Friday, February 26, 2010

Behind The Music

Both Rob at The Wicked Stage and Josh at Tarhearted have great pieces about music up right now. You should definitely check them out. And not one to be left out...

I just finished Colson Whitehead's lovely coming-of-age novel, Sag Harbor, and had a great time. One of the threads that holds the book together is music. He talks a lot about early rap, '80s punk and new wave, even sets a climatic scene to a lite-FM hit. That and Josh's post got me thinking about the music of my youth. Some of which I discovered well after my youth.

I had (well, still have, since I see them all the time) a pretty tight-knit group of friends when I was growing up. We lived in the same, small, boring bedroom community, rode our Huffy bikes through constructions sites around town, pretended to go exploring in the "woods" of a local nature preserve (we could always hear Route 80 in the background, so it wasn't really roughing it), spent one summer day chasing each other all over town with water pistols (back in the days when you could get water guns that look like real guns just about anywhere...I'm still shocked none of us got shot...though we did get stopped by the cops). And we all got into roughly the same music at the same time.

By a weird quirk of birth order and luck, there weren't a lot of older brothers to be had. I had one, and one of my friends had one, but all the rest were much older sisters or only children or the oldest themselves. So there wasn't a lot of inheriting of record collections, or trying to emulate cool older siblings. We were kind of on our own. And what did we get into? Doo wop. I kid you not.

Maybe it was the influence of Stand By Me. It probably was the influence of Stand By Me, which, when I was ten, was the single most important and honest movie ever made. Period. But from the time I was about 11 or 12, until into high school, I listened to a steady stream of The Inkspots, The Dells, The Orioles, the Chords. Basically my internal dial was tuned to WCBS-FM, all oldies, all the time.

Oh, some "modern" music crept in (taped live off the radio, of course). I liked my Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince. I could get down with some good Top 40, Casey Kasem action. But underneath it all, I was a Drifters man. I loved Billy Joel's An Innocent Man almost more because it was all a tribute to doo wop.

In his play, Music from A Sparkling Planet, Douglas Carter Beane has a line that's stuck with me since I saw it: "There's nothing more comforting than the past's idea of the future." Doo wop is kind of like that: it was so full of a long-lost optimism and hope, even when singing about heartbreak. It's the sound of that place, that strange, beautiful place right before the raging hormones of your teenage years kick in, when you're still kind of a child, looking at the world as though it's new, but adulthood is coming around the bend and you think that it will just be awesome! Awesome to not have a bedtime, or to eat whatever you want, when you want. It's that age when being a grown-up seems like summer vacation all the time, when having a girlfriend (or boyfriend) means holding hands. You can't possibly see how anything could be wrong with growing up.

And, in 1984, the height of the Reagan years, despite the horrors that were being wrought on Central America, urban America, gay America, poor America, if you were a kid in a sleepy bedroom town in New Jersey, it was the sound of the life you wanted. Happy, clean-cut, obviously nice-smelling kids whose parents weren't divorced, whose older brothers weren't weird punk-rock art-freaks, who clearly weren't the only black kid in class, all singing in unison about the same thing. That, my friends, was the sound of my heart. This was the sound of my heart.


When I think about the music that made me, I think about that. Lord God, I was so uncool. In my middle school yearbook, I had them print, under my picture: Doo Wop Will Never Die! And I was surprised to discover that I didn't get laid until college.

But, for me, it won't. Underneath the punk rock, alt-rock, indie pop, hip-hop, showtunes and mash-ups that cover my soul in layers like a palimpsest, at the bottom of the well, there's a group of guys, all dressed alike, smiling, dancing in unison and singing in perfect harmony.

11 comments:

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Thanks for the shout-out. Great recollection. As for me, I'm a Del-Vikings man. I'm not sure why, but I can't hear "Come and Go With Me" without being moved.

99 said...

I was thisclose to using that instead of Stand By Me. I love that song, too, but Stand By Me has a slighter stronger pull. Despite being a little cheesier...What can I say? I'm a little cheesy.

joshcon80 said...

I love Doo Wop ALMOST as much as the girl groups from the same era, some of which are kind of Doo Wop or would have been had they not been girls. Like The Ronettes. And The Crystals. And The Chiffons. (Also the names of the "doo wop girls" in Little Shop of Horrors.)I was also SUPER into Leslie Gore when I was little. What a fag!

I'm so thrilled that riot grrl is getting some attention. Kathleen Hanna just donated her entire zine collection to NYU and there are tons of books and movies coming out. I wonder if the mainstream critics will ever give the sub genre it's due.

A black kid with a realistic toy gun? You're lucky to be alive.

99 said...

I know, right? I'm amazed that my parents let me leave the house like that.

I'll do my usual rant on it sometime, but I think most of the cultural trends of the late '80s and early '90s get ignored. Riot grrls were a big deal and should be remembered. That was one of the many ways my life bumped up against punk rock without actually connecting to it. Riot grrls helped make rock feel inclusive, not just something for angry white boys of all stripes.

cgeye said...

It was riot grrl that helped third wave feminism not be a joke. It wasn't just girls with guitars; it was justifiably pissed and passionate girls in the lead.

When it was pushed aside, all that was left were strippers dressed like kinderwhores insisting their acquiescence to the same old guy behavior was performance art. (And the Disney Channel taking notes about how to convert their pubescent stable into cash through faux-self-empowerment memes.) Sheesh....

rebecca longworth said...

Awesome. Nice to hear some praise both for Doo-Wop and Riot Grrrls. You almost make me long for those 80s days of my childhood... which sound a lot like yours minus the construction sites (we just rode our huffys to the "woods") and seem so pleasantly off-kilter now, but were so painful when lived.

99 said...

In my town, there were woods one day and then the next, a new development sprung up: The Hills. Lots of awesome dirt piles to run around on and wreck your good clothes.

ukejackson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ukejackson said...

Corrected for spelling:

If you like doo wop, check out The Cats and The Fiddle sometime -- one of the 1930s-40s precursors. great stuff!

joshcon80 said...

"When it was pushed aside, all that was left were strippers dressed like kinderwhores insisting their acquiescence to the same old guy behavior was performance art."

Too true! My friend Mallery once asked, totally exasperated, "when did being a feminist and being a hooker become one and the same?"

kelsi said...

I've been reading you for months and months (via Josh. And Isaac.) But this is the most compelling thing I've read yet (obviously.) I love how deeply music affects each of us. And, like Josh, I'm totes impressed you made it through as a black kid with a realistic looking fake gun.
Impressed and grateful. You have a lot of good to share with the world.