I'm a music geek. Once upon a time, I got fired from my college radio station for playing a three-hour block of Lou Reed. In the ninth grade, alone in my room, I'd perform a one-man rock opera based on Alice Cooper's Love It to Death album, complete with a top hat and a cane. More recently, an old friend and I have developed a mnemonic game. He walks up behind me and sings the lyrics to an obscure Guided by Voices song. I am supposed to either join in or finish, just to see if we're still tuned to the same weirdo frequency. Most of the time I can do it. In other words, my brain is suited to the kind of archaic music recall that (quite rightly) frightens the casual audiophile. I'm proud of all of this.
The sad truth, however, is that I do not have a mind for classical music-not because it doesn't totally blow my mind, but because I don't know how to catalogue it in my head. I can still recite the Dewey Decimal system for the comic books in my childhood library, but I can't tell you what "baroque" means in relation to classical music, nor can I recite the name of a single composition by Vivaldi. I'm envious of people who understand classical music enough to even vaguely refer to it. I always feel like I'm about to fail a test when I have to say, "Y'know, like, that one song with cannons in it?" when I'm referring to, you know, that piece that sounds like the French national anthem. Or is it the Belgian?
The sad truth, however, is that I do not have a mind for classical music-not because it doesn't totally blow my mind, but because I don't know how to catalogue it in my head.
As a teenager, I tried to absorb information about classical music. I even displayed a Beethoven's Greatest Hits collection on the shelf next to Houses of the Holy and Siamese Dream. I rocked so hard that I even rocked classical. But only the confusingly titled Greatest Hits. The latter two albums solved just about any emotional quandary I had as a teen-but the classical one just sat there. Growing up out in the sticks, Beethoven made me feel kind of stupid. I knew that the music told a story of some sort, but I wasn't sophisticated enough to decipher it.
This process of interpretation, however, is coming to me with age. One day, I hope to know as much about Beethoven as my grandfather did. Herbert was a classically trained pianist and, I am told, highly accomplished. I grew up with a fascination of the piano that stemmed most directly from these stories about him, most of which were passed down to me from my mother and her siblings. My grandmother, for her part, never had anything nice to say about the man. Whenever she'd air a long-standing grievance against him, I always found it to be fuelled by a frustration that arose from not being able to say, "Herbert, shut up," directly to him any more. Grandma liked to speak her mind.
The stories from my family always seemed more fascinating than the music itself, especially the one that recounts Grandpa's walking into a record store at some point in the fifties and making a recording or two. Those recordings have since been lost, which is sad because the loss was more than material. My mother played classical music around the house when we were growing up, and, every now and then, she'll hear a tune that unlocks some mystery or blank space in her memory. I should really ask her to write down some of this music for me one of these days, otherwise I'm going to end up like her, constantly searching for the pieces her father played on the grand piano he kept in their house.
In fact, I can feel it happening already. I'll hear something on the radio and then try to scribble down the name as some honey-voiced classical music DJ rambles on, taking some perverse delight in announcing everything from the composition's title to the contents of the soloist's wallet. You know what I mean: "And that was Sergei Rachmaninov's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra number three in D Minor, Opus thirty, featuring André Watts on the piano, conducted by Seiji Ozawa and performed by the New York Philharmonic." I'm left frozen, pen and paper at hand, saying "What the fuck was that?" and then giving up all hope of ever finding the exact recording. It doesn't help that most record-store clerks are about as clueless as me on the subject. There are exceptions to the rule, but, as the world moves toward the creation of one superstore to rule them all, it's not uncommon to find the classical music department crammed beneath the escalator to make room for more Everybody Loves Raymond DVDs. But everyone loves him, so what can you do?
The album serves as a very intimate document of Mingus and of his mind. It's almost like having a musician in residence plinking away in search of the moment when everything comes together.
All hope is not lost, though. As I grow older, I'm finding that there are days when the only rational solution to life's problems is a Charles Mingus record-it's better to bop around rock 'n' roll style than mope. At first, my exploration of jazz seemed random. Most of it occurred after I had moved to a new city where I had very few acquaintances. Basically, spending an evening fucking around in a record store kept me from getting drunk and making long-distance phone calls to old girlfriends. I scooped up albums by all of the big names of jazz because, at the very least, they looked as good on the shelf as Beethoven's Greatest Hits once had. Slowly, I noticed that I'd fine-tuned my listening purchases and had been gravitating toward piano players: Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Vince Guaraldi, Dave Brubeck, Billy Strayhorn, and, of course, Charles Mingus. Mingus is probably best known as a bass player, but he's also known as a composer and a piano player. There's an album of his that I enjoy quite a bit called Mingus Plays Piano: Spontaneous Compositions and Improvisations that collects compositional sketches. He avoids traditional chords and instead builds upon themes as they come to him. The album serves as a very intimate document of Mingus and of his mind. It's almost like having a musician in residence plinking away in search of the moment when everything comes together.
And "coming together" is the key. In jazz, I have found the common ground between the music that I feel some sort of familial attachment to and the music that my brain is tuned into. Now, I don't mean for any this to imply that I'm a music snob. I'm an enthusiast. Music is my model-train set. I'm still casting out the net to see what surprises me, what appeals to me. As my appreciation for different forms of music grows, I know that some day I'll stumble into something that inspired Grandpa and maybe I'll even understand it the way he did too. Hopefully it will also have cannons.
Frank Smith has written about music since sometime in the mid-nineties, when he fired off an angry letter to his local independent weekly. Since then, he's written record reviews and essays for the likes of Newsweek, The Dayton Voice (now defunct), the L Magazine, the Black Table, Tiny Mix Tapes and UGO.com, where he contributed to their Bands on Demand database. Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices once bounced an unopened can of beer off his head.