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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Music to my ears

My paternal extended family has a significant amount of musical ability. My father had a concertina when I was a kid that he "puttered around" with, but never really played with any zeal. His mother, my grandmother, played piano, and according to my brother (I have 3 brothers who were 13, 14, and 15, when I was born, so they were around for a lot more than I was) she used to love to play Janis Joplin tunes.

My father had a strong distaste for anything that was Jazz or Classical. He spent a fair amount of effort exposing me to things like the Boston Pops when I was very young, perhaps 6 or 7. I remember he and I having to leave some concert hall because I wouldn't stop talking. I remember crabby old people (who were most likely only a year or two older than I am now) turning around in their chairs to glare angrily at me, and then belligerent at him. Interestingly, I don't remember any of the music, or even what I was saying, and I have no recollection of what the place looked like. I remember being there, and the fact that it was a classical music concert, being the focus of adult frustration, and I remember my father being surly while dragging me outta there. As young as I was, I remember being sorry to have made him miss his concert, but I don't remember losing any sleep over it. Chances are, I forgot about the whole thing by the time I got back to the car.

My brother's and I seem to have a fair amount of the family talent, but I regretfully never really put to good use. (Yet!) I had a handful of harmonicas throughout my youth, and uncounted kazoos. I think my brother's were a more immediate influence on my tastes in music. I have a great appreciation for Classic Rock. Aerosmith, Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Eagles, etc. I however, grew up in the 90s, and Grunge left a rather large mark on me. Alice in Chains was no doubt one of the best of their time. I was a big fan of Smashing Pumpkins as well.

Anyway, these days, I can pick out a tune on the guitar, and for a while was in a band, if you could call it that. A couple friends of mine and I got together every Wednesday for about three months and goofed around. It was a lot of fun.

While there are those songs or musical pieces (can't call it a song if it has no lyrics!) that you either like or not, some just seem to strike a chord in just about everyone. I don't think anyone could hear "Unchained Melody" and think "Ugh, God, I hate this song." unless of course it brings up some unfortunately unpleasant mental images or something.  

Suffice to say, I'm opinionated when it comes to music. I'm going to attempt to explain my musical prejudices here, which is something I've never really done, even to myself, so please bear with me...

So much goes into a piece of music. It's much more than a simply playing of instruments and a stringing together of lyrics. For most people it holds a certain power. Music can be used to set the mood. It can relax, excite, energize, focus, inspire or move one to tears. For me, music has always been a personal thing. It's a part of who I am.

What you like musically depends a lot of who you are, and what you're looking for at a certain time. The human psyche needs a great many things at different times, and these things are not always readily available. Sometimes we need to know that we're not alone and that someone identifies with what we're going through. Sometimes we need a pep talk. Sometimes we need advice. There are times when there are people who are close to us who can understand and be there when we need, but sooner or later they'll be unavailable. Music is always there, be it in our speakers, or in our hearts.

There's a pretty well known joke among musicians that goes: "How many musicians does it take to write a song? Two, one to write the song, and one to sit there indignantly and say 'I could have done that.'" This joke is funny because it's true. Every musician who hears a piece of music that they respect, will imagine him / herself performing it at some point. Again, music is a personal thing, and we relate to music just as we do another person.

Now... I'd mentioned in the post prior, that I can't stand the Doors. It's perhaps an unfair statement, because I really only know the songs that WZLX (a Boston based classic rock station) plays. They play the popular ones, and by god, they play them all the time. WZLX, as much as I love that station... You can't go more than five minutes without hearing something by The Doors, The Rolling Stones, or Van Halen. Even true fans will get sick of hearing them at some point!

What is it that I don't like about the Doors? It's a difficult question for a couple of reasons. One: because I've never really tried to think it through before, and I'm really just kind of feeling around for possible answers or at least acceptable analogies, and two: I think if I can explain my theory well enough, it's going to make me sound crazy. But here goes:

The points I've already made: 1. Music can invoke emotion, 2. musicians tend to look at music from a very personal point of view, and like to picture themselves either performing the piece, or something better. When I hear "Light my Fire" by The Doors... First, the organ. That organ is so gosh darned "in your face" that it actually makes me reflexively recoil.

Deee Deedledeet DEE DeedleDeedleDeetdee,
DEEE DEEDLEDEET DEE DEEDLEDEEDLEDEETDEE,
DEEE DEEDLEDEET DEE DEEDLEDEEDLEDEETDEEeEEeEEeEEeEEeEE!!

It's bloo...  uh... It's bloody obnoxious! I would go out of my way to not make noise like that in any situation. Christ, I sigh with relief when that's over. But that's just one song, and a bad choice really, cause I made up my own lyrics, about "c'mon baby change my tire. You can do it with a wrench or a... PLIIIERR!" Usually gets a chuckle outta the folks I'm with. 

But the singer... Yes, I'm not fond of Jim. When I think about how I'd look singing those lyrics and my voice sounding like that... Let me see if I can describe what I'd have to look like to mimic his voice and style. First, my eyes go to about half-mast in a sleepy yet wide awake sort of manner. One eyebrow inevitably arches sugestively. I don't think I could picture myself even expecting to be taken seriously, like I'm on Saturday Night Life or something. I also seem to feel like the words I'm saying have so much more meaning that they actually do, like I'm telling serious conspiratorial secrets, as if the person I'm talking to is going to be forever changed. 

I dunno, perhaps that's all just silly, but I guess my point is that I get the impression that the music is more about the singer than it is about the music, as if the music itself sounds arrogant. I feel like he's getting in my face and saying "I'm so awesome. You want to be me. You want to know what I know" in a disturbingly seductive way.

But again, I could be wrong. Maybe I'd just look ridiculous as a front-man regardless of the music. I will be the first to admit, I only know the "popular" songs, and I've never really gone out of my way to give them a chance. Hell, I've never even seen the movie, so maybe I'm misguided. It's just the impression that I get.

Van Halen... I think once again, my problem is the lead singer. I just can't stand David Lee Roth. It may be because he screams too much, or just the fact that he's oozing with sleazy arrogance. Truth be told, I really don't mind Van Hagar (after Roth left) although it's a tad glam-rockish for me. What, I was 10 when the 80s were over, I have no historical events associated with any of the music, so mostly it's just power chords and hair for me.

Fleetwood Mac. I know I'm going to strike a few nerves with this one, so let me just establish that I don't loathe them or anything, before I put on my best Simon Cowell. I just don't particularly like them. Some of the music I'll admit is niceish, and I love watching the drummer make faces, but I find that Stevie Nick's voice cuts through the "Stop that noise it's going to make my eyes pop" spectrum of my hearing on a regular basis. The rest of it is pretty basic and predictable to me. I just don't find many hooks in it. 

Ok, so we have some idea of what I don't like. I told you I'd sound either crazy or like an opinionated snob. Now, what I do like, and why.

Tom Petty was perhaps the first "real" music I developed a taste for. (I say "real" because prior to that I was listening to the Monkees pretty exclusively.) I found his singing and guitar style to be unpretentious and understated, yet powerful. His singing didn't make think of what I'd look like singing his songs, so much as what I'd be saying. Some of his lyrics are universally true and speak to so many situations and so many people. "The waiting is the hardest part" is true for just about anything. "Into the great wide open" is a metaphore for any new step in any life. "Stop dragging my heart around" (which was also with Stevie Nicks) Well, who hasn't felt like that from time to time? "Here comes my girl" is a song that goes through my head every time I pick up my daughter from school, or when I see my wife, or countless other times I come from one room or another and some family member is there to greet me.

Alice in Chains has something for everyone, although if you're not open to the occasional dissonant whiny vocal, it may be a little much. They successfully, in my opinion, managed to fuse teenage angst, heavy garage metal, Seattle grunge, Jazz and they do it while harmonizing the vocals. With AiC it's less about the message for me, which is most of the time drug related, and more about the way the music weaves together and how the sound makes me feel. Plus I think I'd look totally bad-ass playing that it! If only I took lessons... 

Queen is a band who I have always really liked. Once you get passed the We will Rock You, We are the Champions, and Another one Bites the Dust, they really run the gamut. Harmony, kick-ass guitar, tear jerking melodies, a front man who was as much about the music as the performance, and songs that relate to just about everyone. Except the Prophet Song. I have no idea what the hell that song's about, but it's awesome. Plus they did the soundtrack to "Highlander" which is sort of on the Geeks "Must Watch at least twice" list. 

Recently, Irish Gumbo made an excellent post regarding Lady Gaga, and how her unveiled sexually charged innuendo and persona was an affront to music, as well as general decency as a whole, and I couldn't agree more. It shakes me to the core that these are the people who my kids will one day be seeing in the media. He went on to post some "real music", a video of Etta James "At Last". This post definitely hit home with me. Music to me should be more about the music than about the singer, in all cases, and the message it sends is definitely important.

So I guess in the end I've put a lot of words together in an effort to more accurately explain that which should have probably been left as "because of the reaction is stirs inside me for whatever reason". Ideally, maybe you can relate. Hopefully, you can just accept it all as just weird, and humor me. One thing I will never do is deny someone their opinion. No one can ever be told that they're wrong about an opinion, and I'm certainly open and hoping to hear yours!