a musical education #02: freedom

Every weekday I suffer through a snippet of easy listening '70s music in the bathroom at work (read the overly elaborate setup here). Why not turn a mild annoyance into an opportunity to educate myself, and yourself, by the transitive property, about the easy listening music of an earlier generation?

In the summer of 1986 I befriended a man named Brian who lived above my uncle's apartment just off the Danforth in Toronto. Brian seemed to spend all of his time hanging around on his balcony in track shorts, drinking Molson Export and smoking John Players Special Blend cigarettes. Brian was a man in gravity's merciless grip: Bags under his eyes, the product of way too many late nights, seemed to weigh his face down, his moustache crept over the corners of his mouth, and his tanned belly drooped over his waistband in a way that was somehow disarming. When evening came he would throw on a bathrobe with a Japanese print and continue to drink and smoke into the darkness.

After a couple of evenings of waving hello, he invited me up for a party, which mostly consisted of other men who sat around shotgunning beers, smoking hash and having long gossipy conversations laden with extravagant sexual innuendo and suggestive laughter. Brian spent the night getting high, trying very hard to get me high as well, and generally wandering around with a distracted look on his face, as if he couldn't remember where he left his lighter. Mostly he was preoccupied with trying to take advantage of a teenage boy with a mohawk, but not especially bummed out that it wasn't going to happen.

At some point during the party I was flipping through his record collection (all vinyl - this was 1986, after all) and I pulled out the following:

Brian lit a fresh cigarette off the one he was smoking. "Oh yeah," he said. "That's great faggot music". He offered to put the record on for me.

I was vaguely surprised, if only because I had no idea that there was such a thing as faggot music. I couldn't imagine what it would sound like, but I knew I didn't want to make night more awkward by listening to a record by some manic-looking guy with a giant afro and suspenders.

Of course, what Brian meant by "faggot music" was disco, and what Leo Sayer sounded like was this:

[Facebook readers: please visit my weblog In Palinode's Palace to view the video]

In the mid '80s disco was probably the dirtiest word in pop culture. Never mind that most pop music at the time was produced by people who had pioneered the explosion of disco music in the '70s. Never mind that the music being pushed out of studios at that point was just as insipid as anything disco had ever come up with (with the possible exception of Disco Duck). It was just part of a greater backlash against the pan-urban gay and non-white cultures of places like San Fransisco and New York, whose ebullient tumble into hedonism made it a flashpoint for conservative anger. I didn't know any of this when I was fifteen. I just knew that I didn't like disco, and to have taken disco music seriously would have made me a pariah anyway.

Instead I listened to serious music. Angry music. I liked Joy Division, and Black Flag, and The Smiths, all the depressed bastards screaming or barking or whining their way through the broken world. My music was like shoving broken glass in my ears and sleeping under sandpaper blankets. No moment of joy came without its nihilist brother sneaking up to shake your hand. I don't recall a single song from my teenage years as uninhibitedly happy and goofy as Sayer's little slice of ass-shake. Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough" comes close, which I didn't learn to enjoy until I was well out of adolescence.