Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music #1: One Man’s Bliss…

By posted at 4:57 am on February 3, 2009 0

There’s a scene in Fawlty Towers in which innkeeper Basil Fawlty, played with misanthropic relish by John Cleese, is having a moment to himself in the hotel office – away from his shrill, domineering wife Sybil, away from the pesky guests. For one brief moment, the cacophony of his life is neutralized by the glorious strains of music coming from his tape recorder. For one brief moment, he is at peace.

Sybil suddenly busts through his bliss, chiding him for listening to “that racket.”

“Racket ??!!,” Basil responds incredulously. “That’s BRAHMS….. Brahms’ THIRD racket!”

If my favorite music is playing, I’m incapable of listening to it as background noise, and I begin to bristle if others begin chattering over it. If I like the music, it reaches into me in a way that no other art form has ever done. My response is visceral. And if I don’t like it, my response is equally visceral and usually involves me recoiling in horror with a mild sense of nausea.

This is the first in what I’m hoping will be an occasional column on music. My approach will be the same as the books pieces I write. It will be the musings of an enthusiast. You won’t find deep critical thought underpinned by lots of theory. I simply don’t have the chops for that. It also won’t be an even-handed survey. Though my tastes are fairly broad, and extremely deep in a completist, “I have to have every recording by this band,” sort of way, there are still huge gaps. Whole genres and eras that I know nothing about. So, the column will mirror my record collection. It won’t be democratic, but it will be honest.

I’ve always worn my musical tastes on my sleeve. Not because I want to force my tastes on others. Not exactly. It’s not a power grab. If I like something that much, I genuinely can’t believe that others won’t have the same response, and I want to share the experience with anyone within earshot. It rarely pans out – tastes being such a personal thing. But when conquered by bliss, you don’t think about that. Emotion trumps logic every time.

And because emotion trumps logic, it becomes tricky to explain why I like something. If I were schooled in theory I suppose I could expound on the theory underlying a particular song. But let’s face it: That’s not why I like the song. I like it because of the way the guitar riffs, the way the piano or organ weave in and out and swirl around, the way the drums propel a song forward or slow down to a crawl to rein it in, the way a countermelody magically comes out of an inventive bass line. And the voice. The sound of it, the lilt, the snarl, the phrasing, the catch in the voice as it breathes life into the words. It’s the voice that resonates the most with me, and draws me back into a song again and again.

How to convey that kind of emotional response is the challenge. When Max approached me with the idea of doing a music column, I responded the same way I did in 2004 when he asked me to write about books. I had a panic attack. I said yes, but I banged my head against the wall wondering what the hell I could possibly write about that would be interesting or amusing or enlightening. Then I stared at my wall of LPs and CDs the way I stared at my bookshelves, and slowly I began to see the possibilities.





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