Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Finding the Tootsie Rolls Among the Cat Turds

I've really only been listening to "white music" for like ten years.

When I was an adolescent and then teenager, I listened to nothing but rap. In fact, I would say that from 1989 to 1996 I bought and/or "dubbed" (remember that word? doesn't high-speed dubbing sound like such a relic of the past?) hundreds and hundreds of rap tapes (sigh...I know), and I would say that ten of those or less were non-rap albums. (I'm using term rap here because that's what we used to call it back then and it's easier to type than hip-hop over and over again.) And of the non-rap tapes that I did buy, so many of them were albums that inspired rap albums. In other words, they were not rock albums. They were albums like Zapp V by Roger Troutman, Pickin' Up the Pieces: The Best of the Average White Band and even those were usually picked up out of the $0.99 bin.

But when it came to rap I was on the cutting edge. I knew more buzz and had more insight as to what albums and MC's were good than any acne-ridden Rochesterian had a right to. I bought L.L. Cool J's Mama Said Knock You Out long before it was popular, before "Around the Way Girl" and the title track were released. My album cover has white lettering; after "Mama Said ..." was put out as a single and video, they changed the lettering on the album to red. That's how you know I was down.

I bought A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders the day it came out and Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers 6 months before anyone had ever heard of them. I couldn't sleep the night before Kool G Rap and Polo's Live and Let Die came out, and I told everyone I knew that Raekwon's Only Built for Cuban Linx... would be the best of the Wu-Tang solo albums. (I still think it is, tied with GZA's Liquid Swords.) Everyone laughed at me. I bought Coolio's first album before "Fantastic Voyage" came out, because I knew that he had been a member of W.C. and the Maad Circle -- who I didn't even particularly like! --and read somewhere that it was going to be a classic album. Well, I was wrong about that one I suppose. Of course rap started to suck in 1997 and afterward and that's a topic for a whole 'nother blog.

The point is this: by the time I came around to non-rap, I had a whole helluva lot of catching up to do. I started by listening to jazz, since it was close to some rap and my dad had a bunch of old jazz albums. But eventually, I gravitated toward rock, which we all know was invented by caucasians like Pat Boone and Elvis.

I really hated what I thought was all that modern rock music had to offer (your Limp Bizkit, your Nickelback, what have you), so I went back to older stuff, some of which I still think is incredible to this day. I went fairly mainstream, but got into a diverse collection of older stuff (and by older I mean older than ten years) like Tom Waits, They Might Be Giants, Cream, Traffic, Jethro Tull, Todd Rundgren, 10cc, Gordon Lightfoot and a bunch of other stuff.

My subconscious rationale at the time was this: my understanding of the rock music of "today" (meaning anything after the year 1990) was that it was messy. Lots of noise, screaming, out of tune guitars, feedback, etc. It didn't seem to be very harmonic or melodic. Whereas the older stuff, the more pop-oriented rock, was much smoother-sounding and melodious. Even the harder stuff from that era, like Cream and Led Zeppelin, seemed much more "musical" than the newer stuff.

I felt that the world of modern music was not for me. It was kind of a sad feeling really, to think that all the music that I could possibly like had already been made. I know this was a pretty naive viewpoint, but I had not had any exposure to anything that would make me feel otherwise.

The turning point was in late 2003 when my friend Tony made me a CD chock-full of MP3 from various things he was listening to at that time. He still makes these CDs for me from time to time and they are very valuable. But I remember putting the disc in the computer drive and deciding to check out all the songs from the band Pavement, and for the first time, I discovered a rock band from the modern era that I really liked. That I loved.

(Note: One of my biggest pet peeves is when people try to force music on me. Like when someone gets in my car and takes out one of my CDs and puts in one of their own without asking and says, "You have to listen to this!" and then proceeds to go through each and every song on the disc and say, "Do you like this one? What do you think of this one? Did you like that one?" Just give me the CD and let me listen to it on my own. I like to be surprised by discovering great music, not have someone tell me "this song we are listening to right now is great." I guarantee there have been at least a dozen bands that were ruined for me because someone forced them on me and I wouldn't even give them a chance. Tony, wisely, never did this and for that I am forever gay for him.)

Pavement, while noisy, had beautiful melodies, versatility, a variety of movements and changes in time signatures within songs. They may not have been the first band to do all this, but they were pretty much the first I had ever heard at length.

As a brief digression, this is why I think file-sharing sites like Napster are so beautiful. I am not the kind of guy to gamble on a band I have never heard or have heard little of when I have been burned so many times in the past. With Tony acting as my own personal musical guru, I have been exposed to bands that I never would have even thought of exploring. Exposure to lots and lots of music -- not the same songs over and over again -- is the way to get the record industry back on its feet again.

So many people are just not going to explore or search for new, great music. And it's not being fed to them on cable or terrestrial radio. So what better way to build a following of a lesser-known band than by allowing better access. Again, a totally different blog topic lurks here somewhere.

This exposure to Pavement and other various bands and opened me up to a brand new world of music. And now I realize that there is unbelievable music being made everywhere. In the last two years alone, I have discovered some of my favorite bands, like Rogue Wave, The Shins, Iron and Wine, Elliott Smith, just to name a couple.

And also, I have been re-discovering older albums that I had never heard before and love, like Grace by Jeff Buckley and Loaded by the Velvet Underground.

It's sort of a wonderful and frustrating paradox: knowing that there are so many great albums out there, albums that could very well change my life in the musical sense, that I haven't even heard of. There they are, just sitting on shelves of record stores, practically taunting me each of the hundreds of times I have passed by them. How was I supposed to know how much I would love Marquee Moon by Television or The Three E.P.'s by the Beta Band? It's like walking by the great love of your life and never realizing it.

But what a beautiful feeling to know that even if it was made 20 or 30 years ago, there is -- like a musical Galapagos Islands -- so much left to discover.


Paul said...

You Know what music you have yet discover? Mid 90s Hardcore. Upstate had a kickin scene! Oh yeah, death metal is sweet too!

Kathie said...

I like the Jeff Buckley album - thank you. :)

todd said...

Modest Bill,
You coined the term Breakrock. And you will do just that,
to the like break of dawn.

Can you tell me something about the Firefly series? I'm cuuurious.

SUE said...

Hi Bill - Check out the Listening Post at It's free internet streaming radio, and the LP "channel" plays lots of the newest, quality rock albums. No Nickelback to be found. They're starting an indie channel soon too. I think you'll like some of the bands you find on there.

Sally W said...

If the universe did start with a bang - when God loved and the angels sang - one of the sparks that flew - chased time to become you :) xaNax

Jack Johnson said...

Dear lord was I relieved to read that someone else acknowledged the void that is known as commercial music/NICKELBACK!!!

The article was refreshing Bill.

Maybe I just need to reach a little farther than the radio dial or just reach in a different direction to reconnect with music.

NicoleW said...

Hi, a nice blog you have here. You will surely get an bookmark :) Fleshlight

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Bill said...

Yeah some of those links were kinda good. Thanks.

Pottytoddy said...

What did you do with all your rap tapes? want to get rid of them? Check my blog at