Saturday, March 29, 2008

Community Music

Most young people get to enjoy music when it is generally well known and widely accepted by their peers. It’s nice to hear good music, and it’s even better when you’re enjoying it along with everyone else around you.

When was the last time someone blasted music at the beach, and you enjoyed it? This is what people remember most fondly about the sixties. It was the last time when everyone agreed what the good music was, and for once, everyone was right. There we all were, listening to the current music of the day, not at all nostalgic for another time.

I have countless memories of hearing a song come on the radio while playing in the street, and knowing it was great the very first time I heard it. “Jimmy Mack”, “Dancing in the Street”, “Up Around the Bend” are just the ones I happened to think of now. It happened dozens and dozens of time. Was there ever a song that was so right for a place and time as “Summer in the City” during July in Brooklyn?

For me, the climax of this phenomenon coincided almost exactly with the end of the sixties. My brother and I got “Abbey Road” for Christmas 1969, and listened to it continuously through that winter break. It was also being played on the radio and enjoyed by everyone else we knew. It was, for us, the epitome of “community” music.

The End of Community:

But at that point, the cracks had already begun to appear in the community. Altamont had already occurred. Then the Beatles broke up. Listeners were breaking up, too - into factions – hard rock vs. singer songwriter vs. southern rock vs. glam vs. progressive vs. funk vs. soul, and later in the decade disco vs. punk vs. rap. People were beginning to narrow their tastes to the point of actively disliking anything else. Community music continued to exist, but the communities were now smaller. And Top Forty, which had been the glue holding it all together before – a key ingredient of which was great music - began to suck more and more, until there was no longer a single place where the best of everything could mingle and be enjoyed by all. The individual communities just weren’t interested. For a lot of people, a smaller community is better anyway. Like a gang or a cult, it’s more comfortable because it doesn’t challenge you to look outside of it.

These individual communities can break down even further as people age, get married and see less of their friends. On their own, people then decide if they will move on to other things or not. They eventually get to what will be their own personal music. The fact that they might have some musical favorites in common with others their age may be more a sign of good marketing than anything else. Call it the Coors Light phenomenon.

The Only Community There Is:

And then there are those lovable people who never even figure out that their taste is less than universal. One friend who we’ve invited to family gatherings was visibly appalled at the music we had on at our daughter’s communion party. For us, it was an occasion for friends and family to get together to talk, not necessarily to dance. So we chose music that was entertaining to us and some other friends, but unintrusive. It wasn’t muzak, but it could be ignored if you didn’t like it. My friend didn’t recognize the music, and felt that parties were for dancing and so must have dance music. On another occasion, he came to the house, armed with tapes that he volunteered to put on in order to “liven the party up”. A quote. No doubt there were some people there who would have appreciated it, but I wasn’t one of them.

My friend not only didn’t understand that there were people who didn’t share his taste; he didn’t think anything beyond his taste existed. It’s like that part of the Blues Brothers movie when they go into a Western bar, and the waitress says “We’ve got both kinds of music here, country and western!” Call it the community that doesn’t even know that it’s not the only community.

I’m sure you’ve had someone brag to you that they liked “all kinds of music”, and they then proceeded to play the standard pop music of the day, and absolutely nothing the slightest bit unusual or unique. How can you know what you’re missing when you don’t think you’re missing anything at all?

My Time vs Our Time:

Some lucky people arrive at their personal music by just leaving on the radio. They like what they hear and that’s the end of it. Some others, like me for instance, are so impossible to please that it’s rare indeed when I love a song that’s also very popular. Thank god for the scan button on car radios. Otherwise, I’d have crashed the car by now.

My “personal music” is what has accumulated in my head and record shelves over the years, based on whatever I happened to be interested in at any given time. This sometimes leads me so far astray from current musical developments that the fond memories I associate with my favorite music have nothing at all to do with the whatever was popular at the time. (At the risk of sounding like a snob, it’s usually that music that provides the really bad memories.) They don’t even have any relationship to the time the music I was enjoying was released. I now remember the music I love by what is happening in my life at the time I buy it, not the time it’s made.

So in 1982 I could buy an album that came out in 1968, like “The Who Sell Out”, and love it. But the emotional association is to my life and the things that happened to me in 1982, not what happened to me or the world in 1968. This is a very special, but private, joy that you usually only share with a spouse. It’s just a shame that you can’t share it with anyone else.

And as time goes on, and I go further and further astray, my chances of enjoying community music grow dimmer by the day.

So it’s quite understandable that most of the population seems intent on hearing only their own personal music, by wearing earplugs and listening to an iPod. The problem is that no matter how many songs you can fit on it, you’re still only listening to stuff you already know about. It’s the absolute opposite of community music.

Towards a Newer Community:

I truly envy those people who can still enjoy music at the community level. I think I’m talking about hip hop in its heyday. But I guess it applies to anything that’s popular and exciting to young listeners.

And who knows, maybe this has always been the case. Maybe my memory of the sixties is just another example of a baby boomer trying to make a rather common experience seem like it was invented by his generation. Maybe there always is a community music, and I’m just not part of the community anymore.

I’m not saying that we should, at our now advanced ages, be getting together to party to the latest musical fad. I’m not even saying that the iPod is a bad thing. But it would be nice if we could just unplug our ears a little more often to hear what the other guy is listening to. And when we’re that guy, let’s not disappoint everyone else them by playing them the same old crap.

When I was in college, right before the Christmas holidays, we would have a party in the cafeteria (drinking vodka at 10am, playing cards). Once I brought a tape recorder (not even a radio) with me, and played a pre-recorded tape of stuff I liked at the time. The other guys put up with this because no one else thought of bringing a radio, and I realized that I was imposing on people at least as much as I was entertaining anyone, so I tried not to play it too loudly. But there was one guy there who asked me to turn it up. I warned him that he might not like it, but he replied, “That’s okay, it’s music.”

I don’t know where that guy is now, but he’s my hero.

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