Thursday, September 4, 2008

Truth & Reconciliation

The theme of musical heroes set in early in the Hero Worship theme and it's got me thinking about the way a "music taste" is constructed over years and how that thing, a taste in music, is actually a bogus conceit. I reckon I acquired my "music taste" at an age where everything about me was defined in opposition to what I was not or by what I aspired to be. Such a molten identity - and yet the notion of having a tangible taste that was hermetically sealed (though admission into which was possible if accompanied by a signed reference from John Peel and my elder brother) seemed wholly logical and remains hard to shift.

It's easy now to say that the punk, reggae and new wave that sparked my obsession with music, the blues and soul and jazz that came to define my musical universe, and the hip-hop that subsequently became a passion, all mingle together and with other genres as happily within me as they do on the shuffle feature of my iPod, or in conversations with the RR crowd. But if they do so, it's come after a process that, in my mind, resembles the procedures of the Truth and Reconciliation committee in post-apartheid South Africa. Below are three exhibits: Exhibit A follows on from steenbeck's Donald Byrd discussion as the most eloquent explanation of why this jazz fan came to embrace hip-hop; Exhibit B is an example of a record I would have told myself I hated when it was out, but which has always stubbornly made a play for my affections in defiance of the company it would keep there; Exhibit C is a track that isn't necessarily the greatest piece of music ever recorded, nor indeed the only song anyone should ever bother listening to, except whenever I hear it and find it impossible to deny either proposition. There could have been more exhibits - the point is that I don't think I possess a "taste in music" anymore, just that I'm made up of thousands of musical narratives like these.

Blimpy's idea of a record for each of your record-buying years brought this into focus. What, for example, would I have put for 1979 that would be closest to the truth - The Jam's version of Heatwave, say, which consciously or otherwise prepared the ground for the digging into soul history I still do thirty years later; or something by The Police, whom I know I idolised at the time (until about 1980) but who now just don't do anything for me. Was I labouring under a false consciousness at the time - like those pro-apartheid South Africans whose censored media and privileged lifestyles prevented their innate humanity from connecting with the suffering carried out in their interests? When I became immersed in jazz and resolute that the status of the music, and all Black music, was historically undermined by imperialism and institutional racism, a corollary was that certain of my past musical heroes were, if not dead to me, then in need of a sort of cultural forgiveness. The Jam, Joy Division and Blondie were waved through; The Clash too, but with songs like Train In Vain taking pride of place where Complete Control had been before; Ian Dury emerged as a figure, more relevant than before, who'd been introducing me to Acid Jazz years before Gilles Peterson thought up the term; The Pogues got the odd tune like Rainy Night In Soho through but had to leave the main body of their work behind; The Smiths' reconciliation process was one of the longer ones; U2 never made it. I'm not so hung up about any of this now but I wonder if others have put their own musical heroes through similar processes.

All we have are our narratives. Now I look back, I know there was no Damascene moment that turned me onto any of the genres of music around which most of my listening coalesces. It barely happens with individual acts - there are always odd cases where I can remember a particular name exploding into hero status through hearing them on the radio (Swamp Dogg), taking an almost random chance with one of their records (Sonny Criss) or seeing them live (Curtis Mayfield), but it's largely a combination of influence, incremental increase in affection, or freeing oneself up to admit that, whatever my 13/17/21/25-year-old self may have said about all this, I Love This Music.

11 comments:

steenbeck said...

Good post, May1366. I'll have to marinate on it a bit--lots of ideas. I liked the Stetsasonic and the Martha and the Vandellas. The Rainbow, however....

CB said...

Interesting stuff. I did have my moment on the road to Damascus when I first heard reggae- Bob Marley Live. However I know that in comparison to many people on this blog my music knowledge is very limited and very main stream apart from a few detours ('My Friend the Chocolate Cake' anyone?) I have never really analysed the reasons behind my taste. My older brother ceased to be an influence when I was about 17. In fact I probably never really got into Led Zeppelin because he already was. The NME probably played a big part in forming it in the late 70s. Or maybe it dictated it rather more than forming it and I freed myself from its influence when I left London. Like all these things - can we ever really know what made us who we are?

DaddyPig said...

I'll give the Stetsasonic a listen tomorrow while catching up with the day on RR. Good to have hip-hop recommendations from a jazz lover. 'Heatwave' is a great great choice, irresistible.

My first ever album purchase was Deep Purple's 'Machine Head' in 1972, aged 10 - I was into metal pre-adolescence, but went off it and never really got Rainbow.

But the point is well made about personal narratives 'trumping' coherence and logic in our likes and dislikes. For this reason, I can't stand the "if you like X then you'll love Y" school of music journalism. And it certainly helps to explain those 'guilty pleasures' that one can't help liking when we know we shouldn't ! Mine is probably Shaky and Bonnie doing "Rocking Good Way" (did I say that out loud ?!).

May1366 said...

Ha! Just to confirm - SYBG is the alpha and omega of my relationship with Rainbow. I couldn't even name you another of their songs. It's like eating the worm in the bottle of Mescal: I'm perfectly happy to have done it once; not too bothered that I'll have to settle for Marmite again on my toast in the morning.

Blimpy said...

Great post, may.

Incidentaslly, this was post 1000, had the 81 or so abandoned drafts been published....

snadfrod said...

I totally agree with the above comments - its a great post 1366.

I read it yesterday and digested it a bit. Now I've just read it again and I think you express the central point very eloquently - none of us is the finished article, we are all only an ongoing accumulation of influences, forays and exceptions, loosely tied to a central mast which was probably defined long before we were ever aware of it.

I know that I, in doing Blimpy's task, very much tried to put in records that were huge for me AT THAT TIME and left out others that have become much bigger since (so no Mogwai, Okkervil River, Afghan Whigs etc), in order to try and see it in context. What I realised, of course, is that whilst whatever else flys around may be from a wide array of genres and eras, the central column will always just be things that happen to tick my very specific, personal set of boxes. Its such a tricky thing to try and define, especially if we resist defining our selves in opposition to other things, but i think some of the comments this week have been fascinatingly revealing and fun to read, so thankyou all.

@blimpy - so does that mean that we are now about 80 shy of the official grand? Woo hoo!

DaddyPig said...

Cheers for the Stetsasonic, made it a little easier going through the 'But what do we mean by history' discussion just now.

When did you see Curtis Mayfield ? I saw him at Ronnie Scott's in the mid-80s (remember the gig very fondly but not quite when it was !). Part of the narratove there - apart from the beauty of the music - is that one feels like a better person for liking him !

May1366 said...

First time was in 1986 at the Mountford Hall in Liverpool University during my first year as a student there. That's possibly the tour you recall. Anyway, I had the slightest and vaguest awareness of his music before going to see him, mainly buoyed by my friends' enthusiasm. Once he got on stage, though - man, did it all start to come together! Absolutely with you on feeling a better person, daddypig - I just remember feeling cradled throughout the gig in this impossibly benign state of joy and goodwill that almost transcended the music, apart from the vocals, the silken guitar chords from Curtis, and the percussive fireworks from Master Henry Gibson.

A bunch of us went over to see him again at the Manchester Apollo in '88/89, an altogether funkier sensation as we were all dedicated rare groove dancers by then, but no less uplifting.

One of the thoughts I had but didn't write about Road to Damascus moments was about the near-misses in these narratives. For instance, I remember seeing the Last Poets on some London Weekend Television programme when I was in the sixth form at school and wanted to go and see them at the Brixton Ritzy the following Friday, but couldn't persuade any of my mates to go because we were already committed to seeing Billy Bragg the week after that. And then there's the John Peel link on a tape I compiled of stuff on his show, that talks about the last song played, that I'd recorded, and then introduces So Much Trouble In My Mind by Sir Joe Quartermain...before I slam on the Pause button to lie in wait for Strawberry Switchblade or some-such.
Of course, subsequently, both that song and the Last Poets became favourites but it's a nice Sliding Doors type game to play about how sooner one might have got hipper to what now fills one's listening life.

treefrogdemon said...

and I'm absolutely with you on SYBG, May.

I know some of my own musical passions have come about completely by accident. What was it about the Observer review of The Freewheelin Bob that inspired a 14-year-old girl to fork out 30 bob for it, unheard, in 1963? I know what it was with the ISB - it was the picture on the cover of their first album, with all those strange instuments. Luckily I was in HMV in Oxford Street at the time and I asked them to play it for me...my mother was seriously unimpressed when I arrived home with a zircon-and-silver ring I'd bought at the Antiques Supermarket and a record by a peculiar-looking set of hippies, instead of the sensible boots I'd said I was going to buy. But what the hell, it was my money.

I lost the ring years ago, but I still have the record.

TracyK said...

I too found it a very thought-provoking post and have been mulling it over all today. Taste is so mutable, isn't it? I've found myself very influence by the suggestions of friends, for example, I would never have heard of the Doors in 1989, if it hadn't been for a friend liking them enormously. At the time I thought they were wonderful, but as I've grown older, I can see the self-importance. As a 19 year old, Morrison sounded so deep! About the same time I was listening to a lot of The Smiths, influenced by a boy that I thought was wonderful (and again, the benefit of hindsight...), but I mainly saw the things that appealled to a teenage me, the doominess, the melodrama, the the-world-is-just-too-much-ness. Now, I can see the humour and the tongue wedged firmly in cheek.
I was a very ugly duckling in my teens, my time at uni was full of self-doubt the cheerlessness of being unloved, but in my early 20s I suddenly blossomed into something approximating handsomeness, rather than being pretty, and I found this vast reservoir of confidence inside me. It coincided with the Bay opening and the alternative music scene having a space in Aberystwyth. First time I ever heard Sheela-na-Gig and Screamager, at deafening volume: so many Damascene moments in that dank basement! This is the start of my own taste in music, rather than being a magpie of other people's choices. Friends can still influence me, but most of my friends have very similar tastes to mine now, as I met so many of them through music. I find I have less time to make the effort to find good new music, but am blessed that Jon is so passionate. Every month he cherrypicks all the new music he has heard and puts a mix on my MP3 player, and he's very good at knowing exactly what I like.
I know where my 'taste' comes from. Couldn't stand Led Zep cos dad loved it (fraught relationship there!) and loved Motown and Stax cos mum loved it. Got folk from my taciturn hippy uncle, got The Cure from my first love, got psche from my ex, but I gave him Northern Soul, so fair do's...

ejaydee said...

Very interesting post May. I've tried to put these thoughts in word for a long time, but always failed. Some will always get a pass (and my money for their albums), some are put in the holding pen, but there are few outright rejections.
Anyway, I'm happy about my musical narrative, maybe wished I had more of an open mind during the early teenage years, but hey, maybe I wouldn't be the opposite now.