I Still Like It Loud (A love letter to music)
In an episode about New York culture in the popular Scorcese/Netflix series, Pretend It's a City, writer and raconteur Fran Leibovitz declares, "No one is loved like musicians" and "Music is a drug that doesn't kill you." Could there be any truer truths? I have been crazy about music ever since I was ten and swooned to trippy Crimson and Clover on my portable AM radio (before much cooler FM: WMMR) that never seemed to be off, even accompanying me to sleep. I can still remember every word. In fact, I am shocked at how I remember the lyrics to songs I listened to over 50 years ago. I have often joked that I could easily win a Jimmy Fallon-like lyr-a-thon with no challenge whatsoever. No surprise, since like many adolescents and teenagers, my childhood was spent locked in my room with my records, playing them over and over until I knew every ooh, ahh and uh huh. Remember when LP's starting coming with the lyrics printed? I was in heaven. By high school, my friends and I would pile in some boy’s van on the weekends for concerts at the Spectrum or the more intimate Tower Theatre in Philadelphia where I grew up, regularly waiting in line for hours to get front row seats and lose part of our hearing. These were the days of Bic lighters glowing in a weed-infused haze, asking for Just. One. More. Please!
I owe my love of music in part to my father, who fancied himself a singer. His younger brother, my Uncle Phil was a professional in Las Vegas and my dad loved mingling with the headliners and aspired to be in that world. The world of performing. There was often Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole wafting through our house, especially on a Friday night when he'd be searing a juicy steak with red wine and mushrooms. He always looked happiest when he was cookng or singing so naturally for me, music and food became synonymous with happiness.
As a student of piano, I learned those crooner songs for my dad and accompanied him while he sang. He begged me to go to school to study music, but at the time I had other plans. Not too many parents (especially in those days) encouraged their children to pursue a creative life, so kudos to my dad for that. Eventually though, even after having three instruments under my belt, I knew I didn't possess the proper discipline for music that I had for visual art. For me, music was sheer pleasure, and during my time studying music, practice felt more like drudgery. I wanted to instantly sound like the music on the radio. Didn't we all?
Singing was infinitely easier and I grew up as a member of G-rated Glee Clubs and the church choir. I even played the pipe organ in church for a while, having to scoot to the front of the bench in order to reach the pedals, marked in black magic marker: C, G, D. These venues helped me appreciate group singing and hone harmonies that my voice still naturally wants to cull out from a melody. On the other hand, what rebellious young Boomer-girl didn't want to possess the ability to belt it out like Janis or Grace? Or write like Joni? Even as a teenager, I recognized that as power, and as Lebowitz rightly points out, a drug of the best kind.
By the late 1960's, Motown was a monster in Philadelphia. Even though Motown was Detroit, the "Philly soul" sound emerged with its own flavor, and was a favorite for what we called "slow dancing" and passed for romantic songs in those tender adolescent days. Think Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. Later, I discovered funk. James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone had an effect on my body that previously had been unexplored. I fell in love with bass lines and new rhythms, glued to Soul Train every week on television with the sultry voice of host, Don Cornelius at the helm.
The recent death of singer Mary Wilson prompted me to remember the time my sisters and cousins became the Supremes. First arguing over who got to be Diana, we rehearsed and performed our version of Stop In The Name of Love in the basement of my aunt's house, making up the dance steps and hand motions from what we'd seen on television and magazine photos, playing the record over and over to learn the lyrics.(A year ago-pre-covid, these same cousins met up for a family wedding in Mexico, and even though we were twice the age of most of the guests, we commanded the dance floor with the frenetic energy of our youth). Founded the year after my birth in 1959, to this day, hearing Motown sends me to some weirdly cellular memory that is pure joy.
In early high school, Springsteen ruled the Northeast and we Philly girls adopted the Jersey boy as our own. We couldn’t get enough of Bruce's bad boy looks or Clarence’s saxaphone. It follows that if your idols in high school are dark, scruffy musicians with poetic sensibilities, (I clearly remember a giant Cat Stevens poster above my bed) it would make sense that you'd be destined to fall for a musician every time. Music as aphrodisiac. For this reason, there have always been musicians in my life starting from my first apartment with roommates when I was 18. Nightly, a few people would suddenly appear (without phones!) at our door with guitars and "magical" supplies to enhance our evening. Long term relationships with a couple of guitar players put me squarely in the groupie audience where I got to say, "I'm with the band".
One of the superpowers that music and musicians have is the ability to make people move. Dancing for me will always be synonymous with celebration and fun. Our bodies thank us for this effort by giving us huge doses of feel-good endorphins and serotonin. Even without dancing, my body simply can not, not move. When music is on, there will always be a head bobbing, a foot tapping or a thigh being drummed. The very first 45 rpm I purchased when I was ten, was the bubble-gummy Build Me Up Buttercup by The Foundations. I must have played it 3000 times, discovering the power of dance in my adolescent bedroom.
I am sincerely baffled by anyone who could remain still to songs like Oye Como Va, (or Smooth!) or Light My Fire—Jose's version (ok, I'm a sucker for a Latin rhythm), or the never-gets-old electric edge of Gimme Shelter, with Merry Clayton's primal backup vocals primarily responsible for the song's iconic status. I’m certainly a product of my generation’s taste in music, but if you are a Boomer parent, there is a good chance that you also love your kid’s music and they love yours. Technology has brought music into our lives like never before and there is more crossover than ever when it comes to listener tastes and genres. On my Spotify favorites, I have everything from Beethoven, to Etta James, to The White Stripes.
While Boomer kids were busy alienating their parents with music they didn't understand or wanted nothing to do with, by contrast, when my son discovered the popular metal band Green Day, he and I fell in love together. The summer he was eleven, we hosted a wedding on our semi-rural property, and he would not let the DJ rest until his favorite, the politically charged, Holiday was spinning and he and I hit the makeshift dance floor under the trees. Another music lover was born.
We can all be a bit snobbish and sometimes rigid about the music we listen to. We like what we like and shun what we don't. But we also listen to music for many reasons that have nothing to do with taste. Memory and nostalgia for two. These days, I discriminate less with my head or what’s current and let my body decide what it wants. I was a fervent hater of disco and popular music in the 80's but now, when I hear the slithery bass line of the Bee Gees' Stayin' Alive, or the popping one in Just Like Heaven, by The Cure, you can bet I will be on the dance floor. Rhythm and groove come in many forms. Similarly, you’d be hard-pressed to get me to love country music, but Patsy Kline's Crazy gets me every time. Am I a fan of Bon Jovi? No, but I love Livin' on a Prayer (this, a haunting acoustic version from a 9/11 tribute) because my then nineteen year old son and I danced wildly to it at a family wedding in Madrid at 3:00 in the morning. And my body holds that memory— with the music as key.
The power that music or a song can have over us is astounding, magical and legendary. Music is one of the most universally moving experiences we can have. If there is something else that comes close, I'd like to know what. Whether it's love, or nostalgia or the power to make you move, it's nearly impossible to get through life without music's influence in some way.
And for some of us, it remains central to daily life and sustenance. Essential as food. I've always had awe and envy for musicians to have a platform to connect to the energy of an audience in real time. To feel that you are responsible for all that joy. It’s certainly been responsible for a lot of it in my life. As a painter and writer, I create alone and can't duplicate the immediate experience that musicians are able to transmit. But I am sure grateful for the transmission. How amazing would it feel to see someone inspired to dance like a maniac in front of a painting?
Attempting to learn the flute, circa 1980