Thursday, November 18, 2010

J. Allen Holt: Musical Autobiography

“...I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like... Books, records, films -- these things matter”

As we get older, we mature. Sometimes it may look like regression, but there is a flow that shapes who we are with each preceding thing leading to the next. With the topic of music, I thought I’d take Rob Gordon’s approach to analyzing who I was and who I am now. (It’s Rob Fleming’s view I suppose if you’re more of a book-reader.)

I remember as a kid being on long car rides and my dad listening to the “Oldies” station. I hated it. I wouldn’t be shy with my opinion, as most 8-year-olds aren’t I imagine.

CCR, Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, etc., that’s what my dad listened to growing up. I know this because he had a great 8-track collection that was something that I found mesmerizing as a kid. I would love taking rides with him in his old pickup truck because it had the only player for the 8-tracks. I liked the 8-tracks themselves more than the music on them. They were something strange and different, from another era.

I held the belief at 8 that there was nothing good done before 1978, the year I was born. I was the catalyst for all things good in music (and in any other field too). What do you expect? It was the 80s. Everyone listened to awful music and wore equally awful clothes. I liked Robert Palmer for God’s sake. I can attribute that to being 7 when I saw the video for “Addicted to Love.” What was everyone else’s excuse? It was punchy, has weird girls all dressed alike playing guitars, and was extremely simple that all you ever remembered was the chorus when pressed for lyrics. I imagine that Robert Palmer concerts in the mid to late 80s were mostly populated by people under the age of 10. He knew this, right? How else do you explain the video for “Simply Irresistible”? It’s exactly the same song and video, just with brighter colors to try to ensnare more young children to replace the ones that were outgrowing his particular attraction. Kids’ music is awful, but I don’t think it’s any more awful than Robert Palmer.

The next phase of my musical life came in that pre-teen range. My friends listened to rap, so I did too. (This connection never extended to country music, even though peer influence was a consistent element for change from here on out.) I was a skinny white kid from rural Kentucky totally ensnared by Dr. Dre, Easy E, Ice Cube, and Snoop. On my 13th birthday, I got my own CD player, and the first CD I bought was the Naughty by Nature single, “OPP”.

This time in my life is when I really started to notice the overt racism in the people around me. It was not okay with them that a lot of my friends were black. This wasn’t something that began with my embracing of rap, but this was a time when I stopped treating it as normal. I didn’t suddenly dress or act differently, triggering their suppressed vitriol. Their problem with the race of the people I chose to spend time with extended back to my days of listening to my faded Slippery When Wet tape. Maybe the credit goes to the music, or just perhaps I was getting to the age where I began to question what people deemed acceptable or not?

I was called names and taunted more times than I could count before I even made it to high school. I hung out with my black friends, so I must love black people (so follows their logic). I didn’t, and still don’t, understand how that is negative. It usually made me more confused than upset. I didn’t understand why they thought the way they did. It never stopped them from taunting me, even though in my house I never was taught that particular brand of stupid. I thank my parents for being above what was most-assuredly more commonplace when they were growing up.

The rap phase of my evolution didn’t endure for long, as nothing much did at that age. I was changing a lot, and everything else was too.

Within a year or two, the grunge scene was in full effect. I wasn’t immune to its draw. It was everywhere and I was an impressionable high school kid. It was all Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Green Day for the next few years. I remember when I came to school to find out that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. It was a day that I realized that some people took this music thing really seriously. There were girls crying in my homeroom, and I had to ask to find out what happened. I couldn’t figure out how you could gain such a serious emotional attachment to someone you’d never met or, in most case, even seen in person. I acknowledged that it was sad that he died so young, but there was a separation from my level of feeling to theirs. I envied them. It’s a very special thing to get that connection with someone through their art, even if it is to end in a tragic way. I never felt that way, though, and was only an interested spectator that Friday morning.

My final major evolution in listenership came when I went to college. There was a whole big group of people to meet from different places. They’d had their own journey to their current CD collection, and we were all eager to share with each other. Dave Matthews Band was a phenomenon in the late 90s, particularly on my college campus. I still listened to the stuff from high school. Pearl Jam was still going strong, and Foo Fighters had filled in nicely in my opinion for the lack of Nirvana. I even got into new things like Ska and some classical stuff thanks to music students that I met along the way.

This is when I also started to taking a look back at the stuff my dad would play in the car on the way home from visiting my grandmother when I was a Bon Jovi-loving 8-year-old. It was good. The music from the 60s and 70s made me wish I could have grown up then like my dad did. There was so much I liked. I spent an entire day sitting on the porch with my friend listening to Bob Marley. We weren’t smoking weed, just enjoying the early fall day with Bob. The same friend was also responsible for forming my obsession with Steely Dan that came a little later.

College seems like a lifetime ago, and my musical evolution has certainly slowed down quite a bit. I still listen to new things, but it seems my frame of reference for evaluating falls back to those more formative years. What’s popular is still changing, but I’m not as fickle as I used to be. If I have kids, the CDs will probably be to them what the 8-tracks I listened to in my dad’s truck were to me, a relic of a forgotten era. I imagine that everyone has their own story of musical evolution. This one is mine.

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