WHAT I DID ON MY SUMMER VACATION: Regular readers of this side of a page of The Weekly may recall a column written a couple of weeks ago about a guy named Ben. It was probably a little depressing to read about his throat cancer and impending death and all of that. This will be the last you'll hear of him, I promise.
He died the day the column was published--the day before I arrived in Chicago to visit him for the last time. I was driving out to see him--I hadn't heard about his demise--in my father's souped-up little sports car. In a hurry and a little crazed and dazed with lack of sleep and nervousness over the impending reunion with my decimated friend, I wound the low-slung, silver auto up over 120 miles-per-hour while darting in and out of the highway traffic. Allah, Jesus and Zeus must have all been riding with me because those familiar blue and red police lights never appeared in the rear view mirror.
The radio was tuned to an all-Seventies station cranking out "Love Train," Peter Frampton, "Smoke On The Water," Creedence, "Brand New Key," and a multitude of other apparently unforgettable songs and artists.
I'd never heard an all-Seventies station before, not since the decade ended sometime near the finish of 1979, anyway. From what little dial surfing research I did, there's evidence of at least two other stations just like this one in Chicagoland spinning all the old hits from those ten years...and nothing but the old hits.
Like everyone I know, I like some ancient coolness now and again. It reminds us of places, friends and lovers we still can recall (The Beatles' "In My Life" was played at Ben's memorial service), keeping brain cells intact that might otherwise empty out, or worse, fill up with Beavis and Butt-Head. That would suck. Heh, heh.
But there's also a sadness that comes with listening to a station reliving the same few songs and moments over and over and over again. Regular listeners aren't moving forward in their lives even though they're aging every second. What song will they associate with the birth of a child, the death of a friend, or the sweet rush of falling in love in 1995? "Sylvia's Mother"?
I know I've got "Nah, Nah, Hey, Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" stuck in my brain again because I listened to that damn station just before getting the news about Ben. I don't know if it would have been better to have been listening to the alt-rock station and hearing the latest Foo Fighters, but it couldn't be any worse.
Maybe I'm guilty of grave hypocrisy here--after all, I've been reminiscing in these columns and bitching about oldies music at the same time. But there's an interesting point to ponder in here somewhere. There are so many people I know outside of the music scenes and cliques in Tucson who are just like the Kevin Kline character in The Big Chill: They don't believe there has been any good music made since they were kids. They don't listen to anything but the sounds of their youth. They reject anything they don't already know inside and out.
I suppose some would argue that much new music is simply regurgitations of old songs. In fact, a lot of "new" music is exactly that--the proliferation of tribute albums is convincing evidence (as are the punk and lounge lizard phenomenons). Just like Hollywood, the major recording labels often seem to have run out of ideas and are more than happy to sell us the old ones again. It's much easier to do than search out interesting artists and get the masses listening to newer aural notions.
Not that any artist emerges completely free of the past. Everyone has their influences, but some wear theirs more clearly on their sleeves. The new Chris Isaak album I raved about recently oozes his obvious influences--Elvis and Roy Orbison are all over Forever Blue. It's a great album nonetheless. It isn't Elvis or Roy, it's Chris inspired by their romantic ballads and making something new and blue out of the inspiration.
As you can see, there are contradictions laid like land mines throughout this whole oldies argument. When someone likes something fresh out of the bin at the music store, it's often the thing that reminds us of yesterday.
People exempt from this predicament tend to be young. They love the new punk partly because it is new to them. Geezers like me, in their 30s, lived through the late '70s and early '80s and have a music history that already encompasses Green Day. When grunge broke big a few years ago we geezed-out ones already knew it as a metal and hard rock hybrid. But, like Isaak today, Nirvana offered us a glimpse of something old through young eyes.
If you only listen to the world through old ears you never hear the refinements and extensions of the concepts and sounds you love. Surrender to the new--but don't give yourself away.
LAST NOTES: Speaking of which, here comes an Okie from Norman by way of Austin, Texas--Thomas Anderson. The rock and roller plays the DPC Café, 546 N. Stone Ave., on Friday, July 14.
Anderson offers up slices of garage rock and edgy lyric-rich folk summoning memories of the varied musical spirits of John Cale, Robyn Hitchcock, Giant Sand and Lightnin' Hopkins.
"Head music, in the best sense," is how the L.A. Weekly once described his mingle of sounds. "Melodies as spiky as brain waves (except when they're pulsating and hypnotic), and Anderson's disembodied voice as high and clear as the skies must be in Oklahoma."
Put on your new ears and try him out. You've got nothing to lose--all shows at the DPC Café are free.
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