The Way the Music Died, by Elayne Riggs
The older I get, the more there is to keep track of. I realized this some time ago; part of being a grown-up, particularly if you’re on your own, is making hard choices. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I suddenly had to consider expenditures like rent, food, cat litter… and something had to give.
It wasn’t going to be my zine, INSIDE JOKE was my baby and my outlet and my connection to like-minded folk, and I knew that’d take up the majority of my disposable income. (See, in those days you couldn’t self-publish for free like you can do today with blogging and so forth, so those of us who tended to be responsible about our hobbies knew enough to apportion x-amount of dollars that we knew we’d never see again due to printing and postage costs, even if we charged subscribers the requisite buck or two for each issue.) And I couldn’t give up my books, I needed something to do on the subways. I just can’t stare into space, even wearing a Walkman. So music was what went by the wayside. Not kicking and screaming, just sort of fading away.
I’d chosen my hobbies. And reading and writing are activities for which I need silence, which is why to this day it irks me when religious wackos and wandering troubadors come traipsing through the subway car in which I happen to be sitting. (Why do I always get the ones with the bongos? And honestly, religious wackos with bongos are just not going to convert a lot of people, ba dum bum.) Music seemed too important to be treated as background; it demanded my aural attention in the same way reading demands attention from my eyes and imagination. And I just couldn’t spare the awareness any more.
When I was a kid music was more participatory for me than a spectator sport. I don’t remember too many details about what I was hooked on at the time, aside from things I could sing myself (I used to try to imitate Julie Andrews but, alas, that’s a bit painful for an alto) or learn to play on the flute (my band instrument of choice) or piano (which my grandmother played beautifully but which, ultimately, my stubby fingers couldn’t quite master). As a teenager, I was heavily into bubblegum as well as melodic songwriters like Carole King and James Taylor, I learned the guitar and the Lord’s Prayer in a Christian-run band school, and made it to the semi-finals in a singing contest where I performed Joni Mitchell’s "The Circle Game" on stage at the then-Garden State Arts Center.
I think that’s also when I started writing songs of my own, which continued through college as my musical horizons broadened a lot. My best friend, the late Bill-Dale Marcinko, was very tuned into the zeitgeist of the time, and introduced me to mind-expanding acts like Graham Parker and Supertramp and Lene Lovich. There were a number of good used record stores in New Brunswick where I could buy cheap LPs with the "pin money" I made from the typing service I ran from my dorm room. I went to a fair number of concerts, everyone from Renaissance to Meatloaf (seventh row for that one, and oh yeah, that was the original band with Steinman and all), the details of which I no longer remember. I briefly dated a guy who sang bass in a doo-wop a cappella group. And of course I went through my aforementioned Beatlemania. Music surrounded me, at a volume and pace I could control, and I was happy.
After graduation I moved back in with my parents for a few years, where I kept writing, recording a number of my songs on cassette (which I still have but haven’t listened to in a quarter of a century) and even performing one on television — a tribute to Floyd Vivino which I got to sing on his Uncle Floyd Show. That’s right, bitches, the same "stage" that featured the Ramones, deal with it! I sometimes wonder if the tape of that performance still exists; my parents didn’t have a VCR at the time, although I had enjoyed the luxury of cable television and the debut of MTV.
Back then, and I know this’ll shock a lot of you young’uns, MTV not only stood for "music television" but actually played music videos, pretty much all the time. It was cool. We all had our favorite "veejays" (I guess I liked Mark Goodman the best; the only one who really scared me a bit was Nina Blackwood) and high-rotation videos. Without MTV, I’m convinced the careers of musicians like Men At Work and Cyndi Lauper might never have taken off. Not to mention Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Men Without Hats, and you’re welcome in advance for the accompanying earworms with which I’ve just infected you. Alas, while video may have killed the radio star, video itself succumbed to the infancy of reality programming.
But I wasn’t there for that inception. At age 25 I moved to Brooklyn, which at the time was the land that cable forgot (at least my portion of Flatbush). And so without access to TV tastemakers, with little desire to play music whilst writing at home and little opportunity to listen whilst in motion (no car needed in NYC, hence no car radio), and especially with having to deal with a noisy and rude upstairs neighbor who apparently made his very loud living as a DJ, I gradually bid farewell to my love of contemporary music, nurtured so lovingly through all those years of bubblegum and Beatlemania, singer-songwriters and prog-rockers, punks and greasers and everything in between. And I didn’t even realize I was doing it. At some point in the late ’80s or so, I just lost touch with what was coming out.
Come to think of it, I believe the main reason I’d stopped buying music was because I was boycotting CDs. I was pissed that the music industry had unilaterally decided, seemingly overnight, to do away with LPs. If consumers had simply wanted to stop buying vinyl, if the decision had been made at the end-user level that they preferred the new format to the old, as with cassettes versus 8-tracks or Beta versus VHS, I would probably have gone along with the crowd and who knows how much more in tune I’d be today. But this wasn’t a marketplace decision at all. No, the producers just up and forced buyers to buy not only CDs but CD players, and my beloved LPs with their cool cover art and liner notes and inside-sleeve lyrics disappeared pretty quickly. And I was pissed. So I held out for a long while, probably 15 years or so, while all the artists I’d known switched from vinyl to shiny discs and the ones I never discovered debuted in the format I’d chosen to actively ignore. And boy, I really showed them, didn’t I?
When my first husband was in the Navy, music was one of his salvations. I don’t recall that Steve was into any newer sounds, but he had a nice collection of ’60s and ’70s music which supplemented my own rather well. As I recall most of his stuff was on cassette, since one can’t really lug a record player around on military supply ships. After his service was over and he moved in, Steve didn’t seem to feel a great need for us to "go CD" either. Also, after we married we sought the quiet life, particularly after we moved to Bensonhurst (still no cable there until the last couple years of our residency) where our first landlords were an elderly couple who also craved silence. So we woke up to the haunting strains of Howard Stern on our clock radio instead of whatever passed for music in those days. We were pretty strictly fans of what’s now referred to as "dinosaur rock." I don’t remember paying much attention to anything new at the time, like Nirvana ("Kurt who?") or REM or whoever else was around.
My current marriage is a bit different musically. Remember, as a writer, I’ve preferred to work in silence. But as an artist, Robin plays music in his studio pretty constantly. When he emigrated he brought over his vast-and-I-do-mean-VAST collection of CDs spanning his eclectic tastes — largely in British music that didn’t make it quite so big on this side of the pond. His countless Beatles bootlegs fit nicely into that rekindled mania of mine, and he’s also an early adopter when it comes to 21st century tech, so we now have a pretty hefty collection of MP3s, concert DVDs and the like. Thank goodness he also had LPs or I would have felt even more out of the loop! Although for a few years he wasn’t getting anything new either, having moved to a land whose record stores were unfamiliar. (And my knowledge stopped at "I think there are some good places on Carmine Street in the West Village.") Then Amazon and iTunes came along, it became amazingly easy to buy music in an instant with a couple clicks, our collection began to grow once more, and it hasn’t stopped yet.
After my now-ex-job moved to New Rochelle and I needed a car, I found radio stations that actually played the kind of music I liked, from both new and established artists. Of course, now I’m firmly on the side of the generational fence that warns kids to stay off lawns, so all the up-and-comers look like they’re about 12 years old to me. But I was exposed to new artists just the same, and now I like folks like John Mayer (whose blog I read, along with those of Julian Lennon, David Byrne and Thomas Dolby), KT Tunstall, and Mika (that one’s thanks to Robin), and I can just about tell the difference between Jack Black and Jack White. I’ve never cottoned to American Idol, just as I never watched any amateur hour shows like Star Search when I was younger, so manufactured popstars are by and large beyond my radar, as are most genres on which I didn’t imprint, and the music section of Entertainment Weekly remains the only part of that magazine that I barely skim. (But then, I was never into music mags like Creem and Rolling Stone anyway, believing critics to be using some sort of pretentious, coded foreign language to describe what I merely listened to, in much the same way food critics pull strange words out of their asses to snootily judge food that the rest of us either enjoy or don’t.) However, I’m now playing catch-up on all that music I missed, remembering more and more how much I loved it.
My guitar still sits in a closet somewhere, and the fingertips on my left hand no longer bear any callouses. My flute — heck, I can’t even find it any more. Maybe someday I’ll rediscover my own voice again. But you know, there are just so many hours in the day, and for now I’ve chosen to "play" the computer keyboard instead. And when I rest from that, there are always the new songs to listen to from those in my generation who are still rocking out rather than fading away.
Elayne Riggs can be found blogging here, and has decided to take a page from Michael Davis’ book and employ her own artist to illustrate her column; fortunately she’s married to one so that part was pretty easy.