On a recent boys’ night out, a friend described the problems he was having with his daughters. An Internet video, a parent-condemned wedding, a car crash, an expulsion from school, and a stay in a mental health facility were the high points, but his tale seemed an endless litany of bad karma. It was as if every bad thing he’d ever done was coming home to roost in his home and family.
My first thought was, “No way are you ever, ever babysitting my daughter.” Then I thought, “Man, if John Darnielle were a middle-aged parent, he’d write a song full of bleak stuff just like that.” I didn’t say that out loud to my friend, in case he thought I was making light of his trauma, but also because I knew he wouldn’t get the reference. So maybe the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn instead? Writing a tale of his own children turned hoodrats and struggling to survive adolescence? No, that wouldn’t quite work, either.
Admitttedly, Darnielle and Finn are relatively obscure figures, but the allusion’s biggest hurdle is that my friend has given up on music. Gave up on it long ago, in fact, which is a shame. Granted, divorce, deployment to Iraq, and five turbulent children will shift your priorities just a bit, but this represents a sea change at the heart of my friend’s personality, as if he were truly leaving behind the trappings of his younger self. This is the guy who listened to Zappa back in high school, who made a compelling case for Joe Walsh’s The Confessor as a great lost album. He introduced me to R.E.M. But now he was the time-locked guy who suggested that my annual Halloween mix lacked something “out there” like a little Blue Öyster Cult or Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein”. It’s not like losing a mentor — maybe more like if Butch watched Sundance go legit — but it got me to thinking about my own relationship to music.
I certainly haven’t given up on music — not by any stretch. I still haunt the record store on New Release Tuesdays. I review albums. I write this column. It’s safe to say that I’m constantly trying to make sense of the way music has affected my life since I was a boy destroying my parents’ Beatles records by playing them all day, every day. As an awkward teen (and let’s face it, on through adulthood), I was never a good talker, so I was left to writing or the time-honored mix tape to get my thoughts across. Late night video shows like USA’s Night Flight and a young MTV alerted me to music past the confines of the local classic rock station.
It wasn’t long before I was ordering the Kate Bush box set simply on the strength of her awe-inspiring greatest hits collection, The Whole Story. An obsession with artists who create their own little universes, from the graceful pop of Neil Finn to the junkyard racket of Tom Waits, was inevitable. Even now, I sit bleary-eyed through MTV2’s late-night Subterranean broadcasts, usually unimpressed — I am at that age where I can hear a band and think, “Eh, heard it done better the first time around in the ’80s” — but still believing that something’s going to ignite that familiar spark.
However, I’m forced to admit that it’s harder to fit music in these days. I have a wife and a baby girl, so there’s no more bachelor pad where I can crank up the stereo any old time I want. My listening habits now take place mainly in the car, or at work, where I’m busy concentrating on other things. So music, even the most interesting stuff, tends to take on a background role simply because my slowly ossifying brain can’t multi-task like it used to. But the struggle continues, as I still try to catch the occasional concert (mostly the ones that start after my family’s bedtime), scan mp3 blogs, and feverishly scribble notes on any available paper when the radio plays something intriguing.
Maybe it’s because current methods of listening aren’t cutting it that I’ve started buying more vinyl. Not because it sounds better or evokes nostalgia, as any number of articles on the vinyl resurgence claim, but because listening to vinyl is a more structured and formal experience. When I leave the record store, I can’t sling an album in the CD player and let it recede into the background as I curse other drivers. I have to take it home, and let it sit until I have a chance to listen to it. In some ways, I’m reclaiming the experience by listening to less but making the listening process mean more.
It’s hardly a classic existential crisis, I’ll admit, but such are the choices dictated by increasing age and responsibility. My friend made his choice, even though I’m sure it was never a conscious one. He just woke up one day and subconsciously decided, “I’ve heard all I need to hear.” As for me, I just found three tracks by a band called Black Diamond Heavies on a blog. Makes me think of what Tom Waits would have sounded like if he’d stayed on the corner of Heartattack and Vine, watching the neighborhood go downhill. Can’t wait to hear if the whole album lives up to what I’ve heard so far.