Rock N’ Roll Dreams

Music in the message. A photo of the Hard Rock Cafe that I took in Washington, D.C.One Friday night a couple of years ago, Karen and I were sitting in a restaurant, and there was a family behind us. They had a daughter…I’m not sure how old she was, but I’d guess around 15. The daughter was talking about music, and she specifically mentioned the band Skid Row.

Have you ever had one phrase stop all the other sounds around you, so that you could only hear the person who said it? That’s how oddly impactful that name was to me.

You see, I went through my metal phase in high school, and Skid Row was one of my favorites during that rebellious period. I can still scream out the chorus to “Youth Gone Wild” with little thought involved. It was just funny to me that someone of that age would be conversant with 80’s metal (although I think Skid Row released a new album within the last couple of years).

A few days later, I saw a boy, younger than 15 by my best guess, wearing a Guns N’ Roses t-shirt, the one that corresponded to their Appetite For Destruction album. I’m so clearly able to recall the edgy intro to “Welcome To The Jungle,” or the seducing guitar line to “Sweet Child Of Mine.” Again, I was struck by how…out of place…this seemed.

Also, I’m a little disturbed that oldies music for them is what I grew up on. Geez, this smells like a mid-life crisis.

I’ve seen music from that era used with some frequency in video games (relatively) recently, but some of this is a bit of niche in which to be interested in these days, confined, perhaps, to a random Pandora station listened to during commutes by…well, by someone like myself, I suppose. I’ll confess that I’m a bit of a snob in my assumptions that today’s pop music will never manage a resurrection like that, but will only fade into obscurity as music with poetry and emotion continues to take its place in…video games…

Please don’t disabuse me of that notion.

Seriously, though. Isn’t that funny?

Taking Care of the Instrument

Something that Karen had done a lot of before we were married, but that she’s had very little opportunity to do since we’ve been married, is sing. Which is really a shame, because her voice is angelic. And, while I know I’m biased, my opinion is reinforced by the observations of many other neutral parties.

Karen has most often practiced her gifts within a faith community, and, as we were previously heavily involved in theatrical endeavors in the community that we attended before moving to New England, she just simply couldn’t make the scheduling commitments of both work out. Recently, however, she was asked to join the musicians that play for the Saturday night “unplugged” worship service that we attend in our new town. She’s come alive lending her voice to these events. I’ve seen something in my wife that I haven’t seen before, something amazing, something carefree and in love. It’s been amazing to witness.

While I was out at work this Saturday afternoon, Karen told me that she was trying to take a nap while our daughter took hers (the only time that this is possible, as any parent will attest). Her rest was disrupted, she said, by a guy cleaning his car in the parking with screamer music pounding out of his speakers while he worked. That doesn’t make for good resting conditions.

Rock history, as you may know, is a bit of a hobby of mine. I’ve never been particularly attracted to what is alternatively and most commonly referred to a screamer or hardcore music. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate it. Music expresses the feelings of it’s era, and this genre contains a (quite literal) scream of angst and frustration, a rage against the machine, if you will, at the injustice that is so commonplace around us, the system that fails everyone, and generally being sick of the pain.

There are a handful of hardcore songs that I like, but they are rare. I respect the genre, and what it says about our cultural landscape…it’s just not really my taste. Karen’s opinion of it is slightly stronger.

In her recollection of a nap disrupted tonight, she reasoned out why she dislikes this music. She feels that, despite the urban legend that the screaming vocalists are using “a different part of their voice” and know how to scream without detrimental effect, any of us who have taken vocal lessons know that these vocalists are risking the long-term of effect of destroying their voice. The reason that this bothers Karen, she expressed, is that the musicians are thus not respecting their instrument, and, by extension, are interested only in doing what is popular, not in making true art.

(Umbrella of mercy…I’m summarizing someone else’s thoughts, and likely horribly over-simplifying. It sounded so much more logical when she said it…)

Not certain where I land on this issue. I agree that serious artists respect their instruments. I don’t for a moment buy the myth that these vocalists have learned to scream in a way that isn’t damaging to their voices. I also don’t buy the stereotype of all of these bands…their are hardcore musicians out there doing serious work and saying serious things. The sound is part of the musical landscape, and it says something about our history.

I also think that there are others that capture the angst and the edge with instruments other than their voices.

There’s also something to be said for sacrificing for the art, perhaps. I’m caught in the tension. The message of the sound is important, it says something, it’s an historical marker. The method producing the sound smacks of the amateur sound technician that thinks the way to make the band sound better is by turning everything up. There’s a way to accomplish what’s needed and remain true to one’s art. Sometimes, that’s not at all an easy balance to strike.

Rock On

I remember a year or so ago seeing this guy that was driving in the car in front of me while I was slowly moving through traffic. The guy was in an older car that was pretty small…you know, the sort of beat up car that most of us drive while we’re in college? Anyway, the windows were down, and the volume on his stereo was up. I can’t remember for certain if I heard or recognized the specific song that was playing…my memory seems to tell me that it was a hard rock song from my youth, but my memory may be deceiving me, there. In any case, what I remember was that this guy was rocking out, head moving, hands drumming on the wheel, singing. He was driving perfectly well, so its not that he was oblivious to his surroundings. He was just into the music, loving that moment in life, and couldn’t have cared less about what other drivers thought of him.

I remember thinking, “Rock on, man! Rock on!”

That phrase itself sort of sticks in my head because I remember when Karen and I moved to our new apartment, and several members of our faith community helped us with the move. At some point during the repetitive trips down three flights of stairs to the moving truck, I noticed a total stranger carrying our stuff down to the moving truck, helping the process without calling any attention to himself. I asked if he was also a member of that faith community, curious to know who this guy was and how he had randomly showed up to help us move. He replied that he was, and had been told by others that they were helping us move that day, and showed up to help. He just enjoyed doing that sort of thing.
“Cool.” I replied. “Rock on.”
“Thanks.” he said, matter-of-factly. “I will rock on.”

Yesterday afternoon, I was outside at work for my day job. We were in a public area, and music was playing from nearby speakers. The mix of songs was random, and at some point landed on Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle.  Talk about bringing back memories. And right there, in the middle of the public square, I was performing some serious air guitar (I have seriously competitive air guitar skills, you know). My co-workers commented on it to much amusement, but for a few seconds, I didn’t care. I was into the music, and loving that moment in life. So I rocked on.

Yesterday I thought about that, and about these previous instances. I think that “rock on” has become this sort of declaration for me that I’m carefree for a few fleeting seconds, and that I love the music (take that as metaphorically as you will), and that I’m going to enjoy those few seconds or minute or whatever, and I really am not concerned about what those around me think.

One evening when I was in college, I parked at a service station. I needed to run inside and buy something quickly, but the song on the radio, Counting Crows’ Round Here, was (and is) such a moving song for me lyrically, one that spoke about where I was at that point in life so articulately, that I was frozen, singing aloud in my car until the final bars of the song. When I became aware of my surroundings again, there were a bunch of guys in the car next to me, laughing out loud and staring. I drove away without going inside, because I was humiliated.

I think I would have a different reaction, now. I think I would tell myself to “rock on,” because what they thought doesn’t matter. The self-exploration caused by that particular song was much more important than their opinion of someone they didn’t, and would never, know. If nothing else is happening than one being transported away from their stress for a few moments, and they are “dancing like no one is watching,” then that is important enough, that they shouldn’t care what those around them think. They should rock on.

Perhaps I just push back a bit on this culture of appearance management that binds us so restrictively. Or, perhaps I’m just tired of caring what others think. Whatever the case, I’ve learned to look forward to those occasional moments when the right song is playing, and I need to let go, if even for a few seconds, and I let that moment take me out of time and space, regardless of what those around me think.

We need more of those moments, after all. I hope many of them find you in the future. Whenever they do, ignore what those around you think. And when you see them happening to someone else, just smile and think, “rock on, man, rock on!”

Photo Attribution: Marcus Jeffrey 

Close Harmonies

I listened to a fantastic conversation with Bobby McFerrin over the weekend, in which he discussed how music has the ability to take us to these amazing places. As is typical when Krista Tippett  interviews a musician, there were numerous tracks of McFerrin’s music interspersed with the interview. Interestingly, McFerrin has a background in Episcopal choral music. One of the tracks that played during the interview was of a piece that McFerrin wrote adapting Psalm 19 to music. The harmonies were very choral, lending to a liturgical atmosphere. What also struck me in listening to the harmonies, which were extremely close together, was that they were not dissimilar to barbershop.

Far back in the mists of time, I sang in a barbershop quartet. I was a bass. The harmonies are extremely difficult, because they are so close and so complex. I remember that year…it was great fun, one of the highlights of an otherwise dim career as a music major. I’ve performed with various choirs in my life, as well, but I’ve never connected how closely related the compositions between the two genres can be.

I love it when music styles fuse…when classical walks alongside rock, or when an Eastern jazz riff is interrupted by a distorted guitar solo. Or, when a liturgical, choral piece is complimented by barbershop harmonies. One could argue that this is a very post-modern preference, which is interesting, because I’m not an overly post-modern person. I think, though, that these fusions bridge gaps in generational preferences, in perspectives, in thinking. McFerrin, in the interview, said that music can open us up to grace. If this is true, and I think that it is, then part of the beauty of a fusion of musical styles is that it, at least, helps us see that we have more in common than we have differences…and that we’re not as far removed from each other as we might otherwise think. Despite the fact that our harmonies are complex, they can work when they’re woven closely together. They sound better that way, as well.

Photo Attribution: Theoddnote 

Strumming a Story

It’s sort of surprising what you end up listening to when you get free music.

A few months ago, Starbucks and iTunes were giving away these free sampler playlists. I’m always up for free music, so I downloaded away. A great deal of the music was folk-style music (in fact, a lot of it had political themes, but I suppose that’s another topic). I don’t normally listen to folk music…in fact, I’ve never really enjoyed it that I can recall.

Now, let me offer the disclaimer that I realize these selections qualify as more of a pop-folk fusion than true folk. Still, I was playing one of these playlists in the car Monday night, and I was drawn into the story that the lyrics were telling. Folk music tells a story.

I’ve never really been drawn so much to music that told narratives. I’ve always been more interested in the poetry of other sorts of music that leave interpretive space and lead to an introspection on the moment at hand, moreso than story-telling in song. I’ve always preferred to leave that work to fiction.

So, it’s likely no surprise that a great deal of my writing in college was non-fiction: a lot of op-ed and journalistic pieces, combined with occasional poetic ventures. Both permitted me to attempt introspection into the moment. Storytelling…in fiction, at least…was a later venture for me, not really coming into its own until late in my undergraduate days.

I find myself very much in love with fiction now, and passionate about the decline in the perceived importance of storytelling in all forms, fiction or non-fiction. I think introspection and contemplation are critical, yet I find I can communicate what’s in my head much more effectively by telling a story, be it fiction or non-fiction. I’ve just never really connected before how my inclinations have changed, and how the types of music to which I listen seem to be reflecting that. My reading preferences went through a heavy non-fiction phase just before grad school, after which I found myself starved for good stories, as I had nearly no time to read anything other than academic material for two years. Now, I force myself to make every third or fourth book on my reading list non-fiction, because the stories have become so much more important to me.

I’m not going to say that my music preferences have ultimately changed: I’m still extremely eclectic in the genres I frequent, just as I am with reading choices. I suppose I had just never before paused to connect the sorts of things that I take in with the sorts of things that I produce.

As far as the folk thing, however…I think it’s just a sort of accidental phase. I won’t be transitioning my iPod library exclusively into acoustic guitars and banjos any time soon. And that should be no great surprise.