I was raised in a fairly conformist environment. A lot of yes ma’am, yes sir situations.
My mother often had the stereo on rather than the television, and her taste in music was quite good. Even as a kid, I picked up on Dylan, Miriam Makeba, Miles, Bartók, Isaac Hayes and many others in my own way. I saw music as one of the best deals there was for an easily frightened, hyperactive person such as myself. Records and songs were unconditional friends that always wanted to play with you.
I existed in a world of rules, intimidation and adherence to a straight, narrow line of thinking. Music provided perspective and escape. The older I got, the more it played a part in my life.
Despite being around great music, I was still a captive of normality. Punk rock music definitely helped break me part way out of that prison, but I would come to find out that there were a lot of rules and regulations in punk rock that were incredibly restrictive. There were moments of pitch-perfect irony, like the guy with the anarchy “A” on his jacket telling some other guy to get his hair cut.
A few years into the 1980s, I had the good fortune to meet some music mavens who helped blow up my ideas about how music had to be. From listening to artists such as Diamanda Galas (whose album The Litanies of Satan hit me like a truck), avant-garde Greek composer Iannis Xenakis (Electro-Acoustic Music, an album loaned to me by Diamanda) and George Crumb (Four Nocturnes (Night Music II) for Violin and Piano, which I luckily heard one afternoon on KCRW), I had to rethink a lot of things.
I realized that I had a sincere interest in and natural passion for music that made a lot of punk rock seem like a soundtrack for squares. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Not only had I not so much as stuck a toe into the great sea of music — I wasn’t even close to shore. But I was going to have a great time getting there.
Perhaps the single most profound musical experience I have ever had alone happened many years ago. I was listening to a John Coltrane album called Live at the Village Vanguard. It was as if everything in the universe aligned and a single, unimpeachable truth was made clear to me: Coltrane was the purest musician there had ever been.
Any differing opinion will get no protest from me; this is just the epiphany I had. But damn, did I have it.
This sent me running at full speed into the world of jazz music, which in my opinion is America’s greatest gift to humankind. I was then, as I am now, just a fan and unable to articulate my affection for this music with any erudition. But I can say that when I hear Riverside-era Thelonious Monk, Savoy-era Charlie Parker, ESP-era Albert Ayler or almost any era of Miles Davis, to name just a few, I think it is about as good a thing as could ever happen to a pair of ears.
I do my best to keep destabilizing and demolishing my evaluation of music, lest it become too regimented or — again, that word — conformist. I have a lot of time for verse/chorus music and always will. But at this point, well over half of my listening consists of what you would call noise, drone, ambient and plenty of sounds I wouldn’t bother trying to categorize.
These artists have been responsible for completely obliterating the last ideas I had about what music has to be. It took about 30 years for me to arrive where I am right now as a listener, and it has been an incredible journey, with so much yet to come.
All of this came to mind after I got an email recently from a man, a few years younger than I am, who said he can’t find anything good to listen to these days and has gone back to the music of his youth. I can dig that; I have all of those records and they still sound good to me. They’re as close to family as I’ll ever get.
However, I know every second of them. Listening one more time won’t alter what they contain, test me or take me somewhere I’ve never been. So, besides the occasional visit, I must go onward.
I am not much on resolutions, but in early January of this year I vowed to up the amount of challenging music I listen to. Basically, do what I’ve been doing but do more of it. Oh, the fun I’ve been having.
There is a record label I like very much called Feeding Tube. It is run out of the record store of the same name in Florence, Massachusetts. Damn, what a cool label and amazing store. Last time I was in town, I went in twice in one day. I sometimes go to its site and get a few titles that seem interesting, put them on the turntable and let the strange times roll.
Feeding Tube put out a record by a Russian outfit, Asian Women on the Telephone, called Ivan. So cool, so out there. I found them online and, much to my excitement, they have a bunch of records for download. I got them all and have been trying to limit myself to playing only one a day. Another band on Feeding Tube, Guerilla Toss, completely wreck the joint.
I have never had a better time listening to music — but I plan on having an even better time tomorrow. To hell with “Back in my day…”
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