Monday, August 3, 2009

Listening to the past

Remembering the sounds of summer and a cherished old friend

Three decades ago, when I was an early adolescent, summers were trying times.An avid student, I was at a loss about what to do when the school year ended, and lacked much in the way of compelling options. Family vacations were brief and infrequent; the highlight of the summer was typically a day-long excursion to an amusement park that my parents endured for the sake of my sister and me. They couldn't afford to send me to camp, and I wasn't much of an athlete anyway. I ended up spending a great deal of time at my local library. (Once I made it to high school, I got a job there, a big step in improving my overall quality of life.)

When I wasn't at the library, I was at my house and my chief pastime there, other than reading, was listening to the radio -- with headphones if anyone else was in the house, blasting throughout it if I was alone. Radio, more than anything else, was my connection to the outside world, my interface with a public life that seemed both palpable and out of reach. At first, I was a passionate follower of AM hit radio; I cared less about hearing Andy Gibb singing "I Just Want to be Your Everything" than marking the passage of four hours by its repetition and finding out if it would keep its slot at number one (hoping that it wouldn't). Later, I drifted toward FM radio, nudged along by
Rolling Stone, which I began reading at the library, even if I didn't really understand why reviewers thought Elvis Costello or the Clash were so exciting. Eventually I did figure it out, and began using the money I earned at the library for bicycle trips to Taco Bell and the record store to buy albums like London Calling. This was not always music that was easy to find on the radio -- and, truth be told, I was generally happier with Aerosmith and Queen, not really getting why they were not greeted with the same critical enthusiasm -- but by this point I was a restless dial spinner, jumping around the airwaves for just the right song.

But if there was one form of FM radio I did
not seek out in those years, it was the oldies station (WCBS). Every once in a while I would pause there in passing to hear Tony Bennett, or Frank Sinatra, or (increasingly) doo-wop artists and Elvis Presley. I would take a momentary anthropological interest in this ancient music, understanding that there was a time -- like twenty years ago -- when it was considered new and exciting. What was a little harder for me to understand is why anyone would want to listen to this music now, on the radio at least. Radio was the medium of the moment; it was present tense. Wouldn't anyone choosing to plug into what was going on in the world choose music that was new, whatever the style?

I of course matured out of that stance in fairly short order, retroactively acquiring a knowledge and taste for music that extended back beyond the Beatles (who I had some interest in previously) to Presley and eventually Sinatra. I also stayed current with was was going on in pop music until I was about thirty, which got me to Nirvana and Pearl Jam as well as Public Enemy and Arrested Development. As I went off to college and traveled around the country a bit, I went out of my way to sample regional radio powerhouses like WMMR in Philadelphia or WBCN in Boston. Yet in these years I was also increasingly distracted by competing contenders for my free time, among them the proliferation of cable television channels, the growing appeal of public radio, and, of course, the advent of the Internet. I still listened to radio in the car, and was vaguely aware of the various combinations and recombinations of radio formats, corporate mergers, and other permutations in the airwaves. The music I used to listen to in high school and college was now known as "classic rock," and for a while, anyway, seemed to dominate the airwaves, which I understood was because people my age were an attractive demographic for advertisers. To some extent, radio formats have loosened a bit in recent years, and I often check in with a station that emphasizes its mix of old and new.

One of the things I've noticed this summer, though, is that I'm lingering -- a lot more than I used to -- on WCBS. Amazingly, it's still around as an oldies station (I heard a deejay recently who used to spin records on my favorite station as a kid). And, amazingly -- well, it isn't really amazing, but it sure seems that way -- the oldies it plays are songs I used to listen to all the time as "new" music. .The songs bring back memories, which of course is one of the main reasons why people listen to music in the first place, something it took me a while to understand when I had no real past to remember. But they also anchor me in a moment in history, not simply as a middle-aged man, but a middle-aged man in the early twenty-first century. If I had been a middle-aged man in the middle of the twentieth-century, for example, the music of my youth would have been jazz, not rock. If I was to be a middle-aged man more toward the middle of this century, it would be hip-hop rather than whatever will replace it. Which, if the generational span of previous reigns of pop idioms are any indication, should be arriving any day now.

Nowadays, I don't experience the kind of social isolation I did as a teenager. With a wife and four kids of my own, I rarely feel like I have too much time on my hands, though I don't take their permanent presence in my life for granted. And there's now an explosion of media options that are downright dazzling compared to what I knew as a kid. I often think of the great line from the Elvis Costello song, "Girls Talk": "You may not be an old-fashioned girl/But you're gonna get dated." The almost savage anger in the young Costello, even when wrapped in irony, is what made him so exciting. But getting dated isn't always such a bad thing. It might simply mean you multiply what you love.