18 January 2006

Rock And Roll Was Never This Fun

Connoisseurs among you will of course recognise that header as the title of a classic track by the Smugglers. The first of many times I saw them play it, I thought Grant was singing “Rock and roll will never forget,” which made just as much sense in its own way. But never mind what he was singing; what I remember most is being simply mesmerised. It was one of those moments, when the rock and roll man becomes indistinguishable from the preacher man, when the band is bathed in white light, time slows down and almost stops, and in that electric instant you get a private glimpse into eternity.

In over 40 years of going to concerts, gigs, shows, jam sessions, band practices, whatever, I’ve had a handful of those moments. Just enough, I guess, to keep me coming back despite all the lousy shows, the bands with more attitude than talent, getting my head kicked in in the pit – more than once, I might add – and despite the especially disheartening experience of seeing music turned into a cold-hearted commodity.

Whoops, that makes me sound like an innocent bystander. Let me amend the foregoing to read: “the disheartening experience of helping to turn music into a cold-hearted commodity.” Some people would phrase it in harsher terms; for a while back there in the 90s I was, at least in the eyes of some punk fundamentalists, the guy who sold out the scene for the sake of a quick buck. At the same time, the truly corporate music biz types were sneering at me for being so na├»ve and idealistic about the way my little record company operated.

After I left it all behind, I found myself feeling a little shell-shocked, enough so that it was a while before I could enjoy listening to music again. And it’s still not the same as it once was. I don’t know if it ever will be. I’d been gone from the music business quite a while before I could be just a fan again, and that came about only because Grant, of the above-named Smugglers, dragged me to a show in 1998 to see this new band called the Weakerthans. They sang a slow, country-tinged song called “None Of the Above,” and when the steel guitar kicked in, I had one of those moments I was beginning to think I’d never have again.

Over the next few years, I became something like the 21st century equivalent of a Deadhead, following the Weakerthans all over North America, seeing them in about a dozen American states and four Canadian provinces. It was the first time since the 80s that I’d been able simply to like a band without worrying about whether I should be doing a record with them.

It’s been a while now since I’ve seen the Weakerthans, a couple years, at least. I miss them, as much as people as musicians, but our paths haven’t crossed of late, and I guess I don’t feel as motivated as I once did to fly across the country at the drop of a hat to see a gig, no matter how good it promises to be. I often wonder how they’re doing, and when or if they’ll have a new record out, but not, I guess, enough to go back to being the rabid fanboy I was for a while

Anyway, what brought on all these musical musings? I hate to say it, but the combination of a rainy day, being cooped up in the house, and my iPod. I’m not much of an iPod person as a rule, and though I tried it briefly, I never took to wandering about London plugged into a set of earphones (besides, it’s a surefire recipe for getting mugged).

But here in Australia, my iPod, along with a tiny set of speakers, is the only music source I have, and I’ve taken to letting it play for hours at a time, randomly selecting tunes from a collection that spans some 70 years, from Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman of the 1930s to the Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens, fresh from 2005.
Actually, it’s more like 80 years, as I just remembered some Rodgers and Hart selections from the 1920s, but whatever, it’s a long time. And I’m more than old enough to marvel at these newfangled inventions, and the idea that you can take your whole record collection along in your pocket wherever you go in the world.

What really boggles my mind, though, and I’m curious whether other iPod users have had this experience, is the way that the machine seems to have a mind of its own, when it randomly strings together sequences of songs that a DJ would think himself very clever for coming up with (at least I would have in the days when I was a radio DJ, but perhaps I’m just easily impressed with myself).

But seriously, how does this little mini-computer figure out to follow up a Softies track with a Tiger Trap song? I’d suspect it of recognising the lead singer’s voice, except that the Tiger Trap track it picked was their one and only instrumental. Or line up a half-hour set of classic Lookout-style pop punk just when my mood needs uplifting, and then, just as I’m beginning to get burned out on the sameness of it all, suddenly shifts into a Roy Acuff or Carter Family number?

As I say, you guys who regularly use iPods are probably familiar with this phenomenon, or maybe you’ve similarly becoming convinced that your machine has a brain of its own. I do think, though, that if I ever went back to DJing, I wouldn’t even bother trying to come up with interesting song selections; I’d just plug in the iPod and let it do it for me.

Or is that what DJs already do these days anyway?


Wesley said...

Jimmie Rodgers and Hammerstein. Now that would be interesting. "The hills are alive with the sound of Blue Yodel #8"...

P.S. Notting Hill sounds like a scary place, I've not been mugged with my iPod once in this part of town.

Tim said...

If there's a sweeter voice on the planet than that of Rose Melberg's, I haven't heard it yet.