Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Brief History of Our Music Tastes (1 of 2)

Not that anyone asked. . .

Age 0-7 No idea. 'Well, I was rather young at the time…' Probably children’s music on Sesame Street (favorites: “P is My Favorite Letter,” “I Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green,” the “Phenomena” creatures and the wah-wah pedaled Sly Stonish funk that accompanied the animated pinball machine sequence: “one-two-three-FOUR!-FIVE! / six-seven-eight-NINE!-TEN!”) and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, at school (favorites: “I’d Like to Teach the World To Sing” and “Free To Be You and Me”). Our first spoken word (save for “mama” and “dada”) is reportedly “rica pia,” referencing tiny toy Fisher-Price record player. Also “incidental” music: Parents watching The Lawrence Welk Show, the giant organ and warbling elderly-lady choir of our local Episcopalian Church, and father’s distinctive collection of record albums: Count Basie, Sy Zetner, Wagner, Beethoven, The Heath Brothers, Richard Strauss, The Ink Spots (whom we are thrilled to meet at a parade in Elkhorn, Wisconsin until we are later informed all the original members were dead), The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Schubert, Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, Chuck Mangione (particularly the epic three-disc The Children of Sanchez), comedy albums by Woody Allen and Beyond The Fringe and Golden Age of radio compilations like The Shadow Knows and Arch Obler Presents. Think theme to Sanford & Son is hilarious. Musically inclined older sisters – one an opera singer, another plays autoharp in a bluegrass band – who bring home records by Judy Collins, Joan Baez (ugh), We Five, Buffy Saint-Marie and Andrés Segovia. Raid older brother’s collection of classic singles: “American Woman,” “Incense and Peppermints” “Magic Carpet Ride.” The Beatles, of course, are everywhere, like air or water; when they all go off to college, my siblings leave behind Beatles ’64 and A Hard Day’s Night for me to ponder. Our Social Studies class watches a documentary on trains hosted by Johnny Cash and marvel at his dark clothes, weird hair and wavering voice (‘Therrre arre mannny stooories in the sooound of a traiiin…’), but when he opens his mouth and sings we can’t stop laughing even after the teacher stops the film. This is redolent of a peculiar and disquieting hostility towards country music, as seen when father settles down on Saturday nights to watch the Grand Ole Opry and make fun of the bad hairstyles and wacky rhinestoned suits of Porter Waggoner and Hank Snow. Nurse secret love/fascination with Easy Listening Music while family is in midst of turmoil; sneak downstairs at the crack of dawn to listen to the inimitably strange DJ Ron Cuzner on WEZW (get it? “E-Z”?) spinning gorgeously creamy and calming fare by Roger Whitaker, Lenny Dee, Slim Whitman, Burt Bacharach and that master of the massive wooden speakers, Montovani.

Age 8-13 Rica pia really comes into its own during these inbetweenie years, now focused mostly on records of classic comedy routines from Groucho Marx, Abbott & Costello, Fibber McGee & Molly, Fred Allen, The Battling Bickersons, Baron Munchausen and Burns & Allen. (Meanwhile, outside our bedroom window, the 1970s continues unacknowledged.) Held in great regard are gifts from sympathetic grandmother thrilled to have her grandson be a fan of the stuff she liked as a girl working in the coal mine/sweat shop/tuberculosis ward, including a Spike Jones & His City Slickers box set, a Jonathan Winters live album, a recorded transcription of Laurel & Hardy’s Sons of the Desert, and one of those Bloopers records from the days of unedited live TV and radio—although most of the cultural references sail right over our heads. Library card exploited to check out dated and worn records from Bad Company, ELO, Kansas, Kenny Loggins, Aerosmith, Paul McCartney—although sometimes we are more transfixed by the album cover art than the music. (ELP’s Brian Salad Surgery and ANYTHING by the Ohio Players are faves). Also more interested in rock music thanks to Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, Soundstage, The Midnight Special, SCTV and Saturday Night Live—all of which we aren’t allowed to watch because they're on past our bedtimes. The Muppet Show becomes the de facto place to go for music, including guests like Alice Cooper, Elton John, Kris Kristofferson, Carol Channing (you heard us--she fuckin' rocked), Jean-Pierre Rampal, Lou Rawls, Debbie Harry and Paul Williams. When old enough to sneak downstairs to watch late-night TV, we are shocked right into young adulthood: The B-52s, The Ramones, The Specials, The Rolling Stones, Thin Lizzy, Elvis Costello, The Police, Captain Beefheart, The Plasmatics, Frank Zappa, The Jam, The Pretenders, The Tubes. Ambivalent, fringe member of the KISS Army. Purchase first legitimate rock album with own legitimate money: Rod Stewart’s Foot Loose…And Fancy Free, the one with “Hot Legs” on it. For a brief period, Rod is God. Can’t pick up his follow-up Blondes Have More Fun (the one with “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”) because we watch a live TV performance of the song and it horrifies our parents. (Also: sperm-swallowing rumors abound in 5th grade.) Other main music obsession of this period is Henry John Dutschendorf, another blonde blue-eyed German kid who later changed his name to "John Denver." Get every album of his we can get our hands on, from Greatest Hits to Windsong to Spirit to Autograph; favorite is Back Home Again, a concept album about rural living (for a multimillionaire) that had “Thank God I’m a Country Boy." Even dress in denim shirts stitched with sunbeams and wheat stalks and take to wearing round gold eyeglasses and saying “Far out!” a lot. Get to sing “Country Boy” and “Eclipse” in front of class and later get beaten up for it. Purchase The B-52’s first record (after a lot of arguing with parents), Hall & Oates’ Voices and the two American Graffiti soundtracks, whose twin discs each give great primers in ‘50s rock & roll and ‘60s pop. Begin to attend the local Skatetown USA, where DJ spins MECO, McFadden & Whitehead, Grandmaster Flash, Billy Joel, Queen, The O’Jays, Pat Benatar, Peaches & Herb, The Spinners, The Bay City Rollers and the Flatt & Scruggs theme to The Beverly Hillbillies. Obligatory copy of Saturday Night Fever. The school dance, of course, begins to assert itself, with the orchestrated sexual panic of Air Supply, REO Speedwagon and the Little River Band providing an apt soundtrack for pre-teen crushes and perpetual embarrassment. Discover Dr. Demento piped in from Chicago and the glorious world of novelty/outsider records like “Fish Heads,” "Junk Food Junkie," “Kinko the Clown,” “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” and “The Crusher”; hear live radio debut of “Weird Al” Yankovic and his first monumental single “Another One Rides the Bus." Two significant incidents surround Pink Floyd’s The Wall: Threaten a student walkout on the poor substitute Music teacher when she lets us play “Another Brick in the Wall (Pt. 1)”; Health Class instructor plays “Comfortably Numb” (complete with poorly transcribed lyrics on the transparency machine) as part of an anti-drug lecture and makes us want to have as many drugs as possible the first chance we get. Transfixed by the lyrical mystery inherent in Supertramp’s “The Logical Song,” Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” and the Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac’s “Hypnotized.” Watch the world premiere of KISS Versus the Phantom of the Park against parent’s directives. (To this day still can’t believe we were scared by it.) Possess three Village People records, including the first one with its gritty B&W Fire-Island-gay-biker-porn cover. (Have no idea; love the percussion and the strings.) Lose call-in radio contest for a signed copy of Styx’s Pieces of Eight. Convince friends for one twisted and triumphant day that The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash is a limited-edition recording of all of us singing with studio backup; lose all friends by sundown. Think theme to Taxi is oddly melancholy for a TV sitcom.

Age 14-18 VERY important years in two respects: (1) A time when one’s music tastes are still open enough; and (b) a time the painfully self-aware teenage brain begins to shuff off what it feels are “childish things.” So so long John Denver! Radio now is everything, the conduit that we pick up from the world (or, more accurately, bribed deejays). Early half is involved with sifting through everything and anything that comes through the tinny speakers of our Radio Shack alarm clock, mostly from local Milwaukee and Chicago stations. Record collection by this time increases to include copies of Wall of Voodoo’s Call of the West, Madness’s One Step Beyond…, Missing Persons’ Spring Session M, The Sherbs’ Defying Gravity and Peter Gabriel’s Security. (We later regretted only two of those purchases.) Don’t realize at the time that this new phenom called "MTV" is making all of our purchasing decisions for us. Lift the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll from the school library and read it front to back, then switch to the Rolling Stone Record Guide (blue cover) and read it back to front. Pass though a strange phase of disliking Hendrix (“It’s just feedback!”) and the Beatles (radioplay overkill) in favor of The Clash’s Combat Rock and U2’s Boy. First hear The Time’s “Wild & Loose” and The Gap Band's "You Dropped A Bomb on Me" on black cadets' boomboxes at military school; befriended by the son of jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis at same school. Worship at the altar of Stevie Ray Vaughn. Dead Kennedys have fun album covers but they are a little much. Brief but potent Ska phase with The Specials and The English Beat -- our antidote to resentful Metalheads in our small town. MTV proves its mettle when bizarre videos lead us to the glorious yawps of The Minutemen and the Violent Femmes. See The Blasters, Devo and the Sir Douglas Quintet on Fridays and flip out. Iggy Pop is just a strange name on the edges of all this, waiting for his entrance...The Big Ones: Bruce, R.E.M. and U2, but occasionally mucked up by chaff like The Alarm, Industry, Guadacanal Diary and Aztec Camera. Develop a serious jones for the Blues in usual white suburban manner: hear Cream, Steve Winwood, The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Stones, Zeppelin—basically every British rock act of the ‘60s—and work backwards. Since Chicago is only two hours South, start buying up vinyl from “import” or “cut out” sections of local Mainstream Records (mainly a head shop disguised as a record store): first Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and then the Southern Sinatra of the blues, B.B. King. Attend double feature of D.A. Pennenbaker’s Don’t Look Back and Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz and become an avowed Dylan/The Band freakazoid. (Hence Before The Flood’s frequent appearance on our first “adult” turntable.) Music snobbery born: Discover Joe Ely's Live Shots in a $1.99 cassette bin and keep it to ourselves. First live stage appearance in basement of friend’s friend’s house party when lead singer has to cut out for work; we jump onstage for an impromptu version of “Louie Louie” and get booted offstage in less than 30 seconds; eternal status as audience member ensured. Madonna masturbated to—Wait, she makes music?! Seething outward hatred of British synthpop, especially Depeche Mode, while inwardly admiring Yaz, The Human League, The Pet Shop Boys and ABC. Pilgrimage to Milwaukee to see midnight showing of Stop Making Sense; later recreate David Byrne’s twitchy “Once in A Lifetime” shtick in various regional "air band" competitions. Best friend lends a copy of Astral Weeks and we will always remember exactly where we were, what day it was and what we were wearing when we sat listening hypnotized to the entire album, over and over and over….

Age 18-23 First flush of college in Minneapolis, the music city of the 1980s: Husker Du, Soul Asylum, The Gear Daddies, The Replacements, The Jayhawks and of course, Mr. Prince. Serious Velvet Underground flowering and obligatory Lou Reed obsession, despite the fact the latter is putting out shitty, heavily synthed pop at the time. Nevertheless, adopt Lou’s mid-80s, Honda Scooter-commercial look: faded blue jeans, black boots, leather jacket, sunglasses; probably look like a tool. See Dylan with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and still run into people who swear they were there. Big on stuff on radio: Crowded House’s first album, Paul Simon’s Graceland, Fine Young Cannibals. On a trip to NYC, transfixed by an extremely long instrumental version of Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” on the cabbie’s radio—this was our introduction to the kangol-hatted days of sampling and remixes. Hate License To Ill until we get drunk at dorm parties and then it's the greatest album ever made. First flowerings of pseudo-hippiedom with first Grateful Dead show, where we realize music is only ¼ of that experience. Beatles come back with a red-hot vengeance with the release of entire catalog on compact disc; listen to nothing else for at least a year. See Red Hot Chili Peppers at First Avenue on the Mother’s Milk tour and have never seen anything like it since. The Meat Puppets are one of the only bands we take away with us from our indie college DJ days. Catch Bob Mould on his first solo tour—both of us sick with the flu. At first off-campus tenement apartment, begin getting into serious Bohemia with the lit candles and empty wine bottles; dovetails perfectly when Columbia Records re-releases their classic Jazz catalog on CD (‘Orignal Jazz Masterpieces’—the ones with the blue-bordered covers). Absorbed Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie (an old fave), Louis Armstrong. Heavy Coltrane/Monk/Bird period ensues, with a lot of pointless teeth-gnashing over who we like better. Nurture strange Euro-pretensions with The Style Council, Alison Moyet and Bryan Ferry. XTC’s Skylarking, Stan Getz’s Café Au Go Go and Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits on a loop on the communal CD player. First LSD experience listening, unfortunately, to “Drugs” by Talking Heads. Blues love continuing unabated with the “discoveries” of Robert Johnson, Albert King, Otis Rush, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Memphis Slim, Mississippi John Hurt, Hound Dog Taylor, Buddy Guy. Shock friends into silence when we announce the purchase of Janet Jackson’s Control. Abiding love for Lowell George and Little Feat, especially the live "Mercenary Territory" from Waiting for Columbus with Lenny Pickett's protean sax solo. Marvel at brand new, soon-to-be-obsolete transparent prerecorded cassettes of favorite albums that always smell like grapes. Brief flirtation with twee British alt-pop like The Sundays, The La’s and Cocteau Twins. See James "Blood" Ulmer at Walker Art Center feel changed for it. Cannot understand the appeal of major label-peddled “alternative” hot-artist-of-the-minute acts like Poi Dog Pondering and Tanita Tikaram. Continued masturbation to Madonna. A Tribe Called Quest, Guru, De La Soul and Digable Planets finally open up our hearts to the Hippety Hop; “It Takes Two” and “Bust A Move” are admittedly great songs on tha dance flo’. Also hear “Fight The Power” in Do The Right Thing and think, hmmmm… Big streak of Soul singers: Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and of course James Brown (the live “There Was A Time” a favorite). Begin Zappa obsession here, with Hot Rats. Brief, nostalgia based recurrence of John Denver fandom, mostly kept to oneself. Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung on nightstand (read: milk crate) for two straight years.

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