Octet for Strings, Bryant Park
I never learned to play a musical instrument, and yet I can say without hesitation that music has been just as much, if not more of, an influence in my creative life than literature or the visual and plastic arts. There was always music in my home, recorded and live, as daily background but also as a special event to look forward to and dress up for (when did people stop caring enough to wear nice clothes to the opera?), and I was lucky to grow up with an indirect awareness of, or a conscious participation in some pretty interesting periods for popular music, not to mention technological advances in how it is preserved and delivered…but mostly music taught me what life is about at its best and worst, giving me sensations and expectations way beyond the everyday that made me restless, often unsatisfied, sometimes miserable, but kept me questing for bigger and better things. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Rockwall, circa 1978
For who I have become and how, blame the Rolling Stones. Blame Jim, Jimi and Janis. Blame crooners, bluesmen, jazzmen, rockers, folk singers, punks, funks, metalheads, pop stars, and especially blame those first of the mad misfit freaks and rebels to guide my wounded, seeking soul , Beethoven, Vivaldi, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Monteverdi. Did they make me this way, or did the way I am draw me to them? This I will never know, but so many of my memories and associations are tied to music, which came first no longer matters, it’s all one.
While contemplating this post, I was flooded with these memories. How to fit into one brief personal essay everything that music means to me? Not only do certain songs help identify dates on the calendar of my life for me by what I was hearing on the radio, but they also identify the states of mind or experiences for which they served as soundtrack . When I walked by the Manhattan alleyway pictured above a few years ago, I immediately thought of the Brighton alleyway featured in a scene in the movie adaptation of the Who’s Quadrophenia, but more than that, I lived the scene, I started quoting dialogue from the movie under my breath, and feel how it felt watching it for the first time in a theater in November 1979 as a teenager, and every one of the dozens of times after that I’ve seen it since, or the hundreds of times I’ve played the album. Within seconds of this multi-memory flashback, I was so fully transported back in time, I almost expected to catch a much younger version of myself, awkward and angry, mirrored in a shop window.
That’s what music is about for me – transport, transcendence, transformation. One amazing piece played a million times for a million people has the ability to speak to me and touch me directly, intimately, as if no one had ever heard it before, as if I had never heard it before, and yet, it knows me, deeply and passionately. When I went Googling for an image of the real alley filmed for that movie , I was actually surprised to find so many hits, as if I were the only one who could have such a connection to this scene! Turns out, it’s famous. Fans actually go to Brighton to visit, photograph and autograph this alleyway like a shrine. One guy even filmed himself in the role of Jimmy recreating every detail down to the spinning camera angles coordinated with the music in those few moments of film! For this guy too, I suspect, the Who’s music has the power to be around him and inside him at the same time, moving him body and soul. He just had the nerve to film himself feeling what I’ve kept in my head all these years!
It isn’t just about rock n roll, the percussion that seem to come from my own heartbeat and makes it impossible not to get up and dance, the hot guitar riffs that lick my nerves like flickering fire, the wailing sax and huffing harmonica that make me want to stand in the rain with steam rising off me and howl at the moon. Blood on the Tracks. Muddy Waters. Blank Generation by Richard Hell. Music that will always understand what I have in me in a way no human being can. In the mid 90s, I had the honor of attending a performance of Mahler’s Fifth at Carnegie Hall, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Georg Solti. I had never heard the piece before. I was only just letting go of the mindset that much as I enjoyed it, classical music could never touch me like my good old rock n roll. I think I stopped breathing the second Solti raised his baton and it was at least three days before I started breathing again. Just thinking of it makes my head swim to this day, because the music was so big it literally made me dizzy. After that, cassettes of classical music started to pile up next to my rock collection.
On so many occasions, music has saved my life. Bach’s Double Concerto. Barber’s Adagio. Borodin’s Nocturne. To know that there was such truth and beauty in existence, even at times my own life seemed false and ugly, made a rejection of life impossible. I remember walking along Central Park one afternoon many years ago, lost in dark thoughts, feeling quite dead inside and detached from everything around me as if I were sleepwalking. I approached a sidewalk vendor with tables full of cassette tapes in boxes and two small portable speakers from which, slow and quiet, yet cutting through the noise of a busy city street, emerged a sound unlike any I had heard before. It was Albinoni’s Adagio and it perfectly echoed my movement and my mood. I stood there glued to the spot for the entire piece, 9 or 10 minutes long. As I write this, I can feel that same sense of simultaneous paralysis and utter liberation. I can feel the gray hexagonal cobblestones under my feet, smell the strange blend of urban and natural smells from the traffic of 5th Avenue on one side and the park on the other, and how isolated I felt, yet how welcome, as this mournful music walked me away from darkness and into something bright and beautiful. To know that one human spirit was capable of creating this thing and delivering it across centuries to another human spirit just at the moment they were needing to receive it, made humanity not such a bad thing. I bought the tape that day, and as long as there are cassette players, that’s the version I will always play, and I will always be standing in that spot on the cobblestones when I hear it.
The Conquest of Technology
I recently acquired an MP3 player. When away from my home musical system, which consists of a radio/tape/disc player the size of a toaster, a long extension cord for my headphones and a lot of old cassette tapes and CDs, I had been using a Discman in public that made people laugh at the old fart playing music on what looked like a wired frisbee. I admit, it’s cool to have dozens of my favorite albums carried in my pocket and ready to be heard anytime anywhere, but in general the whole idea of a portable sound system is a bit redundant to me and seems only really useful to block out outside noise. There is already a vast musical library burned into my brain made up of the thousands of albums that have become part of me over the years, to the point where certain conversations provoke just the right song quote, and certain situations trigger the mental playing of entire albums. I sometimes forget what I was intending to do by the time I get to the other end of the apartment, but I can still recite all the lyrics to “American Pie” and recently played both Tommy and Exile on Main Street in their entirety in my head during the second half of a marathon which required a little good old fashioned rock fuel to get my fighting spirit back in those last hard miles. Dr Jimmy and Mr. Jim propelled me across the finish line and I didn’t know whether to cry, hug, or kick someone!
Not that everyone has to serve a dual or triple muse, but I think it can only enrich the creative spirit if you can feel creativity in different ways through all your senses. After all, past centuries not only valued but required a working knowledge of some aspect of all the arts to be considered a well-rounded individual, something we’ve lost in modern times with so much specialization. I think it’s interesting that many of the artists I’ve met here on Blogger have a strong connection with music, either because they play, or are lifelong fans, or include the occasional music video or audio clip in their blogs that fits perfectly with, and enhances their other content. As deeply connected as I feel to music just listening to it, I cannot even imagine the pleasure of holding an instrument and making it sing. I think it’s enough that when I listen to my favorite music, I feel as if I am an instrument, held, and singing.