I can tell you how it feels to discover new music because I never really stopped. Granted, I don’t go far out of my way to find this stuff; it’s more like stumbling across it. I hear a song in a movie or somehow by chance, know it’s a certain style that I don’t know much about. But I like what I hear. So I pursue it. Thanks to relatively cheap services like Emusic and Amie Street, and great places like the New York Public Library, I can educate myself in a hurry on any style of music.
It’s like being near the ocean on a summer day. You can smell the ocean on the breeze. Feel the sun. It’s there, you know it, but you haven’t seen it just yet. Then you start walking, and you can see sand creep into the cracks on the sidewalk. And you can now hear the ocean, a soft roar just out of earshot. You go down a few more streets, and you can see a beach head on a dead-end street with a wooden boardwalk, You walk up the boardwalk, and there it is, the ocean, stretching out as far as the eye can see. It’s an exhilarating feeling, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
At least that’s how I feel these days when I get into a new kind of music I never would have considered as a pop-rock teenager at the turn of the 1980s. And some of it is just as good or better than what I already love. Such has been my “discovery” of Bossa Nova music. Or Samba. Or “Brazilian.” I’m not quite sure what to call it. But it’s a very light, breezy sounding music, generally from South America, that has a certain descending, shifting chord pattern played on an acoustic guitar, that sounds both relaxing and vaguely sad at times. It’s the lightest music I’ve ever heard – like a breeze. It sounds like summer in a way The Beach Boys don’t quite get. (But I love The Beach Boys for the way they do get summer.) I’ll include a few samples of what I’ve turned up at the end of the post.
Sometimes the net effect of listening is like being in a dentist’s office in Buenos Aires, at least for the older, more orchestrated music from the 50s and 60s. A fellow fan told me he dreads the inevitable flute solo many of these tracks have. And he’s right, that ubiquitous, mellow flute, not quite Zamfir’s pan pipe but too close for comfort, comes wafting in. If you can't handle Easy Listening music, then you won't be able to handle a lot of Bossa Nova. The best stuff for me is stripped down to acoustic guitar with light percussion. The words are usually in Portuguese or Spanish, but I’ve found a fair amount of songs in English, too, and plenty of instrumentals.A lot of stuff that sounds like good pop rock, save it’s in another language. And that doesn’t bother me near as much as I thought it would.
I’m trying to remember how all this started. Not listening to music. The act of going outside your prescribed American teen listening sledgehammer of pop and realizing there’s plenty of other stuff going on, and always has been. As noted in my last post, we had music class in grade school which introduced us to music nearly all of us agreed was fruity. About the only cool thing I recall from that time period was dancing around to songs like “Yummy Yummy Yummy (I Got Love in My Tummy” and “1-2-3 Redlight” in kindergarten during those jump-around sessions the teacher employed to wear us out for nap time on the wrestling mats.
And there was Lawrence Welk every Saturday night on PBS, which our parents made us sit through to get to the World at War documentary series. This was bad Big Band music – schmaltzy, sterilized and hammy. I’ve come to appreciate Big Band music with passing time, but this show put a decades-long dent in the learning curve. About the only cool thing Lawrence Welk did was his version of “Baby Elephant Walk” (which my friend George would play on a lark every time we drove into a new town at night in his ’76 Nova with flaming tailpipes).
I think the simple answer is Oldies stations, which in the 70s meant 50s and early 60s pop rock. Which was the first forbidden ocean I laid eyes on. By forbidden ocean, I mean how rigid and claustrophobic so many teenagers are in terms of their listening habits, and how much of that was determined solely by radio play, Top 40 popularity and sheer lack of listening experience. And in the 70s and 80s that also meant “rock” popularity. Rock music wasn’t necessarily the most popular music of the time, especially for various heavy metal bands, but they’d be hugely popular with subsets of outsider kids, and thus the barometer of real cool. Led Zep and Pink Floyd were by no means Top 40 pop bands … but were massively popular with teenagers in the 70s. This was thanks to AOR (Album Oriented Radio) stations playing their non-single album tracks to death. A lot of us were raised entirely in that rock/album culture, the same way we were raised with religion.
And you’ll find those same kids now, adults in their 40s and 50s, listening to the same shit and nothing more as if it was still 1975! On one hand, I can respect that sort of stubbornness. Hell, I still listen to all those all bands, too … and a ton of other shit that came before and after. That was the spirit of the day, wasn’t it? Everything is NEW, and we’re IN ON IT, and this is OUR MUSIC, and we’re ALWAYS GOING TO FEEL THIS WAY.
As you can tell by the all caps, I’ve come to realize these concepts are questionable, at least in regards to how people age with music. If you do, you abandon that fortress of false cool you construct as a teenager and take off for the hinterlands to see what else you can find. (And you find that your fortress was very small, and there’s just no way you can take in all the music out there. You won’t even have time to find or listen to all the stuff you like.) When I hear a teenager talking like that last sentence of the previous paragraph, I know he’s full of shit and won’t be listening to music in any real sense 10 years down the road. An adult? That’s someone trying to sell something … to someone he assumes is a complete moron, i.e., your average teenage kid. It’s an exclusionary, small-minded sales pitch as cynical as any you’ll find in other markets. And what’s turned the recording industry into a child’s playground since Elvis Presley, maybe even Frank Sinatra if you think about it.
So why do so many people not just buy into this, but then pick it up and hold it to their chest like a worn teddy bear they carry the rest of their days? Well, because it’s music, good or bad, and tied into emotions, particularly emotions regarding youth and some sense of freedom. Freedom compared the responsibilities of adulthood … although I feel more free as an adult than I ever did as a kid. At least in important ways: how I want to live, where I want to live, whom I want as friends, etc. We didn’t have to worry about making money and supporting ourselves as kids, but otherwise, the major downsides I recall about childhood was the curtailment of these personal freedoms. And I know kids think about this all the time, as they imagine how their world is going to change for the better when they grow up. In some ways, it does. Youth was about moments of freedom – sometimes hours, days or even weeks of freedom – but adulthood is more about less obvious personal freedoms. I’d love to have both! But life hasn’t worked out that way, as it doesn’t for most people.
So, in that context, you can see why music is such a big deal. Not so much the music itself. The act of using it as a form of identity. An idealized identity, too, in terms of that freedom and a sense of wildness. And not just personal identity: group identity. That’s the one thing that seems to be decreasing over time with no central music cultures “taking over” as they did in the past. Save the ubiquitous Top 40 crap, that I can usually avoid, even in the gym on Saturdays, so long as I bring my iPod and drown out all the gimmicky, crappy, soulless songs with auto-tuned vocals and dentist drill beats.
I don’t want this to feel like a sermon on the mount from a music lover. Most people I know, as adults, back off from music as time goes on, even though they listen to it all the time. If they have cars, they listen on car radios and CD players, sometimes even going so far as to get satellite radio because it’s so much better than commercial. They’ll buy CDs every now and then. Someone may have bought them an iPod along the way, and they’re familiar with the whole process of purchasing and listening to digital music. (But not in the same way a maniac like me is – because if you’ve grasped what’s gone on with digital music in the past decade, you know this change in music is cataclysmic and paradise for a music lover.)
When they ask me what I’m listening to, I don’t know how to answer. I have an iPod with 20,000 songs on it. I download 100 songs a month from Emusic that span many genres; keep a running account with Amie Street and occasionally buy albums from online stores like Amazon and 7 Digital when they have good sales. I poke around websites and pull down hard-to-find and out-of-print albums routinely. A downside is I listen to so much music now I just can’t absorb and internalize it the way I once did as a kid and young adult. But I was leaning in this direction with CDs through the 90s, buying anywhere from four to 12 a month. That process is a lot quicker now, going into albums online, sampling the tracks and choosing what I want. It’s a whole different way of understanding music that has its ups and downs. I don’t live with it the way I used to … but I surely do live with it. And in volumes and styles I never could have imagined even a decade ago. I sometimes feel like I’m skiing down an avalanche that never stops, and rather than feeling like I’m about to die, feeling like I’m just starting to live.
I guess I tie-in music appreciation with a general curiosity towards life, which should never end. If I can look into other people’s lives and see something, anything, about the person that suggests a similar passion and curiosity, I feel like I can understand and relate to that person better. I don’t care what it is. Football. Macramé. Stamps. Nascar. Fishing. Yoga. Whatever. Something that shows me they’re “really into this shit” and care about something more than obvious things like money or status. The problem I see with a lot of adults is they’re just not into anything but getting through life. Which I am, too, but you need to set-up small areas for yourself to roam around in and have that same sense of wonder you did as a child.
Conversely, I would be bored as hell listening solely to the exact same music I did as a teenager. Thus, the branching out. Started with Oldies, but the next big one was Country. You listen to stuff like “Dead Flowers” by The Rolling Stones, and as a rock fan, you think, that sounds cool, where did they get that sound from. And stumble across Hank. And Johnny. And Merle. And Willie. And before you know it, you have a few hundred songs on the iPod that really give you a good understanding of Country Music in general. And you pick up more stuff as you move along and learn, connecting the dots, stumbling onto similar artists, discovering new ones, reaching back for older ones. Same thing has happened to me with Celtic, Soul/R&B, Blues, Reggae, Big Band, Classical, some Jazz, and now this Latin-based stuff. Will happen with African music, which I have a little of, but have a disc of MP3s from a friend that I’ll use as a starting point when I get more into this later in the year. And I’ll find what I’ve always found: great music that appeals to me. Not age-based. As the phony battles lines have been drawn in our fractured musical culture.
It takes work to do this. A lot of research and listening. Time. But really, nothing like the amount of time it would have taken a decade ago when I’d have to go buy dozens of CDs, or get educated enough to pull the CDs from the library, and slowly feel my way through them to pull what appeals to me. I guess the key change is the sense of ownership of music. I surely own digital music, but that ownership is now invisible and comes in bits and pieces that I pull from whole albums. In the past, I would have to purchase whole albums and keep them. I have a six-dresser drawer filled with CDs, probably about 3,000 of them in slimline sleeves. (The cases were too bulky to keep.) You could visibly see my passion for music.
Now? I got a laptop with iTunes on it, a 500 Gigabyte external drive to back it up, and an iPod. A vast sea of music on this little thing I can hold in the palm of my hand. These are incredible times, folks. Jaw-dropping stuff to a kid raised with eight-track tape decks and tinny, handheld AM radios. A time of wonder. I guess it always has been. All I recommend is having that feeling towards something in your life, because it seem to me losing that sucks. I can understand life beating that out of you, but I don't understand willfully abandoning it, as so many people do with their love of music.
So, here are some of the tracks I’ve been listening to:
“Girl from Ipanema” by Astrud Gilberto (with João Gilberto and Stan Getz). If you only download one track, make it this one, the holy grail of Bossa Nova. A perfect pop song, too, which is hard to pull off for a five-minute plus song. If I had to give an audio example of summer to space aliens, I’d play this song.
“Patience” by Sixth Finger featuring Dew. This is a sample of the many cover versions I found in my travels. Most of the Guns & Roses Bossa album was terrible, but I thought this sounded great. Nouvelle Vague is surely the best of the Bossa cover bands, with their tilt towards 80s pop, but there are whole series of CDs for “Bossa does rock” music. And, on each of those, you’ll find that same breathy, vaguely Scandinavian-sounding female lead singer phonetically botching lyrics and singing with about as much soul as a vacuum cleaner. I say that like it’s a bad thing … but sometimes it works! Mileage varies wildly, even within one CD, but I’ve come across some great covers in this genre.
“He Vinido” by Los Zafiros. Picked up on this from a recent episode of the AMC series Breaking Bad. Cuban doo-wop from the early 60s. Not all the stuff I found was Brazilian, although I purposely avoided a lot of Mexican music as it’s too loud in comparison. Ditto salsa and merengue, two forms of music I am never going to like (and have had endless exposure to via a decade in the Bronx). But, man, “He Vinido” is just a great song. I find that a lot of southern hemisphere stabs at rock and roll, past or present, tend to be pretty legitimate, if you can handle the non-English lyrics.
"Concórdia" by Elza Soares. Not Bossa Nova, but Brazilian. I can't describe this track. Sort of like "Guitar Man" by Bread with a more funky beat and raw female singer. There's a lot of cool stuff going on in this song. The best Brazilian stuff is either bare-boned Bossa Nova or weird mixtures of influences like this.
"Aguas De Marco" by Bossacucanova. The waters of March. A perfect Bossa Nova song, and in English, too! That signature acoustic guitar riff, the way the song keeps flowing. If songs like this don't float your boat, then you're just not into Bossa, man.