Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Dancing in the Dark

The Band
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artists: The Band; Robbie Robertson
Albums: The Band; The Best of the Band; The Last Waltz box set; Robbie Robertson
Source: Bought new

Almost all of my Music Buddies have one thing in common with each other, and oddly it’s not something I have in common with them: they tend to have a parent who put them on the path of musical adventurism at an early age. Lee’s folks had him listening to Miles and Beefheart pre-puberty; JP’s dad gave him a deep well of knowledge to drink from right off the bat; Debbie grew up in NYC with parents who took her to music at Lincoln Center and elsewhere at an early age. All eventually went on their own musical roads, but they got to hitch a ride for the first few miles.

My folks did plenty of good stuff for me growing up, but laying out the great mysteries of the musical universe was not one of them. Jim Croce, Judy Collins and John Denver were the records on the stereo growing up; the only jazz I remember seeing in the stacks was Chuck Mangione; they had some Beatles, but found Sgt. Pepper’s just a little too out there. Sure, I loved “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “Grandma’s Feather Bed” as a kid, but that’s hardly the stuff of Music Geekdom 101.

So like Ragu, it must have just been in there somewhere. I remember listening to my first records and tapes almost obsessively. Nevermind that they were Billy Joel, the Village People and the J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame – there was something important hidden in between the grooves, and I wanted to find it. And I wanted more.

With no Sacagawea at home to guide me, I had to set off on my own. Like most good things, the best of it happened in the dark. I had a small boombox, and at night I would put it between my bed and the wall, turn the volume up low and listen. Philly had two “rock” radio stations (as differentiated from Top 40), WMMR and WYSP, and they taught me. The Clash, Elvis Costello, the Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zep, Talking Heads, Cream, Neil Young…it would come through the air into my dark bedroom and seep its way into me. In Scorcese’s recent Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, Dylan talks about hearing a record as a kid and suddenly realizing that, “I was a different person now.”

I know exactly what he means.

And it was actually some of Dylan’s buddies that made the biggest impression on me in those junior-high nights. The Band was all over those late-night sets: “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and others sounded like they were brand-new and a million years old. Al Gore got a lot of crap in the 2000 campaign when he cited “Cripple Creek” as his favorite song (mostly because of the “drunkard’s dream” lyric; it really should have been Dubbya’s tune, eh?), but I got it – he and Tipper had heard it together in the flush of young love, I bet, and the way Levon Helm sings, “If I spring a leak, she mends me” over Robbie Robertson’s out-of-time guitar made today into yesterday all over again. Heck, Bush should have gotten heat for not citing this song.

I ate up a lot of The Band in my early teens. I watched The Last Waltz over and over again. In my high-school-lay days, “Stage Fright” was a private anthem. I saw movies like After Hours just because Robbie Robertson had done the score. I still think that life is a carnival.

When Robertson put out his first solo album in 1987, I was all over it. The self-titled disc sounded nothing like The Band, but it still felt that way. My friend Don and I memorized every note of the record, and “Fallen Angel” still gets me a little choked up. It’s a record of deep earth tones shot through with bursts of bright blue, and it’s not quite like anything else I own. Like Springsteen, Robbie has some deep, deep understanding of the power of the music he’s playing; actually, it usually sounds like it’s playing him.

To be honest, I kind of miss discovering music the way I found The Band. When you’re in the dark, in the bottom of a bunk-bed set, with a tiny radio pressed against the wall, the music hits the edges of the darkness and it becomes the whole world. My Music Buddies might have been handed the map at an early age, but I got to draw my own path in the dark, realizing that the earth wasn’t flat through real experience rather than received wisdom.

SISOSIG? It’s a bunch of white guys playing in 4/4, but this is soul music in the deepest sense – it hits you way down and then stays there. The Band sounded kind of old in the 60s and just kept slipping further and further out of time. Some music grows old with you, but this is its own thing, with its own reason to hold onto it: The Band is music that you can grow toward, like a tree growing into the light, and it should be required for aging teenagers, presidential candidates and just about anyone else whose ears are connected to their deeper places.


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