A high price to pay: “What’s Left?” November 2013, MRR #366

My parents were Polish immigrants, European refugees from the second World War, survivors of Hitler’s forced labor camps. My dad joined the US Army while in UN Displaced Persons camps. He and my mom traveled to America, became US citizens, and settled in San Bernardino at the time of this anecdote. Both my parents spoke English with heavy Polish accents and had only the most basic comprehension of American culture. My mom bought Mahalia Jackson’s vinyl album on Columbia, “Silent Night – Songs for Christmas,” around 1962. I was ten years old at the time, and I remember my mom playing that album over and over in a respectful reverie. A year later, somehow, somewhere, in San Bernardino, my mom managed to find out that Mahalia Jackson was performing in a Southern Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Watts, I think. She corralled my dad into taking our whole family, which included my sister, to drive to the performance.

I have only the vaguest of memories of the drive, of Watts, and of the church. I do, however, remember that we were the only white people in the entire event. I also remember that everybody, all the black people, were incredibly welcoming and polite to my parents, to us. And, I remember Mahalia Jackson singing live, her stupendous voice raising the hair on the back of my neck time and again. My parents had virtually no prejudice against black people at the time. They acquired some in the years afterwards, especially my mom. But, to this day, when I hear beautifully performed gospel singing, I’m roused, I get goose bumps, and my hair on the back of neck stands on end.

This happens even though I remember that Malcolm X once dismissed gospel music as slave music.

Music has always produced visceral responses in me but, unfortunately, I’ve acquired a few prejudices against certain types of music over the years. When I initially heard Beethoven’s brilliant symphonies, I was moved to tears. Yet I considered the music of Brahms to be treacle, despite understanding his virtuosity. Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix induced rapture when I first heard them. I dismissed the Grateful Dead as utterly moronic. Anything with a disco beat I think of as vacuous, and I like to quote Quentin Crisp that: “A lifetime of listening to disco music is a high price to pay for one’s sexual preference.” Before I came to love Patsy Cline and Hank Williams Sr., I thought all country western music was inbred redneck hillbilly music. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols gave me such an adrenaline rush when I was introduced to punk. But music from the likes of the Cure or Spandau Ballet or Flock of Seagulls? Pour molten lead into my ears and put me out of my misery!

I’ve got wide ranging, eclectic musical tastes. But I also have rather strong, somewhat intolerant opinions about music. I’m trying not to be so judgmental, at least not so openly snide and derisive. Once, when I was reminiscing about the hippie music I used to listen to, I proudly proclaimed: “I drew the line at the Grateful Dead. They were fucking horrible musicians.” One woman in the conversation chided me back: “No one said the Dead were good musicians. That’s not why people followed them around. That’s not what they gave their fans.” That’s when I realized people listen to music for a variety of reasons, only one being the technical expertise and stellar musicianship of those playing said music. I’ve needed to ease up and back off when I praise certain kinds of music and critique others. What I listen to on Pandora isn’t necessarily what you listen to, so let’s give each other a break.

I’m off to Paris for a vacation. November, I sum up international insurrection over the past five years. December, I feature plans for the upcoming year. January, I do some longterm New Year’s resolutions. The last two columns are intended to be suggestive, jumping off points for more comprehensive work. At least, that’s the plan. There might be a surprise or two in the process.

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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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