The deeper I get into this little exercise the more I recognize that there aren’t distinct epochs inherent to one’s own musical soundtrack. The development of musical taste isn’t a linear continuum where the Beatleassic is followed by the Frampticene. It’s more of a primordial ooze where evolutionary experiments sometimes lead to abominations and others reap mastodons. Never trust the music geek who swears his musical double helix begins and ends with something cool. He’s lying, or at the very least he’s rewriting his history. Somewhere in that dude’s past he cut a Bobby Sherman record off of a box of Alpha-Bits, or he begged his mother to buy a Bay City Rollers record after he saw the plaid ones on The Krofft Superstar Hour.
If you are under fifty and you claim that you were listening to Nick Drake prior to the “Pink Moon” Volkswagen commercial then you, sir, are a liar. If you are between forty and fifty years of age and you swear that in the privacy of your own bedroom you’ve never shake shake shaken your booty to the Bee Gees or Blondie, you are a filthy liar and I bid you good day. I said good day!
The primordial ooze and its many misfires are the stuff that makes us three-dimensional. None of us are all punk, metal, indie, or even classical. We may calcify into that type of listener as adults, but only after much experimentation. If I’d experimented as much sexually throughout my life as I have musically I’d be more syphilitic than a founding father. Currently in my car you’ll find:
– The Time, What Time Is It?
– Heart, Red Velvet Car
– David Bowie, Diamond Dogs
– David Bowie, Heroes
– Siouxsie and the Banshees, Hyaena
– Frank Zappa, Hot Rats
– Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
I came to some of these later in life — I didn’t hear Miles until I was 19 or so — but I couldn’t have gotten there without slogging through the murky ooze.
What Time Is It is one of those evolutionary misfires. I recently picked up a copy to play for my son. He loves the funk, I love the funk. He’s all too familiar with James Brown and Parliament, so I thought I’d bring home a little ’80s funk. It didn’t really hold up next to the twin funk megasaurs of JB and George Clinton. That I secretly enjoyed this album as a kid (more on that later) doesn’t alter the fact that it just doesn’t hold up for me today.
While at the store I found a used copy of Zappa’s Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch so I had to pick that up, too. One day I will defeat the white whale that is the Frank Zappa catalog. Man that guy was prolific. The ever-hip record store employee looked at my two CDs, eyed my bald head and gray beard and said, “Well, this is the most eclectic purchase of the day.”
I don’t know when it happened exactly, but at some point in the past twenty years I’ve morphed from Jack Black in High Fidelity into the clueless father he berates for buying his daughter a copy of “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” I’m simply no longer record store hip. I don’t even own a fixed gear bicycle.
“I guess that’s what happens when old guys come in, huh? We have a little trouble with genres,” I said. Cool clerk laughed and I left.
Is there an enormous chasm dividing The Time and Frank Zappa? Not really. There’s a lot of R&B influence in Zappa’s non-classical work, and there’s a lot of humor in The Time. They share an adolescent fascination with sex, and both are the brainchild of brilliant madmen who essentially lived in their recording studios (it’s nearly impossible with thirty years distance to hear anything but Prince in What Time Is It).
It is common thinking though: This belongs in this bucket and that belongs in that bucket. Do not mix buckets! Thank you – The Management. As a younger me I complied with a fervor equalled only by an unemployed white guy at a Glenn Beck rally. My shirts were black, my jeans were Levis, and my music rocked. I wasn’t too aware of subgenres: Lynyrd Skynyrd was as viable as Judas Priest. Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s A Winner” and Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” featured badass guitar. That was really the only qualification for the jam – badass guitar. Not genre, not race, not riffs. As a card-carrying member of the Guys Who Jammed club I could not like music that didn’t rock. No Chic, Donna Summer or Village People, thank you.
One rare evening my father accepted a coworker’s dinner party invitation. My parents dragged me along because the hosts had a daughter my age, which was maybe thirteen, fourteen tops. I don’t remember a thing about the parents or the dinner, but the daughter was hot. Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon hot. “The Nuge will never sign her cleavage” hot.
After dinner the parents sent us kids up to the daughter’s room so that they could talk about taxes or snow tires or whatever boring crap adults talk about. I couldn’t believe my luck. The grown-ups, oblivious to the fact that we were past the Chutes and Ladders age, shooed us off to play. With any luck I’d have her out of her Gloria Vanderbilts and down to nothing but an add-a-bead necklace before the fools realized their mistake.
Her room was in that transitional state between childhood and adolescence: lots of pastel colors, a white bed with pink dust ruffle and lots of stuffed animals. A ballerina music box sat next to the stereo on top of her dresser. The whole place smelled like The Untouchables — the girls in my junior high school who were off-limits to rednecks in army jackets and black t-shirts. Tacked to the back of her bedroom door was a poster of Prince in the shower, nude but for a thong and a belly chain. It couldn’t have been more incongruous, like watching the Queen eat Cheetos.
“You want to listen to some music?”
She had maybe ten albums in her bookcase, but she considered each one carefully. “Oh, I love this record.” She dropped the needle on What Time Is It? and began to dance. I sat on the floor and watched her, hoping I didn’t get called to the board to work a math problem.
“Come on, come dance,” she said.
“Nah, I’m cool.”
“777-9311,” she sang along. “Come on, why not?”
I really wanted to dance, but my adolescent hormones did not allow for a comfortable standing position at that particular moment. Besides, the principles of the jam did not allow for such heresy. No badass guitar? No thank you. I couldn’t admit that deep within my army jacketed interior I was doing the white boy underbite and shake shake shaking my booty.
“I just don’t feel like it.”
“You don’t like The Time?”
“They’re cool I guess, if you like that kind of music.”
The Gloria Vanderbilts stopped shaking. “What kind of music?”
“You know, that stuff they play on the radio.”
“What’s wrong with the music on the radio?”
“Nothing if that’s what you’re into.”
“Oh, but I guess you listen to real music like AC/DC and KISS?”
“That’s not what I meant. This stuff is really cool for the skating rink and things like that. I just wouldn’t listen to it on purpose.”
She looked at me with the same expression as The Untouchables from my school, the “someday you’ll be pumping my gas” expression. We sat in silence for the rest of the evening and waited for the parents to finish visiting.
I don’t have a pithy conclusion to this. I liked the album, I liked the girl, I behaved like a music snob to impress her and it backfired. Thirty years later the music doesn’t hold up but the memory and the life lesson do. There must be something worth noting in that. Right? Right?