"Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes." -Walt Whitman
Saturday, January 10, 2004
The quality of the imagination is to flow and not to freeze.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
in 1981 i heard somewhere of an album called big science by someone called laurie anderson. in particular, i heard praise for a song called 'o superman'. being a consumer whore, i scrounged together the savings from my paper routes and job at the sandwich shop and bought the album. my best friend drew was with me when i bought it. the cover featured a blind-looking, shock-haired woman dressed in a white suit. not too unusual for the time. i placed the vinyl on my brother's turntable, side 2 facing up, and let the needle drop.
'o superman' started.
drew and i exchanged glances. nervous glances.
'is it suppposed to sound like that?' he asked.
'maybe you should turn it off.'
'uh-huh.' but i didn't move. 'maybe you should,' i said to drew.
truth to tell, we were too afraid to approach the stereo.
so for eight and a half minutes we listened to processed vocals layered one over the next. then we decided to go out and play frisbee, and let the album play out to an empty room.
close call, we thought. weirdsville.
a few nights later, i braved the entire album. it was the most bizarre record i'd ever encountered. but little by little, i began to understand, if not the musical approach, the tone and mood of the lyrics. the social commentary.
more importantly, i began to understand that there was more to music than guitars, bass, and drums. my appetite for unexplored musical vistas began with 'big science'. in the twenty-odd years since, it has continued to spiral out. there are few things that excite me more than discovering new music. (one thing that excites me equally is witnessing other people discover new music.)
around the same time - the early 80's - WLIR FM in Garden City began playing new wave music in the morning. The Allman Brothers and Hot Tuna and Led Zep still ruled the afternoon and evening, but the Buggles and Ultravox and Our Daughter's Wedding defined John DiBella's morning show. This too was new music - synthesizer-heavy, beat-driven, goofy music. As disposable as much of these bands would be (Spandau Ballet anyone?), they provided the soundtrack to my high-school days and nights. WLIR was cutting edge. The station dared to defy the top-40 mentallity. WLIR would hit the rocks over the next decade, because synthpop is not built to stand the test of time, but the station never faltered in its mission to push the envelope of popular music.
Yesterday, at noon, WLIR went off the air for good.
It was a business decision, as the station owners freely admit, designed to help the family-owned corporation concentrate on their other outlets. Still, it seems a blow for the forces of nonconformity, and a victory for the Clear Channels of the cultural world. It marks a sad day in the annals of radio history.
Because now there is one less voice out there asking you not to be a cultural sheep.
So I'm asking you instead. Don't do it to be fashionably cutting edge, or hip, or in. expand your horizons because it's good for you as a person. we are dumbing down as a planet, and as a nation. expand your horizons in a small way. just a toe in the water, as it were.
Go buy a copy of Uncut magazine, or visit pitchformmedia.com. legally download something you've never heard before. explore something different. you may be surprised to learn how many of today's young artists take their cue's from american folk music. or how many young european jazz artists are reviving the excitement and improvisation that once defined the american jazz heritage.
go find a song by tom ovans, who shows that guitar and drums and no money can still create honest rock and roll.
go listen to josh ritter, who shows that singer/songwriters can still make beautiful pop songs that don't need a pepsi commercial behind them.
track down rickie lee jones' latest album, proof that talent is not a fashion trend. (mind you, i'm not a big rickie fan, but her new album has made me respect her talents as a vocalist and a songwriter.)
if you are really adventurous, go find Festival in the Desert, and see how the rest of the world defines music.
hell, go get laurie anderson's big science.
if you're not a music person, then go visit a museum you've never been to before. read a newspaper that you usually ignore.
take a different route to the store.
it's your life.
don't let yourself stagnate. that bleating sound you hear may be you.