Friday, September 19, 2008

Regression via Music

Courtesy of YouTube, I toured some of my earliest musical memories today. Several hours of this nostalgia is truly mind-altering. The experience is available to virtually anyone. Just plug the names of your favorite childhood bands/songs into the search box on YouTube, and let the memories wash over you. If you have a hard time drawing out these names from your failing hard drive, check out Wikipedia's list of pop hits via year.

Music is ubiquitous, but what was the first tune that really evoked something for you? For me, it was George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord". As best I can recall, I was in a YMCA van in the San Fernando Valley, on an excursion to Canoga Park. That must have been around 1970 or 71. The song is hypnotic, spiritual, trans-cultural, and boundary-breaking. If you believe in "imprinting", that one song might explain a bit of my personality.

Shortly thereafter, the family up and moved to the East Coast. My fourth grade teacher would allow students to bring their favorite 45's and play them on occasion. A few years later I'd be able to apply words like "sappy" or "pretentious" or "hollow" or "gutless" to music, but not at that time. The Partridge Family was popular, and I'd be lying if I said that some of those tunes don't still touch me. "I Can Feel Your Heartbeat" was my fave.

There were pop songs by singers/groups like the Turtles, Paper Lace ("The Night Chicago Died"), Three Dog Night ("Black and White"), Grand Funk Railroad, Looking Glass ("Brandy, You're a Fine Girl"), Tony Orlando ("Knock Three Times"), and Loudon Wainwright ("Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road") floating around the room. I wouldn't expect a 2008 pre-teen to dig that stuff...much of it lacks the dense "wall of sound" that we now expect. Too rinky-dink, too much bubblegum. Ballads, high concepts.

For whatever reason, you didn't hear the Beatles or the Rolling Stones in that room. Perhaps it just boiled down to the particular tastes of the older siblings of my classmates. Maybe it was one dominant classmate who always managed to get his K-Tel hit album pushed to the front of the cue. Don't recall.

One song that holds up really well, though, is the Raspberries' "Go All the Way". Up to today, I had thought the title was "Don't Go Away". Try not to get hung up on the early 70's fashion and mannerisms:

That clip was from the "Mike Douglas Show". There's a longer version of the clip on Youtube where the band meets Billy Jean King, fresh off her whipping of Bobby Riggs, following the performance. Issues of race and gender permeated the culture. Hell, you can even find a YouTube clip of the entirely un-controversial Partridge Family playing "I Think I Love You" under a "Woman Power" banner.

As I write, I've segued into the Partridge Family's "Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque". For quite a while, my 9 year old brain (and a very naive 9 year old brain at that) interpreted the song as an ode to Thanksgiving..."Point Me in the Direction of Our Turkey". Anyway, I can't say I dislike it. The lyrics are derivative in the sense that every other songwriter was already tinkering with the theme of hopping into a bus or a car or a train, or hitchhiking, with or without a dog, and sucking in the grandeur of the USA. What happened to those tunes? Gas prices, I guess.


Now, fast-forward through progressive rock, disco, punk, new-wave, grunge, etc., to Bangkok in the mid-90's. It's odd how certain tunes find popularity here in Southeast Asia, when it eludes them in their countries of origin. Everyone here knows "Love Me Love My Dog" by Pete Shelley. Dig it up. Lobo is popular ("Me and You and a Dog Named Boo", "I'd Love You to Want Me"). Have you heard Dan Fogelberg's "Sutter's Mill"? A lot of Thais have.

Another song that met some success in Southeast Asia was "Knife" by a dude who went by the name "Rockwell". He'll be remembered as a "one hit wonder" in the States for his "Somebody's Watching Me", with Michael Jackson singing backup. He's also the son of Motown founder Berry Gordy. "Knife" is a tender, heartfelt, tuneful breakup deserved some success back home.

With a cassette of these Southeast-Asia-only hits playing endlessly in the background, my (ex) girlfriend Noina and I spent a tearful night together. I had to fly back to the States, and couldn't say when I'd return. The lights were off, all words exhausted, but neither of us could sleep. We just snuggled, all sweaty in a one room apartment with no air-conditioning. Thus these tunes, composed in the 70's and early 80's, were stamped in my brain in the 90's. Hearing them in 2008, memories of those feelings, that time, and that place come flooding back.

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