Sunday, April 6, 2008

No Accounting for Taste

Dark Chocolate:

When I was about eight, I bit into one of the greatest chocolate bars of all time - a Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate. I had gone to the local candy store like I did most days and, for whatever reason, on this day I noticed them. Instead of getting the usual milk chocolate bar in the dark brown wrapper, I decided to try this other one in the brighter orange wrapping. Maybe there’s something to judging books by their covers, because I immediately became hooked. I guess I was so used to the smoother taste of the milk chocolate, the sharper taste of the dark chocolate jumped right out at me.

Over the next couple of months, I’d go to the candy store regularly and buy a bar of Special Dark each time. And as I did, I watched the number of bars in the display slowly dwindle. The owner of the store told me that he wouldn’t be ordering more because I was the only one buying them. So in the limited universe of an eight year old, a portal had suddenly closed. I somehow survived this tragedy, and learned to keep my eyes open for the dark chocolate pieces whenever an open box of Russell Stover’s presented itself.

And today you can get ten different types of dark chocolate, with the percent of cacao right there on the label. The Cadbury Royal Dark is quite good, by the way.

Nothing as Bad as Buddwing:

Then there was the summer in the Catskills a few years later, when one of the more upscale resorts was showing a movie one Saturday night. It was sort of an open house situation, so that those of us staying at one of the lesser places could come.

This was kind of a big deal since there were no VCRs or DVD players at the time. You could only catch a movie when it had been theatrically released, or later, in edited form, on TV. Viewing a movie outside of those circumstances was rare. And there was work involved, too. Someone had to set up and man a projector, change the reels, and keep the damned thing in focus.

I can’t remember what it was we were expecting to see – maybe “The Sound of Music” which had been released a few years before - but what we got instead was “Mr. Buddwing”. Never heard of it? Neither did any of us. It starred James Garner as an amnesiac wandering New York City. It was one of the many arty-but-realistic black and white movies that came out in the early sixties.

Being twelve at the time, I can’t say that I understood it (although seeing it again on TMC recently cleared up some of my confusion), but I did find it intriguing Not so the rest of the Irish American audience, whose natural reserve was all that prevented it from pelting the screen with food and drink. This was partly due to dashed expectations. Black and white instead of color (no one had a color TV at the time), James Garner instead of Julie Andrews, the streets of New York (we had just left them for Christ’s sake) instead of the Swiss Alps.

But the dislike was so intense that my cousin ridiculed me for not hating it enough. Apparently I said something to the effect that it wasn’t that bad. The experience became a reference point for anything bad we experienced on that vacation (“Wow, today’s lunch was worse than Mr. Buddwing.” “No way, nothing is worse than that.”)

But it wasn’t that bad.

Staying Up Late for Art:

And I found a lot of other movies like it on the Late Show.

I used to stay up on the weekends watching horror movies on Chiller Theater. A young boy may start out watching these movies for the terror, but a teenage boy begins to notice how many nubile young women are being terrorized. And if the movie that was on after it had some more nubile women, and less terror, so be it. So I came for the horror and stayed for the sex.

But there was at least as much oddness as there was sex. It was TV, after all. The local stations had to fill the hours with whatever they could find, within some obvious limits. I’m sure that part of what seemed odd was just a teenager’s obliviousness to adult themes. But there were some genuinely strange movies being shown. I began to see more movies like “Mr. Buddwing”, and even caught some dubbed versions of foreign films. After a while, I didn’t even mind if they weren’t all that risqué. So now I was coming for the sex, but staying for the strangeness.

These movies were self consciously arty, which I found very cool at the time. So I began looking for this very cool thing called “Art”, which I imagined would have a sign over it when it made its appearance. Since this wasn’t what usually happened, I began to think of it as a secret that I was not yet in on. So I was in search of something that might not have even been there, but I was sure I’d know it when I saw it.

Well, I was wrong about that - I was looking for a thing when I should have just enjoyed the experience - but I knew what I liked. And when I saw it, I knew enough to not announce it to anyone. I didn’t want a repeat of the “Buddwing” experience. These would be my own private movies, and even though a lot of their names escape me now, I hope to revisit them some day. Thank God for Netflix.

I began to think that if I kept a close enough watch on a movie, I'd catch the director throwing the art in. Maybe he’d slip it – sans the sign - into the upper left corner of the screen, so I’d try to not look away for even a second because I might miss it. I remember watching “A Clockwork Orange”, and noticing an orange on a bookshelf. Well, that just had to mean something, didn’t it? At least I think it was an orange.

So I would watch things very, very closely and, again, this being prior to the advent of the VCR, would hate being interrupted because I couldn’t pause it and play it back. One of my friends found this so hilarious, that he made it a rule to call me every Thursday at 10pm, which was when “Hill Street Blues” started.

Technology and wisdom/laziness have allowed me to relax a bit about this, but I still like to follow what’s going on in a movie. I still get annoyed with people who spend the first five minutes of a film catching up with friends, and the next eighty five minutes asking them what the hell’s going on, complaining that the movie made no sense. I equate this to starting a book on page twenty, and steadily turning the pages, whether I’m reading them or not.

I’d like to think that I’ve caught up with the rest of the world by now, having realized that missing the first minute of “Gone With the Wind” isn’t going to ruin it for me. But I do still sympathize with Alvy Singer and Annie Hall when they show up five minutes late for “The Sorrow and the Pity”.


It’s funny how someone can tell you a story, but you end up getting a completely different point from it than the one they intended.

Once, I was listening to two neighborhood guys talking about a third person I knew. They were saying how odd he was. To illustrate the point, they described their experience with him at a recent concert. None of them had heard of the opening band, but the two guys liked their first two songs. The third guy didn’t. The two of them didn’t like the third song. But – surprise! - the third guy did. So their conclusion was that he was kind of strange, or at least he had strange taste.

But I knew the guy, and could identify with him. And the story only proved to me that there are two basic types of listeners - those who know what they like and want to keep hearing it, and those who don’t know what they like, but know that they don’t want to hear the same old thing over and over again. I’m one of the latter, and so was the third guy in the story. We became best friends.

The Origin of WTF:

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the B-52s. It was 1979, and I was in the neighborhood bar, watching Saturday Night Live. They had already done their hit, “Rock Lobster” in the first half of the show. But now it was 12:45am, and time for their second number. They did “Dance This Mess Around”, which, as they say, separates the wheat from the chaff.

Cindy Wilson was, um…singing, about being made to feel like limburger cheese (and who can’t identify with that?). There was no melody to speak of. Just drums, bass, guitar, organ, and a lot of shrieking. Oh, and a cowbell.

When it ended, the young lady sitting next to me at the bar officially invented the phrase “what the f*ck”, as in “what the f*ck was that?” Not the good what the f*ck, either.

But I loved it. The B-52s were, at best, indifferent to what my idea of a good song was up to that point. But they demonstrated that there was Special Dark chocolate in the candy display again.

Taste’s Like…:

But no matter how cool I would like to come across in the story – that I saw what the young lady failed to see, that I was more enlightened, etc. - I know that ultimately it’s just a matter of taste. And there is nothing like comparing musical tastes to learn just how wholly separate and different people can be. For instance, there are actually some people on Earth who don’t love the Beatles. I swear to God.

On a less cosmic level, though, two people can listen to the same record and come away from it with completely different reactions. I like to think of myself as a rational person, not given to blatant appeals to my emotions. So then why is it that I can be moved damn near to tears by a simple pop song like “Never My Love” by the Association? You would be justified in thinking it sentimental fluff. And then, on the other hand, I’ll recommend some godawful noise (a technical term describing music by the Pixies, Wire, Sleater-Kinney) that would give a headache to a rabid Led Zeppelin fan?

Ah, what to mock? What to take seriously? What is cool? What has become uncool? What is fresh? What is ripe for derision? What is just not funny? What is sacred, and what’s just a sacred cow? These are the questions whose answers don’t exactly comprise our taste, but they go a long way towards explaining it. Let’s call it an outlook.

In an earlier post, I alluded to things that are technically “wrong” with a record – a cracked voice, feedback, etc –that can sometimes make it magical. This is utterly subjective, as a missed note to some people is simply…a missed note.

No Accounting:

Back in 1980, my roommate – the weirdo above - and I threw a party and invited a bunch of friends from the neighborhood. By then, we had gotten into a lot of punk and new wave music. The neighborhood was more into the Grateful Dead and Southern rock. People were far more likely to pack a local bar to hear a guy do cover songs on acoustic guitar than to go to a club to hear a new band do original material.

But we were “consensus builders”, and thought we could play music that our guests may not have heard but would still like. At first, we had them put on whatever they wanted, and someone picked “Gold and Platinum” - the first Lynyrd Skynyrd best-of.

Hey, we thought, they like guitars. We like guitars, too! Who else could we put on that they might enjoy? We tried Television’s “Marquee Moon”, which is a great guitar album and if not exactly punk rock, certainly full of punk energy.

But within seconds, we could see that they weren’t buying it. Never had Tom Verlaine’s voice sounded so choked, and the guitars so muffled. This, right after hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s sleek and bright sound. No wonder our guests liked them more.

I like Lynyrd Skynyrd, too, but prefer Television. I even understand why most people wouldn’t. One might think that, having achieved that understanding, I would then come to like Lynyrd Skynyrd more, too. But that’s not how taste works.

I had just become acutely aware of the vast gulf between these two styles of music, and the aspects of the Television record that were an immediate turn off to this crowd. And I might have even thought that I’d never like the Television album as much again. But that isn’t what happened. Why not? Television’s guitars sounded much rougher, and had no echo at all. They growled rather than chimed, and I preferred the growl. The solos burrowed in rather than rang out, and I found this sound more joyous than the Lynyrd Skynyrd album that was clearly meant to be so. I just didn’t happen to require the stuff that Television was leaving out. Taste again.

Caveat Emptor:

This is all meant to forewarn you that you might not love what I love. It just doesn’t work that way. You might even wonder how I could love what I love. It would be like explaining how lines like:

I’ll be on my way, ‘cause there’s another girl for me (“Western Union” by the Five Americans)


My baby’s got me on another kind of highway (“Hey 98.6” by Keith)

will always move me, when you might find them to be quite ordinary.

So please keep all of this in mind. You might be tempted to try one of my suggestions, and you owe it to yourself to know if the my words come anywhere near to really describing the music.

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