The first kind of music I liked was the kind of music every kid likes. The songs sung to us by our moms. You are my Sunshine was the first one I remember. In retrospect, I think my mom sang it in a sad kind of way. Maybe because it was her and me alone and our family was soon to be breaking up.
I only remember two songs that my father ever sang to me as a child. Tom Dooley and Ruby. Murder ballads, both. Funny, I never thought of that before and I don’t really read anything into it except that they are kind of white man’s blues. And he was always one step away from the blues.
After that the progression was pretty normal for a person my age. In 1974, I was in a car with my two young uncles heading to see Herbie Rides Again at the Capitol Square Cinema. As we turned the corner onto Wellington, by the Chateau Laurier, I heard the most exciting and frightening police sirens. And they came from the radio. Paper Lace’s The Night Chicago Died. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. It was the first time radio grabbed me as much or more than television did. A story, sound effects, harmonies and my imagination.
At times through the seventies some of my favourite songs were by ELO, Supertramp, The BeeGees. Hot Child in The City was an exciter.
But once I hit high school, things started to change. As my friends and I became teens, we started to forge our own identities, even if they were the same identities as our friends. And the music you liked became as important a part of “your thing” as was your hair or clothes. Disco sucked and the bands my friends and I liked were the Police, the Clash, the Talking Heads, B52s, REM, Roxy Music… none of which were on the radio at the time. At least not in Ottawa.
We used to snicker at the kids who wore lumberjack shirts and listened to Led Zepplin while they smoked by the basement door at school. Rush and Van Halen made us roll our eyes. Black Sabbath… forget about it. And once the new modern romantic Brit pop started dominating the charts, I pretty much stopped listening to the radio. I mean, I really stopped listening to the radio.
I lived in Toronto in the mid eighties and I bought every Tom Waits record I could afford. I listened to old folk music, Hank Williams records, Little Richard records, old soul records. I think subconsciously, it’s in this time when I was trying to learn how to write songs.
But I was a music snob. And in my more wisened years now, I realize I was wrong. It’s never a good time to be a snob.
There’s an old Duke Ellington quote that says something like, “there are two kinds of music. The good kind and the bad kind. I play the good kind.” I used to adhere to that. I liked all sorts of music of different genres but if you’d asked me, I would have told you why I thought certain songs or bands were terrible. I still could if prompted.
But I’ve changed my mind. To me, the Duke got it wrong. There isn’t good music and bad music. There’s music you like and music you don’t. That’s all that counts. Life is too short for me to criticize a certain kind of music that might make someone else feel good. Who’s to say? My wife hates most of the music I love and I can’t stand Duran Duran. But if it makes her happy…
When Valerie hears Tom Waits and she says he sounds like the Cookie Monster, I laugh and I agree. When she thinks I like any song with an acoustic guitar on it or one with a sad story, I smile and say you’re probably right, even if it isn’t true. When a disco song or a Queen song comes on the the car radio, I know we’re listening to the end.
The two greatest things music can do for us is to make us feel happy or make us feel sad. So I suppose, in my mind, there are still only two kinds of music. The kind that makes us feel and the kind that doesn’t.