Thursday, July 31, 2014

Songs in the Key of Life

I haven’t been getting sentimental over CD’s in the past few years.  The way people do over vinyl, or even cassettes.  I should.  Far and away, the backbone of my musical collection is a few thousand CD’s I have in a six-drawer dresser, jewel cases discarded to save space, carefully alphabetized.

After the fire in the summer of 2011, I felt clear of all possessions and thought to myself, if all those CD’s had been lost in the fire, so what, I’ve cherry-picked the highlights for MP3 files, and now with streaming … But I was wrong.  It’s good to have physical copies of the classic and rare stuff.  I routinely find myself doubling back and fleshing out artists’ back catalogs, in some cases really listening for the first time.

The last CD I recall being excited over purchasing?  Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder.  One of those “24 bit remaster” deals.  At a street fair on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, I’m guessing summer of 2009 or so.  It was just one of those things.  Perfect summer day, out walking after my boxing class, stumbled on one of those cheesy NYC street fairs (they’re always the same), finding the inevitable CD/vinyl dealer and coming across the album for $12 or so..  I already had the original Motown double-disc CD.  But you know how it is with reissues, you sometimes get the urge to buy the same thing twice because the album is so good, and well, the sound, now 24-bit remastered, must be astonishing.   (I rarely notice the difference, save the volume on the reissue will be boosted.)

That album embodies summer in the 1970’s for me … even though I didn’t really care much for it at the time.  I never heard it fully until going on a Stevie Wonder binge my senior year of college.  At the time of release?  You couldn’t escape certain songs from the album, particularly “Sir Duke.”  Hearing that horn introduction now, it’s like hearing a summer breeze blowing through the trees.  It sounds like warm weather and people having a good time, or at least trying.  That’s the myth of summer: you’re going to have fun, or at least try.  The Beach Boys built an incredible mythology on that promise, wrapping it up in the ocean and surfing, youth, sun, waves, summer.  It’s hard to resist when music perfectly matches a vibe that the musicians somehow sense and get right.

And Songs in the Key of Life sounds so much more inviting than Songs in the Key of Death, which might have been a missed album title for Lou Reed.  (That album was Magic and Loss.)  Ironically, Lou claimed to love Songs in the Key of Life and declared Stevie a genius at the time.  You wouldn’t picture him being a big Stevie Wonder fan, nor a huge doo-wop fan.  Musicians’ tastes are often a lot broader and more surprising than the art they created.  Just as we are.  You can describe any of us in the most basic terms, especially regarding what we do for money, and there will be many magic little doors that will open or close depending on the situation.  I want most people at work to think I’m an automaton – the ones who matter to me get a sense of what’s really going on.  I’m not playing that teenage game of “you don’t really know me, man,” just don’t want to share important things when I sense the other person will not grasp that importance.  And you better believe I have no clue what, if anything, most people I work with hold important, aside from money, power and however they value those things.

What’s important?  I find myself asking that question a lot since Mom passed on.  If you know me well, then you know music matters.  I sometimes lose sight of that when floating through all the blank and cloudy emotions one goes through after the death of a parent.  It’s hard to explain that to people who haven’t been there, that your life doesn’t come to a crashing, defeated halt.  You go on, partially because it’s what your parents taught you to do, especially in their absence.  A fine mist descends over your life, where it never gets too sunny, nor does it rain too hard.  And your job is to slowly feel your way out of that mist, over the course of months, with Dad it seemed like a good year or two, to that place where you see things more clearly. 

That’s what I always associated music with as a teenager: clarity.  Falling in love with an artist’s work felt like getting a stronger grasp on the world, the real world, and how it operated.  I think when we stop having those revelatory moments – which you can only have a few times with most artists – that’s when we either start backing off from music as a form of identity, or simply become more logical when we listen, discerning, especially with those artists who kicked open doors for us.  What happens when they stop kicking open doors?

Probably the same thing that happens to you when you stop kicking open doors.  You open the door politely, feel your way around, get the lay of the land and respond accordingly.  It’s an important shift to note here, because it’s what happens when someone dies in your life.  You might spend a good part of your life seeing yourself as a person who kicks doors down, makes shit happen, grasps the truth of a situation and responds decisively.

Well, you won’t do shit when death comes knocking.  You’ll sit there, either stunned or broken, and take it all in, a new experience you can’t put your stamp on, because it’s putting its stamp on you.  That’s when real change happens in life, when shit beyond your control happens and forces you to respond by the seat of your pants, not knowing what you’re doing, having no guide to figure it out.  Most of us don’t do much of anything concrete, save grieve, spend time absorbing what just happened, sensing the new space that wasn’t there before.  I’m not even talking tragedy, like the death of child.  Just simple death that we will all experience, and not really quite grasp until it happens to the people who raised us.

It makes me wonder about the difference between genuinely life-altering situations like this, and artistic statements, like Songs in the Key of Life, that we claim “change our lives” in some fashion.  I’ve said this about more than a few recording artists and albums.  It’s true, too.  But I’ve learned that absorbing art is a change by personal choice, not a forced change, and there’s a dramatic difference.  Wish I could go back to the days when records would blow my mind wide open, a kid with headphones on, sitting on his bed, taking in the opening of a new world, while my parents, in their 40’s, sat down in the living room trying to relax after another day at work.  They didn’t “get it” – the experience I was having, which I foolishly thought reflected positively on me and left them behind.  I was so special to “get it” … not realizing they “got it” in their own ways, in their own time, that may not have had anything to do with music.

Now I’m the one down in the living room trying to get over another day of punching the clock, just trying to make sense of life now that it’s taken the opportunity to beat my ass senseless a few times.  What does music mean to me now?

Not the same as it once did, which is inevitable for anyone who goes on listening for years.  I don’t even try to pretend.  It doesn’t save me.  Then again, I don’t think it ever really did.  It surely helped me a great deal at key points in my life, gave me senses of belonging and purpose.  I think now it simply helps me to feel.  I recognize that as a very bad, touchy-feely, hippy line.  But the older you get, the more you see how unfeeling most people become.  Again, once life starts taking a gravel-filled wiffleball bat to our asses, that’s when a lot of people choose to shut down in one way or another.  Music reminds me not to shut down, that it makes more sense to stay open, to keep that connection going, even if it’s not the life-altering revelations I had in my youth, there’s still something worthwhile being offered when a good musician puts out an album.  He might just be phoning it in, but even when we phone shit in, as we all know from whatever work we do, it’s sometimes enough to get by.

And I guess that’s where my head has been the past few months.  Sorry for the decreased output, but I can assure you, there’s a massively increased input when you deal with the death of a parent.  The kind of input that, I learned the first time around, takes some time to fully assimilate, at least in ways that I can grasp.  Writing won’t save my life either.  I thought it would when I was a lot younger and pinned so many hopes on it.  But even with the luxury of not having to do it for a constant paycheck, I can see, it’s simply something I do.  It’s occurred to me this year that I’d love to get back into it more on a monetary basis, but I write that simply knowing a little more money would make my life easier, not that I have anything to prove to anyone.  It would be nice to be that person who puts something out there that people respond to with the sort of clarity and recognition that Songs in the Key of Life has.  I’d rather go about my life from now on with the attitude of “that someone might as well be me” as opposed to yearning for things that I don’t have.  As I’ve pointed out above, there will be things you won’t have as time goes on that will make blind ambition seem meaningless.