I've never been able to boast that I have sophisticated taste in music. When I was a young kid buying 45's, I would buy records by the Yardbirds and listen to the B sides, but most of my music taste throughout my life has been brought by people saying "Hey, take a listen to this." Except for the Beatles, which came along when I was nine, and were so huge a phenomenon that EVERYONE gave them a listen, I've never been a passionate follower of groundbreaking music, no matter how much at times I wanted to fancy myself one. In my early teens I listened to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and Cream because my friends did. In my slightly later teens, my sister introduced me to the song stylings of Joni Mitchell, which in my near-constant state of adolescent depression, was kind of like giving downs to someone who's suicidal already. In college there was a lot of Pink Floyd and Billy Joel and Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
album, until the boyfriend of one of my friends started visiting her on weekends with a bunch of his buddies, and she'd go off with some other boy she had a crush on, leaving me to listen to the Allman Bros. Band with these guys, one of whom would bring bottles of blackberry brandy, get drunk and end up crying because Duane Allman was dead.
I don't even want to TALK about some of the music I listened to in the late 1970's when I would go out, though I was an avid devotée of Mark Simone's groundbreaking (yes, really) Sunday morning new wave-driven radio show.
Then in 1983 Mr. Brilliant came along and introduced me to reggae and African pop music and Bèla Fleck and the Grateful Dead.
Aside from an avid and irrational affection for 1920's jazz which I can only attribute to past-life memories, the only music I "discovered" on my own was the Dave Matthews Band, whose Under the Table and Dreaming
CD I bought after we'd missed them at the 1993 H.O.R.D.E. festival show out at Waterloo Village, where we sat through the Scream Cheetah Wheelies and Big Head Todd and the Monsters in order to get to the Allman Bros. Band. That was when I understood how people would hear a band and say, "Yes. This is home."
So it was news to me last week, when reading about the death of Alex Chilton, that the former lead singer of the Box Tops and co-founder of Big Star (a band I've never heard) had had an influence on later bands that outweighed his own renown.
Many of the tributes have featured this video of Chilton at the ridiculous age of 16, with a voice like an old black bluesman, in a TV appearance with the Box Tops, singing one of the catchiest two-minute blue-eyed soul pop songs in history:
Like many video clips from that time, there's something profoundly weird about this performance -- the stiffness of the performance, its obvious lip- and instrument-syncing, its teenaged frontman glowering from under his eyebrows, seemingly in a vain attempt to look badass, and the sudden break into cheekiness on the part of the entire band, as if saying "Yes, we know this is ridiculous." But I can tell you that in 1967, you couldn't get away from that song for five minutes.
I've listened to some Big Star since then, and perhaps I've just hung out with too many music snobs in my day, for whom if it isn't a 20-minute jam or an art concept album it's crap. But I think we tend to understimate the lasting power of a really good, catchy pop song. The history of American popular music is full of these, from Alexander's Ragtime Band
to Losing My Religion
After reading about Chilton's influence, I wish I had something profound to say about his death last week at the age of 59, right before planning to leave for SXSW. But I'll just have to leave that to others.
I think there's a larger issue here, though, for those of us in this generation who used to listen to a guy sing "Hope I die before I get old" and think nothing of it. Because once you get past 50 and start staring old age in the face, you're too old to live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse. So many of the musicians we grew up listening to are gone, and many who are left, and who still tour, are mirrors of our own decline. They say you know you're getting old when you get your college newsletter and read the obituaries instead of the weddings. You also know you're getting old when the people who made the music that formed your own youth start paving the way for your own exit.