Music And Me Go Way Back


No more reportage, fie upon thee, Journalism! Do I look like a talking head? I don’t think so! No, I have a head- and heart-full of living inside me and the last thing I want to do is look ahead to the further complexity, the greater degeneration, the crimes we visit upon ourselves, and the acts of nature that wipe away a whole shoreline’s population.

What I want to do is listen to music from 1968: “Sunday Will Never Be The Same” as performed by ‘Spanky and Our Gang’—or 1962: “Green Onions” recorded by ‘Booker T. and The MGs’.

Spanky and Our Gang singing Sunday Will Never Be The Same"

Spanky and Our Gang singing Sunday Will Never Be The Same”

I want that miasma of sentiment to choke the hell out of me—to stop me in my tracks and recall to me the feelings of my six-to-twelve-year-old self—that wonderful ignorance that enshrouds the young mind with possibility and potential, unknowns and discoveries awaiting. I was good then—I hadn’t really recognized the possibility of wrong—fairy tales were my texts, Santa was the story I was told, not the lie I told my own toddlers.

A beautiful glow appears in my backwards-cast glance that I couldn’t have felt back then, only now with the added perspective of tawdry, adult reality. It’s an emotional shock, to me, not too different from the physical shock of plunging into frigid waters, makes my heart ache and yearn and almost explode—but not regret (that I save for my forebrain) just a wistful longing for that long-past sweetness of times when I saw the world more optimistically.

And I don’t know why I knock my head against the wall trying to convey the feeling—it can’t be described. My emotional works are so tightly enmeshed with music that a certain feeling accompanies all music for me, this 60s solid-gold hit, that 70s Carol King classic, this Brahms symphony, that movie-soundtrack from my favorite movie of its day…. It’s all tangled up in my school days, my love life, my family, my days and nights, my feelings, my politics, my challenges and achievements—they all had a sound track. I have never held a job where music is forbidden—that may have been chance, for all I know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened by not-so-accident.

I always read with music on—it’s just not the same without music. I always studied (in my school years) with the radio on—and not just any radio station. In the olden times, radio was its own thing—TV couldn’t compete with one thing that radio offered—the option of doing something else while it played music for atmosphere. Radios were portable—and popular! I remember childhood day-trips to Jones Beach when all the portable radios all up and down the beach would be tuned to the same station—and rock and roll followed one through the crowds and the waves—it can’t be described and, unfortunately, will probably never happen again. People were so communal back then—in our isolated and isolating 21st century we go without that—sometimes for good, but sometimes for bad, too.

People generally disapprove of the teenager with the ear-buds permanently implanted in the ears—but they forget what it was like when FM radio hit its peak—and punk-rockers would share their cacophony with the entire, unwilling neighborhood, carrying their boom-boxes with them wherever they went.

Before either of those remarkable eras, however, radio was a part of life. On Bethpage, Long Island, New York my single-digit years were a continuous ear-scape of AM 60’s Pop Hits. “Cousin Brucie” spieled the hit list and spun the 45s containing early-everything: early Beatles, early Stones, Diana Ross while she still had Supremes, the Bee Gees before they turned Disco, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Booker T. & the MGs, Simon & Garfunkel when they were still ‘Folk’ singers, et. al. Rock itself was new—the ‘dinosaurs’ that were still Elvis fans, including my dear Aunt Lois (Honey), were only a few years older than my oldest brother, James G.—who was only four years older than me.

At night, when we were sent upstairs to our bedrooms, we four boys (my sister, Kathy, was still a baby) would work on the perfect ‘tuning’ of the radio’s station knob. It changed with the weather, you see—AM radio had a great reach, because it could bounce the signal up off the ionosphere and down off the ground—if the signal was strong enough, it could reach well over the horizon. But the process required a carrier tone (a fairly high-pitched tone that was only audible during dead air—and that didn’t happen much) and the bouncing through the atmosphere made tuning-in a variable thing. At times of inclement weather we could even be forced to listen with a hand on the knob, to re-tune as conditions warranted—oh, yes, you earned your music back then.

So that was early ‘sonic’ life for me—the radio in our room, the radio in the car, and the occasional appearance of a band on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. By the time I got to high-school age, I had developed a strong interest in classical music—not in place of popular music, but in addition to it. We lived in Katonah by then and the Katonah Village Library had a listener-area with two record-players—I spent a lot of time there, head-phones on, listening to just about every record they had (quite a collection, but nothing compared to my own).

My dad used to get angry at me for lying on the floor of my bedroom (we all had our own bedrooms in the new Katonah house!) with the lights out, listening to really loud classical music—like Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, for example. It was all wrong—I was lying on the floor instead of sitting in a chair, I was in the dark instead of turning the light on like a normal person—and the damn music was too loud! O, he hated that. He’d fling open the door, flash on the lights, and yell—needless to say, he ruined the mood. But, being a hard-working commuter who took the train to Manhattan and back every workday, my dad wasn’t around for large parts of the day. So we bugged each other, but only for short periods of time, usually.

When FM came into its own, it was a wonder—no carrier tone, just hi-fidelity broadcasts of hi-fi LPs—when ‘dead-air’ occurred with FM, there was nothing—no sound of the radio itself. It was like listening to a record playing without worrying about skips, scratches, and bumps. You who haven’t lived through the Hi-Fidelity Stereophonic Record-Player Era cannot imagine how we agonized over our turntables. A heavy tread of someone walking across the room could make the player go nuts, the tone arm jumping up and down onto the grooved surface instead of being carefully dragged along the grooves (which was actually one very big groove spiraling from the outside edge of the LP to the blank spot at the center).

Before the tech explosion, I owned a metric-ton of LPs—Deutsche Grammophon’s “Complete Works of Beethoven” and Time-Life Sets of “The Baroque Era” and “The Romantic Era”, etc. are just two examples of the many free LP-sets my dad (the Madison Avenue ad-man) brought home as free samples of the products his clients provided him. Later, I would go through 8-track cassette players (a mercifully short period before audio-cassette tapes blew them away). Then I had stacks and piles of audio-cassettes during the audio-tape interlude, and have, today, a huge amount of audio CDs. I have been behind-hand on my I-Pod Nano and my purchasing of digital downloads for same, but I’m 56, dammit—life changes faster and I adapt more slowly. And I already own most every piece of music that I want to hear—Pop Music will have to do some serious changing before I feel compelled to follow its ins-and-outs like I used to.

Still, I have uploaded over 800 videos of my own music onto YouTube-channel: xperdunn, and I am only having trouble with my Nano because I’m still getting my ‘sea-legs’ on the Win7 OS (which seems to dislike even older Apple products, in addition to the new monitors, printers, scanners, etc. one is forced to buy to be compatible with MS’s latest-version OS) and also by virtue of being so busy with my various computer projects, mostly involving again, my own musical recordings, that I have trouble finding time to listen to my own playbacks, much less fuss over an I-Pod I never need because of my house-bound life-style. But I keep it plugged into the ‘Port’ Claire got me—it was a welcome bit of still-working tech during last year’s week-long power outage!

But I’m just an old codger—my fascination with music has become a comfort that I keep playing in the background, not really hearing it anymore because of my over-familiarity with all of it. Music that once made me emotionally fluoresce is now a part of me, so much so that I hear it even in silence. Plus computers ruin everything. I use to wish I had enough money to buy all the great stuff that a real painter needed to work with—easels, pallettes, palette-knives, hi-quality brushes, stretched canvases—then, one day, CorelDraw is released and it offers an infinity of options—over one million colors, easy copying and duplicating of any image—making things so easy and so unlimited that, to this day, I have trouble using it—it’s too much. And music is much the same—for a lousy $0.99, I can have a recording of any piece of classical music or swing-band classic—no more haunting record shops, hoping to find an actual artifact from that historical period, no more worrying about records getting old or scratched. Heck, I could listen to my I-Pod while I jackhammer my concrete driveway. And not only would the music be guaranteed not to skip or scratch, but the noise-suppression headphones would drown out the sound of the jackhammer!

Ask any artist. Creation is a struggle—it should be a struggle, that’s what gives it substance and meaning. Computers take away all the trouble of the arts, as if artists were accountants, overjoyed to be done with adding machines. If you gave Michelangelo a CAD-CAM sculpturing machine, could he still create the Pieta? Without holding a chisel, without feeling the stone? Maybe, but I doubt it. How many writers still write by hand? There are still a few left—they just can’t think up their stuff while sitting at a computer station. It doesn’t make it easier for them—it makes it impossible. Then again, if everyone in Renaissance Florence had a CAD/CAM program, how many sculptors would have been as good or better than big Mike, but went their whole lives long without the resources or the strength to do what he did, carving art from rocks?

So saying ‘computers ruin everything’ may be a little reactionary. We ‘transitional’s always get messed up. Those who came before had their lives in a world where writing was done by hand, calculations were done on a blackboard, messages had to be carried from place to place, and finding out one’s location in degrees of latitude and longitude was a tedious process that only ship’s navigators and bombardiers had to fret over. Those of our children’s age will spend their lives in a world of digital media and laser-guidance—they’ll be perfectly happy with things they’d had around and about them since infancy.

But we ‘middler’s have to be satisfied that the world of our childhood is gone and will never return; and that the future will only become more disorienting as we age. It’s exciting, yes—but it isn’t comfortable.

That old music: “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”, “I’d Like To Get To Know You”, “Mony Mony”, “Opus 17”, “The Rain, The Park, And Other Things”, “I’m A Believer”—they weren’t trying to become rock stars, they were spilling out all the non-conformist thoughts and feelings that needed to be repressed to please one’s parents and teachers. They were glorying in the freedom to say right out loud exactly what they wanted to say. Even though Free Speech was just as recognized then as now, it wasn’t practiced. Etiquette could be said to trump Free Speech—and Etiquette had the strength of steel in those times.

Imagine being a girl wearing a t-shirt and getting thrown in jail for indecent exposure. Imagine being a boy getting beaten to death for holding hands with another boy. It was a tyranny of silence. Good Manners not only had a stranglehold on society, they also included the magic ingredient for their ‘eternal life’—that is wasn’t ‘proper’ to discuss sensitive topics. And don’t forget, ‘sensitive’ can be read as ‘important’ in this context. It was an age when Americans would tell each other that, with free speech, ‘we can even criticize our President’—but no one dared to actually criticize the President, or the Pope, or the Mayor, Governor, Senator, etc. Authoritarianism had been bolstered by the idea that our authorities had recently saved us (by getting a lot of us killed) from the horrors of Fascism—and were in the process of saving us from Communism.

Rock and Roll gave voice to the young people who were about to scream at the prissy, laissez faire, up-tightness of their elders—the veterans of WWII and Korea. But without the catastrophe that was the Korean Conflict (you know the BS is really flying when armies face each other, but the people in charge scruple at calling it a ‘war’!) we would not have had that tiny minority of disaffected veterans who had taken a different lesson away from their time in Korea. Youth was so helpless and ignored back then, they never could have pushed the culture so far towards rebellion unless a few grown-ups sympathized and abetted their drive towards a new kind of freedom.

So it isn’t the drive of the lead guitar licks, the pulse of the drums, or the suggestive, even rude, lyrics that set us all aglow—it was something few people mention in the recalling of the 60s: it was eclectic. Nothing was excluded, everything was, instead, pronounced ‘interesting’. What was new was Cool—even it was as old as Bach’s Fugues for Organ played by E. Power Biggs, or the Eastern-tinged harmonies of the Bulgarian Women’s Chorus as they sang songs their ancestors had sung working in the fields. My taste for Classical Music made me, for an oh-so-brief period, kind of cool as well. I turned people on to Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Beethoven, Bach, etc. and I was, in turn, turned onto Glenn Gould, Wendy Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach”, George Winston, and Tomita.

But almost immediately came the change from eclectic to cool for cool’s sake—properly faded jeans, the fad boot of the week, kerchiefs, head-bands, and really loud music—it’s true, for a time the volume was the cardinal criteria for party music!

That early eclecticism gave me a charge, sent me on a path towards honesty and caring and savoring life and finding the greatest pleasure in the most challenging work (the opposite of what I’d previously assumed). And now, in the year 2012, having seen all that followed on up until today, I’m lost at the end of time, the leading edge of the future, a foreign land whose language escapes me. Is it any wonder that I can slip happily into that hammock? The warmth and earnestness of the early music from the dawn of, let’s call it, ‘intellectual freedom’ brings up not just my own youth, but what, for me, was the youth of the USA, the youth of the entire modern world.

We don’t realize, or perhaps we forget, that the past, before the 1960s, was a time when you had to watch your tongue. One incautious observation could get a person fired, imprisoned, thrown out of university, barred from a country club (not that that was a bad thing), or excommunicated. And I’m not talking about ‘doing’ anything, I’m saying that just to raise a certain topic in public (and there were far more than you can imagine) was as bad as being bad, or doing bad things. The things that people discuss on TV today are almost exclusively the topics that would have gotten their shows cancelled in those older years—that’s because, once we allowed ourselves to discuss these issues, we found that they were not only fascinating, but crucial matters—sex education, for example.

And having taken part in that grand shift of perspective towards openness and honesty, it breaks my heart to see a guy like ‘the Newt’ work so hard at dragging us back to those dark and ignorant times.

Be advised:  Nothing in the far-right’s platform hasn’t already been addressed and found wanting by the majority of this country—about fifty years ago! We’ve come so far, it makes my blood boil when that idiot opens his mouth—to me, he’s saying, “Our last fifty years of social progress was a mistake—I’m gonna fight to drag us backward into the darkness of yesteryear.” The only thing that upsets me more? People listening to his pious ravings…

5 responses to “Music And Me Go Way Back

    • Thanks, pal–that’s why I couldn’t put this on Street Articles–it was just personal thoughts and memories I felt like sharing.

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