Thursday, June 10, 2010

How I Got This Way

To my knowledge, I was not genetically predisposed to being a music nut. My immediate family was not particularly musical: my sisters and I went through a variety of instruments, committing any number of crimes against humanity as we defiled the intentions of noble instrument makers, without ever mastering one. My grandfather Harry, though, he was another story. He possessed a magnificent bass-baritone voice and as a younger man performed in synagogue choirs, local operas, and even gave concerts.

In the early 1930s, he sang on a long-defunct Boston radio station under the less-ethnic name of Harry Robbins. A recording exists of three songs he cut at Ace Recording Studios, 120 Boylston Street in Boston, on October 27 and November 2, 1947: “Old Man River,” “Der Becher” (“The Cup”), and “Eibik” (“Eternity”). At his wedding in 1926, he sang a popular tune of the day called “Until” to his bride; he reprised it at each of his five children’s weddings and at least a couple of his grandchildren’s weddings as well.

His children, my father and his siblings, therefore grew up in a house filled with opera and lieder. None of them, however, seem to have gotten an ounce of his talent. I grew up with radio broadcasts of operas, from which I ran as fast as I could. I would not be influenced by my father’s music and instead took to rummaging through my older sister’s small stack of LPs and 45s. For the most part, this was a choice selection of early ‘70s pop and soft rock: Carpenters, Carole King, Three Dog Night, Bobby Sherman, and James Taylor.

Of course, I knew the Monkees from their TV show, which I loved and still do to this day. In fact, I’m still a huge Monkees fan and sincerely believe they belong in that abomination called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. True, they didn’t play their own instruments (most of the time) and didn’t write all their own material (though they did write a fair share of it, especially Mike Nesmith, who had at least a couple of songs on all their albums and whose solo material alone warrants significant hero worship), but guess what? Neither did the Temptations.

Looking back, it’s kind of funny how much rock music I got from television in those days. It seems like most of the kids shows I watched had some interstitial musical segment that usually featured psychedelic visual effects – an odd introduction to acid culture to an eight-year-old audience. For example, one show I enjoyed a lot was called Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, which featured a bunch of trained, costumed monkees – er, monkeys – doing Get Smart for kids not ready for the humor of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. In each episode, the chimps were decked out in Haight-Ashbury uniforms and toy instruments, and lip-synched (well, obviously) to some pop dreck as Lancelot Link & the Evolution Revolution.

Another rock animal act for kids was the Banana Splits, a group comprising four dudes dressed in dog, gorilla (hmm), lion, and elephant suits. According to Wikipedia, music for the Splits was composed by the likes of such legitimate talents as Al Kooper, Barry White, and Gene Pitney. Then, of course, there were the Archies, the Partridge Family, the Hardy Boys, and who can forget the episode of Gilligan’s Island when the Mosquitoes showed up for a little R&R? Even the Brady Bunch kids took time out from their incestuous offscreen hanky panky to sing “Sunshine Day.”

So despite my father’s contempt for rock music, there was no escaping it in my house. In time, I was buying my own records. Inspired by their Saturday morning cartoon series, I started getting records by the Jackson Five and the Osmonds (to this day I have an almost-complete collection of the works of the original Osmond Brothers, and still listen to them). But in no way did I exhibit the characteristics of a music nut. I just enjoyed what I enjoyed. I listened to AM radio but didn’t really know who sang what songs, and didn’t really care. I was the kind of listener I now despise: someone who passively and dispassionately accepts whatever inoffensive sounds reach his ears.

That all changed in 1976. The year of our country’s bicentennial was a turning point for me. I was 13 years old, had my bar mitzvah, and became a certified, card-carrying music nut. Here’s how it happened.

My best friend and I did everything together in those days. One day we saw an ad in a magazine for the RCA Record Club. For a buck, you could get six records and best of all, two-record sets counted as a single selection. My friend and I would each select three, and we agreed that we should each pick one two-record set so as to maximize the value of our shared investment. My friend chose Frampton Comes Alive, which was all over the radio at that time. I didn’t know what record I should choose. My friend offered to help me make my selection. He decided I should get Endless Summer by The Beach Boys.

“What’s on it?” I asked. I wasn’t aware that I knew any of their songs.
“I think it has ‘Barbara Ann’,” he replied. (He was wrong.)

So I ordered it. When our shipment arrived, it was exciting as anything. It was the first time we had purchased something through the mail. When you’re a kid, any kind of mail addressed to you is special, but when it’s a big square cardboard box, probably 14”x14”x1.5”, it’s momentous. The only downside was that there were only five records in the box. One of my selections had been back-ordered. However, RCA included a coupon entitling me to another free selection. I decided I would hold off on making that selection until I checked out my other records (aside from Endless Summer, I also had ordered John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2, which I still own).

And so it was that I broke the cellophane on Endless Summer, the gatefold cover smothered with a richly colored cartoon mural of the Beach Boys in a tropical setting, including a gull perching on a bikinied breast. I didn’t know who any of the Beach Boys were individually, all I could tell from the cover was that they were a hairy bunch, and one of them had a particularly sour expression and was seemingly trying to hide behind the foliage.

The records were sided as they were in the old days, designed for stacking on the tall spindle of the record player: sides 1 and 4 on one record, and sides 2 and 3 on the other. This was before I had a nice stereo system so I was used to the stack concept, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to hear two sides in a row right off the bat (after all, a quick peek at the song list told me that my friend was wrong about “Barbara Ann” being on the set, thus I was initially disappointed), so I just put on side 1. Five songs: “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfer Girl”, “Catch a Wave”, “The Warmth of the Sun”, and “Surfin’ USA”.

I couldn’t believe it. I knew four of the five songs (“Catch a Wave” was new to me) and liked them all. Those incredible melodies and harmonies, especially on the two ballads (“Surfer Girl” and “The Warmth of the Sun”) and the pumping beat of the uptempo tunes was absolutely entrancing. I immediately put on side 2: “Be True to Your School”, “Little Deuce Coupe”, “In My Room”, “Shut Down”, and “Fun Fun Fun”. Are you kidding me? How is this possible? How can any group have so many quality songs? While the Chuck Berry-inspired guitar on “Fun Fun Fun” got my blood racing like a dragster, the Beach Boys had me at “In My Room”.

I cannot underestimate the profound impact that “In My Room” had on me. I was 13. I was overweight. Painfully shy. Intensely insecure. My life to this time had been centered on superhero comic books (Marvel, of course). My favorite was the Thing, the brute made of orange rock who was the muscle of the Fantastic Four. He was powerful yet gruesome, the perfect role model for a boy who felt ugly and impotent. And so I lost myself in the colored squares of comic book narratives, lying on my bed and imagining myself making things right with my big fists and confident cry of “It’s clobberin’ time!”

With “In My Room” (which I didn’t yet know was recorded and released in 1963, the year of my birth), for the first time I felt that a song truly spoke to me, that a lyric really spoke for me. I felt understood, and the music conveyed with astounding accuracy the quiet sadness and morose yearning of someone who feels less safe, less comfortable among most of his school peers than he does in the solitary confinement of his own bedroom. This is the song that made me a music nut, that made me realize that I couldn’t content myself with these magical sides, that I needed more, that I needed to collect this artist and others that spoke to me. With “In My Room” I realized for the first time that there was a music that was made just for me.

Needless to say, after side 2 I spun sides 3 and 4. When I was done, having sampled the likes of “I Get Around”, “Don’t Worry Baby”, “California Girls”, and “Help Me, Rhonda”, I had heard 20 songs, liked them all, loved most, and had a new favorite group. More important, I looked at the composer credits and found that Brian Wilson (abetted on many of the tracks by a separate lyricist) was responsible for all of this brilliance. If I had thought it impossible that one group, one album, could have so many amazing songs on it, how much more outrageous was it to learn that it all came from the mind of one man? (The man, incidentally, with the sour expression trying to hide behind the foliage on the cover.)

I wasn’t done. I still had a coupon for another selection. I looked at the catalog and there was Spirit of America, the companion compilation to Endless Summer (which did include “Barbara Ann”). When it arrived, I had 20 more slices of insanely catchy melodies to play. I began collecting Beach Boys records and researching the history of the group. I came to realize that Brian Wilson wasn’t just the mastermind behind the group, he was now my hero. Not a hero like the Thing, someone who would help me through my adolescence, but a hero I could grow up with, someone whose music and whose very life would continue to inspire and speak to me to the present day, even after the thousands of other LPs and CDs I bought after he turned me into a music nut.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Ecstasy of Music

“O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation/Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.” – Psalm 95: 1-2

I don’t care what your view on religion is, you have to love the psalms. No one knows what the first music was, or who wrote the very first songs (it wasn’t Barry Manilow; it wasn’t even some-time Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who wrote “I Write the Songs”), but it’s clear that a primary purpose and subject was praise to God or gods, using melody, meter, and rhythm to come closer to the unknowable. Sure, there are spoken prayers and unspoken pleadings, but it was well understood that to cut through the clutter, you needed a trumpet, a timbrel, a tune.

How important were songs to the ancient Israelites? Let’s glance at another psalm:

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion/We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof/For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion/How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” – Psalm 137:1-4

This one, of course, was written during the time of the Babylonian Exile. It is an extremely mournful psalm, no less than a dirge. They sat down, they wept. Further, they hanged their harps on the willows! Their instruments were of no use anymore, so inconsolable were they. And to add insult to injury, their captives, their tormentors, made them sing their songs, like a cruel overseer standing before a group of African slaves demanding to hear a song of celebration from the land in which they were taken, the land where their ancestors are buried. How indeed can they sing such a song in a strange land?

And yet, how has any group successfully made the transition from one country, one culture, to another, whether the move was voluntary or forced? By hanging onto their traditions, of course. Their cuisine, customs, clothing; their language; their holidays; their music. It’s why the Jews have survived everywhere they’ve gone, it’s how Asians, Africans, Latinos, Europeans, and all other groups maintained their identities regardless of where they are transplanted. By bringing their songs with them into the strange land.

As an art form, as a mode of communication, music cuts deeper than anything else. I suppose it, like anything else, affects different people differently, but throughout history music has been shown again and again to serve as soother, motivator, convener, wooer, and consoler. It’s everything you need it to be, and it has served all those roles and more for me throughout my life.

Like anything that excites the chemicals in your brain, music can also act like a drug. I certainly have felt high while listening to music, and the best part is that it’s readily available and doesn’t cause bad come-downs. Back when I used to indulge in such behavior, I always knew that when it came time to marry and start a family, I would do so cleanly. And in fact, the last time I smoked pot was the night before my wedding. I was solid in my decision and confident that I could close one door while opening the other without wanting to turn back. The one thing that concerned me, though, was whether I could enjoy music as intensely straight as I had stoned.

See, one thing pot does to you is to give you immense powers of focus and concentration. Taken to an extreme, it can leave you totally fixated on something or nothing to the extent that you look and act catatonic. That’s why when you’re straight and you’re within a group of stoned people, you realize how boring they are when they’re stoned. But I loved listening to music stoned, feeling every note and beat pulsing through my entire being. I felt like the music was consuming me, or that I had consumed it, the music and I were one, intertwined and ecstatic at this magical union of sound and spirit. I used to close my eyes at such moments and visualize the music as being a silver rope dancing in dark space like a cobra to a charmer’s flute in a street market in India.

Happily, I found – and am all too happy to promote the idea – that drugs don’t make the music listening experience so satisfying, the music itself does. Drugs really don’t add anything to the mix, other than allowing you to ignore everything going on around you, which isn’t always the best thing for you anyway. I still feel the ecstasy of music, still seek it out like any addict would his fix, and am grateful for those experiences when it all goes beyond simple enjoyment into another realm of deep spiritual fulfillment and inspiration. When it becomes, in other words, a religious experience.

I remember seeing the documentary The Gospel According to Al Green – actually I’ve seen it a few times, but the first time I saw it I was this close to converting. There was footage at the end of the movie where Reverend Al, still as sexy and sultry as when he sang secular hits like “Let’s Stay Together,” was singing in his church. And the sweat was pouring down, and people in the congregation were swaying and shouting and near to passing out with the sheer pull of the music, and as I sat there in my seat I could feel the tingling in my legs and it was all I could do not to stand up and be overcome with the spirit, shouting to witness and pleading for a blessing of salvation.

I was in a bookstore once, one of those places that has stacks and stacks of discontinued titles for small money. And I saw a book with a cover photo that made me stop and look closer. It was a black-and-white photograph of a long-haired cellist with a look of pure ecstasy on her face – not at all the composure of a typical classical musician. It was a biography of Jacqueline du Pre, whom I’d never heard of. But I was so compelled by that photo (and the low price) that I bought it and began reading it immediately. By the time I was halfway done with it, I’d already bought a 3-CD set of her cello concertos. She was touched with a gift beyond quantification, an intoxicating combination of the sheer joy of creation and the sheer force of spiritual awakening. I was hooked on the book, the music, and the person, who tragically died young, no doubt by the incredible weight of all that musical feeling.

In light of that, there have been times I have seen Brian Wilson in concert and been reduced to tears at the miracle of his endurance; without music, he could not live. Whatever brain damage he may have from his years of drug abuse and mental illness, it has not affected his capacity to make music and his ability to sustain his artistry when so many others of his generation are gone is testament to the life force that music is to him. There are those, among them unknown autistic savants as well as professionals like Brian, Andy Pratt, and jazz trumpeter Tom Harrell who only seem “normal” when they’re playing music. When the playing ends, their ability to successfully interact with the external world is hindered to some extent. What is it about me that envies people like that?

One more. My wife, when we were dating, would ask me lots of probing, difficult questions to learn more about me. It was like doing a psychological intake. One of the questions she asked me was, “If you had to give up either your sense of sight or your sense of hearing, which would you give up?” I didn’t even think twice about it. I’d rather be blind than deaf. Apparently, most people answer the other way, believing that not being able to hear is less of a handicap, especially in terms of personal safety and happiness, than not being able to see. But I didn’t see it that way; blind I could still enjoy music. And as tangible proof for why I need my hearing more than my sight, I offered up the 20 seconds of Aretha Franklin’s song “Angel” from about 3:37-3:57 where she sings, “There’s no misery – aaaaahooooow – like the misery I feel in me/Gotta find me an angel in my life.” That “aaaaahooooow” sums up every ounce of pain and loneliness in the singer’s heart and it’s a howl at the moon, a cry in the dark, and a shriek in the woods lost alone at night that seizes my own heart and makes me feel exactly what Aretha’s feeling. I can only imagine that I would be able to visualize that feeling even more without the sense of sight. But to not be able to hear her sing that again – even just that 20 seconds – is simply unimaginable to me.

So where is all this coming from? I was driving in my car this morning, listening to a Van Morrison live album called A Night in San Francisco. The track was a 16-minute medley of Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You” and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.” I can’t even describe to you how the performance progresses, but it builds with intensity, then the band pulls back a bit, inserts a piano solo, then builds it back up, eases a little, then plows ahead and when the music seemingly hit its peak it just kept going and I was going with it – going crazy with ecstasy, that is. I started getting chills, literally, goose bumps up and down my arms. Then the background singers did this funny chant, “Van is nooooooo prima donna” over and over, but instead of being funny it was totally fucking true and another wave of chills and goosebumps came over me. Then one of the band yells out, a reference to another Morrison tune, “Did you get healed?” and now my goosebumps have goosebumps (“Hell yes!” is my enthusiastic response) and the music’s not giving an inch, it keeps on pounding and suddenly I was overcome with that feeling of such intense pleasure where it’s almost too much of a good thing, like when a woman keeps licking your knob after you’ve shot your load and I just had to shout out loud and I did and thank God my windows were closed and thank God for ears that hear and good Lord what a joyful noise that was and I could sing this song in any land. And at that moment, no drug and no religion and no woman could have given me the feeling that that music gave me. And like a junkie has to find that high, and Aretha has to find that angel, I have to keep finding that feeling from music. And the good thing is, I know I’ll find it, again and again. And that’s why I’m a music nut. Hosanna.