Music in My Life: Part 1 — the early years

Listening to music was very important in the home where I grew up, but performing music was not at all part of our lives.

My dad was too old to be a hippie himself, but was a psychology professor who was strongly influenced by his hippie graduate students, and became quite an avid record collector and listener. It seems like we listened to music every evening, at considerable volumes (not overly loud, but definitely the focus of attention).

His collection contained a variety of styles, but there were some important omissions:

  • Classical music: Classical was something that was played on that radio station, which my mom would sometimes pause on for a few minutes in the course of changing stations. It sounded pleasant enough to me, but nothing really grabbed me. It all kind of sounded the same.
  • Jazz: When my brother and I went through our dad’s entire 200+ album collection sorting it (a process that covered the entire living room floor with little record stacks) we uncovered a couple of Miles Davis albums: a relic of his pre-hippie past. Without our archaeological efforts these would never have been detected. (We kids found Sketches of Spain worthy of repeated listenings after that discovery, but Miles in the Sky was not.)

What his collection did contain would fall under the categories of Folk, Rock, and (to some extent) Country. While African-American artists were represented — I remember albums by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and The Temptations in particular — the vast majority were by white performers.

I’m not sure exactly how young I was when I was trusted to put a record on a turntable and put the needle down, I was certainly doing it as a kid. I developed my own favorites and was able sometimes to choose what we would listen to. More often than not — and as I look back it was increasingly “not” as I got older — the choice was not mine, and I became increasingly annoyed at the music that was being forced on my ears.

As I look back, there is definitely a trajectory in the development of my musical taste which I hope to elucidate here, but it really wasn’t as focussed as it may appear to a reader. I want to start by mentioning something that doesn’t fit into my narrative — to illustrate this point, to get it out of the way, and to share a great piece of music I enjoyed as a child and still enjoy. The one Temptations album we had, Greatest Hits II, frequently found the record needle traversing its infectious grooves, usually guided by the hand of my brother or myself. All the tracks were great, but the superhero-themed Can’t Get Next to You stood out as one of the very best:

This was an exception, though. More common were the psychedelic rock albums, like the Beatles’ famous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album so popular I feel no need to elaborate. Instead I’ll use an example from The Rolling Stones foray into psychedelia, which has languished in obscurity, perhaps because of the unfortunate name choice of Their Satanic Majesties Request. There is nothing dark about the album at all; it perhaps the happiest and most positive the Stones have been. Here is their opening anthem, Why Don’t We Sing This Song All Together:

The extended reprise of that song, while not a stand-out favorite, was a track I definitely remember enjoying. It has, like many of its psychedelic-era counterparts, a quality I call “flow”: each part blends smoothly into the next with no jarring changes of context. The resulting loose organization has been derided as pointless meandering by some, but I enjoyed it, and still do.

Although I enjoyed most of the psychedelic rock we listened to, the stand out tracks for me were always the instrumentals. Here, from Country Joe and the Fish’s brilliant and eclectic I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die album, is the sole instrumental track, Eastern Jam:

Santana’s self-titled first album is largely instrumental, and one I really enjoyed. The one track I thought was best was appropriately entitled Treat:

Jethro Tull was another group I really enjoyed; so much so that I was inspired to choose flute as my instrument when I finally started playing one, in junior high school band. Once again, the instrumental tracks impressed me the most: from their Stand Up album, here’s Bourée (an interpretation of a piece by J. S. Bach).

My attraction to instrumentals is something I never clearly articulated, maybe even to myself, but I don’t know if that would have mattered. Our dad was the ultimate arbiter of what we listened to, and his tastes were progressing in quite another direction. Folk music, where the words were what was important and the musical accompaniment sparse, is what we listened to more and more. The rough voices of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash with their solo acoustic guitars grated on my ears more times than I could possibly count. I re-imagined the Dylan lyrics To Be Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again as “to be stuck inside of this house with Bob Dylan on again”. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken could have been about the deepest circle of Hell. The Band’s Music from Big Pink was, if ears could smell, a big stink.

All of these groups have their merits, in fact they’re highly acclaimed in the styles they represent; I don’t mean to discredit them. My point is that, starting from a place where they weren’t that interesting, by force of repetition they became something I could only dream of escaping.

This is the end of Part 1. If there’s enough interest, I’ll start the next section with the first music I actually chose to purchase myself.

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