In 1976, we lived in Pasadena in the Hastings Ranch neighborhood on a hill above the Eaton Canyon golf course. I was six years old, and I remember climbing up and resting my chest on the counter to turn the dial on the kitchen radio to different music stations. In my earliest memories, I recall always looking for one song: “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder. My breathing was restricted and my chest got sore the longer I stayed up on that counter with my feet dangling behind me, but I would remain with my face against the radio, feeling the vibrations and singing along with what I thought the lyrics were. I even remember singing along with the horn break. I loved that song so much. It never occurred to me to dance to the song, which is one of the most danceable songs ever. No, I just wanted to sing it and feel it. It made me happy. It felt like being transported to another place. I had no idea who Stevie Wonder was, but I pictured a smiling man singing joyously. A few years ago, my pal Shin Kawasaki broke into the song at our monthly jam session. He and his killer musician crew played the hell out of it, and Shin sang it brilliantly. I had to wipe a tear away as I was transported back to my hazy memories of my feet dangling above the kitchen floor, my chest pressed to the counter, breathlessly singing along.
After that I kept looking for and finding music that left me breathless. After a few stumbles with saving for and buying Chipmunks and Sean Cassidy records, I discovered Queen. “Another One Bites the Dust” captivated my imagination. Freddy Mercury’s singing and Brian May’s guitar sounds all above that unmistakable bass line…it was the perfect song to bring me into puberty. I bought the record, “The Game,” at Fedco and stared at the cover while it played on my shitty kids’ record player. As a kid who rarely felt like I belonged in my city or school, those guys looked so cool. There was nothing but confidence and a seemingly perfect sense of self on their faces that I was lacking. They seemed to be doing something so damn important. To this Japanese American kid living in an all-white neighborhood and attending an all-white school, those dudes were what I aspired to be. To be in a band. To make music that inspired people. And to know exactly who they were (or at least appeared to know).
My friend, Garrett, was a couple of years older, and he was really into music. He was a metal guy. His tape case was filled with, what seemed to me, forbidden, dangerous music. Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Scorpions, AC/DC. One day, he put on a cassette that just said, “Van Halen.” He pressed play on his amazing stereo and what blasted through his speakers changed my world forever. The opening drum riff and chords of “Eruption” pounded into my ears. It was like a declaration. And then the solo began. I was mesmerized. How the hell can someone play that fast? My heart was racing. I knew what guitars were and had always wanted to play one, but that moment sealed it for me. I was going to play the guitar. It was my way into music and the songs that mesmerized me, and it was a way to attain an identity outside of token minority kid in school.
As the 80’s came into focus, the “New Wave” kids wore black eyeliner and had crazy hair. Heavy metal kids wore black leather with studs and had metal mullets. The cool kids didn’t need a musical connection because they were the cool kids. Theirs was a shitty top 40 world. On the fringes were the “mod” kids with trench coats and the residue of the punk movement that wouldn’t become cool for another decade. And then there were the kids who identified with specific bands. You know the ones. The Smiths/Morrisey fans. The Depeche Mode fans. The Madonna fans.
By the time I was in my mid-teen years, four bands, all distinct from one another became my favorites: Rush, Van Halen, The Police, and U2. Rush for it’s virtuosity and deep, sensitive lyrics, Van Halen as my would-be inner party animal, The Police as unique musical exploration, and U2 as my musical conscience to my developing sense of social justice and spirituality. All four bands had unique guitar players with completely different styles and sounds.
For the most part, people I knew loved music. I was that kid who rode my bike with two records under my arm so we could listen to new albums. And we’d listen all the way through, usually. We’d talk about the album art, making note of the sexual or violent images as if to reassure ourselves we were “good kids.” We’d talk about guitar players or things we’d heard about the singers. We would sing along to our favorite songs.
Today, famous artists try to “drop” new music and surprise people. With all the “leaking” of music online, it’s their way of controlling how and when new stuff comes out, I guess. Back in the day, we’d hear that an album was coming out in a given week. We would go to the record store in the mall and see if there was a new display for the new Van Halen or U2 album. The thrill of seeing a big new display with your favorite bands’ new release was amazing. There was a small record store a block away from our Jr. High school. We knew Van Halen’s, “1984” was coming out sometime soon, and it was killing us. On a whim, we rode our bikes to the shop after school one day, just to check, and there it was. I have to admit, the idea of my kids riding their bikes across town with a record under their arm makes me nervous, but there I was, riding home from school as fast I could to put that record on my “fancy” new stereo system I had saved up for.
When I say music was my identity, I mean in a general sense. Because I was a good Christian kid, I was not allowed to grow my hair long or wear makeup. I had the occasional concert t-shirt, but that was about it. But as I grew up and into high school, music was central to my existence. I had stopped playing sports. I was in a band at church, and we played events at church and at my high school. I jammed with other band and orchestra geeks after school, playing all kinds of music on our “secondary” instruments, guitars, basses, drums, keyboards.
Here is where I expect to lose the younger readers who are under 30. This was a time when technology could not correct for bad playing. You can hear it on the records. Singers missed notes. Guitar players could be sloppy. Drummers lost the beat. These imperfections were fine with us. The important thing was the song, itself. It became an entity unto itself, and it could mean the world to us. Some bands sucked live. Even with the limited technology and no ProTools, producers and engineers could make a band sound amazing on a recording. But once that band was on stage, there was no helping them. I’ve seen my share of opening bands that sucked. But, this made my favorite bands even more amazing.
The ability to step onto a stage and play music is an amazing thing. In these times of computer-controlled lighting, video screens, and pre-recorded music and singing, this generation does not understand the magic of a true live performance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a Beyonce concert is a visual and auditory spectacle of enormous significance. It means everything to a Beyonce fan to see her dance and sing/lip sync before him or her. I’ve watched a few concerts on youtube. The crowds definitely understand what it means to see a great show by someone they love. I totally identify with that.
It’s just not the same thing as a concert for me. For those of you who are saying I’m just old and out of touch with the changes of music and entertainment, I would agree with you completely if it weren’t for the fact that a lot of singers and bands still do remain true to the art of playing music in front of an audience. Stevie Wonder still does his thing with a live band. U2, Foo Fighters, Coldplay, John Legend, Bruno Mars and many others still hold to the old ways. For those of us who love real, live music, it’s not about the visuals or even the politics. It’s about the song. And I’m the first to admit that U2 and many other real bands have caved in to include huge multi-media special effects in their concerts. It’s all good, as long as they’re still playing live.
2 things that make an old fart like me mad:
There was a viral video being posted all over facebook earlier this year where Farrell Williams listened to a beautiful song written by a young woman. She played her recording for him, and he seemed to really like it. He pointed out how unique her voice and approach were. I was moved. But then he said he was interested to see what kinds of visuals she was going to come up with. Apparently, it wasn’t enough to write and record a great song. The real work was just beginning. For her to be a real star, she needed visuals. I was livid. The song was enough. It made me feel like today’s music fan is in such desperate need for over-stimulation that a beautiful song that is beautifully performed isn’t good enough.
2. Geri and I went to a real music venue in Silverlake to see a friend’s band. His band is cool. Very artsy and crazy music. But the two acts before them…sucked. Here’s what I mean. The first group was two guys standing in front of what appeared to be Moog stations, those old-school analog synthesizers with lots of nobs and faders. But the music was not analog. There was a guy in the shadows behind them with a laptop that I realized was making all the music. The two front guys were singing into microphones, their voices dripping in reverb and delays. They were grooving and swaying, constantly tweaking nobs and faders that had no actual effect on the sounds coming out. I don’t even think these things were plugged into anything. The audience worshipped these guys. They raised their hands in salute as if they were watching Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Geri and I were in awe of what we were seeing. Then, the next act was a guy with a guitar. Cool. He jumped on stage and screamed into the microphone to the sound guy, “Turn the track way the fuck up!” The track? This guy went on to perform some advanced karaoke for the adoring fans. Again, the people rocked out just as if they were watching the Beatles in a Liverpudlian bar. They screamed and clapped. They screamed. And clapped. For a live karaoke act. That kind of sucked.
I know how I sound. I’m out of touch. Sure, it’s probably cool to see Aretha Franklin sing a timeless song live. But today’s music fan has broadened his or her musical sensibilities to include intricately choreographed dancers, lasers, elaborate video screens and countless wardrobe changes. The fact that a human being cannot sing while gyrating, jumping, executing dynamic dance moves, and making sure to hit countless marks on a stage is a non-factor. They lip-sync to make the show better. So I should just shut the fuck up.
Oh, but wait. This is my lawn. I leave you with a few things off the top of my head to look up on the youtube. Dire Straits doing “Brothers in Arms” live. U2 doing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “Where the Streets Have No Name” live. Rush doing “Spirit of Radio” live. Pink Floyd doing “Comfortably Numb” live. Heart, doing “Barracuda” live. And find my friends who are amazing musicians. They’re on youtube, too. Priska, Sue Jin Kim, Shin Kawasaki, Jane Lui, The Blazing Rays of the Sun, Doctors and Engineers, Bitter Party, Kat McDowell.
Songs are all we really need. Close your eyes. Listen. Lean on a counter if it helps. Put your head to your Bluetooth speakers and let the music take you somewhere. And let’s talk about music.