No kidding: How rock expanded my musical horizons

Saved by rock n roll

4 minute read
Jammin' with Janacek (above) recharged my batteries.
Jammin' with Janacek (above) recharged my batteries.

I spent most of my life as a young curmudgeon. I stuck to “high culture” while grudgingly admitting that some rock music was good. I didn’t know much about it, though; most of the rock I was exposed to was Top 40, which is usually fine as background noise but terrible to listen to for its own sake.

Some embarrassing incidents over the years softened my dogmatism. I was sitting at a bar with one of my best friends when I heard a gorgeous, languid song. It sounded like some old man was in a giant convertible, winding leisurely down a road with the top down, wearing a voluminous cowboy hat and smoking a great big cigar.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Hank Williams, Senior,” came the reply.

“That’s impossible! Country music sucks, and this is great.”

“It’s Hank Williams, Senior.”

It was a bit like the time I declared a certain composition to be too good to be Handel, and then it turned out to be Handel.

Not until this year, though, did my Pandora’s box open. And I owe a world of thanks to some of the happiest surprises in my life.

One night in South Philly

I’ve always loved “modern classical” music, and I devoured Alex Ross’s 2007 book, The Rest is Noise, which covered every musical development from Strauss and Mahler to Nixon in China. So when I saw Ross’s 2010 follow-up, Listen to This, on the shelf at The Strand, I scooped it up without checking what it was about. Turns out it discusses a dizzyingly wide array of musical topics: Olivier Messiaen’s influence on Jonny Greenwood, Bjork and even the nature-inspired music of John Luther Adams. A whole new world opened its arms to me, and I began to suspect that there are really only two kinds of music: good and bad.

A few months later I was with some friends when we decided to end the night at Johnny Brenda’s, one of Philadelphia’s best live music venues. It was my first time there. On tap was The Explorer’s Club from Charleston, S.C. Some compared this group to the Beach Boys, so I was worried, since I can’t stand the Beach Boys’ sound. But the Explorers got on stage and were anything but; the only similarity was the rich harmony in which they sang. This eight-piece band crammed onto the stage, looking like every cell in their bodies was vibrating a thousand times a minute.

“This is why I became a musician,” I thought to myself, “because it makes me feel like that!”

Good timing

Not long after, I mentioned to my buddy Max that I was practicing the trumpet again in the hope of diversifying my gigs.

“You should play with our band,” he said. “We’ve been looking for a horn player for a while.”

“Sounds good to me, but my chops aren’t back in shape yet,” I said.

“We don’t want them to be.”

So I stopped practicing, and I started playing psych rock instead. If this possibility had emerged even a few months earlier, I wouldn’t have been interested, but Max asked at exactly the right time. It’s one of those unpredictable hinges on which your life pivots.

At my first show I got lost in a song and made a cacophonous racket. But I hadn’t had that much fun in years.

I discovered very quickly that rockers would listen to anything. On what became an infamous night, I was standing outside a South Philly dive bar, chatting with my cohort Mike.

“I’ve heard repeated bass notes in all kinds of minimalism,” I said, “but I never thought to use them as a recurring theme like you did. So I used it that way in a chant improvisation last weekend.”

“Dude,” a bystander interjected, “more people need to be listening to Gregorian chant!” I admit I was taken by surprise.

Refusing to grow up

My friend Adam regaled me one night about his recent YouTubing. “I was jammin’ out to this composer named Janacek,” he said.

“If you like Janacek,” I countered, “check out Bartok.”

We trade playlists, debate philosophy, talk science. These guys make music because they want to find meaning in life, to yawp about the insolubility of life’s problems. They’re good at it because, in their good sense, they refuse to grow up into a staid adulthood. The way I listen to Classical music has completely changed under their influence. It seems rawer to me now, closer to the live wire of human existence.

Redemption often comes from unexpected sources. It’s easy for a professional musician to get stuck in a rut. I was in such a situation when rock music came into my life.

“Her life was saved by rock and roll,” Lou Reed famously sang. I can relate. This genre has cured me, to some degree, of my cantankerousness. My youth was spent entirely on the old, and I wish it hadn’t been that way. But better late than never.

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