Thursday, April 21, 2011

McCartney or the Age of "Dad-Rock"

It was recently brought to my attention that a friend of mine once termed my taste in music as “dad-rock,” a term that would horrify anyone, let alone a great appreciator of music such as myself. At first, I felt a pang of anger, then a sense of quiet, while I wondered if it were true or not. After a few moments I decided that this friend of mine might just be correct.

As I thought back, I tried to figure out how I had come to this point.  In elementary school (5th and 6th grades specifically) I listened to Puff Daddy, Ma$e, Wu-Tang Klan, Notorious B.I.G., the required Oasis, The Wallflowers and assorted 90’s one-hit wonders like Deep Blue Something. Then, in junior high, I listened to scattered tracks and singles (Stone Temple Pilots “Down”? Me First and the Gimme Gimmes?) and slowly focused on jam band music.  In high school, my jam bias continued as I went to see Phish, String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Phil Lesh and Friends in concert. While this happened, I was slowly beginning to unravel the stories, themes and eras of Rock History.  Tenth grade brought heavy study of Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground and the Beatles. That last one ultimately leading me into my first truly psychedelic summer between 10th and 11th grades as I religiously watched the Beatles Anthology on our old Laserdisc player in my bedroom. The following year was when I started making greater strides as I discovered that I loved Wilco, the Super Furry Animals, the Flaming Lips, Supergrass, the Stooges, as well as honing a truly deep love of the Rolling Stones that extended beyond the singles or a Hot Rocks CD. This year also brought the huge influence of the Strokes, the White Stripes and the Hives (I loved the Stooges and the Stones so obviously this made sense). I can recall one landmark haul back from the record store during this time: Plastic Ono Band, Beggar’s Banquet, Raw Power, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, Something Else, and Veni Vidi Vicious.

My senior year brought even deeper research into the rock canon (though I was still no Lane Kim). I picked up the first two Big Star albums, Pet Sounds, All Things Must Pass, Mutations. I was known to blast Their Satanic Majesties Request as I rolled into my high school parking lot as well as telling people all about this “new Dylan,” someone called Connor Oberst (goo!) who called himself Bright Eyes. I burned copies of Lifted or the Story is in the Soil for my friends and left countless CDs scratched and laying around the floor and back part of my 1992 Chevy Blazer.  All of this was being done while still listening to a heavy dose of Phish’s epic 1993 tour and plenty of Grateful Dead bootlegs.

I floated through that summer on 17 year old romance and sexual fumbling along with a lot of listens to the Dead’s Blues for Allah out by my pool at twilight.  I also listened to the Beatles Anthology 3, which was some kind of soothing accompaniment for my friends Chris and Dan after long, tiring days working in my dad’s warehouse.  When I finally got to college, after supplying an initial psychedelic experience for my dorm, I decided that I was going to enter my “1968 phase.” That meant, no more psychedelia, nothing but booze and the basics of life.  Well, I still indulged in the Zombies’ Odessy and Oracle, but picked up the first two Gram Parsons albums, Notorious Byrd Brothers, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and listened to a lot of Big Star as well as Friends, Wild Honey, Sunflower and Surf’s Up by the Beach Boys.

The next fall, I came to school in full fledged country mode, carrying a bag full of Merle Haggard and Hank Williams records, the first two Flying Burrito Brothers albums, White Light and No Other by Gene Clark, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, the Band’s first three albums, The Basement Tapes and Rainy Day Music and Country Town Hall by the Jayhawks. Hell, I was also giving Dylan’s Desire plenty of spins and that has the most visionary, William Blake, country song of all time on it in “Isis.” I had country radio shows in both semesters of my sophomore year and also in my junior year, completely reveling in the back woods sensibility that much of upstate New York could offer.

And so I continued on in this manner. Country music slowly turned into roots rock music and all of a sudden I was expounding on why the J. Geils Band were better than Bruce Springsteen or why Todd Rundgren was as influential as any songwriter ever or that perhaps Paul McCartney had the best solo career out of any of the Beatles. Then, as I said, friends starting terming my music taste as “dad-rock.” What this stems from is a feeling or imagery that warm, rootsy music has always conjured up in me. I have successfully tied this feeling to one specific image:

The first night of my freshman year at college, one acquaintance of mine from high school, who was a sophomore, offered to take me around for the night. I’d known him distantly enough in high school to know he was funny, nice and had enough alternative interests that I might feel comfortable hanging out with him without any intermediary friend. So, on a still, warm, September night, I walked over to his dorm room where he introduced me to his suite mates who were playing beer pong in a dorm room that was much more intricately and creatively setup than mine, which told me that they must also be sophomores or juniors. After drinking a beer or two and maybe a shot of Jagermeister, my high school acquaintance said, “Let’s go to this girl’s room.”

We walked to another one of the flat, brick dorms on the campus and climbed the stairs to the third floor. My acquaintance turned into a suite and we walked in an open room where this girl lived. The room smelled immediately of a girl.  It was a mix of from some very sweet perfume, herbal shampoo and fresh air from the still open window—you could hear crickets. The girl was tall and athletic looking. She had tan skin and freckles around her nose and on her cheekbones, though not on her cheeks. Her face was framed by straw-colored hair that suggested the end of her first college summer where she had perhaps had a summer fling with some guy at some idyllic beach town where her family summered. She was pretty and I immediately thought I was better than the fictional guy I assumed she had slept with on summer evenings.  She seemed to be getting ready to go out.

“Fixing yourself up, you skank,” my acquaintance said. I realized he was teasing but still didn’t like it.

“Did you even get laid this summer?” She shot back.

“Too much.”

The girl laughed.

“This is Matt,” my acquaintance said. “He’s a freshman. He went to my high school.”

“Hi,” she said, clearly not interested in my presence. “Sit down. Do you want rum?”

“Sure,” I said. She gave me the rum and I drank it.

She and my acquaintance continued to talk and I tried to keep up, but there was no way a freshman like myself could follow the banter of two college friends who had just reunited after summer vacation. Also, my attention was completely drawn to the room itself. It was a narrow, single dorm room, but the girl had lofted her bed into the window seat and placed a couch along the wall where the bed had been. Across from the couch was a desk with her laptop and also a stereo perched close to the foot of the bed. White Christmas lights where strung around the top of room and instead of using the fluorescent overhead light, she had globed Asian lamps of different sizes hanging from the ceiling and opportune spaces on the walls.  There were red and gold tapestries stretched across the ceiling and over the space for her closet. Then I realized there was music playing. At that time, I had never listened to Carole King, but in my memory the music was Carole King or something that sounded similar.  That 70’s recording sound: soft and immediately upfront, a piano playing chords that would be corny, if they weren’t so poignant; and shuffling drums whose round sound seem almost impossible when heard on good speakers. There was something about that room, which at the time seemed extraordinary, and being in the presence of an older college girl during my first semester in college that stuck with me. It was as if the whole scene turned to sepia, or if translated to art or a photo, would be captured in that color.

That idea of sepia still remains in a vision I try to bring into the world—I feel as though one could make their entire life feel and look like the worn, cardboard cover of a great 1970’s vinyl.  A friend of mine once called me “The King of Sunday,” by which he meant that I always organized Sunday barbeques and dinners where we listened to records all the way through and drank beer or something else and slowly all the color of the room turned to something sepia, or felt that way.

What this all leads me to is a sort of small, but important epiphany I had a month or so ago while riding the subway and listening to Paul McCartney’s first solo album, McCartney.  McCartney is in many ways the archetypal “dad-rock” album, because it is ostensibly an album about being a father and a husband and not necessarily part of the biggest rock band of all time. Many of the songs are half-songs or the melodies just seem to appear and then just as quickly disappear, such as “The Lovely Linda,” “Junk” or even “Momma Miss America,” which basically defines “lo-fi” and lays some fundamental groundwork for Pavement.  The album basically breezes by.  The hits are there, such as “Teddy Boy,” “That Would Be Something,”  “Every Night,” and “Maybe I’m Amazed,” but before you know it the album is over. You are not left moved or blown away, but you feel something strange, some warmth—a feeling that things are in their right place.

As I was riding the subway, I realized that McCartney is the prototypical Sunday album. You put the album on while you are mopping the floor or sweeping. You put it on loud while you are cooking breakfast and the sound of eggs and bacon frying in the pan threatens to drown out the music. Then, you leave it playing softly after you’ve finished eating and you’re leaning back on your couch, listening to a friend talk about the problems in her relationship as you rip off small crumbs from a toasted piece of good, thick bread. Or, while the beer bottles are lined on the coffee table and the sun has completely set out your back windows, and the light from the lamp in your den glints off the brown glass and things seem hazy and opaque; when the smell of cooked steak still lingers in the air and along the painted walls and you sit firmly with your friends, knowing that work is out there tomorrow and there’s nothing that’s going to stop it except your desire to get as close as you can to what you want—you leave the album playing.  You run through “Singalong Junk” and its pretty and delicate and effortlessly melodic and then you reach “Maybe I’m Amazed.” You’ve heard it so many times on the radio and know how sappy and syrupy it is, but Paul let’s his voice roar, squeak and falsetto, while the piano rumbles along and he does his best Ringo impersonation to propel the song along. It’s extremely predictable, just like any Sunday, but sometimes that’s exactly what matters—that’s where the memory sticks.

So, I’ve made my way through rock history. I’ve chased down sepia visions and continue to attempt to emulate the faded and loved cardboard of an old vinyl in my everyday life.  I listen to overproduced or perfectly produced 1970’s roots rock or Paul McCartney albums and drink a beer with the full understanding of why the act of drinking a beer is so great—the full appreciation of the action of the beer and not even the beer itself.  And I keep my apartment neat and even take pride in beating out a dusty rug.  I’m past the 1968 of my life now and into something else. I listen to dad rock, but I’m not a dad.  If all those things are bad, then too bad I like it.

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