Thursday, March 11, 2010

Play it Forward: Keeping the Music Alive

I ran into a man, while walking my pug yesterday, and he told me a peculiarly sad story. He had just taken his twenty-year old son to a Buddy Holly tribute band concert. The kid had to be dragged to the event, but wound up loving the music (it’s Buddy Holly – who wouldn’t?). The sad part? It occurred to me even as he was speaking, and in my usual manner, I just blurted it out. “You blew it, man,” I said. “How did your kid get to be twenty without ever hearing Buddy Holly? You’re a parent -- passing that music along is your job.”

I guess I sounded a little harsh, but it was true and the other side of the story – he spent a few minutes describing his futile efforts to enjoy a Kings of Leon album his son wanted him to hear – was just as demoralizing. He owed it to himself and his son to try a little harder. Apart from anything else, Kings of Leon rock. The point is, music stays alive through the proselytizing and cajoling, the commerce and community of families. Things vanish if they’re not appreciated. I think of the ruins in that Borges story which only existed because of one bird visiting on its yearly migrations, because one consciousness valued it. When that bird died, the crumbling old structure simply disappeared. But it’s not just fanciful Argentine metaphors I’m talking about – pieces of history can vanish as well. A Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles had been run by generations of women, with the recipes handed down from mother to daughter, but never transcribed. The system worked perfectly well until the first all-male generation. No one thought to teach the little boys the recipes and when the last old lady who knew them died, a whole subspecies of Mexican cuisine died with her. That’s a cautionary tale about unexamined sexism of course, but it’s also a warning about the fragility of the culture that sustains us.

My mother’s father was a prominent theatrical press agent, a Damon Runyan-esque character who did publicity for the likes of Hoagy Carmichael and Fats Waller, and he exposed her to the great Broadway talent of the twenties and thirties; she married a playwright and continued her intimacy with the stage (Guys and Dolls was playing across the street from my Dad’s first produced play all through the fall of 1952). I grew up saturated with the show tunes she loved, and learned to love the composers who wrote those tunes – George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, among others. They took their place with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky in our household (“Tchaikovsky wrote hit tunes,” she used to exult) Mom could be making breakfast singing “Adelaide’s Lament” from Frank Loesser’s masterpiece (“We get on the train to Niagra, you can hear church bells chime; the compartment is air-conditioned and the mood’s sublime – then we get off at Saratoga, for the fourteenth time), or some ditty from a Mozart opera -- anything was possible. We always had Milton Cross hosting the quiz during the intermission of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts; and I went to sleep every night with the second movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik introducing the late night show on WQXR.

I passed all this on to my kids – along with the music I grew up with … the Beatles, The Stones, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, The Who, Neil Young, Elton John. My kids were the first ones in their elementary school to discover the Beatles, and I was happy so see a small island version of Beatle-mania spread through the ten-year-old Nantucket community faster than a flu bug, They moved on -- to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, The Clash, Nirvana and beyond. Now I’m reaping the benefits, as I discover groups as diverse as The Postal Service The Shins, The Killers, Belle and Sebastian, Vampire Weekend, The Mountain Goats … and yes, Kings of Leon.

How would I have ever discovered this music, without my children? And how would they have discovered it themselves, if they hadn’t grown up in the music-rich environment my wife and I provided? They have taste, and we’re at least partly responsible. It all comes around in giant elegant circles. When my Mom was in the hospital this summer she wanted to hear some ‘new music’- she wanted to know what my kids were listening to. I played her John Darnielle’s Cotton and her face lit up, just as mine had the first time Nick played it for me, three generations connected by the harsh, elegiac spell of a beautiful song.

I can’t wait to hear the music my grandchildren will bring to me, in exchange for “You’re the Top”, “The Pretender” and “Cotton.” It’s how we keep the music alive. But it’s more than that. It’s how we keep each other alive, too.

That’s what I wanted to tell the old man I met on my dog walk. Maybe I’ll make him a mix-tape. He’s going to love Kings of Leon, if he just gives them a chance.

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