One of the beauties of music (as I’ve said so many times before) is that it has the capacity to transcend our artificial barriers; we may find ourselves at odds with someone due to some arbitrary, superficial delineation and then, due to a common love for a band (or composer), suddenly find each other as instant friends.
For instance, soon after I took my place in the office I casually dropped an allusion to George Tirebiter in a conversation with Karl — a reference lost on everyone else working at The SUN. While Firesign Theater is not exactly music (but a comedy group that works almost exclusively within the recorded medium), we knew immediately that we shared a touchstone, something we could share throughout the duration of our friendship.
Conversely, I have, several times in my life, found myself repulsed when I learned someone I thought I was having a great time with, was obsessed with a something completely wretched. I know that sounds extreme but, as an insufferable music snob, I must confess that I’ve walked away from several potential relationships when the other person’s taste in music brought on a gag reflex in me.
That’s OK; I think I saved myself a ton of disappointment on the back end as I probably learned more about that person in that moment of them voicing their personal tastes than I would have in weeks of convincing myself they were fascinating only to find out that they were essentially banal. It sounds radical but I believe I saved myself countless wasted hours of blather.
And, as I said, it works both ways.
Years ago, I was at a party, semi-grooving but wondering if I should bounce, check out something better. The fat, nerdy host was (in my estimation) a bit of a pretentious boor, holding court and looking down his nose at those of us eschewing the wine offerings for the tub of cheap beer. Halfway out the door, in a moment of cynicism and boredom, I threw out a Frank Zappa line – most likely something pornographic and misogynistic (cuz that’s how Zappa rolled).
The host lit up and answered with the next lyric of the song.
And we then traded lyrics for several minutes, much to the deer-in-the-headlights gaze of his entourage. Suddenly, our mutual assessment of each other changed and we were engaged in conversation until dawn, he spinning records while we finished off the remainder of the booze (and sharing what we had to smoke), me being the last to leave the party by many hours past the next-to-last leave-ee and a few hours past sunrise.
Steve ended up being one of my best friends ever, an intelligent and witty friend, the one who told me, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood” and. “All things in moderation — especially, moderation!”
While touchstones are important, deal-breakers are no less essential.
Several years ago, I was considering if the person I was dating might end up being someone more than just a casual relationship. She was attractive, articulate and, I thought, someone worth getting to know. Our conversations were loose and witty, sexy; the parts were in place.
Then she told me she was a total Rush-head.
First of all, Rush may have made one song worthy of listening to — “Tom Sawyer” was decent enough — but their aggregate output was absolutely excruciating. Neil Pert may have been an extremely talented drummer but lead singer Geddy Lee took the worst of the Robert Plant screech of Heavy Metal singing school to simian excess. Worse, the lyrics took on a prog-rock pseudo-intellectual pretension that was far beneath the payscale of the average nitwit buying the dreck. I recall being subjected, in a sweet-smelling haze, to the “Oh, wow!” of 2112, a sci-fi knucklehead nod to the ideas of Ayn Rand.
Rand’s “philosophy” (“Objectivism” — see a quick and dirty primer at http://andrej.com/objectivism/) is just an elaborate way of saying “every man for himself.”
That’s not just untenable, it’s uninteresting. And, taken to its logical conclusion, it fails — the “He who has the most toys at the end, wins the game” proposition is as puerile as it gets.
As the sage Kung Fu Monkey (Google it, worth the read) said, “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
I don’t think she and I discussed philosophy in the determination of the deal-breaker although I was convinced she was smart enough to understand Rand’s brand of libertarianism (Poli-Sci for “Jerk”). Once I said, “Rush sucks balls,” that was enough to put a quick end to that potential relationship, with me not regretting anything I’d said or done.
Although I’ve allowed myself to be hooked into women who were far too rap, metal, rap-metal, the Grateful Dead and other jam-band crap, Rush was definitely a deal-breaker, I could not imagine myself saying, “Oh yeah, honey, I don’t mind yet another hour of having nails driven into my brain!”
Modern Country has the same effect, I have to say.
Aside from the fact that most Modern Country now pretty much sounds more like lame 1970s southern rock, like the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, or the Marshall Tucker Band, and not like “proper” Country music, e.g. Hank Snow, Charlie Pride, Loretta Lynn, et al,. Furthermore, most of it appeals to some kind of bogus populism — corporations spreading some kind of the same bogus “freedom” or “we’re down with you” lie — to convince the very people that it pretends to be for to feed into politics that continue to defeat them and all their interests. The kind of music that appeals to people who believe Sarah Palin is thinking about the concerns of the single mom in an Aspen Springs trailer with a car blowing smoke while the bank account is raided and the lump on her breast remains ignored for a lack of money to visit a doctor.
Unfortunately that “freedom” has everything to do with having a gun and nothing to do with being represented by a labor organization; all kinds of freedoms to get shot in the face by an unemployed boyfriend, no kind of freedom to get it fixed in a hospital.
I remember when Country spoke for the little guy (or gal) and not some stupid, pro-corporatist, faux-patriotic agenda.
Appealing to the least common denominator while, at the same time, speaking to a system determined to steal even more from the least seems idiotic; and idiots don’t appeal to me.
The touchstone does; the song or the artist or the immediate moment where we share, “Oh, yeah!” and slap a high-five, intelligent fun at least, a shared intellectual appeal at most.
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band is another one of these for me and I met another friend through that touchstone as I was dealing with an otherwise crappy situation.
My band had been booked to play at a prep school in Fountain, Colorado, some kind of spring BBQ for rich snots.
Prior to the show, one of the school’s representatives pulled me aside and said, in her most blue-nosed, headmistressly tone, that she had listened to our demo tape and was appalled that we’d been asked to play. Furthermore, she had a list of songs that, for whatever reason, she absolutely forbade us to play. Playing any of those songs, she said, would be a breach of contract and we would not get paid.
The list was most of a full set.
Considering that many of the kids at the school were full-on fans (having seen the band at various underage shows around the Colorado Springs area), I was torn. Either we whipped out a bunch of covers (our rehearsal workouts or drunken encore toss offs) and played our worst gig ever or we risked missing a pay check as well as getting the plug pulled on us.
After finishing our sound check, I slapped a tape into the deck on the soundboard — The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Gorilla — and gathered the band members together for a little strategy session. I figured that since they were due three-quarters of the loot, they would have that much say in what we would do.
As we were deciding, one of the teachers approached us, a young guy looking like an overeager frat boy.
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this, I haven’t heard these guys in years!” he exclaimed, beaming.
“Really?” I replied, a bit surprised since the usual response I got to the Bonzos was, “Can we listen to something else?”
I engaged the frat boy over a bit of Bonzo fan chatter, a conversation that eventually led into the dilemma we faced.
“Her?” he asked, pointing to the school marm across the lawn, busy sticking her nose into somebody else’s business.
“Don’t worry about her,” he continued, “I’ll make sure you guys get to play whatever you want to play.”
Not only did he make good on his promise (and I didn’t see a single blue hair of the school’s morality Nazi our entire show) but we ended up getting good and ripped at his tiny campus cabin after the gig (prep school kids have the best party favors).
And, as with all touchstones, the Bonzos introduced to me to another of my life’s best friends (I stood as best man at his wedding), a relationship I continue to cherish to this day, as we share new music and twisted opinions through email and Facebook.
My last touchstone occurred while I was considering how to clear my apartment after an ill-conceived party. My place was packed with a bunch of maudlin goths (most of whom I had not invited) drinking free beer and smoking clove cigarettes. Close to three in the morning and closer still to a noise complaint, I decided to clear the room by putting on something so obscure, so wretchedly dissonant, that the smarty-pants black-clad effetes would be forced to flee to their corner table at Denny’s.
I put on The Residents’ Eskimo, two sides of random noise and sheer gibberish.
It did the trick. A minute into it, the goths were whining that they couldn’t dance to that “music” much less understand it. I explained that it was my place and my party and would play whatever I damn well liked. And like the proverbial rats escaping the sinking ship, their mascaraed eyes no longer looked upon my trashed apartment.
With the exception of one, lone loiterer who claimed that the side I’d slapped on the turntable was the most compelling thing he’d ever heard. Amazed, I told him the story of the album, the band and ... again, I met someone through what can only be described as the ultimate touchstone. We ended up talking well into the next day, listening to more Residents, Throbbing Gristle, and John Cage.
Really, I’m not so militant with most music but I do have my deal-breakers. And, given the ear-splitting noise of many of my touchstones, you’re better just backing off and taking your Rush or Toby Keith somewhere else.