Thursday, April 7, 2022

My twenties; or, minor regrets

I'm teaching a class in Writing Arts Criticism this semester, and for one essay the students wrote about music—any artist, album, song, video, anything that turned them on and that they wanted to know more about, get inside of. (Among our texts was Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love, which a third of the students dug, a third rolled their collective eye at, and a third despised, which felt about right.) It's been a pleasure not only to read their work but to be exposed to a handful of artists with whom I was wholly unfamiliar, or knew only by reputation or, worse, held narrow biases against. In the best classes I'm learning, too.  

One lesson has been an unhappy reminder of my blinkered musical tastes when I was in college. My students have remarked that in the age of streaming, they're exposed to so much, encouraging the cultivating of a wide-ranging taste, yet the vast music collection to which we all have access now has only encouraged genre-biases and territory-staking; it seems that the number of echo chambers are virtually uncountable. Nearly forty years later, I can palpably feel the the thrill of sampling the new LPs and 45s that arrived weekly at the tiny offices of WMUC, the radio station at the University of Maryland where for three years in the mid-80s I had a show, enduring various time slots. I also recall the stiff resistance I put up to certain bands and songs that weren't in my wheelhouse, which then, as now, was planted firmly in 1960's and '70s guitar-based rock and roll, garage rock, R&B, and punk. 

I had a standing joke in the 80s, unfunny to most, that the only bands that could drive me out of a bar were the Cure and the Smiths, two groups I couldn't stand and yet whose rabid fans—among them some of my best friends—I'd eye enviously as they lost themselves on the dance floor. Less smug and narrow-minded now than I was at twenty-one, twenty-two, I have clearer purchase on what I was instinctively rebelling against then. It wasn't that I couldn't relate to what I heard as the moodiness, affected doom, and sighing melancholy in these and other like bands; the problem was that I related too much. I had the voices of Robert Smith and Morrissey running in my head all day long; the words weren't theirs, but the edgy, disconsolate tone was theirs, a tormenting, claustrophobic ennui that I fought against in my worst moments. I didn't want to hear that on the dance floor, have my inner thoughts amplified; I wanted to get away from that, leave my head and body, exchange my depressiveness, self-doubt, and hyper self-consciousness for the grins and good times of rock and roll. Beers and barre chords! Riffs and hooks! (I ended up writing a 420-page book about one of those bands I loved.) Echo and the Bunnymen's "Bring on the Dancing Horses" might've sounded great at Cagney's or Back Alley Cafe, but it was the Godfathers who raised the roof for me, and in whom I found an urgent sense of purpose. There was a reason why I was teased at 'MUC as the guy who played The Knack (including tracks off of their third album) and The Slickee Boys more often than say, Siouxsie and the Banshees or New Order. Even when I did spin songs that soundtracked my inner dejection, they were usually sung by R.E.M. Rain Parade, or Pop Art—never too far from jangle.

I sought out manifestations of my complicated moods instead in books and art, Joyce and Eliot and Franz Kline and Joan Mitchell, and on long walks in the then-decrepit Old Downtown in Washington, D.C.. My morose reflection was cast back at me most graphically in my art history, literature, and philosophy courses, where in the quiet of reading, or in the endless stacks at the campus library, I could stoke my melancholy and self-pity across the centuries. Though I've never warmed to the metronomic "Blue Monday," my distaste for the song in my twenties blocked a rightful appreciation I ought to have felt then for Joy Division, another band who I resisted at the threshold, fearful of how swiftly they might invade. Of course, back then I hadn't really listened to the Cure or the Smiths, to Bauhaus or Coctueau Twins or for matter much of what I'd overheard or read was Gothic—childishly, I wouldn't let myself. We forgive a lot for youth and yet it turns out, of course, that the Smiths were a great guitar band all along! Johnny Marr's trippy vibe in support of Morrissey's emotionally nakedness was sadly beyond my ken when I was twenty, putting me at odds not only with my friends but with pop culture, and history. If I'd only looked through my beers more closely at the dance floor I'd have seen guys and girls rejoicing and identifying, in their authentic way—in a foreign language, sure, one I was too petulant or cowardly to try and learn. But the release on their sweaty faces and in the limbs transcended language, as great music does. These regrets are minor relative to others that haunt me from those years, yet I wished I'd opened up some neural pathways earlier than I did. I'm catching up. 

File all of this under A Pity I Didn't See It At The Time, a bulging, still-growing folder.

Top: Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on Light Ground), Francis Bacon, 1969. (2014 Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York/DACS, London)


G said...

OMG--I see "Dick Clark's 20 years of Rock n Roll" album in there--the first record I ever bought for myself! On Buddah. Got it at Sam Goody. Hot damn.

Joe Bonomo said...

A longtime fave of mine!

G said...

Oh, I must have missed that one--

You know, also...
I had the blinkers when I was young too. But I think it was necessary, to help forge an identity. I'm not looking for my tribe anymore (with its attendant rules & regulations), so anything goes! And I developed a jealousy of people who never had those blinkers... like people who can listen to 80s Dylan records (or whatever) and enjoy them!

And yeah, "pity I didn't see it at the time", but is it a pity really? I'm having fun "discovering" all the stuff I turned my nose up at back then.

Great post!

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, yeah, very few regrets!