I love it when my father talks about music, because when he does — when he describes a Three Dog Night concert from the summer of ’74, and how their vocals echoed in Yokohama Stadium, or when he rips on a really shitty CSNY B-side — he doesn’t just talk about music, he remembers music.
The Royal Scam, Steely Dan, 1976 (cover art).
Three summers ago, we visited our home in Japan and I watched him sort through his old record collection. We started talking about his favorite bands, and pretty soon the generation gap asserted itself. Not because I didn’t appreciate his taste — I like Jethro Tull as much as he does — but because he and I think about music too differently.
As music has changed mediums, from records to CDs to digital files, our listening experience has changed, too. Now we can afford more music for less, we can boast more eclecticism in our tastes, and we can approach our music with more flexible — more fluid — attitudes. I might listen to more than 1000 artists in six months, and with no apparent coherence (in the past week, Vetiver has vied with Club 8, and John Vanderslice with Elliott Smith), whereas my father would be content listening to Wings for days. I haven’t had a favorite band since middle school (it was — I’ll admit it — Placebo), and compared to him, my knowledge of artists will always be too broad, too shallow. As a student, he owned just a handful of EPs, but he absorbed a lot from them. He didn’t speak English too well, but when Steely Dan made a snide reference to The Eagles in The Royal Scam, he noticed. And when The Eagles responded in “Hotel California” — “They stab it with their steely knives/But they just can’t kill the beast” — he wasn’t surprised.
Now that music has become less tangible — now that we don’t hold our records in our hands — I’m afraid the listening experience has become more superficial. I hear music a lot, but do I listen to it? A lot of the experience is lost when music is reduced to audio files. When I stick it in my library and put it on shuffle, I receive songs as disjointed pieces of a whole, and I don’t get to appreciate the inherent narrative of the album. When cover art shrinks to a few square inches on a computer screen, the fuller effect is lost (more on this in the next post). The Gesamtkunstwerk is amputated, and music becomes more dependent on one sense — hearing — than it has to be.
My father remembers that when he was a teenager, he would spend each afternoon at his best friend’s house, sprawled on the tatami, listening to their newest — or not-so-newest — album together, until the sound faded into the soft crackle of a blank record. For most of us, music is an accoutrement to life — something we listen to as we walk to class, as we exercise, as we complete our latest P-set — but for him, it wasn’t a supplement to a thing, it was the thing itself.
And so in emulation, I think it’s time to turn shuffle off, sit back, cue up a favorite album, and just listen.