Seasonal Music

Music is deeply, deeply personal.  That’s why I don’t write much about it.  There are pieces, I swear, if someone walked in to shoot me when I was listening to them I wouldn’t even notice.  This effect is amplified in autumn.  I don’t listen to music all the time.  In fact, I rarely do.  The reason is, counterintuitively, I fear that music may cease being meaningful to me.  Good things have a way of running out.  The music I like is only very slowly supplemented.  So as the clouds encroached this month, I put on some tunes and I began thinking of appropriate songs of the season.  I’ve heard attempts of more recent artists to sound spooky, but their lyrics don’t match the mood I’m seeking—remember, it’s deeply personal.  So what is autumnal music?

Despite being a fundamentalist, I was raised on rock-n-roll.  My favorite artist growing up was Alice Cooper; in fact, to this day Alice is the only secular rock artist I’ve seen in concert.  Two tracks on Welcome to My Nightmare are among those eerie autumn songs: “Years Ago,” and “Steven.”  This album was profoundly sunk in my psyche before I discovered others.  While not scary in the same way, “Brilliant Disguise” from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love hits a similar chord.  The melancholy of autumn must be appeased and this song begs to bring it on.  Many of Leonard Cohen’s songs are like the angst of this season bottled up for a restorative tincture, but I was quite a bit older when I discovered Nick Cave.

The Boatman’s Call with its willowy sound and occasionally explicit lyrics, walks that line between a deep-seated spirituality and fear.  There are others, of course, some even fairly recent.  Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” from Night Vision certainly qualifies, as do the first two tracks on Muse’s The Resistance.  But this is my list, and I fear to reveal too much.  Someone who knows your music knows very much about you.  I hear some people discuss music as if it’s a throw-away commodity.  For others of us it has become part of our souls and we’re reluctant to reveal too much.  New members of this autumn music club are added only very slowly, and I reacquaint myself with the long-term members not frequently enough to rob me of their impact.  So it was as the clouds thickened and the cold wind began to blow as the leaves were beginning to turn that I put on my personal songs of the season.  And there was transcendence, but it was, as transcendence tends to be, deeply personal.

The Sound of Musik

“Why is there so much people here?”  The words aren’t mine, but those of a random stranger I heard in Herald Square.  Not only was it grammatically offensive, I always find “much people” in Manhattan, but this was the occasion of the Pope’s visit a few years ago, so more of us were crowded into that area than normal.  It was a feeling that returned last night as my wife and I wandered around Musikfest.  If you’re not from around here, Musikfest is the largest free music festival in the United States, and it takes place in Bethlehem each summer.  Ten days of free, live music and tents hawking wares and all kinds of comestibles, as well as that strangely satisfying feeling of being lost in a crowd.  We ended up there more or less accidentally.

I was an experimental subject.  Those of you who know me will probably not find this odd, and you may well come up with many reasons to find me in the psychology department, some involving locked doors.  This was, however, a voluntary research project that required participants and it had been literally decades since I’d volunteered to be one of the “much people” who was not not part of the university crowd.  It felt good to be on a campus again.  The Lehigh Valley hosts several colleges and universities, and that draw is perhaps related to why Musikfest is held here.  When we got to town my wife realized we might have trouble parking.  Sections of downtown Bethlehem are closed to traffic and there are people everywhere.  I finished my experiment and we became part of the crowd again.

Music and religion, I’ve noted before, hang out in the same crowd.  They both have the ability to be transcendent and people seek out such experiences.  Since we hadn’t planned on attending—accidental musicologists we—we had no groups as targeted hearing while we wandered.  Mostly we marveled at the size of the event.  The city of steel transformed to the city of music.  And the religious feelings music brings.  As I walked from the college back to downtown, a couple strangers accosted me.  “Hi, brother,” they said.  “Heading to Musikfest?”  This, I realized was a congregation.  I was an unknown brother.  Music brings peace.  Dona nobis pacem, sisters and brothers.  Like those crowds a few years back hoping for a glimpse of the pontiff, an entire city had kicked off its shoes for a Friday night of potential transcendence.  Why is there so much people here?  Simply listen and you’ll have your answer.

Sixes and Sevens

Few eras conjure mental images as readily as the sixties.  As the first decade of my life, I idealize them a bit, I suppose.  I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the truly wonderful and troubling things going on around me, and being raised in a Fundamentalist family I probably couldn’t have enjoyed many of them in any case.  Morris Dickstein’s Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties was written in the seventies.  Since he’s a literary scholar much of the culture he analyzes is print culture, emphasizing the works of Jewish novelists and African-American writers.  That fits the sixties image pretty well.  He also looks at the music, but not as much as I had anticipated he might.  For me the music of the decade conveys what it really was about.

At one point Dickstein describes the political situation in the fifties that led to this incredible decade.  I had to remind myself that this was written forty years ago, for he seemed to be describing, with eerie prescience, the world of Trump and his followers.  Repressive conformity and the superiority complex of that era led to a breaking point where individual expression tumbled long-held rules and regulations that had tried to repress women and those that didn’t fit the WASP mold.  Most of us thought those controlling, catatonic days were over for good.  It seems we underestimated the will of those who lack imagination of where things might go if freedom were allowed to be free.  Some people, it seems, believed the sixties were a disease to be cured.

Historians who have a wider grasp than I do say that time has to pass before accurate pictures can emerge.  Instant potted histories tend to miss much of what becomes clear only with the slow passing of further decades.  To me the music defines them.  I only started to become culturally aware in the seventies, and that was in a small town.  When I learned to look back, largely in the eighties, I could see, and hear, that I’d lived through an extraordinary time.  The nineties, largely spent at Nashotah House, were again isolated from culture.  Who knows how this new millennium will be assessed?  Has a new music emerged that will help define us?  Or will it be, as Dickstein unwittingly projects, a new era of acceptance, love, and peace?  Or did the world really end at the millennium?   It could be, we might dare to dream, that a new decade as remarkable as the sixties is waiting to usher in Eden again.

January 2019

When January starts grinding you down you have to find something to hang onto.  See, I even ended a sentence with a preposition.  January.  If I’m not careful I can find myself getting quite depressed, so a bit of self-induced music therapy helps.  Although I hate to admit it, I am a bit of a fussy person when it comes to my likes.  My music tastes are quite personal and I mourn when a performer I like retires or dies.  There’s not a ton of stuff that I enjoy and I don’t listen to music as often as I should.  I work from home most days so I could have music on, but I find it hard to read (which is much of my job) with music playing.  Like I said, fussy.

The other day—a weekend—I pulled out John Cale’s Paris 1919.  John Cale is an underrated member of the Velvet Underground.  Okay, with Lou Reed in the lead it’s gonna be tough to stand out.  Cale, who suffers from competing with J. J. Cale (who was actually John Cale too; I empathize!), is a very thoughtful lyricist.  Despite having been abused by a priest in his youth, he sprinkles his songs with religious references.  “Andalucia” is a haunting single with the words “castles and Christians” hanging there for anyone to interpret.  And “Hanky Panky Nohow” has an intriguing line about nothing being more frightening than religion at one’s door.  There’s something profound here.

I grew up listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico when my older brother played it and the curtain door between our rooms didn’t block any sound.  The only performer I could name was Reed.  Years later, when the music of my young, virginal ears started in with a longing I couldn’t explain, I bought the album and learned of John Cale.  I have to confess that I first encountered his name as the performer of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Shrek.  It drove me nuts when ill-informed students used to say it was Rufus Wainwright; yes, he performed it on the CD, but not in the movie.  John Cale is one of those somewhat offbeat singers, who, like Nick Cave, salts his songs with images of a Christian upbringing that show a grown man clinging to something to which he somehow can’t fully commit.  It makes us who we are and then leaves us wondering.  It must be January.

October Devotee

Here it is October and I have hardly written about monsters.  Apart from the US government, that is.  I suspect that I could use a little escapism right about now, and most of the boxes are unpacked from the move.  Perhaps it’s time to watch a little horror and feel better about the world.  Monsters, you see, crop up in the most unexpected places.  Yes, in October we expect them to be crouching in dark corners and in dismal swamps as the light begins to fail.  Yet the trees are still mostly green around here and I think I might be in need of some new material.  As with most people my age, I get lost on the internet—someone needs to offer a roadmap to it.  Preferably on paper. 

I admit being stuck in the past.  As any music therapist will tell you, a person’s musical tastes often reflect the sounds of their youth, and some of us believe that rock hit its high point in the 1980s.  My work doesn’t lend itself to background music, so I seldom listen to the radio, and I wouldn’t even know what station to try to hear contemporary offerings.  Fortunately I know some people half my age who find their tunes on the internet, and I was recently introduced to Panic! At the Disco via YouTube.  I’m old enough to remember when music videos first appeared, although I never saw them.  We lived in a small town and, besides, we couldn’t afford cable.  Kids at school, however, talked about MTV and other places—there was no world-wide web then, kids!—that they had seen the latest, coolest video that I could only imagine.  When my contemporary young friends showed me “LA Devotee” by Panic! I was stunned.

If you haven’t seen it, just look up the official video on YouTube.  You’ve got the whole internet at your fingertips!  While the lyrics seem innocent enough—young person wants to make it big and so imitates the Los Angeles lifestyle—the video is horror show.  Literally.  Borrowing from M. Night Shyamalan the opening sequence is a cross between The Village and Signs.  Then it becomes a torture chamber for a young boy (from Stranger Things, no less, a show I binge-watched when it came out on DVD).  And Satanism.  Yes, taking on the LA lifestyle is compared to selling your soul to the Devil.  The stunning visuals kept me clicking the replay button.  Even as I felt my age, I also felt October growing.  And I was glad to see the monsters are still there.  Too bad we can’t banish them from DC, however.

Jericho’s Folly

The sound was compellingly familiar although it had been years since I’d heard it.  We were visiting the Quakertown farmer’s market for the first time—this weekend event is widely advertised and we were curious.  Part fresh produce, but mostly flea market, it was a tribute to my generation.  You could find stuff from my childhood years here, making it a species of time travel.  We stepped out of the car on a gray morning when I heard it.  I was drawn to it.  I’m at the age where I recognize things before I can name them.  “Where are you going?” my wife asked.  “Toward Pink Floyd,” I replied.  Music has a way of doing that to you.  It took another minute for me to place the song.  It was from the album The Wall.

After we returned home I had to hear it again, uninterrupted by the distractions of a flea market to new home owners.  It was a frightening experience in the age of Trump.  Although they’d never been my favorite band, I had a long history with Pink Floyd.  My older brother used to listen to them, and when I was working as a church intern (yes, there is such a thing) while in college, the kids in a family I was staying with took me to see The Wall on laser disc—an affluent family in the neighborhood had just bought a player, and I was curious both about the technology and the film.  The Wall is one of those concept albums that requires attention—you kind of need to listen to the whole thing.  The accusations against those who are different being sent “up against the wall” chilled me with thoughts of Trump and American fascism.  I can only listen to the album within prescribed headspace.

Even those who’ve never been sent to boarding school can imagine how it lends itself to abuses and horror.  At Nashotah House the album was almost as frequently cited as Hotel California.  When the religious isolate themselves odd things begin to happen.  On one of the occasions when I was left home alone in our New Jersey apartment, I pulled out my DVD of The Wall and began to watch it.  As the years melted away, I suddenly felt young and intensely vulnerable.  The visuals, like a little pin-prick, were jabbing at nerves a little too close to the surface.  I had to turn it off and watch a horror film instead.  It’s even scarier to listen to the album when democracy has failed its constituents.  The wall, after all, is a most protean of metaphors.

Forever Jung

A funny thing about aging is that you recollect your youth, but you find yourself less able to do the things that seemed so easy when you were more spry.  We live in a world where the elderly are coming to outnumber the young, and that means a lot of memories of “the time when.”  This thought confronted me when reading a story about two missing patients from a nursing home in Germany.  Authorities were frantic to find them until they were spotted at Wacken Open Air, the largest heavy metal fest in the world.  The news stories seemed bemused—it was cute, in a way, wasn’t it?  Two old guys trying to recapture their youth, like salmon swimming upstream where they were born.  I’ve got to wonder if there’s more to it than that.

Music has a way of touching us deeply.  While I prefer my rock on the harder side, I’m not exactly a metal-head.  There’s something, however, in the rage of metal that resonates with some of us when we get older.  It’s almost religious.  You see, I recall hearing the music from my brother’s room when I was growing up.  As a naive fundamentalist, I sometimes went downstairs shaken, as if my virginal soul had seen some image it shouldn’t have.  Some teens reach a level of maturity before others, and metal speaks to them.  Let’s face it—life is unfair.  We see that every single day.  Music can help us cope with such unfairness and there are times when John Denver and James Taylor seem downright gullible.  Ask the elderly.

Our society harbors many myths.  One of them is that evolution doesn’t occur.  Not only is it a biological fact among species, but it’s also, on a macro-level, something that happens as we age.  Perspectives shift.  We come to see the wisdom of Heraclitus—no one steps into the same river twice.  Especially when it’s Styx.  Technology keeps us alive longer now, and sometimes it seems that it does so just to tell us what we can no longer do.  I’ve got, I hope, a number of miles left on the odometer, but my focus is on the car’s stereo system.  When driving to Wacken Open Air to pick up two men trying to plug into either the rage or the euphoria that heavy metal means to the elderly what comes through your speakers?  What would the “sweet Psalmist of Israel” have wanted to hear when not even Abishag could keep him warm?  Yes, Herman, there is a wisdom that is woe.  And banging your head may not be the worst option at such times as these.