Monthly Archives: February 2015

Day 18 – A Song By A Band/Artist You Wish To See Live

I’ve actually been struggling with this prompt.  Live music has never been a big priority in my life.  To be in the presence of the artist and hearing That Music played by Those Instruments held by Those Guys would be amazing, certainly.  But, with all those other people around – all the shouting and shoving and smoking – it becomes less appealing.  Though, then again, this prompt doesn’t say anything about a concert – just that I want to see them live.  So, why not assume ideal conditions – a private concert, just for me and select other awesomepersons – and go from there?

As for a living and, well, together artist… my first thoughts lean toward the mashup artists I like and share with others.  DJ Schmolli, Mashup-Germany, etc.  I have the occasional daydream of renting out a big warehouse, inviting all my far-flung friends, and getting one of those guys to DJ the event.  Although, given how many of my friends are musicians of some stripe anyway, just gathering them together would let me see a lot of artists I’d love to see live.

Of all the mashups I’ve ever played to those friends and others, I think the most consistently mindblowing one – and the one for which I’ve become most infamous – is probably DJ Schmolli’s “In The Mood For Some Killing.”  So, how ’bout that.

Hm.  Not exactly a deep and intriguing response so far. The prompt goes on to say that this band or artist can be “living, dead, together, broken-up, or fictional.”  So, why not one of each?

As for more conventional concerts or bands… would it undermine my credibility too much if I were to say Jimmy Buffett?  As the past entries have noted, that music was a big part of my childhood.  Sure, there are bands I enjoy more deeply, concerts that might be a more artistic experience.  I’ve heard that anyone who’s the least bit fond of Tool absolutely owes it to themselves to attend one of their shows, for example – and surely they’ll go on tour when they release that new album.  You know, the one that will seriously finally come out this year hopefully, right?  …Right?  Sigh.  Negativland just came out with a new album last year, as well, their first since 2008 – and I will forever kick myself for not having gone to see them perform when they were in town.  At, of all places, the Alamo Drafthouse.  So much kicking forever.

But, honestly.  I really don’t go to many concerts, and I really don’t expect that to change, so if somebody offered me tickets to any show I wanted… I’d probably have to go with the concert I’d been wanting to go to since I was in third grade.  Even if I don’t want to see him as badly now as I did then, the fact I’ve had at least some inclination for so dang long makes it a little more persuasive.  It’s compound interest, you could say.

I also feel I owe it to that younger self to see Paul McCartney or Ringo in concert someday – but I couldn’t give that as my answer for the living band or artist. Not when there’s a “dead” category.  I don’t care if it’s cliche, I’d love to see a Beatles concert.  Their music has wallpapered my childhood as well, though John was gone before I was even born.  So give me a time machine, give me some sort of wild gravitational lens. Let me peer through spacetime at the Cavern Club in February 1961.  Let me peek at the Prince of Wales Theatre in November 1964, and hear John ask the nobs to rattle their jewelry.  Hell, I’d even settle for watching the rooftop concert, knowing it was the end of it all.

Although, come to think of it… there must have been a first band.  Even if it was just a bunch of Neanderthals slapping their knees and singing.  Sometime in history, there was the first drumming, the first song, the first harmony.  Now that would be a dead band to see.  Not to mention the reactions of others.  Was there panic?  Confusion?  Did they get their heads caved in by rocks, the survivors ignoring it, maybe even forgetting about it for a few more generations, until people happened to do it again?  It would be beyond wonderful to hear the first “true” human (or hominid) song, for… whatever value of “true” that I don’t particularly feel like explicating right now.  Heh.

As for bands that have broken up… perhaps Pink Floyd.  They aren’t now anything like they’d been, and, again, I’m no die-hard fan.  But I’ve long wondered what it would be like to hear some of these things live and in ear-blistering Marshall-stack sound.  I honestly can’t think of any other defunct band I’d particularly like to see where most of the members are still… y’know, alive.

Fictional bands, though… good question.  I have a deep and poetic fondness for the reification of fictional things.  If just because it’s also a reminder that, no matter how real and famous and influential something cultural may be, it was fictional once.

It’s a bit of a tangent, but it’s a fascinating tangent: have you ever stepped back a moment and realized how all our cultural musical cues were, at some point, nonexistent?   The “du nuh… du nuh… dunuh dunuh dunuh” of Jaws, now a shorthand for suspense, once denoted nothing.  There was a time before the “dooDOOdoodoo” of The Twilight Zone’s theme became a wordless evocation of the eerie.  Elevators existed long before anyone wrote “The Girl From Ipanema!”   But now they’re in popular culture, propagating memetically even to people who’ve never seen the source.  I’ve absolutely gone “dunuh dunuh dunuh” while jokingly sneaking up on someone – but I’ve never seen Jaws nor even that full scene.  I bet there are kids now who use the Twilight Zone theme to code for spookiness, without even knowing what it’s from. What songs or themes will be hummed on schoolyards in a dozen years or so, and what meanings will they convey?

No matter how famous a song is, there was a time when it didn’t exist, and there was a time when it didn’t quite exist.  When the artist had something, and knew it was going to be a song, but just didn’t have it finished yet.  The meter wasn’t quite right yet, the lyrics not set.  It didn’t even exist as itself yet, much less as a meme.  For a time, then, you could say that finished song was fictional.

And then there are the songs inspired by dreams.  Like when Paul played the melody he’d heard in the night before’s dream, giving it the placeholder lyrics of “Scrambled Eggs” before, eventually, fleshing it out into “Yesterday.”  For weeks he played that melody to others in the industry, because he was sure he must have heard it before.  It didn’t feel like a thing constructed, but like a thing that simply existed already.

There’s a sense in which all art is about taking the fictional – the imagined world – and making it exist in some way. Transmitting a concept, emotion, etc. from one brain into another brain by manipulating elements of the physical world.  Which is absurd and wonderful.

So, out of all the fictional music, what would I most like to see or here in the real world?

I’m rather pleased that “Game of Thrones” is already giving sound to “The Rains of Castamere” and other such fictional songs. So that, delightfully, is rather less fictional than it used to be!

The first thing that comes to mind is just about anything performed by Kvothe from The Name of the Wind.  The fictions within fictions make that book, and that world, so wonderful.  Stories interwoven with other stories, references made to folk music and other languages and etymologies and, of course, the secret names of all things – names that bear actual power.  Far from being overcomplicated, it’s just so natural to read of characters referring to other characters, other stories, other songs, as they’re powerful parts of their culture.  It makes the world seem bigger, older, richer.  So I’d love to hear “The Lay of Sir Savien Traliard” in all its complexity and lamentation.  Or just to hear all the verses of “Tinker, Tanner,” including whatever ones Kvothe would be making up there and then.

Perhaps any of the bands from Terry Pratchett’s “Soul Music,” if just to make real another bit of the Discworld. (Though the Discworld Emporium does a painfully fantastic job of that in a non-musical way, as well, and if I had the disposable income, I’d surely buy at least one of everything.)  I’ve heard there’s a somewhat wince-inducing animated version, but I haven’t seen it yet, and can’t find any of the songs in isolation. So.

While I might once have been interested in hearing The Weird Sisters from Harry Potter… based on the film depiction in Goblet of Fire, their lyrics stink on ice.  You coulda done better than that, Jarvis; c’mon.  Those are lyrics for kindergarteners.

Still, I might rather see them than Dragon Sound.

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Day 17 – A Song By The First Band/Artist You Saw Live

Live music hasn’t really played a big role in my life, to be honest.  To this day, I’ve only been to three real concerts. Eh, maybe four, if you’re generous, but I’m not.  The only venue remotely close to me was still an hour’s drive away – with another hour spent fighting traffic and a third hour trying to park.  Besides, concerts were expensive.  Besides that, most of my favorite bands weren’t exactly touring, frequently due to the fact that their members tended to be slightly dead.  Still, I always wanted to go to a concert.  Based on my fondness for other sorts of live music – band concerts, local high school musicals, and all that sort of thing – I was sure it would be incomparably awesome to hear some real live music from a real band, so to speak.  To not just hear a song, but to be in the presence of that song, live and primal: your ear moved by the air that was moved by their instruments that were moved by their hands that were moved by the singular minds that brought that song into being.

One year, when I was perhaps sixteen or seventeen, I finally got my chance.

My dad’s workplace would sometimes sponsor employee outings of various types.  Some were specifically for the whole family – trips to the Children’s Museum, or discount tickets to the zoo.  But some were directed more at employees and their spouses, as in the case of the occasional concert trip.  Everyone would simply meet up at the workplace, hop on the coach bus, and let one poor sod do the driving.  They’d get out at the venue, some sort of food was provided, they’d listen to the concert, then everyone had half an hour to get back on the bus – where everyone would probably fall the hell asleep until the coach pulled back in to the workplace parking lot.  Less hassle, less stress, and less chance of getting rear-ended by some lunkhead on his 20th $10 beer.

If my dim memory serves, Mom and Dad were originally going to go to a Jimmy Buffett concert, but it was cancelled due to bad weather and rescheduled in some sort of way that wouldn’t let them honor the company’s original arrangement.  So the company got tickets for a different classic-rock concert instead:  Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with Jackson Browne as the opening act.

My mom didn’t feel like going to that, and so my dad asked if I wanted to go instead, or else he’d sell the ticket to someone else at work who missed the cutoff.

I didn’t really know if I liked Tom Petty or Jackson Browne.  I’d have been hard pressed to name more than two songs from either of them.  But I knew I didn’t outright hate those songs I had heard, and that was more than enough to settle my mind:  I was going to go see my first concert.   Yes, I was going to be surrounded by Old People.  Yes, including my father.  Still: there’s a certain threshold of coolness, even within one’s own mind, that simply cannot be attained until one has been in the presence of live rock and roll.

And so the evening came.  Mom dropped me off at Dad’s work, I believe.  Then we loaded up on the coach bus, made our way slowly to the venue, and got deposited, shuffling through the huge throng of people to our little company-sponsored pavilion.  There was food, and there was beer for the old folks.  The atmosphere grew more… convivial, especially once we were out on the lawn.  By “convivial,” I also mean “hazy.”  I didn’t exactly have any context to know what pot smoke smelled like, but it was still smoke, and still unpleasant.  Worse by far were the fat cigars lit up by the people behind us – people who were also unfathomably loud.  My father asked if they’d be courteous enough to knock it off or move, but apparently concerts aren’t for watching performances, they’re for smoking and shouting at your friend about inane bullshit.  Why we didn’t move, I have no idea.  Because you’re not supposed to move once you pick a seat?  Maybe it looked more crowded and obnoxious further in?  Still, there we were stuck.

There’s a special kind of awkwardness about being sober around intoxicated people.  It’s an awkwardness that’s amplified when you’re still half a decade away from ever getting drunk yourself.  A sense that you’re more reasonable and grounded at the moment than someone thrice your age – but aware that you can still get in major trouble if you appear to inadequately respect your elders.  Still, I could tell that everyone was having a good time, if in a way that I couldn’t exactly match.  So my brain filed it away under “Huh, so this is that ‘fun’ I hear so much about,” and I focused on the show itself.

Jackson Browne put on a powerful performance. It came through louder and clearer than I’d ever heard from the radio; even that far afield, it was a force.  I recognized very few songs, but liked the ones I knew, I liked the ones I didn’t know, and I found myself almost forgetting there was more to come.  The sun began to set – what sun could be seen through the smoke clouds, anyway – and a Midwestern summer evening unfurled.

And then Tom Petty took the stage.

Allow me to take this time to reiterate that I tended to absorb my music piecemeal.  Not through concerts, not through albums.  Most of what I’d heard, up to that point in time, I’d generally heard on the radio, and gods only knew if or when the DJ would announce the songs or artists.  There was no Shazam.  There was no YouTube.  Google existed, but was still an up-and-comer, overshadowed by MSN and Yahoo!.  If I wanted to figure out who performed a song, the best I could do was remember some of the lyrics, do a search, hope to find a lyrics site that wasn’t festooned with malware and pop-ups, and read through the rest of the lyrics’ text in hopes that the rest of it sounded familiar.

This may help explain why I didn’t realize I was a Tom Petty fan until I was midway through a Tom Petty concert.

Song after song, it happened.  “Running Down A Dream” – “I didn’t know he did that one!”  “I Won’t Back Down” – “THAT’S Tom Petty, too?”  “I Need To Know” – “No  waaaay!”  I think I convinced my dad to let us creep closer to the stage – if just to get away from Smokestack McDouche.  Needless to say, the situation had not been improved by the playing of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Still, I was rather delighted.  “It’s Good To Be King” was playing.  I was grinning and humming along – not singing, though, certain as I was that singing during a concert must be some awful breach of etiquette.

But my dad was checking his watch.  He said it was around 10 o’clock, so the concert was probably almost over, so we should probably start heading for the bus.  I was dubious.  Nobody seemed to be on the move.  So I tried to tell him that we didn’t know for sure if the show was nearly over, that we’d have a full half hour after it actually did end, anyway, and that it really wasn’t that likely that the bus would leave without us.  Magnanimous, he conceded to one more song.

And so Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers struck up “Learning to Fly.”  It was softer, slower, smoother, starting with only Petty and his guitar, solo. Then the crowd began to join the song, word-perfect.   Everybody with a lighter – that being, practically everyone – held aloft a flame.  The flames shone up, and the stars shone down, and the stage lights shone all around. “And the town lit up, and the world got still.”  The Heartbreakers slowly joined in. The song rolled on, and at a silent gesture from Tom, the audience sang the chorus.  Soon he joined back in, backing up our own vocals, weaving more lyrics, unheard lyrics, between the ones we knew by heart.

In hindsight, I’m sure this is commonplace.  A thing that happens at every show, probably at every show of every band.  But I’d never experienced such a thing before – that many people, singing all at once, singing with the very artist who wrote the song, creating something so loud, so unified, and yet so ephemeral – a cover version that would never be heard again, not just like that, no matter how many times it happened in how many other towns.  It was a thing of beauty.

And, it seemed, that was a good enough note to go out on.  As the song ended, my dad began to make his way toward the exit.  I followed, grudgingly.  The crowd was dense and disinclined to let us pass, so I got to hear snatches of the next couple songs, looking ever over my shoulder so I could actually watch for as long as I could.

We got to the merch gauntlet that flanked the funnel to the gate.  I was allowed to look at things.  Dad said they were too expensive – and they certainly were – but he was already walking away before I could even ask about any of the cheaper things.  It was obvious we were leaving way too early: nobody else was up to the same beat-the-crowd tactic, nobody was in the bit of parking lot we could see beyond the gate.  I just hoped for something tangible to take with me.  But all of it was, apparently, imprudent.

The surliness on my face must have been obvious; he asked if I was mad at him or what.  Obviously, I wanted to say “Yes, Dad, I’m mad at you, because you’re making me miss the rest of the show for nothing, and you’re acting like it’s a practical decision, but everything about it is so plainly and objectively stupid.”  However, parents are programmed to dispense certain levels of anger, after all, no matter how much or how little trouble their kid is compared to any other one.  I think they just don’t believe they’re doing their job right unless they put the fear of god into their offspring every once in a while, whether or not it’s proportionate.  Kids I knew in school would talk of getting yelled at and punished for starting fights or cheating on tests or lying; I’d get yelled at and punished for accidentally getting my Frisbee stuck on the roof twice in a day.  And, since “talking back” was, to my father, defined as “Having any slightest twinge of dissatisfaction or uncertainty in one’s voice, even when acquiescing,”  saying anything remotely close to what I wanted to say would probably have resulted in all my personal possessions being either A) put up in the attic or B) outright sent to Goodwill.  So, attempting to navigate the minefield of expressing disappointment without acting spoiled or insouciant, I avoided saying anything about any sort of feeling, and just spoke in the sort of formulaic way I’d later use on bug reports:  “I had expected that we would get to see the whole concert.  Instead, we’re leaving early.” He retorted that he was just trying to beat the crowd, and was that such a problem?
By some miracle of persuasion, I convinced him to turn back  – for just one more song.  We got just far enough into the crowd again to see a sliver of stage.  I knew that was all I’d get, that he’d already given in twice, and would not brook a third.  I tried to make the best of it, though it was something from the new album that I don’t even remember anymore, and I was too annoyed and frustrated to enjoy it.  My Latin class had recently taught of Pyrrhic victories, and I wasn’t glad of the real-life example.

The song ended, and off my dad went toward the gate, me trudging behind. Still, there wasn’t a single other person trying to beat the rush – nobody was leaving but us.  The gate attendant quirked an eyebrow and asked if we realized we wouldn’t be able to get back in.  I remember looking up at my dad, wondering if this, and the completely-personless parking lot beyond, might be enough evidence that there was still a lot more show ahead.  But he was undaunted.

Unsurprisingly, another song did play as we made our solitary way through the parking lot toward the charter bus.  And another song struck up as we got near enough to see that the bus driver wasn’t even there yet.  I could see the back of the stage, hear the slightly-muffled music, the quieted crowd, see the aura of the stage lights, but nothing else.  Dad moved toward the bus, but I still trudged, and he asked if I wanted to just sit and listen, or what.  So I did.  I perched on an uncomfortable wooden post at the edge of the parking lot, and I listened to the next song that came on.

And the next.

And the next.

Finally, it sounded like it was over.  The crowd was cheering, the lights were flashing, and Dad was impatient.

Then the encore began.

“Free Falling,” one of my favorite songs since I was young, another that I hadn’t even realized was Tom Petty.  And then a cover of “Gloria.”  And finally, “American Girl.”  Only when “American Girl” was partway finished did a small number of people from our group make their way toward us.  And then it was over for real, some ten songs after he first wanted us to leave – some ten songs after it had begun.

I continued watching the back of the stage, resolutely not making eye contact with anyone.  Finally, Dad said one of the closest things to an apology I’d ever heard from him, before or since:  “I didn’t think it was that important,” said in a way that didn’t quite fail to imply that it was my fault, or my problem, for having decided to be invested in it.

And, honestly, it wasn’t even about how important it was to me.  It was the transparent ridiculousness of it all.  For someone so practical and pragmatic to waste money by watching only half the show, refuse to listen to reason or the evidence of his own eyes, then spend the rest of it standing around in a parking lot, THEN contextualize my frustration as a purely emotional matter…. it was mindblowing.  Still, it was one of the rare times that he’d acknowledge what was important to somebody else and act like it had any bearing on him.   It’s not like he was rude or mean or anything, per se – just that he knew what he cared about, he had practical reasons for why they were valuable to him, and he didn’t see the practicality – or therefore the value – of anyone else’s interests.  It wasn’t explicitly disparaging or undermining – just not exactly encouraging.

So people began to make their way to the bus in a slow but steady stream. The driver finally arrived, we piled in, and I flung myself into the window seat, flouncing as only a frustrated teenager could flounce – but grateful to sit on something more comfortable than a fencepost.  Dad took his seat beside me.  I still refused any eye contact with anyone, simply resting my head against the window and looking out at the parking lot.

The allotted half hour passed, which Dad had been so afraid to miss, and people still were filtering in.  But when the 40 minute mark came, the two seats in front of us were still empty.

People were encouraging the driver to go on without them – they should’ve known better!  They had a whole half-hour and then some!  The traffic was backing up!   The driver said he wouldn’t actually ditch them – not until it had been a whole hour, anyway.  So some empathetic souls said that somebody ought to go looking for them.  Others took up the cry, buttocks still firmly in seats.  Yes, indeed, Somebody should go looking for them.

And so Somebody did indeed go looking for them.

And that Somebody was my dad.

For all his concern about leaving superabundantly early, making sure we got to the bus on time, making sure we didn’t get left behind or hold anybody back, he was the one who risked getting left behind to go look for the drunken, dallying dipsticks.  Meanwhile, I stayed where I was – legs far too sore to walk around, anyway – and hoped that they’d get back in time, and further hoped that I would be insurance enough to keep the bus from leaving.  It may just be a hyperbolic memory that makes me remember the driver actually starting to pull out from the parking space before people called for him to wait just a few more minutes.

I really don’t know what I’d have done if he’d left, in all honesty: I couldn’t drive, so even when we got back to the workplace parking lot, I’d have been stranded there, unable to drive the car home.  Hell, I wouldn’t have been able to unlock the car, because Dad had the keys.  And he also had the family cell phone.  I’d have either been stuck sitting on the asphalt at midnight in a factory parking lot, or I’d have had to… what, exactly?  Find a pay phone to call home?  Hope that one of Dad’s coworkers would hang around with me until Dad showed up in a cab – which would have had to fight all the concert traffic both ways?  Nobody else from his work lived even remotely near us, either, so it’s not as if I could have hitched a ride.  If the bus left, I was, frankly, completely hosed.

Fortunately, probably an hour or so after the concert actually finished – almost two hours after we’d left it – Dad showed up with the yahoos in tow.  They seemed… slightly the worse for drink, as loud and boisterous as Dad was stoic.  Everyone took their seats, the driver probably said something snide, and we were off.

I know, really, that I’m lucky, all things considered.  To have a dad who’d take me anywhere at all, one who errs on the side of caution more often, instead of doing reckless things.  For that to have been the most substantive betrayal of my adolescent trust is… honestly coming out very far ahead, compared to many.  Still, it burned.  It was my first concert, and – so far as I knew – it would be my only concert.  It could have been a great way to have a good time together, but it just turned sour, and it never had to, and it wasn’t something that could just get a do-over.

But I do think he felt bad about it.  Because, some years later, there was another concert that I wanted to attend, wanted with an overwhelming abundance of want. For, on April Fool’s Day, a different local venue was going to play host to none other than… “Weird Al” Yankovic.  I was dead set on going.  And my dad paid for my tickets, to try to make amends.  It’s probably the last concert he’d have ever wanted to go to, personally – at least short of Jane Fonda singing an operatic arrangement of the Communist Manifesto.  But he knew it was something that was important to me, that it would be fun and probably make me happy – and, even if he couldn’t really share in that, this time he helped me get in the gate.

It worked out fantastically, because I got to spend my earmarked ticket money on a CD and t-shirt to tangibly commemorate one of the best evenings of entertainment of my entire life.  I had never been so impressed.  Not just with the music, either, though you could tell he was truly playing live.  There was even more to it all: AL-TV clips played on giant monitors.  Perfectly-timed lighting. Costume changes for virtually every song – even the fat suit!  It was beyond brilliant.   And when the cheering subsided and the chanting began and the tension rose to its height, and Al and the band came back onstage – in full brown-robed Jedi regalia – the crowd exploded.  They launched into The Saga Begins, and followed it up with Yoda – which, I’m fairly certain, was the first Weird Al song I ever heard.  (If just, most likely, through the oral folklore of the playground.)

Regardless, there was, again, that shining moment: when Al held his mic out to the crowd, encouraging us all to sing the chorus.  And lo, the demented congregation did sing out, such that it might shake the very foundations of the shrine.  Without compunction, I was belting along with the best and/or worst of them.  But as we sang, to my astonishment, Al and company performed something unheard on any album, a beautiful display of brilliantly bonkers bravura.  At last, it all came to a wild accordion-wailing apex, and the crowd cheered loud enough to be heard from space.   It was a smaller crowd, to be sure, but a happier crowd, a weirder crowd, a crowd that wasn’t shrouded in smoke or doused in drink, that probably didn’t need to be in order to get attuned to that strange communal frequency – and to raise it into a great reverberating peal of joy.

And, this time, I wasn’t being hurried along by anyone, following some disinterested other’s agenda. This time, I wasn’t there by default.  This time, I was seeing it through to the very end, though I was practically deafened and though I thought I’d grinned myself into permanent rictus.  And so I – so rarely social, so rarely seeming to mesh with people around me – got to share in a brief but vibrant experience, one that left me feeling the utter antithesis of how I felt that night some years before, sitting on the fencepost at the edge of a parking lot, away from everything and everyone.  But, in the end, I think it might not have felt quite so amazing to me if I hadn’t had the discomfort and bad-absurdity of that first concert to compare it to.

But that’s the way of weirdness, I suppose: the people who fall most in love with the satirical and the strange in the media are rarely the ones who feel comforted and empowered in life.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve only been to three concerts in my life.

Two have been Weird Al.

And, if I can somehow scrape together the money – impossible though it would be – I’ve all intentions of going for the trifecta later this year.

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Day 16 – A Song You Need To Listen To Again Right After It’s Finished

This is actually a rare phenomenon for me.  Once in a while, a song will resonate with a certain mood, or a certain event, or even a certain story, and I’ll want to replay it to continue setting the ambiance.  It happens most often while I’m writing.  For example, as I was nearing the end of “We Interrupt This Broadcast,” the song “Blue” from Cowboy Bebop got into my head and made a home.

It was thematic, and it was even evocative of part of the time period I was addressing.

I had a short story I was writing once – the sort of thing, as so many of my fitful attempts at fiction are, where I have a set of scenes in mind, or concepts, or an emotional ambiance, but not those tiny, fussy elements like plot and character development.  The closest to plot I came was another iteration of the Monomyth, which I’d freshly discovered.  Still, for an ostensible epic about a rural Midwest kid who comes to discover magical power and a hidden world, the jangling banjo and orchestral sweep of The Eagles’ “Journey of the Sorceror” hit the spot precisely, and I listened to it on repeat as I wrote.


Every once in a while, I will hear a song that strikes my fancy, and I keep wanting to listen to it.  Not necessarily right after it’s finished, mind you.  But maybe every day, or twice in a day. But it’s dangerous: I risk burning out on it.  It’s a little like cotton candy: small bites can be delicious, but if you eat too greedily, if you drool over it too much, that sweet and intricate structure just turns to a cloying, clumpy mass.

This is part of why I don’t often listen to some of my very favorite songs.  I don’t want to dissolve them.  I may never be able to recapture the sensation of hearing a certain song for the first time, but the less frequently I listen to it, the less I approach it, the more I let it find me, the better.  It’s also part of why I’m glad of things like Pandora: they broaden musical horizons with things you might actually like to hear, but preserve the element of surprise.  There’s a deep difference between putting on your favorite song and hearing it on the radio or on a stream.   It’s great to have control, to have the means of instant gratification, sure. But when that control is held just a little out of your hands, when you have to content yourself with what you get, you appreciate a mediocre song all the more – if just out of stubbornness.  And when you DO get what you want from something that’s out of your control…  it’s as if the skies have parted, the sun has emerged, and the great and acephalous system has cast a little ray of light right onto your face. Out of all the many things that could have been, it was a thing you like.  And if you hear two of your favorites in a row, or a whole block of winners before the commercial?  It’s inexplicably reaffirming!  No amount of listening to those songs by choice could match the delight of hearing them unexpectedly on the radio (or online radio analogue.)

What songs have I listened to the most, then?  Let us consult Winamp and its Most Played list. Even though it’s been through a few new computers now, and is therefore not a comprehensive list of how many times I’ve listened to things, it’s at least got a year behind it.  So, disregarding my usual DJing intro song (67 plays!) and things from holiday sets or other special occasions – all that listening and rearranging and relistening fudges the numbers hard – what have I most frequently played?

I’m not surprised that it’s a mashup, but I am a little surprised it’s one of my more recently acquired ones – and not by one of my favorite mashup artists, either!  Not to say I dislike this guy’s work by any means; his just isn’t one of the names that leaps more swiftly to mind.  But, regardless, my most-played not-a-special-set song is “Freefallin’ Explosions” by LeeDM101, a mashup of Ellie Goulding and Tom Petty.

What’s made me hammer it so hard?  I’m not even sure!  I’m not particularly familiar with Goulding’s work, so it wasn’t a surprising conjunction of two incredibly disparate things.  I’ve long liked “Free Falling,” though, so perhaps it was just the drama of the orchestral arrangement in the background that, heedless of its context, put that old familiar song in a newer, richer ambiance.

Still, I can’t say I ever felt compelled to listen to it twice in a row.  This prompt is difficult.

But I’m forgetting something.  In fact, I’m forgetting some of my very fondest songs – songs that were explicitly designed to be listened to over and over, on an unceasing loop.  Songs I could listen to for perhaps even hours at a time, and gladly, without wanting to punch the speakers into the Sun.

That’s right.  Video game songs.

With good video game music, it’s not just a sense of “needing to listen again right after it’s finished.” It’s more accurate to say that hearing the song finish at all seems alien and wrong.  I genuinely wonder how many times in my life I’ve heard some of these melodies, and how many more times I’ll hear them before I die or go deaf or whathaveyou.

But this won’t just be a list of my favorite pieces of video game music.  There’s many a video game song out there that I love, but have only rarely heard, after all – some from games I’ve never even played.  To fit the bill of this prompt, it’s got to be something I really have heard over and over again on loop – it’s got to be from something I’ve actually played.  This narrows the field significantly.  I’ve owned every other Nintendo console:  NES, no SNES.  N64, no Gamecube.  Wii, no Wii U.  Plus a Game Boy and a Game Boy Advance.  Friends, relatives, and roommates have had other consoles, though, but I played them more rarely, for less time at a stretch, and so I was always focused more on sheer gameplay. With my own games, on the other hand – or those I rented from the local video rental place (before it became the Blockbuster rental place, before it became a local athletic wear place) – I had no qualms about squandering my gaming time however I saw fit.  Suicide missions!  Playing with my eyes closed!  Trying to get the lowest possible score!  Ignoring the real narrative and goals and imagining other stories – like my survival narrative where Link slashed bushes for firewood, ate candle-roasted monster bait, and tried to recruit more of those money-gifting traitor Moblins to his cause.  But, yes, that squandering often included parking myself somewhere in the game and simply listening to the music while I did something else.  Which confused my mother to no end, of course: “If you’re not playing Nintendo, turn it off!”  But there were certainly some songs that I was particularly excited to listen to, and eager to give just one more repeat before I pressed Start or turned it off.

Many such songs were high score music or victory music. Something about it fascinated me: this was a song you could only hear if you performed a certain series of tasks with a certain degree of accuracy.  This was pre-Internet, after all: there were no soundtrack downloads, no Let’s Plays.  No feasible way – save maybe for an audio cassette recorder with the mic held up to the TV speaker – to hear any video game’s music outside of the game itself.  This wasn’t music that you could hear on demand; it wasn’t music that was dispensed seemingly at random by the vagaries of the radio station playlist.  It was music you had to earn.  Save for Game Genies and cheat codes, anyway.  I’m not ashamed to admit I often used hints culled from an outdated, battered copy of The Official Nintendo Player’s Guide, borrowed from the library.  Matt’s reflections on it in this Dinosaur Dracula article reflect my own with surprising accuracy.  …Including the bit about never beating Super Mario Bros. I wasn’t driven to win for winning’s sake; I just wanted to see – and hear – everything.

So what were -and are – my favorite things to hear?

Sometimes, I’d just get in a Tetris mode.  I’d let it gather dust for months, play it again on a lark, and find myself hooked once again.  Hours would be spent before the little television, my features galvanized by that intense, semi-unblinking rictus of concentration known to the wise as Tetris Face.  And when I beat my high score?  Oh yes, the wood paneling of the family room would be echoing with this for as long as I could get away with it.


Though I had many of the staples of the NES, I also had a few obscurities that I loved as much as Mega Man or Mario.  (Maybe not Zelda, though.)  Prime among them was Pin-Bot, an NES port of a pinball machine by the same name.  Only with a a sort of level system that recolored the playfield and introduced clouds that could eat your ball, wasps that could steal it and take it away to one of the drains,  other wasps that bombed your flippers, and bonuses that turned your ball into a prism or a cube.   Through it all, some of the most amazingly strange music.

The intro theme – which, it seems, was an 8-bit version of the high score music on the actual pinball machine – always got a full listen:

But the NES game’s own high score music…

It’s the most ridiculously simple tune!  There are barely any chord changes!  And yet it was beyond endearing, somehow.  It looped like that forever: unlike the intro theme, there was no clear beginning or end, making it even harder to stop listening and play another game or – still harder – to turn the NES off.

But there did come a time when the NES was turned off for, it seemed, good and all.  It may have been after I got the N64; it may even have been before.  Regardless, there were many years when my gaming was relegated to the N64 alone.  As with the NES, though, I owned few games – but, by this time, that local rental place had become a big chain retail place, and so it carried a strong variety of games to rent. And – surprise of all surprises – they often had more than one copy of popular games!  I particularly loved renting San Francisco Rush for the N64.  I’m certain I could have bought the game twice over for all the rental prices – and overdue fees – I paid.  But it was everything I wanted in a racing game.  Shortcuts!  Ramps!  Off-roading!  Hidden secret keys! Cheat codes!  Explosions!  And if you got to a high score, you didn’t just get to put your name on the leaderboard.  You also got to hear one of the most exuberant bits of music ever.  I’d rarely listen to this less than twice.

THAT’S yo’ name!

Again, as with the NES, I did have the standards.  And I certainly did spend plenty of time idling around in Gerudo Valley for absolutely no reason but to take in the music.  …And because I loved diving into the canyon. The first time I’d done it, it was just on one of my typical Dumb Ways To Die adventures; I was certain it would be yet another stupid thing where, yes, there’s water down there, but you’re going to die halfway down for some arbitrary reason.  Imagine my thrill when I actually hit the water!  When I floated downstream, all the way to Lake Hylia!  And yet, even that delight was tempered, because I was always sad to stop listening to this song.

But there was another N64 game with a disproportionately excellent soundtrack.  One, like Pin-Bot, which nobody seemed to have heard of except for me.  The game was Tetrisphere, a sort of 3D Tetris (only not) where one tried to match one’s blocks to the blocks that comprised a freely-rotatable sphere below, generally to clear a certain number of blocks, or expose a certain amount of surface area of the core.  The entire soundtrack was excellent, but there was one song in particular that I adored: a song, appropriately enough, called “Extol.”

I was known to restart levels until I got this song as the background tune.  I don’t know when, or even how exactly, but at some point many years later, but before the dawn of YouTube, I managed to find the song in mp3 format, languishing on a personal website of… I actually want to say it was the composer.  And now I can listen to it on loop as long as I like – though, again, it’s more fun when I hear it randomly.

I got to play the actual Pin-Bot table only once or twice in my youth – and I sucked at it.  But there truly is something about pinball music that’s so distinct from any other game music.  I’m not versed enough in music or electronics to explain what it is, really.  It’s the way the music is layer upon layer of electronic horns and squeals, and the sound effects are so much more visceral somehow, being associated with so much… actual mechanical physics, I suppose.  The vocals – often from times when vocals were amazing in their own right – are so muffled and tinny, yet so charming, especially in contrast to the rest of the electronic bombast.  It’s no realistic-sounding orchestra, but it’s no Casio either.  It’s like a MIDI hopped up on Mountain Dew and Pixy Stix.

Of all the pinball games, the one that’s most dear to my heart may well be Black Knight 2000.  Whether I was playing it with my dad at the little game room in the inn at my favorite State Park, or whether I play it with The Boyfriend at the local arcade, it’s got so many fond associations.  And, even if it didn’t remind me of particular good times, it’s still incredibly badass.  The vocals!  The taunting!  The choir!  The bizarre shaking chunking madness at certain points!  It’s absurdly motivating.

But I think that the video game music I love and could listen to most of all – more than anything from my pre-college days, perhaps even on a par with the nostalgic songs from my childhood, possibly even rivaling some ‘normal’ music – is the music from the now-shuttered browser game, Glitch.

Glitch was the apex of whimsicality.  Not completely childish, anything but pointlessly edgy.  Even its Hell had charm.  Gitch was surreal, and inspiring, and sometimes melancholy, and the music made it even moreso.  I can’t explain it, really, but from the first time I heard some of the songs, they felt familiar.  It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, but it somehow bore nostalgia from the start – as if it already knew it was going to be gone someday.  I couldn’t put my finger on it at all, on what I could have possibly heard before that would have made Glitch’s music feel once-known, once-loved, and forgotten.

The whole experience – both of the familiar music and of Glitch itself – reminded me of a rare species of dream I have.

In them, my dreamself goes to a place that my waking, thinking mind – which is always along for the ride – knows I’ve never been to before.  Maybe it’s a shop, modeled only vaguely after one I’ve actually seen.  Maybe it’s some theater’s backstage, only tangentially like any I’ve worked in.  But, in these dreams, my waking-self knows I’ve never been there, and my dreamself doesn’t believe it’s ever been there, and is only ambling around, lost at worst, a tourist at best. But the people there know me.  They’ve heard of me.  And they stand a little more straight, smile a little more sly, and say they always knew I’d be back.  I apologize for the confusion and say there must be some mistake, I’m new here, I’m just visiting, but they – or someone they take me to see – just says they knew I would say that, too.  And then they give me something they say I’d left there once before: a wallet I’d lost, or a notebook, or some similar personal effect.  Awkward now, I try to hand it back, but they’ll hear nothing of it.  Open it, they say, it’s been ages!  Not sure whether I’m humoring them or myself, I do – and it all comes washing over me.  Memories of a whole life I’d lived once and forgotten.  Things made, friends met, conversations held.  Helping and being helped.  A whole sphere of my life that I cared about, deeply – but, somehow, forgot.  It’s overwhelming, and it’s undeniable, and even my attendant waking-self is thoroughly impressed and weirded out by how my brain is generating all of this. When I manage to reach my words again, I apologize, saying I have no idea how I could have forgotten for so long, or why it took me so long to come back, and I swear I didn’t mean to abandon anyone or worry anyone for all these many years. But I’m assured that all is well – that it’s just the way of this place.  People come and go, remember and forget, and nobody even pretends to understand it all, so neither do they judge.  But, someday, even without their willing it, even without remembering, everyone finds their way back.  It may not always be to stay – and there I hold up my shaking hand and say no, I wouldn’t let it happen again, I couldn’t possibly forget again – but they just shake their head, smile, and say again no, it may not always be to stay, but everyone does find their way back.

Glitch itself is trying to come back – in Children of Ur and in Eleven – both of which are patterning themselves closely on the original, reviving that world once loved and shared and lost.   It’s been long enough now, and some people likely found Glitch so late and got to play so little, that someone will have that sort of experience.  They’ll stumble on this browser game, decide to give it a try, and find themselves in a place they didn’t know they knew, a place they didn’t remember they’d forgotten.

Ultimately, the biggest reason why I don’t listen to some of my favorite songs, though I very well could listen to them on loop… is because I want to preserve them as time-capsules.  I want to take them in, let them surround me as I am in a place at a time, then forget them.  And, when I hear that song again, some years in the future, unlock that capsule and be able to feel, if just for that moment, that immersive, suffusing sense of place and time once more.   Something so acute, so overwhelming, that couldn’t have been called up from memory without that key – that song (or, often, that smell.)   Yes, that does a disservice to the song: it puts aside its meaning as a song itself, renders it secondary to what it makes me feel and think and remember.  But, what can I say.  Sometimes, I appreciate a song for what it means on its own.  Sometimes I appreciate it for my personal interpretations.  And sometimes, selfishly, I appreciate it for how it reminds me of myself.

 

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