When I don’t travel on a long holiday weekend, I tend to construct a humongous collection of songs for my MP3 player. This Memorial Day weekend was no exception. I got burned out on war movies by Saturday morning, and there was plenty of down time between my weekend routines. This was the first summer weekend I cleaned my landlord's back patio and sidewalk, which was rotten with leaves and other debris. I strongly recommend two hours of hard sweeping in 85-degree heat to get in touch with one’s inner janitor.
This new collection was somehow appropriate with the whole process: Geek Rock. Because grown men monkeying around with dozens of CDs to make an MP3 collection is geeky. It’s one of those intensely private functions guys do – sort of the aural equivalent of masturbation. But it makes me happy, and it’s much better than other private functions grown men can do in their spare time, like turning alcoholic or attacking loved ones.
The word “geek” is borrowed from the short-lived TV series, Freaks and Geeks, which was a great show nailing high-school years circa the late 1970s. Unlike The Wonder Years, there were no hammy voice-overs, overblown sentimentality or sage morality lessons. The freaks got stoned, the geeks got picked on, and this is pretty much how I remember things.
I don’t know how I classified myself at the time. Take a look at the picture. You can see my headphone hair. Slight acne. Freak’s standard issue flannel shirt. I got good grades. I was good at sports, but didn’t like the social hierarchy attached to the high-school version, and thus skipped out on that stuff. My friends were all guys in the same boat, a motley collection of eggheads, mild outcasts, the occasional jock and such. The one thing we had in common: we never got laid. I suspect a lot of people were in that boat in high school, but generally you get a bunch of vaguely nerdy guys spending all their time together, you may as well brand a large red “V” on their foreheads. I wouldn’t say “L” for “loser” – plenty of losers got laid in high school.
But when it came to music, I can safely say I was in the “geek” camp by worshipping both Queen and the Electric Light Orchestra. When I watch Queen videos from that time period now, the main thing I see, of course, is how flaming, out-of-the-closet gay Freddie Mercury was. Believe me, this was not clear to teenage rock fans at the time – or if it was, we were simply in denial or so impressed by how hard the band could rock that this counter-balanced those “what the fuck” feelings generated by hearing songs like “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy” and “Seaside Rendezvous.”
ELO was music meant for masturbators. It was grandiose orchestral pop, often with the theme of yearning for things one couldn’t have (“Eldorado,” “Telephone Line,” “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”). Believe me, their music made perfect sense to sensitive teenage guys not getting laid (pardon the oxymoronic nature of this statement). The good thing about Queen and ELO was that both bands understood the appeal of pop music, yet had these orchestral or vaguely prog-rock leanings that made them seem cool on that bullshit level. Most of their songs were four or five minutes long and aimed at being pop hits, which they were. Jeff Lynne was a white guy with a huge afro who constantly wore sunglasses – he wasn’t cool, nor was the rest of the band. I distinctly recall the keyboard player, Richard Tandy, getting his ass kicked hard by Rod Stewart in a one-on-one soccer match on Battle of the Network Stars. These guys weren’t cool.
Nor was I, and I’m still not now! When I decided to throw this collection together, the game plan was to connect this music of the 70s with bands they influenced from the 90s, like Grandaddy, the Flaming Lips and East River Pipe – all of whom remind me of that Queen/ELO vibe. I’d say the difference is Queen and ELO had much more talented vocalists and producers (Roy Thomas Baker and Jeff Lynne himself), and both bands had unlimited amounts of studio time to pull their signature sounds together. The 90s bands started out as punk or DIY outfits, and thus didn’t have the same benefits, although the Flaming Lips have surely come a long way, studio-wise.
The thing is, once I got rolling with the 70s stuff, I realized this was a mammoth undertaking, and the 90s stuff was out. I had forgotten about Genesis, Peter Gabriel’s first two solo albums, Klaatu, the occasional Styx/Journey/REO Speedwagon songs, and the coup de grace: Supertramp. I loved those gentle hippies who knew how to write Top 40 smashes; any band with a clarinetist surely classifies as Geek Rock. Where is today's Supertramp, for christ's sake?
Long story short, I ended up with about 200 Geek Rock songs from the 70s, which I put on my player last night and started listening to this morning. What occurs to me now with a lot of 70s stuff that I listened to religiously at the time is that unless I pull it out of my collection now, I never hear this stuff again, as I'm constantly pushing forward with new music and new genres. Aside from a handful of songs that get picked up by movies or commercials, this stuff has disappeared from the cultural landscape – unless satellite stations like XM and Sirius have dedicated a special station to 70s Schlock.
It’s a blast to hear this music again, especially with that distance from the 70s to now, all the musical trends I’ve picked up since: country, blues, celtic, soul, big band, etc. The emotional connection isn’t what it was, but I can hear that a lot of this stuff was great pop music made by bands who really had their craft down and were much more talented than most bands of today. I suggest anyone laughing at an ELO record get into a studio and try to get anywhere near the sound Jeff Lynne got on a regular basis.
I'm still sitting on a fence over whether or not to include Neil Diamond. One of my gayest teenage memories is walking in rhythm through the local mall on a Saturday night to his his hit single, "Forever in Blue Jeans," which was playing over the mall's PA system. At the time, I thought I was cool, but good lord, if I could see film footage of this now, I think my head would blow off my neck. I know I was wearing earth shoes and had my feather hair cut in full bloom. I may have even been singing along: "Maybe tonight/You and I/All alone by the fie-yuh ..."
If I could narrow this collection down to an 80-minute CD, the cover would be me sitting on my bed, wearing a pair of Radio Shack Nova 40 headphones, and gazing out the window on a rainy day. There's a slight irony now in a grown man listening to the same music on a crowded subway train, hoping to will away at least the sound of his immediate environment, wishing he could be alone as that kid on the bed was.