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The Music in Me: Instinct or: My Alleged Musical Taste

My Alleged Musical Taste by Zeth Lundy: I didn't want to be branded as just another well-adjusted, normal kid in town; I wanted to be mysterious, vague, difficult to approach and hard to read.

The Music in Me
Instinct or: My Alleged Musical Taste
[10 November 2005]

I didn't want to be branded as just another well-adjusted, normal kid in town; I wanted to be mysterious, vague, difficult to approach and hard to read.

Nine Inch Nails
The Downward Spiral

by Zeth Lundy

I never wanted to be my father.

His unending kindness and support were never enough for an uncomfortable teenager -- I don't think decreed sainthood would have made a difference. To identify myself with him beyond a scientifically documented bloodline felt like an admission of failure that could arrest my growth into maturity. I didn't just think it, I was sure of it. Growing up in a small town in Maine plastered with signs of family businesses, I'd look at older kids following in the footsteps of their fathers: carpenters' sons becoming carpenters, doctors' boys going off to medical school, military men begetting future soldiers. It was all just so predictable. There was never going to be a Lundy and Sons Electrical sign hanging beneath the awning of a Main Street storefront.

Now, at 28, I can't help but stare eerie parallels in the face; it's no wonder we're father and son. As I contemplate the necessity of a routine dental checkup after five years of self-imposed exile from the reclined leather hot-seat, I think back to my father's cautionary tale of the price he paid for exercising the same hygienic evasion. When clarity descended after ceasing a year-long pot binge that struck me victim to my declining motor skills, I recalled his own story of a year lost in a haze of perpetual wake-n-bakes. Perhaps what makes me most like my dad is my stubborn inability to heed the advice of others.

Like any teenage boy trying to sever paternal ties, I found music to be the easiest way to quietly stage a rebellion without resorting to conversation or confrontation. Odd that music would represent this archetypal conflict for me, because only years earlier, the music I loved was the music of my parents. In 1990 while my classmates memorized entire verses of Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby", I kept the radio dial set on the oldies station, enjoying the sounds of Sam Cooke, the Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, and, of course, the ubiquitous Beatles. I kept a mix tape of '60s surf rock in my boombox, the cassette soundtrack to Stand by Me on deck, and my parents' copy of the Band's Music from Big Pink on my turntable.

My parents had relieved themselves of a large portion of their pre-marriage vinyl collections by the time I became old enough to be interested. This was before compact discs usurped vinyl and cassette, and from what I could ascertain, their diminished assortment was due to a number of reasons: memories of younger days that they wanted to forget, a thinning of the clutter, easy money, even (as in the case of my mother's first American edition of Are You Experienced?) excessive mold damage. Of the handful of records that remained (Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt -- mostly late '70s singer-songwriter stuff), Music from Big Pink was my primary fascination. Its sincere, aching sound appealed to me, at once mystical and organic; in an age overrun with synthesizers and commercially conscious pop, the Band struck me as an unpretentious breath of fresh air.

There is no one concrete moment I can point to when my perspective changed, but I can recall the general period when the music I listened to stopped reflecting a shared experience with my parents and came to represent my own awkward independence. I was about 16 years old, my hormones were growing mutinous, and the expected social pose was to reject everything your parents considered cool. Big Pink, my soundtrack to an idyllic childhood, suddenly felt like a piece of antiquated hokum, a slab of scratched vinyl that looked like some kind of ancient relic next to the newly introduced compact discs. It and the turntable became bitter enemies, neither aware of what it had done to insult the other; in a rather ignorant fit of elimination, I further dismissed my mother's copy of Elvis Costello & the Attractions' Imperial Bedroom as nothing more than another weapon in the subversive campaign to keep me content, ignorant, and stunted.

My initial method for creating a new identity was to associate with music that felt weird for weirdness' sake. I didn't want to be branded as just another well-adjusted, normal kid in town; I wanted to be mysterious, vague, difficult to approach and hard to read. I didn't want to listen to the same things my peers did, for fear of being just another face in the Led Zeppelin-worshipping crowd. But most of all, I desired that my musical choices would tell my father the things I couldn't say on my own: I may be your son, but I'm not you.

A number of my musical acquisitions over the next few years (a practice of championing the idiosyncratic that would continue well into my semesters at college) weren't made because I was in love with their contents, but because they would help wreck and fragment my submissive psyche. I obtained a large cross-section of Frank Zappa's discography, not really comprehending the scatterbrained arrangements but admiring the maniacal musicianship; still, it was rock music that sounded like a bastardization and satire of my parents' obsessions, and I found camaraderie with an artist who was willing to deconstruct all that I had suddenly found ridiculous. Albums like Freak Out! and We're Only in It for the Money resonated as bizzaro, through-the-looking-glass versions of the 1960s' pre-Altamont naïve idealism that my parents hailed from (and, through their records, clung to). Zappa's showcases of outrageous instrumental prowess (Hot Rats, Roxy & Elsewhere) and brash confrontation (Weasels Ripped My Flesh) took that rock music to more indefinable heights, oozing sarcasm, crudity, and contempt at an altitude that made my parents nauseous. At least I'd like to think so -- I wasn't exactly forthcoming with my Zappa obsession around the dinner table. Instead, it was an inside joke that I shared with myself, this concealed middle finger wagging at authority figures from behind a closed bedroom door.

More descents into music both bizarre and decidedly non-high school followed suit, including a fleeting fixation with the avant-garde, specifically John Zorn. At the time I sincerely believed I was divining profundity where others saw incomprehension and redundancy; truth be told, adding Zorn to my collection was merely a manifestation of my desperate need to create a wildly unique and indefinable identity. Zappa's music had provided me insight into the conceptualization of rock music, and Zorn was all concept to my ears: the aural cinema of Spillane, the hieroglyphic ciphers of Locus Solus, the abrupt corruptions of Naked City. I feigned an ability to understand the slivered complexities and rigorous assaults of this music, assuming insult (and possibly even self-appointed superiority) when my parents would object.

My mother was across from my room one afternoon, shuffling loads of laundry from one machine to another, her multitude of sterling silver bracelets jangling to the rhythm of the chore. Upon catching wafts of Naked City emanating from my stereo, Zorn's asphyxiated sax skronks intimidating the washing machine's casual churn, she craned her head -- hair spiked and eyes widened -- into my room. "Not one lesson!" she exclaimed with a laugh, an expression we cribbed from Ferris Bueller's Day Off and loved to use when incompetent musicianship was detected. I offered some kind of pseudo-intellectual excuse as she continued to shrug it off ("No, see, you need lots of lessons to be able to sound so unskilled!"); she left my room unconvinced. Her mocking dismissal of an album I had discovered on my own (unlike the passed-down preferences of her generation) was, in reality, an acute observation of my amateurish dabbling in things over my head. My mom called my bluff. I was childishly offended at moments like that, not because my parents disliked my musical choices, but because they couldn't allow me to stray far from their music without a sneaking in some comical commentary.

The most vivid memory I have of music's widening the rift between myself and my father involves Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral. I returned home from school early that day, came in the house through the side door, and found my dad distractedly working on some quick-fix carpentry in our purple kitchen. My copy of The Downward Spiral (which I had left atop the family CD player the previous day) was sitting in conspicuous solitude on the living room table. Had he been listening to it? Picking it up with the intention to escort it back to my room, I turned to the kitchen to satisfy my curiosity.

"Did you listen to this?" I asked knowing the answer would be negative, but intrigued as to why it lay tantalizingly alone in the middle of our house.

"No, I didn't get past the lyrics," my father responded, stopping his handiwork to address me. His face took on that painful look of confusion that generally meant he was eloquently forming words of disappointment. "And frankly, I don't understand why you'd want to listen to it. It's just contemptible stuff: immoral, hostile towards women. I don't see why you'd even give it a chance."

OK, so he left the CD out so I could "stumble" upon it and, naturally, provoke this little chat. Or, my paranoid susceptibilities told me, he left it out so that I could properly dispose of it myself. All I could think about was how I wouldn't be sustaining this unprovoked lecture if I hadn't absentmindedly forgotten the CD in the oft-traveled common area.

"I don't really like the lyrics all that much," I tried to explain in the way of a timid defense. "I'm more interested in the production. I like how the instruments sound and stuff." This was unconditionally true: if there was one thing I liked about The Downward Spiral, it was the claustrophobic layers of sound, not the near-parodic confluence of angst and ire.

"I don't care what it sounds like," he shot back. Before he turned his attention back to his handiwork, he effectively ended the conversation: "I can't monitor what you listen to, but you will not listen to this shit in my house."

My father, who refrained from all profanity around my brother and me, dropped the s-bomb with such disgust for my wayward tastes that I was emotionally shaken. The incident also brought my own obscured duality into clear focus: I was harboring the bait to entice his disapproval while secretly hoping my life made him proud -- not realizing, until this fated altercation, that each could easily negate the other. My parents had previously reveled in our shared musical passions, and here I was, clandestinely betraying the bond we had established -- an exciting duplicity for me to relish in private, but a source of disgrace when exposed in the everyday reality of our living room.

What bothered me most wasn't that my dad didn't dig on my contemporary musical choices, but that he was disappointed in them. I had never been so ashamed to have a particular album in my collection as I was at that very moment. It had less to do with to his broaching the sexual content (we shared a similarly awkward moment a few years earlier when I asked him to explain the "Wham bam, thank you ma'am" line in David Bowie's "Suffragette City") than his vigorous assertion of authoritative dominance. While not prone to threatening postures, my father had a way of being downright intimidating when he thought it would sway my opinion. And in an instance such as this, I was unexpectedly rendered powerless; I had no idea how to plead my defense and emerge any less unscathed than I already was. I felt as though my plan to foster a singular persona had backfired; I wanted to be different, but did I want to be someone my parents were embarrassed of? Perhaps I was taking this metaphoric "castration of the father" too far.

The cruelest part of it all was that I didn't even like the Nine Inch Nails CD. It was part of the burgeoning '90s alternative movement I was so anxious to connect with, and I had bought it with the hopes that it would make me instantly hipper (didn't work -- in fact, nothing ever worked). I didn't subscribe to any palpable aspect of the industrial/goth scene, its cheerless composure or monochromatic rules of fashion; owning The Downward Spiral was nothing more than an attempt to acquaint myself with the fickleness of high school trends and, with any luck, anticipate inclusion. But I really had no opinion of The Downward Spiral and, to be honest, had probably listened to it twice before my father decided to investigate. If by confronting me, he had called my bluff, insinuating that The Downward Spiral wasn't representative of the son he thought he knew, I was too proud to allow him the tiniest whiff of validation. Whether or not the record meant something to me was irrelevant next to the fact that he was actively policing my listening habits. So I let him believe his troubled suspicion: He had spent 16 years of his life raising his eldest son to be upstanding and respectful, and now this devil-spawned ingrate (surely no child of his) was swooning to electro-odes professing "I want to fuck you like an animal".

Of all the people in my life, I expected my father to be the one to sympathize, if not with this particular musical preference, then with my uncomfortable attempt to forge an independent identity for myself. After all, he had been raised in a strict Southern Baptist family that he would inevitably revolt against when he too came of age. At 14, he was nearly forced to forfeit his copy of The Beatles when his mother heard "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" humping from his speakers. Wasn't he just like me at that age, manufacturing a wordless rebellion from the grooves of vinyl? Or simply bonding with the music that mattered to him? Who has the right to interfere with that?

I never said any of these things directly to his face; I was equally petrified of the potential implications of my actions as he was. And only now, in hindsight, does his disapproval strike me as hypocritical. If he had experienced firsthand the desire to become something conspicuously different from his parents' "accepted" parameters (in a much more complex and constrictive family environment, no less), why was he blinded by the parallels in my attempted break? I think a lot of it had to do with his need to keep us close and our relationship meaningful. He didn't want to lose me the way his parents had lost him; he didn't want to be part of another relationship based on duty instead of intimacy. His chosen method to preserve our bond was to firewall it, and in doing so, imply that I needed to declare my position inside or outside the fortified walls -- a reactionary checkmate move that was as selfish as it was well-intentioned. I can't pretend to play the victim here in retrospect, for my phony attachment to certain albums and artists was perhaps just as hypocritical a stance; besides, I can't say I wouldn't have reacted differently had I been in his position (or, should I be in his position someday).

We never broached The Downward Spiral again -- I think we both pretend that the one charged stand-off we ever had over music never happened. As I grew older, the need to acknowledge the potential riff dissipated as I gravitated back towards the music we used to gather around. My willingness to reconnect with the records I'd temporarily shunned was not a peace offering to my parents, but it did force me to admit that our tastes would often intersect (and recognize that my mom and dad were -- gasp! -- cool). It was liberating to let all that adolescent baggage and pretense slip away, to realize that my musical taste needn't be carried like a grudge -- it could be bonded over like a shared language. By allowing music to attach itself to me, rather than try to forcibly identify myself with an errantly eclectic palette like a true dilettante, I could now wallow in the grit of Exile on Main Street with my dad and chill out to Harvest with my mom. Good music can be -- and should be -- identified by instinct, not by a need for self-assertion. The Zorn -- and a majority of the Zappa -- discs have all been sold (respect for the artists, just never listened to them), and I've discovered that I had it right before my teenage desire to be unbelievably exclusive mucked it all up. I've since added Music from Big Pink to my CD collection (which, along with The Band, ranks as one of my favorite records) and Imperial Bedroom is merely one of 20-plus Costello discs on my wall. (Aside: My Costello fixation was, in fact, predetermined and nurtured by my mother, who played me My Aim Is True -- which was released the month I was born in 1977 -- and other Costello records throughout my early, pre-memory childhood.) It seems, at least for a little while, I was wrong about myself and instead should have stuck with my gut feeling. But see, that's me: stubborn, defiant, and sometimes unwilling to look the truth in the eye. Just like Dad.

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