Friday, March 25, 2022

Dancing About Architecture: A Not-So-Short Musical Biography

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

Image source: Jeffery Erhunse on Unsplash.
The first album I ever bought with my own money was a used LP copy of Pink Floyd's uber-weird Ummagumma album, which I always figured explains a lot about me.

I couldn't have been more than 8 years old. Our neighbors were running a garage sale, and there was the half-live, half-studio double album looking up at me from the table. I remember being taken in by the trippy Droste effect on the cover (not that I knew the term "Droste effect" at age 8), the lengths of some of the tunes (songs on the radio are four minutes or so, tops; why do some of these go on for 12?), and the incomparably bizarre song titles (e.g., "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict").

I didn't know the first thing about Pink Floyd, but I had to buy the album. If memory serves, it set me back a whopping 50 cents. I took that record home like the treasure it was to me, and I threw it on my crappy little record player in my bedroom.

Immediately, I was entranced by the spacy, and slightly spooky, vibe of "Astronomy Domine," the live performance that will always be the definitive version of the song for me. First impressions and all that. I wasn't prepared for the blood-curdling scream that blasted without warning out of my speakers by the time "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" rolled around -- nor was my mom, who at that point called up the stairs, wondering what on God's green earth I was listening to.

The studio album got even weirder, made up of a combination of proper songs and experimental workouts by the individual members. I remember being especially entranced by drummer Nick Mason's short-circuiting sound effects on "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party." I can't remember if I laughed at the aforementioned "Several Species," a Roger Waters sound collage of sped-up, slowed-down, and rhythmic chanted voices, accompanied at the end by a rant in a thick Scottish brogue. Chances are, I was too dumbfounded to do too much of anything.

The neighbors I bought the record from were farmers, and somehow a blob of white chicken poop had managed to dry itself onto one of the records. I cleaned it off the best I could, but I can still remember the scratchy whoosh, whoosh as the needle cut through the residue with each revolution of the platter. In hindsight, that just added to the strangeness of the whole listening experience.

I wish I knew whatever happened to my old pooped-up garage-sale copy of that album. Not only was it one of the now-hard-to-find original pressings, before the image of the Gigi album got airbrushed off the cover over copyright concerns, but it also began an intense lifelong interest in music for me. I've been fascinated by music for as long as I can remember, but Ummagumma is really where my personal musical journey began.

Which, again, probably says a lot about me. I like things that take chances, question assumptions, and push boundaries, both in music and in just about every other aspect of life. So Ummagumma either set the groundwork or scratched an itch that I didn't even know I had at age 8.

Processing sorrow

Isn't it wonderful that humans are such a deeply irrational species? If we were all coldly logical people, our world would be spared a great deal of the misery that arises from our irrational choices and mindsets. That much is undeniable. But it would also give us a world bereft of music and the rest of the creative arts, which bring so much beauty and passion and meaning to our lives. As is often the case in this imperfect world, it seems, you can't have the good without the bad.

The bad, for me, is that I have lived a profoundly sad life. I don't think I'm alone in this condition, so I'm not seeking pity. I just think some of us manage to paper over our perpetual disappointments and bounce back better than others do. But ultimately, the Buddha was right that life is imbued with suffering. None of us can escape its clutches. We all live in a valley of tears. And that's why we all need things that make life tolerable. Music has long filled that role for me. It's been my reliable friend and companion throughout my life.

I dreamed of being a musician when I was a kid. Later on, I dreamed of being a disc jockey. I pretended to be a DJ in my room, trying to make some witty patter like the jockeys on the local radio stations, as I flipped from one 45 to another on my record player. Those DJs came to be something like disembodied friends, their voices flowing through my speakers day after day, delivering the music that brightened my life.

I looked forward every week to Casey Kasem's countdown. I was excited to see what tunes had moved up the chart, which were descending from their former heights, and what new tunes might show up to tickle my eardrums.

I taped the entire radio simulcast of the Live Aid performance. Then I painted up a little tin with the Live Aid logo and kept all the tapes inside.

These were the little joys of a kid growing up in an otherwise difficult childhood in rural Michigan. I didn't have a lot of other escapes.

When I was around 13 months old, my drug-addled, abusive birth mother gave me up for adoption, no longer wanted, to my maternal grandparents -- and let me tell you, Grandma had her own issues. She controlled people by guilt-tripping them. She treated her husband like dirt, and when he was old, in failing health, and nearly blind, she kicked him while he was down, blaming him for everything that had gone wrong in her own life. My own early childhood abuse, meanwhile, left me afraid of my own shadow. People thought I'd have to go to a "special" school for emotionally troubled children.

But somehow I muddled through, went to "normal" school, and got decent grades. But I was a very awkward kid with few friends, very much aware that I was different. And as kids -- and even adults -- will do, they picked on the one who was different. I was always mocked and bullied. I remember watching other kids play on the playground and pretending to be part of the action as I looked on from a distance. I was denied victory in a spelling bee because the administrators got tired of waiting for one of the last two participants to slip up, so I was given a "miss" on a word I spelled correctly while the other kid, the grandson of a beloved teacher, spelled the word exactly the same and got the victory. If I'd complained, who was going to listen to me?

Even when I did accomplish something, I couldn't enjoy it, like when I won first chair in the percussion section of the school band. I joined the band late, about halfway through sixth grade, and progressed quickly. I was voted the band's "most improved" player after one year, and "most outstanding" after two years. But then came the responsibility of leading the percussion section, which was profoundly nerve-racking for a quiet, self-conscious, socially awkward kid. I didn't like it, and I can still vividly remember a younger percussionist who endlessly needled and bullied me because I struggled with my leadership position. It left my stomach in knots, but I did the best I could to drown out the aching feeling of guilt and failure by focusing my energies on the music our band played.

No one could see the pain that I hid inside. I don't remember ever crying much. My anxiety just kept mounting as I bottled things up and kept my head down. Making a scene would have just made life 10 times worse.

At least I had a good friend who lived down the street and pretty much accepted me for who I was. He had a comparably crappy childhood, so we were sort of on the same wavelength with each other. We spent a lot of time together riding bikes, playing my Atari, and indulging in music. I was always leafing through his mom's stack of mostly old '70s classic rock LPs, and I later bought her collection when she was short on funds. If my buddy and I weren't carrying around a boom box playing a cassette of some of our favorite mid-'80s music, we'd record ourselves trying to make music with our very limited skills, bashing out noises on cheap guitars, drum machines, and keyboards. Most of the stuff we made wasn't the least bit musical, but it served its purpose of being a creative release valve for two kids who badly needed it.

So music kept inserting itself into my existence as a kind of life preserver. It was a drug that, like all drugs, temporarily numbed the pain. But, happily, it's a drug with no side effects -- except, perhaps, for potential hearing loss and the damage to one's bank account. My grandma-turned-mom often reminded me, when I spent my money on music, that "you can't eat or wear CDs," wielding her ubiquitous guilt trips against me just for trying to find some small sliver of happiness in life. But once the music started, not even her perpetual nagging negativity could touch me. All was well in my little world for a few fleeting moments.

"One good thing about music," as the great Bob Marley said, "once it hits you, you feel no pain."

When all else fails, write

My own musical abilities hit a wall in college. Playing a snare drum in high school concert and marching band was one thing, but having to wrangle an entire drum kit challenged the limits of my coordination -- and I dreaded the idea of having to take a solo during our performances. I've tried other instruments over the years, but my hands just refuse to go where they need to go.

I understand music theory, in theory, so that's not the problem. I can play scales and chords on a piano, albeit slowly and often clumsily. Technically, I can read music. But spending my formative musical years playing rhythms instead of tuned notes, I never really dug down into becoming proficient at translating notation into performance. I have to keep looking back at the key signature, then counting the lines and spaces on the staff, and only then playing the required note, and then repeating the entire process for the next note on the staff. I can't just sit down and play something through at normal speed. I can't explain why. It's just an obstacle that I've never been able to overcome. And thus does a small army of guitars gather dust in my office, unplayed because I just can't seem to push past learning a few basic chords.

I was thinking for a while about getting a hurdy-gurdy built. I love the sound of a hurdy-gurdy. But hurdy-gurdies aren't cheap, and what if I couldn't figure out how to make the thing sound good? My track record with instruments says I'd fail, and I'd just have wasted a couple of thousand dollars.

A Mellotron remains a possibility, at least one of the modern digital re-creations of the fragile analog originals. The haunting sound of the Mellotron is one of the things that attracted me to progressive rock. And most of what's played on a 'Tron is chord-based, slow, textural, atmospheric. That's something I actually might be able to wrap my head -- and my fingers -- around, given some practice.

Bottom line: I just long to make nice sounds come out of an instrument. I envy those who can make art with music, who can coax an instrument to life and fill the air with its beauty. I doubt I'll ever get there, but I'd sure like to keep trying.

If I want to express anything musically, I have to write about it. And I've done so quite often. I wrote record reviews for my college newspaper. I created a site called The Yes Chronicles that tracked the history of my favorite band through long-winded reviews of all their studio albums. I've written several concert reviews for my main blog. As a musician, it turns out I make a decent editor and a passable writer.

But even then, I lack the skill to write in florid language about why music appeals to my senses. I cut my teeth as a journalist. I write factual and analytical things. Flights of verbal fancy don't come naturally to me. And yet this is all I have, so I use it as an outlet. Everyone needs an outlet. My wife writes fiction and paints. My daughter draws. Me, I write stuff that no one reads. But it's all I have, so I work with it. I was once told I have no imagination, and that's probably not terribly off the mark. I just know that things from the imaginations of creative people enliven me, and that those things usually involve the creation of music.

Those who can, play. Those who can't, write.

In fairness, even I, the Great Unimaginative One, wake up in the morning at least once or twice a month with a melody in my head. But I have no way of expressing the melody through an instrument, and by midday it's gone forever. So I leave my ongoing need for music to those who are capable of actually creating music. If I can't create my own art, I'll leave it to those who can.

Either way, writing about music is always going to be a poor substitute for the music itself. "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," as somebody once wisely observed. (No one's quite sure who said it first.) To that end, it's no surprise to me that there's a widespread disdain among many musical artists for music critics. The artists pour their emotions and their creativity into their music, and then along come the writers, sitting on the sidelines with nothing better to do, and pick away at the music, having offered nothing of equivalent creative merit in the process, save for a possibly clever turn of phrase here or there.

But music often brings a ray of sunshine to my life, as I know their art does for many others. Politics and religion inflame and often depress me, but music transports me to a good place. It’s my safe haven in an ever more chaotic world. So as a writer, I endeavor to find the good in music. It's not always possible, but I try.

I try because I need my safe haven. In addition to the depressing state of the world, my personal health sucks. I feel miserable most days. I think it has something to do with a neurological malfunction, but an endless barrage of tests, procedures, and visits to specialist after specialist turned up nothing conclusive. Still, random parts of my body malfunction and then might get better for a while, or they just decide to stop working at all. It all gets worse as I get older. I grin and bear it, because that's all I can do.

That casts an additional veil of sorrow over my life. So I need those flashes of sunlight that break through the clouds to keep me from spiraling into madness. Melancholy songs especially trigger something deep within me, as if they've grasped this sorrowfulness that's my constant companion and molded it into a shape that helps me process it, in a way I would be incapable of expressing on my own. I hear songs like that, and something deep within me says, "Yeah, you get it." They're profoundly cathartic. They're the ones that actually threaten to make my tear ducts function.

See, I identify with the Eeyores and Charlie Browns of the world. The ones who push on despite the enveloping gloom. The ones who always fall short but, perhaps foolishly, keep trying. And people like us need those glimmers of hope to keep trying. Music does that for me. Happy music lifts my spirits. But more importantly, the melancholy music empathizes.

The goal

Music is the one thing I tend not to burn out on in life, and writing about it might help channel my creative (and nervous) energies, so I can quiet some of the eternal chatter in my head and not become despondent over the state of the world.

That said, I'm acutely aware of the inherent challenge in writing anything useful about music. Because music is its own nonverbal language, all we can do with words is attempt to interpret how music makes us feel. Words are admittedly a poor conduit for expressing those feelings. But it's all you have if you're not a musician.

I'm not.

Hence the reason I blog about stuff -- music included.

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