When the mode of the music changes: “What’s Left?” August 2011, MRR #339

I learned about the death of Gil Scott-Heron the same day I went to a sold-out Tony Bennett concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. After listening to Tony do standards like “Smile,” “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” I listened to Gil doing “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Whitey On The Moon,” and “We Almost Lost Detroit” thanks to YouTube. Whereas Tony was a spry, animated, and healthy 84, Gil died at 62 gaunt, HIV positive, and fighting a long crack cocaine addiction. I admire the former as a unique interpreter of the great American songbook, but I revere the latter as a revolutionary black poet, a powerful voice of the ‘60s, and a seminal influence on modern rap and hip hop.

In the HBO TV drama Treme, the character Delmond Lambreaux, a New Orleans modern jazz musician transplanted to New York, listens to traditional New Orleans jazz, Jelly Roll Morton to be exact, on vinyl in his apartment with his girlfriend, Jill. When Jill complains that the music sounds so old-fashioned, Delmond protests that classical music can be over 300 years old and still considered relevant, yet jazz that’s barely 40 years old is dismissed as out of date. The character is clearly frustrated as to why it’s not possible to appreciate both styles of jazz on their own merits.

I’m not trying to judge what type of music is going to stand the test of time. Nor am I arguing that musical genius requires immense suffering and a short lifespan, or even any particular originality. What I am saying is that music which is meaningful in any way must move us, must in some way inspire us, must raise the hair on the back of our necks. The music of the above mentioned performers did just that for me. So did my exposure to the Ramone’s first album, Gang of Four’s Entertainment, Stiff Little Finger’s Inflammable Material, and the Sex Pistol’s Never Mind the Bullocks. Classical music (Beethoven, Bartok, Shostakovitch), bebop (Parker, Gillespie, Coltraine), acid rock (Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service), and country (Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Dale Gilmore) also do it for me. In fact, there are only a few categories of music (soft rock, smooth jazz, disco) that I can’t really listen to.

Plato contended, in book four of the Republic, that: “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake” (as paraphrased by Tuli Kupferberg). Certainly, music has been used historically, by religion and politics, to strip people of their individuality, create ecstatic experiences, and help to forge powerful social movements. And folks in the ‘60s viewed rock music as a revolutionary weapon. My point is much more mundane. Music should feed our souls, uplift us, make us whole. It shouldn’t be used to divide, to make us feel superior to others. I don’t give a shit if you have the same taste in music that I do. Just enjoy yourself, for fuck’s sake.

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