Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Embrace: First Sour Notes

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

According to Google, that quote originated with Elvis Costello. It’s funny, but possibly unfair in the way those kinds of quips often are: It douses further conversation, as if it were our duty to dutifully listen, nod in meek approval and go silently home. What do you know about Music, miserable Worms!

True, I know so little about music at its technical level that I approach the subject shrouded in a blanket of mute. As I write this, J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor BMV 232 plays on my computer . . . but how can I ever tell you what it’s like, aside from it’s like sitting in the most beautiful church ever with choruses all around? As clever as we all think I am, the kind of notes I write—words—fail to ever capture the deep experience of music. The best I can hope to do—now—is convey my experience on the outskirts of this universal language that exists in the realm beyond words.

My first—and really last—instrument I picked up was the acoustic guitar. Like so many circa-nine-year-old boys circa the mid-1960s, I was inspired by The Beatles, but that glib parroting passion was all I had and it lasted mere months. The Fab Four made it look fabulously easy, but my hardest lesson was that learning an instrument—even to play three-chord rock n’ roll—was hard, tedious and required a focused obsession I lacked.

(And then there was Mom, who told laughing sad tales about her own “tone deafness” as she tried to learn the violin as a teenager and how we all probably inherited it, which made the situation so 100% hopeless that I should quit anyway and spare the family anymore humiliation and that awful music and you’re getting a haircut I don’t care if every kid in school’s tucking his hair in his socks . . . !)

Until I was eleven, I liked the same music the other kids around Mohegan Lake, New York did—rock n’ roll and British Invasion. We used to stand in circles around the gym during recess belting out Beatles tunes a Capella (I was John, Cool, eh?) Tagging after an older brother, I also dug Johnny Cash.

I also heard classical music on the record player (hand-cranked, of course) and even remember, (probably—I hope—when I was six) air-conducting Beethoven using uncooked spaghetti as a baton while standing on a dining room chair wearing only a pajama top and Fruit o’ the Looms (thank God, no video then.)

But when I was moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1966, I seemed to really go tone deaf. I stopped listening to pop and rock n’ roll (maybe it made me homesick); I failed to fit in with the scene in that dreary place so completely, that my idea of rebelling against the gray crushing forces surrounding me was listening to the music of (I’m cringing as I write this) Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass! (Yeah, you with the complete John Denver collection, wipe that smirk off!)

I stood in this perversely anti-anti-establishment stance for quite awhile; I deepened my alienation by falling for the film scores of Ennio Morricone (and so launched myself way too far ahead of the crowd by twenty years!).

I knew this old dude was cool waayy before you did nyah-nyah!

I drifted back toward the mainstream by becoming a Gordon Lightfoot fan during the terrible awful despairing ghastly infuriating embarrassing depressing paralyzing dumbfounding Late Teens Era—maybe an echo of Johnny Cash past—but this only intensified the acidic scorn and lofty sneers from the vastly-more-sophisticated fans of this Lightfoot-loving legend.

In my early twenties, I moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and, eventually, into an apartment in south Minneapolis with two fun-loving, dudes, Steve and Greg (who is a reader of these very pages). I immediately fell back in love with the Beatles. One day Steve, admiring my small collection of Morricone scores, said: “You should get all of them” and—

. . . uh anyway, one evening in the summer of 1978, I emerged fragrantly bleary-eyed (a common state at that time) from my bedroom. As I entered the living room, the roar of a chain saw blasted from a pair of giant speakers amplified past 10 followed by a roaring rolling snowball of guitar chords and a solid, thumping dinosaur stomp of drums.

I scurried back to my room and under the futon. When I later emerged, I learned that Greg was not lurking in ambush to make stew out of me, but was listening to a tune called—big surprise--“Chainsaw” by what was, in Minneapolis, a new band: The Ramones.

From there, I started listening to bands like The Clash, The Dead Boys, The Replacements, The Suicide Commandos, Devo, and, maybe my favorite all, a local band called The Suburbs. Great days of sweaty, stoned, beer-soaked nights at Jay’s Longhorn Bar (ground zero in the Minneapolis punk scene) and First Avenue, where I saw the Ramones late in 1981. I went to see The Clash (but had to leave when I got sick; one of the few times I dropped acid, an experience I found mostly boring and vile). I even got to see The Who, though it was years after Keith MoonLake Michigan.
and I sat so far back that saying I “saw” them has as much weight as saying I saw Barack Obama from across

Of course, I was still listening to Dear Gordon (always far from the eardrums of my betters) and my Morricone collection slowly grew (Greg became a fan after I turned him on to Exorcist II and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage both of which put him in mind of Frank Zappa’s music).

But in the spring of 1982, family duty called me to California. Like it or not, I had to go. I went tone deaf again. What happened next will be related . . . next.

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