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Popular Music Ainít What it Used to Be

Iíve gone through this at least once before, that I remember, anyway. In the early 1950s, I gave up on popular music because it had begun to sound like garbage to me. Rock and Roll just did not move me. I couldnít stand Elvis. Fortunately, that was still in the era of radio, and I could usually find my kind of musicóthe show tunes, ballads and even the novelty numbers that often dated back to the 1920s. My parents preferred Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra, but I liked some of both.

Being rather romantically inclined (after all, I was that age), I sang along with Sinatra and Vaughan Monroe and Perry Como (although I tired of him pretty quickly). I liked some jazz, unless it got to be too technical. Stan Kenton was right up there at the limit of my understanding and tolerance.

When the big bands faded away after the War, something was lost to me. I leaned more and more toward "semi-classical" music, the instrumentals of Percy Faith and Mitch Miller, and the vocals of Ray Coniff (but certainly not Guy Lombardo, that squarest of the squares!) Artie Shaw had by then grown from a small jazz combo to a big band, and my interest in his music grew apace. (Itís interesting that I learned to appreciate his earlier music after I came to recognize his slick big-band sound.) But there were still some individual singers, such as Eddie Fisher, whom Iíd listen toóparticularly when he got a new arranger who gave him more challenging things to sing. Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichel were my down-to-earth heroes in those days.

It was the perennials, though, that stayed with me. Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and the Rogers and Hart team were always certain to get me singing, or at least humming, along. I never knew the 1920s, when those musicians dominated the Broadway Musical genre, but they were the masters, as far as I was concerned. Their music was immortal. I think it was because they usually didnít insult my intelligence with their lyrics. Who could be unmoved by "Sophisticated Lady" or "Begin the Beguine" or "Night and Day?" Even Sinatra at his peak depended upon those songs to stay on top of the latter-day heap.

In a recent Atlantic Monthly issue, David Schiff, a composer in his own right, discusses the genius of Cole Porter, tying the article to the recently released film biography De-Lovely. Porter had an ear for American talk, Schiff says, indeed "the best ear in the history of American music." George Gershwin caught the rhythms of American jazz, and Lorenz Hart echoed back to us lyrics that we could all identify with without gagging on the "June-moon syndrome," but Cole Porter had it all. "His lyrics were as sly and knowing as Lorenz Hartís; his rhythms were as hot as Gershwinís."

I was never one to "belt out" a song in public, much as I felt like it sometimes, for example when I heard "It was Just One of those Things," or "Anything Goes." (What I did in the privacy of my own car on the highway was nobodyís business but mine.)

Maybe it was because I became more focused on my career and my family, but I pretty much stopped listening to the radio by 1960. In fact, I didnít even have a radio installed in the Mercedes Benz I bought about then. Iíd always appreciated classical music, but Hi-Fi and FM changed my whole musical world. For a decade, I collected records (they were known as "LPs" by then) of dead composers such as Liszt and Mahler and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Ravel and Rachmaninoff and . . . well, you know.

Something happened in 1967 or 1968. I began listening again. I listened to the new lyrics, not for style but for message, and absorbed the music just because it was there. Simon and Garfunkle, and Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and The Fifth Dimension. And because I was listening, I found other musicians that attracted my attention, such as Chuck Mangione and Herb Alpert and, of course, Pink Floyd. I was back to listening to popular music. That lasted another ten or fifteen years. Looking back, I can see that it was another time of romance. War always seems to bring out the sentimental side of people.

After that, there still were musicians and singers that could catch my interest. I listened to Mannheim Steamroller and Paul Winter instrumentals, and Carole King and Chris Williamson and Holly Near, who sang message songs. But I couldnít get into Heavy Metal or Grunge or Rap. Disco was for dancing, and I wasnít much for dancingóever. Mostly, I went back to my classical music.

The romantic is still inside of me. Iíll wake up with a 1930s song running through my head for no reason at all, or one of Paul Simonís later pieces (which usually have less emotional than musical impact). The modern musicals, like those from Andrew Lloyd Webber, leave me pretty much unaffected. No wonder Broadway has become irrelevant. There are no giants anymore. I donít notice the absence in my life, except now and then when I read something like David Schiffís piece in The Atlantic.

Iím sure Iíll go see the new Cole Porter film, and come home humming again. Iíd really rather hear some new songs, though, something with clean lyrics (suggestive, okay, but not all the words they canít play on the radio). Norah Jones may just get me back to listening.

 

July 2, 2004

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