How I got this way… about music

When I was growing up, the music in the background of my life was comedy and novelty records courtesy of Dr. Demento, which in turn was courtesy of my father. Songs like “Fish Heads”, “The Existential Blues”, and “We Will All Go Together When We Go” filled my head. If you asked seven-year-old me who my favorite musician was, I’d answer with the only one I could name… Weird Al Yankovic. Through repetition I wore out the cassette of Weird Al’s album Dare to be Stupid. Music was something that made me laugh, that I could sing along to. I knew “serious music” was out there, but I didn’t pay attention to it until i was about ten years old.

The car radio was always tuned to Oldies, that genre of light rock and pop classics from the childhood years of The Baby Boomers. It was upbeat, inoffensive, and predictable, whimsy without the overt humor of novelty songs. I got to know the artists, very gradually… Elvis, the Beatles, the Supremes, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, and so on. But after many many years of listening to Golden Oldies, it got too repetitive and too predictable. I knew there was more out there, that the musical development of our culture wasn’t entirely bounded by 1955 and 1975. I was ready to start exploring.

It was my mother who first took me back in time. She taught me about two genres: country and big band. Glenn Miller became the representative of music prior to the Boomer revolution. If golden oldies were saccharine lollypops, then big band was maple syrup… still sweet but with a liquid sweetness used as a topping on top of something to chew on. And by country, I don’t mean the Garth Brooks variety of country, the kind you hear today that differs from rock and roll only by vocal accents. No, I mean the kind that you might have heard prior to 1960, dominated by bluegrass and singing cowboy varieties. I heard the simple sounds of Flatt & Scruggs, and the western swing of Asleep at the Wheel. Mom’s musical legacy to me was to appreciate the sounds of the past.

Dad took me into the future instead, serving as my guide to the genres that came after the golden oldies. The style called Classic Rock crept into my life. The lyrics became more challenging and abstract. The guitars got heavier and the drums got louder. Tambourines were replaced by bassists. Fun was replaced by rebellion. i hit all the obvious ports of call frequented by all the classic rock radio stations: Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Black Sabbath. Dad’s favorite form was southern rock, which blended well with the old-time country stuff I heard with Mom. Dad took me forward in pop music up until 1980.

My parents also had a few genres that they could agree on, and those have stuck on me the strongest. One by one they came into the home as cassettes. Because of them, I lost myself in the concept albums of the Alan Parsons Project. I still listen to Alan Parsons’s works today, and I’ll probably still be doing so fifteen years from now. I became a second generation fan of Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian balladeer with a voice like a saxophone who sang of shipwrecks and railroads, simple living and the mystery of love. Jimmy Buffett’s colorful world offered alternating carnivale and wistfulness, and his album “Fruitcakes” hasn’t left my head since. And for about two years, our Saturn’s tape deck was always looping the same cassette of James Bond movie themes.

I grew up with all of that. We didn’t own a CD player until I bought one myself in 1995, years after I had been gifted with my first CD. The first genre I explored on my own was jazz, thanks to our local NPR station. My high school English teacher gave me a respect for classical, especially Mozart. The cool kids around me were listening to Smashing Pumpkins, the Wallflowers, Oasis, and Pearl Jam, but I didn’t pay attention. I never got into my generation’s music at the time. I never had a phase of teenage rebellion. No, I was loyal and obedient, and I left for college uninitiated in punk rock, grunge, techno, the entirety of the Eighties, and anything made by black people within my lifetime.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Between first and twelfth grade, I had a small but influential circle of friends. We had bonded over shared experiences with novelty songs like Weird Al and Dr. Demento. We’d all read the same Far Side cartoons, seen the same Monty Python sketches, and read the same sci-fi novels. We all had the same appreciation for older music styles, and were equally ignorant of current stuff. That all changed when we got to high school. Benny Goodman and Johnny Cash were replaced by Rob Zombie and The Prodigy. They had undergone complete turnarounds in listening tastes in a short time, while I plowed ahead in the rut of the familiar. Their tastes eluded me at the time, but it did steel my nerves for college.

During my freshman year (and my senior year of high school, too), Napster and P2P MP3 sharing was turning the music industry inside out. It was the perfect time to sample and explore genres I had never heard of before. I made up for lost time by getting to know the style stupidly known as “alternative”… whatever that meant. I sought out The Pixies, Weezer, Pavement, REM, and Marcy Playground. I dove headfirst into modern electronica… techno, trance, house, drum-n-bass, and trip hop. I loved electronica! Finally, a musical genre that sounded like the future! I couldn’t get enough Paul van Dyk, Squarepusher, Plaid, and 808 State. My parents had planted one of my feet in the past, and it firmly remains there to this day. But on my own choosing I planted the other foot firmly in The Future.

I’ve attended a few concerts over the years, too. The first one I remember was at the county fair. Dad and I braved heavy rain in our clammy vinyl ponchos to hear Ray Stevens. A year or two later, the county fair presented surf rock duo Jan & Dean. We went back for Steppenwolf, Blood Sweat & Tears, and REO Speedwagon. I got to see Gordon Lightfoot with my mother around 1998, and I saw him again with my fiancee in 2005. I’ve seen live retro acts Michael Buble and my personal favorite The Squirrel Nut Zippers.

My favorite music today is retro swing and downbeat electronica. Because of my love for music from the past, the swing revival movement of the late Nineties hasn’t died for me, and probably never will. i have many old favorites that i continue to enjoy to this day, and will take with me into my future.

I never did enjoy punk, grunge, heavy metal, or rap. One thing that most genres that rub me the wrong way have in common, and the one thing that will turn me off of a song immediately, is raw aggression and bravado. I’ve always been a mellow and calm person, and music that is angry and laced with frothing testosterone is something I’ve always tried to avoid. Life has enough bitterness in it; it doesn’t need more rage.

As I prepare to become a father in January, I’m becoming more aware of my musical tastes, and how my parents influenced mine. It will be my turn now, to share with my own children the music that I find worthwhile. I will have to be the responsible parent and filter my music for young ears and young minds, but it’s one of those areas in my life that I look forward to guiding a new person through. That and gaming, of course!

So, parents out there… how did your children absorb your musical tastes? Did they reject your influence, give you a new appreciation for something you’ve loved, or teach you anything new?

Nifty Wikipedia Thing: Langton’s Ant

Movies I’ve Seen:

THX-1138 (1971) ~ clinical dystopia run by hypochondriacs

Diner (1982) ~ I still don’t get it.

What I’m Reading:
“The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde (which has been totally awesome so far!)


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