Trying to Listen to Everything: ideas, opinions and some humbly offered suggestions on music from, and for, an avid listener.
by Mark Weston Laskowski
Keeping it New
I don’t recall much about the 1998 film SLC Punk!, which I happened upon years ago while watching TV, but a scene near the end still sticks with me.
The movie flashes back to bro protagonists Bob and Stevo as introverted, high school dweebs, before they’ve morphed into the young punks whose Bildungsroman adventures form the lion’s share of the plot. Bob flies down the stairs into the lacuna-like darkness of Stevo’s basement bedroom where—nerdily enough—they soon plan to play Dungeons & Dragons, or so Stevo thinks.
“You know, Stevo, this D&D shit—it sucks,” Bob says, jabbing his fingers at his friend. His out of nowhere heresy flummoxes Stevo who points out that Bob has achieved “seventh-level magic user” status—why complain?
“Stevo, it's bullshit, though, man,” says Bob. He continues his tirade against D&D and then trains his mounting disgust on the song (Rush’s “The Trees”) that trickles from the stereo speakers. “This music,” he sneers.
With words that fall flat as rote catechisms, Stevo defends his beloved band. Bob gives some ground, but they continue to argue. Tension rises. It’s evident Bob wants to do more than dis Rush and D&D, he’s hell-bent on being the catalyst for a different take on life. Brandishing a cassette tape he got from a guy he knows in L.A., he insists they listen to it. Stevo briefly resists. Bob slips it in the player anyway. Spidery arpeggios tentatively sneak from the speakers. Husky tenor vocals kick in. But the volume’s low.
“What is it?” asks Stevo. The natural mix of fear yet curiosity most reluctant initiates have edged into his voice, undermining his dismissiveness.
“What is it?” repeats Bob, confidently questioning the question, setting the stage for revelation. He turns up the volume.
“Yeah, ‘what is it,’ Bob?” asks Stevo again, mockingly—a final shred of petulant resistance.
Volume increases. The second verse of Generation X’s “Kiss Me Deadly” swells to full glory, the camera cuts to Steve’s POV and zooms to a close up of Bob’s face flooded with the transcendent conviction of evangelizing a friend for his own good. Placing impeccable gravity on his answer, Bob says simply, “It's new.”
New, indeed? Chrysalis released Generation X—the band’s eponymous debut (on which “Kiss Me Deadly” is one of a dozen tracks)—in March of 1978. Mercury released Rush’s Hemispheres, their sixth studio album featuring “The Trees”, in October of that same year. So the Rush LP was newer by half a year. But that’s obviously not the kind of “new” Bob means here. Bob heralds the falling away of his and his friend’s established personal orthodoxy. Rather than continue to share that, he prefers to open up all the possibilities of a strangely exciting world, ripe for exploration, to his friend.
Cinema can distill life’s moments to their essence, but pivotal moments like this, that mark a change in personal trajectories (and they occur with our relationships to literature, personal politics and other people as much as they do with our relationships to music), happen in real life too—typically as the stuff of youth.
But, focusing here on our relationship to music, must it be that way? How can today’s adult music enthusiast, as that OG punker Ezra Pound encouraged, continue to “make it new”? Despite the vinyl resurgence, the question might be best answered in the context of the digital age and what it now means for our access to music.
If you’re hearing it for the first time, it’s new to you. This was true, to an extent, in the analog age of recorded music too. But the ascendance of digital music gives most of us unprecedented access and choice. Completely ignorant of Jandek’s oeuvre? Then Jandek is new to you. Fire up iTunes, YouTube, Pandora or Spotify and check him out. More than ever before, anyone possessing curiosity, time to spare and a Wi-Fi connection can listen to just about everything.
Counter-intuitively, this unmitigated level of choice and access presents a dilemma. What forces can guide us in our pursuit of the new? Mainstream commercial radio became intolerable to listen to ages ago. None of us are getting any younger. The abundance dizzies us. Who will be Bob to our inner-Stevos? Do we simply cling tighter to our back-in-the-day favorites, doomed to be cranky, rheumy-eyed, present day Stevos, around age 55 (or insert your appropriate generational equivalent), rarely venturing beyond our Generation X and Dead Kennedy Pandora channels? Some of us naturally seek out the weird, challenging and idiosyncratic alleys to be found far from our more heavily traveled main roads. But if you crave that sort of thing and feel a little bit stuck, here’s three general guiding principles (overlay these on the “if you’re hearing it for the first time; it’s new to you” idea) to help you make sure you’re listening to stuff beyond music that is so old school it starts to hurt:
Deliberately Venture Away from “the Street Where You Live” More Often.
“Prince used to refer to your musical home base as ‘the street where you live’,” said Susan Rogers on a recent episode of KCRW and McSweeney’s collaborative program/podcast, The Organist. “So I, personally, was born on Soul Street. Soul and R&B—that’s the street I live on. I’ll go visit some other streets. I’ll go visit rock. I have friends who live on rock. And I’ll go visit them, but I always come back to my home base. In that sense, music has more in common with food for this development of likes and dislikes,” An associate professor at Berklee College of Music, Rogers served as sound engineer for musicians such as David Byrne, Barenaked Ladies and Prince.
At first the metaphor seems solid enough. Upon reflection though, its limitations begin to illuminate aspects of how we can relate to music as much as, or maybe more than, its surface veracity tends to lock down.
Consider her comparison of music to food. Let’s say you adore Fettuccini Alfredo Florentine. Try eating nothing but that for dinner two weeks running. Then tell me how you feel about it. Traveling far from your home address—to mix metaphors—broadens your palate. We return with either our inner-Dorothy’s mantra that “there’s no place like home” re-energized or aware of something we’ve outgrown. Future Frustrated Completist columns will delve into the adventures of people who venture from the “street where they live” and what they discover when they do.
Don’t let Anyone Talk You Out of “Dancing about Architecture”.
You’ve probably encountered this infamous chestnut: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The quotation has been attributed to everyone from Laurie Anderson to Frank Zappa. The earnest researchers at QuoteInvestigator.com propose that Martin Mull coined, or at least refined and popularized, this infectiously surreal simile. If so—is it difficult to imagine that Mull was probably aiming for an easy, disposable laugh, not some profound philosophical statement for the ages? People usually proudly invoke the statement as a keeping-it-real putdown of rock journalism and musical criticism. It’s utter bullshit. Of course seeking out and reading great writing about music—whether reviews, interviews, magazines, biographies or chronicles of eras or genres—can be a path to discovering new and fulfilling listening experiences. Guess what? Writing (and reading) about anything that initially takes place in a more physical modality—be it food, politics, sex, dancing or architecture—will always in some way fall short of actually sautéing and eating Blanquette de Veau or actually touring the Taj Mahal. But the notion that this renders thoughtful writing/reading about music, or anything else, as barren and pointless has to be one of the most irresponsible, non-sequitur and downright anti-intellectual positions to ever so easily elude the scrutiny of basic critical thinking.
In future Frustrated Completist columns, rants, reviews and exegeses about such writings—both recently published and time-honored—will spotlight some of the more interesting examples of “dancing about architecture” what can be got.
“(Everybody's Saying) Music is Love”: Stay Social, My Friends.
Make a mental list of your musical passions from whatever stage of life and think about what shaped them. Isn’t it difficult to come up with even one that didn’t happen in some sort of powerful social dynamic? What else would you call the exchange between Bob and Stevo? Family, friends from different life stages and even social media connections who I have little IRL interactions with have introduced me to all kinds of music I would not have otherwise discovered. Above I quote the title track to David Crosby’s 1971 solo LP, If I Could Only Remember My Name, to emphasize that, although we might frequently enjoy listening to music in solitude, most of our musical discoveries come through the prism of our connection to other souls.
A desire to make that kind of connection is the reason people make music in the first place. If you keep yourself open to it, someone friendly out there might soon find you. They might come off as a little pushy at first, but they’re well intentioned. In their shirt pocket they might have a cassette tape that they got from some guy they know in L.A. Let them play it. Listen to it. It might change your life.
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with Rush. As Bob admits in that one and only scene I remember from SLC Punk!, “I’m not saying they’re not talented and all and, yeah, they rock. But it’s not the only music out there, you know?” And we should all keep listening for what’s out there so, at whatever stage of life, we can keep it new.
Mark Laskowski writes poetry, fiction and essays and has done so off and on for the past thirty three years. He regularly posts meditations about rock and roll history on his labor-of-love Facebook page Your Daily Dose of Rock and Roll (www.facebook.com/YDDoRandR). Central Pennsylvania born and raised, he currently resides in the southwestern area of his adopted state of Massachusetts.