Monday, October 15, 2018

Learning a secret language

In the prologue to The Mansion on the Hill, his deeply researched and absorbing book about the intersection of music and commerce, writer and reporter Fred Goodman describes high school summers in the early 1970s when he toiled in a kitchen in a camp in the Poconos, "dirty work but a great paying gig at sixty dollars a week." There wasn't a lot to do during the long evenings; sometimes he and his buddies would drive the two or so hours into Manhattan, where'd they likely be served in the bars. But usually they stayed put in the mountains and engaged in age-old behavior. "We’d just sit around the dilapidated shack we lived in behind the kitchen, getting loaded on whatever we could lay our hands on and listening to records. Among eight guys there were four stereos and over two thousand albums in that bunk: the bare necessities required for two months away from civilization. Music—rock and roll—was far and away the most discussed topic. (Girls and drugs were tied for second.)"
As great as the music was, the ongoing conversation was really about something more than solos and songs. Listening to rock and roll was learning a secret language. There was something conveyed by the attitude of the bands and their records that stood apart from the music, and the way you spoke that language told people how you felt about the world. When you first met someone, the conversation turned immediately to music because once you knew which bands a person listened to, you knew if you were going to get along. 
It was a lot like administering a psychological test. First you’d check to see if the basic language was there—the Beatles, the Stones, and the British Invasion bands; Motown and Stax; the San Francisco groups; Dylan. After that, you’d probe special interests for signs of sophistication or character flaws. For instance, a passion for a perfectly acceptable but lightweight group like Steppenwolf showed a certain genial rebelliousness but suggested a lack of depth; a girl who listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell could probably be talked into bed but you might regret it later; a single-minded focus on the Grateful Dead and the New Riders of the Purple Sage was a sure sign of a heavy dope smoker; anyone with a record collection that traced the blues further back than John Mayall and the Yardbirds was an intellectual. It was, I recall, a remarkably accurate system.

For many years I'd begun each semester by asking my students to fill out an index card with their name, email, phone number. etc. And I'd always ask them to list whatever song they were singing to themselves as they walked to class that day. You could make a song up if you have to, I said, but I'm pretty sure you were humming a tune as you walked to class. Their responses more or less broke down the same across the years: always surprisingly high number of "classic rock" songs, a lot of indie bands and hip hop, the previous summer or fall's indelible Big Hit, a local "my boyfriend's" or "my girlfriend's" band or three, occasional classical or jazz, an occasional song or band I'd never heard of. One or two students would cheekily admit that there were singing a song that they'd written, or try to stump me. I'm pretty sure some of them did make up a song.

I stopped this practice a few years back, regretfully. I hadn't really needed to collect info cards for a while anyway in the digital age, yet I'd come to prize this glimpse into my students' music tastes, overhearing their interior mix tapes that scored their walks around campus and down hallways. Now, I try and eavesdrop on their conversations before and after class when they get down to talking about what they're listening to, what they love or hate. I should maybe bring back my old-school index cards and the secret language my students' songs spoke.

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