and then what is subversive is sincerity and skill, and then the damned pendulum swings back so that what is subversive is back to being the primitive. When I first heard the Ramones my main listening had been progressive rock masters Yes. The garage rock metronomic power of Johnny, Joey, Dee-Dee, and Tommy simply hit the road hard in a cheap compact on worn tires. After the extravaganza of the exquisitely played Yessongs triple disk live LP they were the satisfying fat and sugar of a whopper (definitely with cheese) and a shake. But if you live long enough, you’ll find yourself circling back and around again, the same way we learn to play an instrument or learn a Tang Soo Do form. Each time orbiting the material brings us some more depth and adds to our growth, and with it appreciation of the efforts. One can appreciate recorded wildness and this was well documented long before rock music dared to stray past a twelve-bar blues format, by the likes of Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. Magnificent noise can reveal a purity of sound appreciation that, like adding seafood to your previously strict diet, allows you to expand your consciousness.

When I was twenty I had a band, and any time we did a little gig (almost always for charity of some sort) we’d hear a contemporary dive into a rendition of “Sister Ray” or “Sweet Jane”. I had no idea what was going on when even Ian Curtis of the famous and defunct and suicided Joy Division did the same on the low-quality live vinyl sides (with hand numbering in ball-point pen) we couldn’t get enough of. I swear that it was a full on decade before I’d actually heard the actual songs on the actual albums by The Velvet Underground. And many more years before I’d bother to own it. Lou Reed gives me fits. Albums are distinctly uneven. Reed even dabbles, much like the Beatles before him, in twenties style oom-pah music (right on Transformer!). I find myself frustrated by Reed far more than even Captain Beefheart. Beefheart attempted to fuse blues rock to free jazz. What he ended up with was brilliant, but also entirely compulsively orchestrated by his brilliant musicians. My issue with Reed is different. I simply don’t understand his frames of reference for anything but his rock. I’ve never been back to albums like Berlin. And I haven’t even said anything about Metal Machine Music.
And so this leads me to my discussion of settings and loving what we love because we want to love it. And the reason is because it has meaning greater than constituent parts. For The Velvet Underground Warhol comes into it. Nico has to be discussed. There was a scene, and frankly I don’t care a bit about any of that. I’m interested in music. If music is about fashion, hairstyles, location, and posturing then the argument is made (and I’m not interested). If music is about soul, excitement, inspiration, and transporting ourselves through transcending mediocrity (boys and girls with guitars and drums) to a greater more passionate mental space, empowerment through the sound and noise, then please, let’s discuss the music. I’m less concerned about image and personalities. I don’t need to know that my favorite music is produced by particular cultural identities (first nation shamen perhaps) or how certain sexual proclivities might have influenced a particular use of tone or beat. As Foucault once said we don’t need to be concerned with the weaning age of Newton to appreciate his contribution to physics. In the same manner I am not concerned with what ethnicity my favorite authors are, I don’t need to have a life history of Lou Reed or Sun Ra to be moved by their efforts. On the other hand we’ve been pummelled with so much of it and I end up wondering if it actually hurts or helps artists to have so much of it laid on so thick. You can watch some interviews of Reed on the internet and watch him turn from silly to angry and stubborn. At first the attitude annoyed me, what’s the point? But considering all the purely personal and dopey questions coming out of the press people (for example asking him if he’s happier as a brunette or a blonde) one wonders when music will be important to the clowns. Bob Dylan was accosted by a reporter who admitted never listening to his music. Dylan smartly refused to talk to him further, why should he? Stories get invented, characters get erected by the popular consumption of these silly soul delving interests. Howlin’ Wolf was rumored to have murdered a man. An entirely apocryphal, though popular, story it turns out. Why do we need it? Did Sun Ra really think he was from Saturn, or did he enjoy playing with music aficionados and critics? In his late years it was said he could be found sitting on a park bench with an earbud, but the wire was plugged in to nothing. Was this a message or just his idea of a cute joke?

As a twenty year old kid in 1984 I was admittedly, like just about all kids of twenty years, an idiot. I felt trapped half because of setting and half because of my own idiocy. I was tremendously impatient. I had loaded myself on Vonnegut books, and hours of guitar practice. But also, had spent many long days whiling my time away walking around the woods, day-dreaming, reading bullshit self-help pop psychology books, and writing insipid poetry and stories, most of them burgeoning with a kinky sexual hopefulness that would never materialize. In short I was like everyone, nothing particularly special. But then, I started to hear more and more in the music my friends and I consumed.
We always felt late to the scene, but then every scene is something arrived at late, because they aren’t recognized as scenes until later. I love to think about the riffs bands like the Who and the Kinks exploited for their universally known hits “My Generation” and “You Really Got Me”. Imagine walking into the studio or garage or whatever and saying, “Hey guys, check this out,” and literally pounding out a two note song that just alternates back and forth. And so adding a bit of complexity to the song construction seems inevitable, after all you can only do the two chord thing for so long (the fundamental). The blues of course are generally a three chord progression, and follow just one or two patterns almost entirely across the spectrum of the entire genre. Hell, they even reuse the lyrical themes over and over again. How many times can we hear about a lady having left us, or being so broke we just want to die? But these are the universal anxieties that press our need to complain. And it does seem that emoting in some driven manner, through anxiety of some form, is a considerable motivating force.
I feel lucky that music touches me as much as it does. It mostly happened accidentally as absorbed appreciation though my mom’s choices. As a twelve year old kid I went to see Neil Sedaka perform (Billy Crystal opened for him) with mom. She loved Manilow and Diamond and Mathis. I inherited albums from my uncle and I can still remember being somewhat unnerved by The Rolling Stones as the album mentioned Satan, and had a strange three dimensional image that included the faces of The Beatles and spoofed their Sergeant Pepper’s album, and had oddball stuff on it like snoring, and carnival hawking. It was the first record I heard that was challenging. And I’m sure at the time I would not have recognized anything as outlandish as Sun Ra or The Mothers of Invention as even being music. So the answer is that exposure until familiar is what creates appreciation. Simply relying on associations is limiting.
While sitting at a friend’s house and reviewing a tape made by our band many years ago, we were interrupted by his mother who came in and wrinkled her nose, “What is that?” she asked with a clear angle toward being wholly offended by it. We responded that it was our music. “That’s not music, that’s just noise!” she said, leaving us amused. More recently while listening to a live CD of Muddy Waters performing a young graduate student stuck her head in and with much the same tone as my friend’s mom all those years ago, demanded to know what the hell it was I was listening to. With a smile I offered her the CD case and mentioned the old blues legend. She shook her head and left, clearly finding the racket unendurable. Finally, you have Slim Pickins from Blazing Saddles demanding a song from the black rail workers. When he was unsatisfied with the refined rendition of “I get no kick from Champagne” he launched into the silliest version of “Camptown Races” ever as a riposte.
And that’s all you need to know really. We love what we know, and we don’t know much. So our love is limited. We live in an age where it is almost criminal to limit ourselves because access is so widespread. We can know everything at the click of a button. Kids today have the ability to be so familiar with so much more than we could as kids. I envy that wide open ocean of knowledge at their fingertips at a time when they can sponge at will from the great collection of human endeavor. I guess we’ll soon see if it makes much of a difference. Will today’s kids be wider in their appreciation or not?

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