I stopped listening to “radio music” in 1975. I remember the exact moment: I was on the F train in Manhattan on my way home to Brooklyn after a typical day of work. I was standing. Seated across the car was a teenaged girl. Her blonde hair had been “styled.” That’s not a big deal now, of course, but in 1975 it was the first time in many years that I had seen hair on a young person that was not just let to grow long and free. I don’t think I can get across how striking this was, how unusual. The style of this girl’s hair was a replica of the style worn by Farrah Fawcett-Majors, as she was known at the time, on whatever television program she acted in.
This one moment told me that the subculture, the hippie era, or the 60s and the 70s, or whatever we might have called it, was over. If young people, people a generation younger than I (I was in my 20s at the time) were going to accept and emulate commercial culture, to fit into it rather than naturally live an alternative to that culture, that culture was over, because television was too ubiquitous and powerful a tool for promulgating commercial culture. The empire was striking back.
And the music seemed to drop the need for meaning and lyrics and become about dancing.
It was not just that disco sucks (on further lifetime review, it is not that it ‘sucks,” it is that I myself found nothing in it, and I most certainly dance to danceable music now) but that commercial national music sucks, and that what Joni Mitchell called “the star-making machinery behind the popular song” was very good for business, or for a few businesses at least, and wildly harmful to meaning, to quality songs and music, to musicians and to listening audiences whose tastes were being guided by the few people who stood to make large amounts of money and achieve extraordinary fame from that system.
And I no longer heard music that mattered on the radio, not even from the sources I had grown up on, the eclectic Pacifica outlet WBAI and the disc jockeys on WNEW-FM, who played a delicious mix of songs, some folk from local performers like Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs and Dave Van Ronk, and related material like “Mr. Bojangles” from Jerry Jeff Walker, to experimental guitar jazz fusion by Jon McLaughlin and Carlos Santana, and so much more. And the disc jockeys would announce the songs and say who played on the recordings and talk about the meaning of the songs and about the performers, and it was about the music.
Those radio sources either ceased to exist or they changed as radio changed and became much more a route to revenue for the “music industry” and less about the meaning of the music. The way people listened changed.
And I stopped listening at all. I moved to Southern California and bought two records, Neil Young’s “Harvest” and Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” and stripped the grooves, and I listened to the remnants of the kind of music that mattered to me, like Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” and I watched a rock concert show late Saturday nights after “Saturday Night Live” and saw and heard music I liked, but I saw Rod Stewart in lipstick and face powder singing disco and I was appalled. When I moved to Northern California a year later, I had stopped listening to any of it.
With very rare exception I do not hear the national music. The list of things I’ve never heard is ridiculous, especially since my own music is compared to artists that everyone but me knows. I have never heard an album by Tom Waits or Billy Joel, for instance, let alone rock bands from the eighties on.
When I came into contact with the local music community in Marin and then in San Francisco, I heard songs at open mics and local performances that moved me the way the music of the 60s and 70s had moved me when they were current. So I began to do what I had always done with that music, studied the lyrics, studied the music, delved into it with the same fervor that everyone I knew back in the day normally and regularly applied to the music we grew up with.
That’s what I’m doing now. In addition, I am meeting and getting to know the people who write, perform and produce that music, and I cannot adequately get across how satisfying that is to me. I am actively advocating for an atmosphere in which my own songs, my own music, can be heard and taken as seriously as I take other’s music, as seriously as all the humans I grew up with took their music back then.
I hear Roem Baur’s “No More Sunsets” and am not satisfied just to hear it; I had to cover it on a “Cover Your Friends” night at the open mic. I hear Megan Slankard’s CD “A Token of the Wreckage” and I am wearing out the bits from the laser disc of that incredible opus that I have reviewed previously, and I’ve covered Eric Andersen’s “Blue Green,” and I am blown clean away by The Kilbanes’ “Awake” and cannot stop singing it, and Thunderegg’s “Not What I Meant” and Jeff Campbell’s “Fourth Street” and Bill Fried’s “I’m Sorry” and Dennis Haneda’s “My Disease” and The Sad Truth’s “(I’ve Never Been To) Texas” and Gentry Bronson’s “Beautiful Ghost,” which I have covered as well, and Brad Brooks’ “Night Fades” and Bobby Jo Valentine’s “Chase Away My Dark” and Dan Moses’ “Sailors Gone” and Jesse Brewster’s “Sorry Ain’t Enough” and Jimmy James Page’s “Maybe I Don’t Love You Any More” and Bobby Dunne’s “The Water’s Gonna Rise” and Susan Zelinsky’s “Walking on the Ceiling” and Ben Hulan’s “You” and Donovan Plant’s “San Francisco” and Jeff Desira’s “When I Let Go.” And Scott Mickelson and Fat Opie’s masterpiece album, “Victoryville.” And all the rest of the songs from our community that I know, adore, respect, admire and love.
And I am actively advocating for culture change around music, by which highfaluting phrase I mean that I am asking people to recognize the possibility that their “local” music, wherever they are, is better than what they are being fed nationally, and that it is because the national music has commerce as its goal and only infrequently promotes quality rather than dictating what people ought to experience as quality, while music made by the humans where we live, wherever we live, is much more likely to be about meaning and quality than about big-dollar commerce.
What do we want from our music-listening experience? I just suggest we ask the question and examine our unconscious response to what we have been force-fed, that we actively choose “local” music not because it’s a good economic or political idea, but because it is, in fact, better music.