The Music in Me: The Band and Me (Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the Beard)
This does not seem at all ridiculous to me, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
The Music in Me
The Band and Me (Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the Beard)
[7 November 2005]
This does not seem at all ridiculous to me, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
by Ben Rubenstein
I can remember the exact moment my life changed for the first time. Well, ok, that's probably not true, as a moyel had something to do with the initial life alteration, and, thankfully, I was not fully conscious at that moment, or I would've had something to say. But the first true, forceful change I can remember and articulate occurred in the Framingham Public Library (main branch), summer of 2000. I had just graduated high school, but that event was not the distinctive moment to which I am referring. In fact, the very un-momentousness of that occasion was what must have, in some sense, led me to my great discovery. I had been spending a lot of time at the library lately, but I wasn't reading very much. And, no, I didn't have a crush on the sultry, bespectacled librarian. I was actually browsing the CD racks, searching for new and obscure recordings that I could bring home and burn for my very own. Using my new Dell computer, a gift my parents had intended to be the first step in my ongoing education at college, but which had actually become an aid to my pirating activities, I had already greatly expanded my CD collection. This was important to me, for owning as many albums as possible was sure to elevate me to the status I had desired, and amazingly lacked, during my high school years. I've often thought, when purchasing an album, that it might be the one that does it. That one day, while flipping through my vast collection of music, someone would say, "Wow, I didn't know you had that. You're amazing. We should have sex (or hang out, or go into business together, or make a presidential run)." This does not seem at all ridiculous to me, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
Nonetheless, I didn't really know it at the time that when I picked up an abridged copy of the Band's final concert, The Last Waltz, it would change my perspective on life. Or, rather, that it would lead to a series of discoveries that may or may not have happened without said music. I had happened upon the album somewhat randomly, though I had heard about the concert before through the illustrious Dr. John, a favorite of mine since way back in the winter of that year. I had recently read Under a Hoodoo Moon, his autobiography, and among the convoluted N'Awlins metaphors, noted a small reference to the good Doctor's performance in the event. So it was not completely without forethought that the CD ended up in my hand, but I like to think there was some element of chance that allowed it to be in the racks on that particular day.
I recall taking it home and listening to it all the way through, and, frankly, not being all that impressed. Then, as often happens, songs began to weave their way into my consciousness. As I went about my largely solitary life that summer as an associate at DSW Shoe Warehouse, I found the nasal, bluesy voice of Richard Manuel stuck in my head, wailing, "You don't know the shape I'm in". In a way, I felt that I did. I had the knack, particularly in those years, of feeling as though musical artists were speaking their words directly to me, as if I were the sole member of the audience. Just months earlier, in fact, I had learned that I had much in common with Bradley Nowell, lead singer of Sublime, despite our divergent upbringings and the fact that one of us had recently died from a heroin overdose. Music was the thing I could always turn to during my less than satisfactory social times. This deep connection with music led me to believe that if others could hear what I enjoyed, they might be able to understand some small part of me. Such was the impetus behind several ill-advised mixtapes.
So I heard something similar to my own experience in Manuel's voice, as well as in the voices of Rick Danko and Levon Helm. Slowly, a sense of purpose, a clear-cut yearning for simple and easy times, began to emerge from their plaintive harmonies, only one of which, "The Weight", I had ever heard before. And as I began to more fully appreciate the rest of the album, and made a second trip to the library to seek out other albums by the group, I began to wonder why I hadn't heard of the Band before. Hadn't other people heard what I had? I simply could not fathom why the group's most extensive fan page was (and still is) located in the small town of Halden, in southeastern Norway, instead of in the land that so inspired their music. But the fact that it was not the Beatles, not the Rolling Stones, was actually encouraging. It felt like I had stumbled upon something great, something all my own. I felt as if I had been let in on a secret. A big, bearded secret. I needed to know more.
Over the next few months before I began college, I spent much of my time getting to know the Band intimately. Along with my newly discovered Scandinavian goldmine, the comprehensive All Music Guide got me off to a running start, as I was able to learn the group's surprisingly Canadian roots, their connection with Bob Dylan, and their consciously counter-counterculture stance. I began to subscribe to their ideas of getting back to basics, of heritage and reality over the psychedelic and commercial. Interestingly, I had begun my experience with the group through their final performance together, and so was able to see for myself how they had come to that point. Cheap and resourceful, I chose to forego the local record store in the hopes of finding their albums alternatively. As a result, my absorption of their music came haphazardly. I found a lone copy of Music From Big Pink at a smaller branch of the public library, its Dylan-painted cover peeking out from behind a Southern Rock compilation. I tracked down their self-titled sophomore effort, sometimes called "The Brown Album," at my personal Mecca, the Wellfleet Flea Market on Cape Cod. Those days of spending hours browsing through the stacks of used CDs were among my happiest, as each new table held the potential of something new, rare, or exciting, but nothing without some good hard searching. This was why music was so important to me in those days, and why I felt the music I "owned" could help others to see the best in me. It expressed all the qualities I wanted to portray to others: dedication, knowledge, creativity, humor, and intuition. It was not simply a material purchase; it was something that became a part of me, a fruit of the hours of labor I had put in to find it.
Even though I had had no idea the Band would make such an impact on the way I chose to live, I had some small sense that it was not so random after all, that these connections had been meant to happen. I embraced them wholeheartedly, believing more and more in the power of their music, and, perhaps more importantly, in my place as the expert in all things Band. Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, four Canadians and one Arkansas native, formerly known as Levon and the Hawks, formerly formerly known as the guys who played behind rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins, had become my obsession, and would trail me into college like the train of my future wife's dress at the wedding my parents feared I would never have.
Having established myself as something of an audiophile during high school, I had anticipated that my transition to college would rely heavily on my music knowledge and obsessions. Yet I could not have known exactly how big a role music would play in the forming of new friendships, and in the evolution of my self-image during that first year. I met many people over the first few months of college, and found that music was the most overt way in which we could relate to one another. Through various music sharing experiences, I was able to learn people's views on religion, politics, and love, as well as to understand how their tastes might have been shaped by their life experiences. From the posters on our walls to the incipient downloading craze, it became a constant topic of conversation. I began to realize how much one can learn from a person's musical tastes, not simply the preferences themselves, but also what is behind them: the stories, the memories, the aspirations. When a new acquaintance would discuss a certain song, his eyes might light up, remembering the concert he attended where his friends almost got arrested, or the best friend who died in a motorcycle accident years back. Maybe it was because I placed such importance on my own musical choices that I placed so much significance on those of my friends, but the fact that everyone had strong inclinations reaffirmed my belief in the soul-shaking power of music.
In this respect, the Band came to be quite useful. Establishing myself from the early going as an aficionado, I found that my knowledge put me in the position to interact with people from whom I might otherwise have shied away. Particularly because the Band's history was so tied with so many other artists (if you don't believe me, consult Greil Marcus), from Eric Clapton to Van Morrison to Muddy Waters I was able to find a connection to many of my fellow freshmen, and provide what I considered to be meaningful input in countless conversations. Before I knew it, I was getting involved in discussions of what songs we'd most want to have sex to (I chose "Try a Little Tenderness", though "Like a Virgin" would've been more apt), what decade we would've like to live in most, the merits of songs longer than three minutes. In all of these interactions, my intense relationship with the music of the Band dictated in some way my reactions and opinions. I felt that the music I liked was the one aspect of my personality I could really control, and used that to my advantage in finding my place within the group, when in reality I wasn't so sure I had one. That guy who took every opportunity to extol the virtues of the Band, and, when doing so, was unafraid of sharing his opinions, that was me. I had shared my secret with the world, or at least the bubble of friends on my floor, and come away with the ownership I had been seeking. But there was still another step.
Needless to say, or, perhaps necessary to say, my friends at college were far different from the ones I had had in high school. I felt as though I had been holding myself back near the end of my secondary years, not going out on a limb to try new and different things, instead allowing my old experiences to dictate the way I lived my life. As my increased musical knowledge afforded me the confidence to converse with different types of people, and to open up to them as to my many other positive qualities (for example, I bear a profound resemblance to Kermit the Frog), I realized that I had in fact been missing out. For all my adoration of the Band's laid-back approach to life, I had not, up to that point, been modeling my actions accordingly. I was, in many ways, still the uptight, worrisome youth I had always been. But freshman year meant change, and my new friends exposed me to things I had not considered. Due to my mother's recent warnings that potential employers may be googling my name even as we speak, I will refrain from listing them all here. But suffice it to say, I loosened up a bit, had some fun, and realized that it wasn't all so bad. Now, I was able to recognize my limits, and realize that not all new forays into the unknown were necessary. But as I began to broaden my experience, I felt even more intimately connected with the Band's aesthetic, its appreciation for connecting with the self, for appreciating life, and letting the world come to you. Theoretically, I was sitting in the rocking chair "down in ol' Virginny".
Ok, so maybe I lost myself at times, as evidenced by my choice of "Up on Cripple Creek" for an end-of-the-year mix CD compiled by my friends, entitled "The List of Songs Everyone Should Hear". It wasn't so much the selection of the song itself, because I feel strongly that it should be heard, but rather the rambling, existential introduction I submitted orally for inclusion on the CD. Whenever I do force myself to listen to it, to recall my "identity" in those days, I cringe a little bit. But evidently those momentary lapses were worth it, because they reminded me of just how fully music can influence an identity, for better or worse.
In recent years, my affinity for the Band has waned a bit, though the philosophies the group engendered have remained strong, and, if anything, increased. I was even the proud owner of a full beard last year, something I would not have otherwise been confident enough to do (and some friends would attest that I shouldn't have regardless). But while I proudly bear the effects of my changes, I don't listen to the music so much anymore, if only because the experiences the group opened me up to also allowed me to enter musical worlds I might otherwise never have considered. Ironically, I can likely thank Robbie Robertson for giving me the courage to explore electronic music and hip-hop more fully, to step outside my own self-constructed barriers. Jazz was perhaps a logical step, given the musical background of Garth Hudson. I often have looked at the Band as the center of a web of musical knowledge, the reaches of which extend into all areas. Though it may seem that I've shelved that part of my life, I still recognize that its influences pervade. Consequently, I'm not so sure I can pass up the latest retrospective box set, A Musical History -- there are 32 previously unreleased tracks, and a good possibility that one of them could help me to recapture the inspiration that I first felt at the library that one fateful day. But then, a small part of me knows I can never recapture that magic, at least not with the Band.
As my tastes have evolved, I have begun to question how much of the changes in my life were due to the Band, and how much due to the fact that I was ready to alter my identity in significant ways. Perhaps, by wrapping myself so tightly with the music that I loved, I did not allow myself to see the inevitable change that was to occur naturally. Perhaps it is impossible to truly define oneself through music, no matter how hard we might try. Because the music we listen to relies on many outside factors, and often hinges on fleeting emotions and desires. Whether that is a desire to be cool, to project an assured self-image, or to establish oneself as an expert in some certain genre or band, the end result is that the real ability of the music to express a personality is less than we'd like to think. In fact, by attempting to define ourselves through music, we expose our uncertainties. We allow a separate thing, created by someone else with no knowledge of our own lives, to shape us -- this says more about our malleability than anything. I should have known that by associating myself so fully with the Band, the confident image I was projecting would eventually disintegrate. The fluidity of music refuses definition and so makes it clear that we don't have a clue who we are. Using external elements to determine internal things is really just an exercise in futility, though these shared ideas and experiences can help us to communicate the ongoing struggle for self-definition with others. We just have to learn to be content that we will never be complete.
I will never regret tying my identity so strongly to the Band, regardless of my current feelings on the group. Even if their music was just the crutch I needed to fully realize who I could be, or what I could accomplish, I'm satisfied with deluding myself and giving them credit for this change. If nothing else, my obsession with the Band was reflective of a larger reliance on music that continues to this day, and which I truly believe is powerful. Though I may never be able to reach the heights of the band members, or attain the serenity of their facial hair, I can rest contentedly knowing that one day, when I least expect it, someone will come into my life, espy The Last Waltz box set tucked away in my bookcase, and say without hesitation, "Wow, you have that? You're amazing. Let's have sex."