Tuesday, March 29, 2011

We Like American Music Baby

Many of you know I’m quite the music fan.  So a post on music is long overdue on this blog. 

Back in 1993, even though CDs had by then mostly taken over cassette tapes and record albums as the most popular medium for recorded music for people my age, cheap portable CD players were still in pretty short supply.  Therefore most of us volunteers brought small portable cassette players and a couple dozen cassettes of our favorite music with us to Ghana.  I think Craig V_ had a portable CD player, but I think Craig was the only volunteer I remember who had one.  He may have had one of the first CD players in Ghana.  Which would have kind of sucked in a way, and I’m not just hatin’, because he would have had no one with which to trade music!  I think in retrospect I would have been quite happy if I had brought only a cassette player and a huge bag of cassettes with me to Ghana.  And a good pair of boots.  And a roll of duct tape.  Or maybe a pair of boots made from duct tape.  Regardless, pretty much everything else I needed I probably could have purchased in Ghana.  I probably made about 20 cassette tapes of music I was listening to at the time and brought them with me.  It didn’t seem like enough.  I listened to all of my cassette tapes about 1,000 times each, and got sick of all of them, and then started trading with the other volunteers for their tapes.  That was awesome because I was introduced to a few new bands which I had not heard of before. 

Of course now in 2011 I expect all incoming Peace Corps Volunteers probably all have iPods with every song ever recorded on them at their disposal.  Sounds cool at first blush, but I actually pity them for two reasons; one, it’s pretty difficult to trade mp3 files, and two, I think the endless repetition, while annoying at the time, was kind of important in retrospect.  My Peace Corps music collection became special to me, like a good friend.  Of course I ditched all of my cassettes when I left the Peace Corps; I left them all at the book and cassette library in the Peace Corps office the day I flew back to the USA.  I left them not because I didn’t want to hear any of that music again, but because I knew that those few cassette tapes would mean a lot more to the other volunteers in Ghana than they would to me back home.  Besides, I could listen to CDs again when I got back home.  Cassettes, pfffft.

I have a theory that our brains actually use music to help us store memories.  It’s one of the reasons we like music so much.  More than like; we actually need music.  Certainly when I hear music, I am frequently transported to a time in the past when I maybe first heard that song, or a particularly interesting or powerful subsequent event that happened in my life when I heard that song later.  So one can imagine that the singular and powerful experience of the Peace Corps, coupled with the endless repetition of the same 20-odd cassette tapes, have made this particular music a very important touchstone for my memories of this time. 

Some of my Peace Corps music is objectively not very well-regarded or considered “good”, but the bad music is actually more important to me as a result.  I think we all have music like that in our lives, “bad” music that we like anyway.  Mostly we refer to them as “guilty pleasure” albums, but one could just as easily call them “important memory” albums.  In fact I might argue that the worse the album, the more it reminds you of the associated important memory, because you rarely hear that particular music elsewhere.  So, bring on the bad stuff!  And bring on the Peace Corps music selections!

Now I won’t bore you with all of the music I listened to in the Peace Corps but I’ll list a few of the more prominent selections:
Simon & Garfunkel’s Collected Works

First and foremost I must mention Simon & Garfunkel’s Collected Works.  My friend Mike had just purchased this 3-CD box set the Spring of 1993, right before I left for the Peace Corps.  I made a copy of the entire thing onto two cassette tapes barely a month before I went to Ghana.  At the time I think I was only really familiar with the songs from “Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits”, which I think is typical for kids of my age.  So I don’t think it’s too much of an overstatement to say that I “discovered” Simon & Garfunkel during the Peace Corps.  Some of their music I found a bit pedantic and preachy for the 90s, but I understood it for the context in which it was written.  The “Collected Works” was simply a chronological run-through of all 5 of their studio albums, excepting the soundtrack to “The Graduate”.  Almost immediately upon returning to the States I purchased a copy of the Collected Works (on CD) for my own collection, and I still frequently listen to those albums.  I also found out much later that their final album “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was released pretty much the same time I was born, in 1970, so somehow I feel an even greater connection to that particular album.

So sticking with the theory that a) songs I’d never heard before had a greater chance of being strongly tied to the Peace Corps, and b) the worse the song, the stronger the tie even still, then naturally only the worst Simon & Garfunkel songs are my favorites.  It’s quite the paradox.  And the song that rises to the top, there very crème de la crème of the entire Simon & Garfunkel oeuvre, is “Keep the Customer Satisfied” from Bridge over Troubled Water.  Now Bridge is a fantastic album, but this song is just a strange bird.  I think it’s some sort of response to “The Ballad of John and Yoko” by John Lennon.  It’s not a horrible song per se, I think is suffers mostly from having to follow (in succession) the songs “Bridge over Troubled Water”, “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”, and “Cecilia”, on the album, all of which are undisputable classics.  And the song starts out as a simple enough church-tent revival style song with good harmonies, but at some point during the song I think the entire Ohio State Football marching band horn section invades and lays a path of total destruction to the track.  But that’s the song, you see.  That’s the one that stuck in my head as being “The” Peace Corps song.  Why?  Don’t know.  Don’t really care.  I love it for it’s awfulness, for it’s out of control horns.

It's the same old story
Everywhere I go, I get slandered, Libeled,
I hear words I never heard In the Bible
And I'm one step ahead of the shoe shine
Two steps away from the county line
Just trying to keep my customers satisfied, Satisfied.

INXS, Welcome to Wherever You Are

Remember what we said about the guilty pleasures?  This definitely has not aged well.  I mean with Simon & Garfunkel I feel like I have to apologize for trashing one of their songs.  INXS is a more inviting target.  But I make no apologies.  You must keep in mind the fact that I went to high school in the 1980s.  INXS was a big part of that experience.  No one knows why, in retrospect, but boy at the time, we sure loved Michael Hutchance and the boys!  Their triumphant concert at Fiddler’s Green in 1988 was the place to be, baby.  Now even 5 years after that in 1993, their star had dimmed considerably, and “Welcome to Wherever You Are”, which came out in 1992, had very little to offer in terms of hits.  This was one of those albums that someone like me would buy out of loyalty to a band I once loved a lot more.  And somehow it made the trip to Ghana with me.  Remember I only picked about 20 cassette tapes to bring with me.  I could have chosen about 4 different INXS albums besides this one, much less any other bands.  But for some reason – likely because I wanted something “new” with me, I chose this.  And I’m glad it did, because somehow this completely forgotten album by a band whose star had dimmed became the guiding disco light to my mundane days teaching school in the hills of Ghana.  Other more popular albums like “Nevermind” by Nirvana or “10” by Pearl Jam (they were huge when I left for Ghana – heck they’re still huge) would have had their memories drowned out by the frequency with which I heard them after returning from the Peace Corps.  Yes that’s right, I was shocked and dismayed that no one was still rocking out to INXS when I got back to the USA in 1994.  Heck no one was “rocking out” to INXS in 1993 when I left for the Peace Corps, either. NirvanaPearJamSoundgardenAliceInChainsStoneTemplePilotsSmashingPumpkins had drowned out the poor little Aussies.  Not that I don’t like the “grunge” thing, I totally do.  Point being, the popular music has a more difficult time reminding me of Ghana because I’ve listened to is so much since I returned from there.

How do you know when it’s time for you to go?
How can you stop when you don’t know how to start?

Fairground Attraction, The First of a Million Kisses

Who?  Unless you’re Nicki, the person from whom I borrowed this cassette (I think), you’ve probably never heard of this particular album.  I know I hadn’t when I traded for it.  I’m not sure what I traded away for this particular album but I’m glad I did.  Apparently "The First of a Million Kisses", released in 1988, was actually a pretty big hit in England.  It sort of falls into the English “roots-rock revival” movement of the 1980s, a sort of reaction to the over-synthesized, over-produced, over-hair-sprayed pop music that dominated much of the decade.  I'm thinking Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, and the Crowded House Neil Finn (though a Kiwi).  Reviews of the album tend to use the term “skiffle” a lot, which in my mind means pre-rock music, like very early Elvis Presley for example.  The album incorporates elements of jazz and country and pop, and has nary a synthesizer on it.  Not a small feat for England in 1988, I assure you.  To my knowledge Fairground Attraction only had this one album, at least only one with this particular lead Singer, Eddi Reader.  She had a delightful and articulate voice, and the songs were interesting and engaging, and held up to repeated listening.  Which was good, because as you know my library of cassettes was not large.  So I listened to her over and over and memorized every line of every song of this strange band of which I new nothing.  When I got back to the USA I forgot about this album for 9 years, having, like I said, left the cassette back in Ghana when I returned to the States.  One day for some reason (probably I was thinking about the Peace Corps!) I remembered the lyric below, and decided I just had to hear the album once again.  By then I had actually forgotten the name of the band and everything.  A couple of internet searches brought me to the album, which I purchased on line immediately.  When it came in the mail I opened it right away, put it on the stereo, and listened to the whole thing without moving, just sitting there, remembering everything once again.  The music unlocked memories like a hidden treasure revealed in golden splendor undimmed by time  It could have been any album, really, but it was this one.

I remember when we used to walk by the Thames
The lights on the embankment like jewels on chains
I’ll never forget what you said at the start
You said “I’m going to put a chain of lights around your heart”

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