musical education

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.

a musical education #01: need

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?

I'm not sure quite how well known Anne Murray is in the United States, but given that the 'Snowbirds' nickname for Canadian tourists is derived from the Anne Murray song, I imagine she's something of a lost household name down there. Although she hasn't released much music in the last decade, her hold on the Canadian imagination is still strong - some might even say relentless. But it's a Canadian relentlessness, a death grip that feels more like a friendly hand steadying itself on your shoulder. That's Anne Murray to me.

I also have a claim to fame regarding Murray: at the age of one or thereabouts, I sat on her knee. You might even say she dandled me upon that knee.

When I was young and unable to appreciate my great fortune at being able to wear diapers, my parents went to their fair share of parties. Their friends were the Halifax bohemian set: musicians, artists, liberal arts grad students and a guy named Bob who was pretty funny. Back in 1971-72, just when Anne Murray was becoming a celebrity by singing barefoot in Vegas with her unremarkable but smooth and controlled voice, she and my parents shared enough of an orbit that occasionally I would land on her knee for a good dandling.

The bathroom at work occasionally serenades me with me an Anne Murray tune or two. Most often it is her biggest hit: 1978's "You Needed Me".

By 1978 the sweetness that Murray brought to her performances had been shellacked over with a hard professionalized shell. "You Needed Me" is not only her most popular tune, it is emblematic of the very notion behind easy listening music: unchallenging, anodyne, utterly average. What else can you say about a song so literal-minded that the highest note of the chorus lands on the word "high?" Or a song whose climax occurs with the singer so "high" that she can "almost see eternity?" This is an implicitly Christian song, after all - why wouldn't the singer want to see eternity in all its splendor? Why go so close to the summit and turn back?

Part of this is grounded in an approach to the divine that can be found in Dante - the narrator of the Divine Comedy ascends the mountain of Heaven but is blinded by light at the moment that God appears. Presumably eternity and its God-shaped landscape is reserved for the dead, or at least the Elect of the dead. But I suspect the answer is a good deal more prosaic. Murray is a choir for that brand of worship whose apotheosis rests in the cozy feeling of being needed and reassured.

For those of you reading this on my Facebook feed, please visit my website at The Palinode to view the Anne Murray video.

a musical education

Modern technology has done plenty for my work environment – advances in the microprocessor, for example, have helped me use the computer I am now typing on, and the replacement of small open fires with the heated electric plate has really brought the coffee break into the twenty-first century. In ancient times, coffee breaks used to take weeks, from the gathering of brush to the selection of a good rock for grinding the beans, and most of the employees would be dead of rickets by the time the water boiled.

One thing modern technology has not done for my workplace is put a bathroom in it. That’s right: lousy design trumps the best minds of the last thirty centuries. I’m certain that if I brought Socrates around on a tour of my offices, the first thing he would have said is, “Who’s the Einstein that forgot to put a bathroom in here?” That’s a Socratic question, by the way. So don’t answer it unless you enjoy the smugness of dead philosophers.

Actually, the first words out of his mouth would have been in ancient Greek, and they’d have been less words and more an unhinged scream at the sight of a photocopier in action. But that’s a story for another day. When one of us civilized twenty-first century types wants to go the bathroom – let’s use me as an example – I need to leave my office and enter the adjoining hotel lobby, where I can use the spacious men’s washroom on the mezzanine, which is well-lit, crawling with swine flu and populated by guys who clearly have nowhere better to hang out than a public toilet.

There’s the guy with the goatee and the little leather jacket who stands in front of the sinks like a washroom attendant in an old William Friedkin film. There’s the guy in the Tilly hat and navy knee socks who appears to have turned the end stall into an office. And then there are all the guests and conventioneers, the nametags resting on beer bellies, the occasional Shriner fez or rented tux passing through, the ones who wash their hands compulsively or don’t wash at all, the ones who grunt like wounded animals in the stalls, the ones who can’t work the hand towel dispenser, and worst of all, the ones who inexplicably choose the urinal right next to yours.

And then there’s me, the guy standing very still in the middle of it all holding up his cell phone. I must creep everyone the hell out.

Why am I doing it? I’m trying to catch the name of the song they’re piping in. The same music is unreeling in the lobby, but in that airy space it thins out to a kind of sonic puff of freshener. In the bathroom, the muzak is concentrated. You can feel the force of its intent: to force you into a state of mind where you just want to take it easy. And of course, Dan Fogelberg’s Jackson Browne's breeziest of breezy tunes, Take It Easy, is always in the rotation.

The songs I hear two or three times fit roughly into the subgenre of 1970s folk-rock, the kingdom that John Denver rules. They are songs that exist just to the left of my childhood, familiar but slightly distant (I grew up on bands like The Beatles until I jumped straight to Duran Duran and their ilk in the early eighties). I recognize the tunes but rarely know the lyrics, and the names of the artists call up vague recollections at best.

So: I figured I would acquaint myself with the easy listening gods and goddesses of the '70s, with the invaluable help of my iPhone and the Midomi app, which is capable of listening to a snippet of song and returning reams of information.

Next post then: I will tell you about the music of the hotel bathroom, which plays for everyone, whether it's me with my phone or the guy with the Tilly hat in the stall at the end of the row.