Lent 2013, Entry 14

I’m in a strange phase for me right now in that I’m reading four books at the same time. This is NOT my normal pattern. I’m a stack-on-the-nightstand kind of guy. The book on top gets read, shelved, then on to the next book. I started a book on the city of Detroit’s decline, a book about church trends, a book about the transcendence of God and the stack is still growing. I couldn’t wait to dive into all of them so now I’m in chapter 3 of 4 different books.

Anyway, one of the books is by the lead singer of the band The Talking Heads, David Byrne. I loved his previous one titled The Bicycle Diaries and then I was given his latest release How Music Works as a gift (shouts out to the higher-order life-liver sister Jilly & barnstorming brother-in-law Shane) and I was like a kid at Christmas, reading the introduction before I set it down after taking it out of the cardboard box with the smiley face logo on it…and ran across this little thought provoking quote:

Early on, though, I realized that the same music placed in a different context can not only change the way a listener perceives that music, but it can also cause the music itself to take on an entirely new meaning. Depending on where you hear it–in a concert hall or o the street–or what the intention is, the same piece of music could either be an annoying intrusion, abrasive and assaulting, or you could find yourself dancing to it. How music works, or doesn’t work, is determined not just by what it is in isolation (if such a condition can ever be said to exist) but in large part by what surrounds it, where you hear it and when you hear it.

I started thinking about that section of the quote about when & where you hear a song affects your perception of it, and I came up with a top-5 list of songs that I have a wildly different perception of and why:

Sweet Home, Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Granted, this song is the national anthem of Alabama and growing up there, well, you hear the song played by everyone who picks up a guitar to seemingly endless versions of the Lynyrd Skynyrd album cut…so I have plenty of examples where I loved it and hated it. By far and away, my favorite times hearing that song were at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center arena when the Birmingham Bulls skated onto the ice at the beginning of each period. The minute the first guy’s skate hit the ice the lights went down, the opening riff played and people waved Confederate battle flags attached to the business end of hockey sticks and went nuts. There was such a pride in that true Southerners were going to give the visiting Northerners (didn’t seem to matter if they were a team from Canada. Their city was located above the Mason-Dixon line, therefore, detested.) a serious whipping. The entire can. At that moment, the song seemed like such a statement.

Then, any time we return to Alabama for a vacation and wind up at a restaurant with live music, some musician at the open mike is going to play it. And he or she is very likely to monkey with the song to do their own rendition in their own style…and I’ve heard it done in bluegrass form, blues form, lounge lizard form. Oh, man. Even the locals try to be nice, but in all their minds they’re saying, “You’re not obligated to play it just because you’re in our state, man. Oh, and by the way, we have a sophisticated palette about that song, so try not to get too far from the spirit of it.”

You Dropped a Bomb on Me by The Gap Band.

I’ve mentioned before that my high school had a post-graduation tradition of the recent grads hitting the beach about 4 hours from our hometown and staying at a hotel that was kind of “tradition” (or another one about half a mile away that handled the overflow of late responders)…and what a flimsy idea it is to allow 18 & 19 year-old (with 19 being the legal drinking age at that time) recent grads an entire week unsupervised for the first time in our lives. Well, some headed down immediately after graduation night, but somehow Smitty and I had misread the graduation date or whatever and wound up going down a day later than most everybody else. He was driving since his car got WAY better mileage than mine and when he picked me up he says, “You’re going to love this, man.” He inserted a TDK cassette tape into the tape deck and the song starts playing…he laughed at my reaction, since he’d known me since 3rd grade and was well aware of my metal/punk snobbery which he knew a top-40 dance tune would set me off. He then fired off, “Driver picks the music, man. And you’ll be happy to know that this is the ONLY SONG ON THE WHOLE 90-MINUTE TAPE!!!” Yep. We listened to that song the entire 4-hours there…and any time I walked into the room and he was there, he’d walk over the jam box, push play, and made a rule that everyone had to dance until the song ended. This went on for the entire week.

Any other time before that week, I loathed the song. Now I can’t help but be drawn to the memories of everyone who happened to be in our room at the random time the “play” button was pushed, dropping what they were doing and dancing until the song ended.

Blitzkrieg Bop by The Ramones.

Heavy-metal was a gateway music for me to find punk. Somebody told me they loved this new band called “The Ramones” and they thought I’d like them, so the next time I was in a record store I grabbed it, and it’s hard to describe what happened when I put the needle on the vinyl…but when that A5, D5, A5, pause, “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!” hit my brain it felt like some sort of homecoming. Like everyone else, I’m not really sure what the obscure lyrics were saying, but whatever it was, it meant something. Anger, maybe. Frustration, maybe. Misfits, maybe. But it seemed like a pied piper to a tribe that was looking for something bigger than themselves to rally around. The Ramones somehow did that and opened up a freedom for whatever angst we had and why to be expressed somehow and some way.

So, you can easily imagine my disdain when I saw it in a Pepsi commercial. I have some empathy for what Beatles’ fans went through when they saw John Lennon’s deeply affecting Revolution used to sell sneakers.

Love Gun by Kiss.

Kiss was every teenage guy in the late 70’s perfect band. They were ubiquitous before MTV and once we got our hands on their Destroyer album, our lives became this soup of buying magazines and albums and posters and doodling their logo on notebooks and dressing up like them for Halloween. They rolled through town every year and that was a soup of glow necklaces and festival seating and arranging rides with parents and talking about going for weeks and t-shirts worn on our exhausted bodies to school the next day. It was fire-breathing, blood-spitting, confetti flying, platform shoe wearing pop-metal goodness, from Detroit Rock City to God of Thunder to their older songs on the first three albums we didn’t know but loved the bass and drum solos. So, when their new album was going to be played on the local radio station at midnight the day the album came out, we got our tape recorders and when “Love Gun” (the title track) started we were going nuts but being quiet because we didn’t want to wreck our recording.

Years ago, the missus and I had a rental car and were taking a day-drive to Sedona in a convertible. We knew we’d need tunes so on our way out of town we decided we’d stop at the Wal Mart and each pick out one CD to listen to. I picked up a greatest hits CD by Kiss and before I put it in the player tried to explain to Tracy about how cool this all was when I was 13. She’d heard the songs that hit Casey Kasem’s top 40 and was kinda into them, but when “Love Gun” came on, well, really started hitting hard with the mockery. The reality was that I was laughing because I knew she was right. Those songs sure sounded a lot different a quarter-century later.

Once In A Lifetime by the Talking Heads.

This song smashed all over MTV because of David Byrne’s oversized suit and bizarre dance moves. It seems like MTV only had about 10 videos around that time and MTV was on in all our houses all the time…so, we were well versed in it as we’d all seen it about 100 times. Since we were sophomores in high school who knew everything that was cool and uncool we’d immediately labeled the Talking Heads as ridiculous and mocked them at every turn. A couple of years later, the jokes still weren’t old regarding that song as we were working on the local golf course painting the bathroom house at hole 13 and one of my buddies had been sent to help us out and before he got out of his golf cart he started doing the chopping motion on his forearm like the singer in the video and yelled, “You may find yourself…painting a bathroom shack…and I might find myself…behind the wheel of a very small automobile…”. It took a full minute for us to get off the ground from laughing.

It wasn’t until one of my fraternity brothers was way into them and talked about them over dinner one night. I borrowed his albums and gave it a chance…and in my headphoned dorm room listening I started seeing a brilliance and musicianship I’d dismissed because of the video…then later saw their concert documentary titled Stop Making Sense and fell in love with the band…and still see why David Byrne is critically acclaimed as a songwriter even today. NPR even deemed this song one of the top 100 most important musical works of the 20th century. I see why.

So, today, what songs do you have different perceptions of based on how you heard it, when, and where? This should be a really fun discussion…so have at it, patrons!