One of the great things about writing a blog is that, over time, if you do it long enough, the creative flow can take you to unexpected places.
As you strive to post something on a regular basis, to maintain momentum, patterns or repeating themes occasionally develop. Sometimes these patterns evolve into novelties, like the Stuff We Need and Stuff We Don’t Need series I’ve developed here. Other times, the recurring themes simply build into an awareness of a broader personal phenomenon.
In the latter category, one of my earliest posts here at Fish & Bicycles mentioned how I was 10 years late in discovering the alternative rock band Death Cab For Cutie. Well, I never intended to make a habit of it, but over the months that followed I made similar declarations about being late to the party, getting interested in bands that had been around and critically acclaimed for years, with posts referencing my late discovery of Radiohead, Portishead, and The Flaming Lips.
Now, recently I watched a 10-year old movie that I love a lot, Stephen Frears’ 2000 film High Fidelity, based on a novel by Nick Hornby that I also love a lot. In one of the best scenes, one of many set in the record store owned by John Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon, Rob turns off the music that had been playing in the store, prepares to put something else on, and right before he presses Play proclaims quietly to his employee, “I will now sell five copies of The Three E.P.s by The Beta Band.” The music fills the room, and all the customers start swaying and nodding their heads to the beat.
Good music has that power to stand out and grab you, and I’ve had numerous experiences like that, where I heard something playing in a record store and ended up buying it on the spot. And while I didn’t have the same reaction to The Beta Band that the customers in the movie had when I first saw the film ten years ago, this time their music DID jump out at me and caught my attention.
Why the difference?
One thing that all the bands mentioned thus far in this post have in common is that they came to prominence in the 1990s. Well, during the 1990s I was not the most adventurous music listener. Except for a handful of fairly tame, mainstream newer artists, and a significant jazz phase, I was mostly entrenched in Rock & Roll music from the late 60s through the mid 70s. No, I was not your typical Classic Rock fan. In fact, I couldn’t tolerate Classic Rock radio stations because they played the same, tired old “hits” over and over again. (To this day Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild makes me cringe.) Rather, I was all about the so-called “deep cuts,” those great, great songs that never or hardly ever got air time on the radio.
Within this entrenchment, I would occasionally go through extended periods of obsession with one group in particular, The Grateful Dead, and my immersion in the Dead lead to a discovery of that deep well of American roots music that influenced them, mainly blues, old-time country and bluegrass music.
As I look back, it’s painfully obvious that this period was a direct reaction to the post-punk, so-called New Wave music of the 80s that I disliked so much: the weird haircuts, the heavy use of synthesizers, the glossy, over-produced sound. I was learning the guitar at the time, all I owned was an acoustic, and so of course I preferred someone like Jorma Kaukonen rather than someone like Thomas Dolby.
All throughout the 90s I only ever skimmed the surface of the new music that was coming out, because only a few weeks would go by before I would put on a record by the Grateful Dead or Bob Dylan or The Band and I’d slip back into my comfort zone. I even moved to Bellingham, just 90 miles north of Seattle, during the peak of the Seattle grunge scene, bought a couple of Nirvana and Pearl Jam albums, but never stayed interested long enough to dig down to the deeper cuts in alternative music.
There was one album from the 90s, however, that made a huge impact on me, even though it would take me over 10 years to figure out exactly why. All I knew at the time was that it sounded absolutely nothing like anything else I’d ever heard.
The story behind U2’s 1991 album Achtung Baby is legendary and just happens to bear an incredible resemblance to what I’m writing about here.
In the 1980s, U2 became the biggest rock band in the world, primarily behind the massive success of their 1987 release, The Joshua Tree. The Joshua Tree was the product of U2’s self-inflicted immersion in…wait for it…American roots music. Their follow-up, Rattle and Hum, delved in even deeper, including a song about Billie Holliday and a track recorded with B.B. King.
In contrast, Bono has described Achtung Baby as, “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree,” four men breaking out of their American sojourn, ready to hear and create new music. And marvelous, fresh, striking, and decidedly modern music it was. So enamored was I of the record, I was prone to making the grandiose statement that this album was as significant as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
And yet, I didn’t delve deeper. I didn’t go off exploring the industrial and electronic dance music that influenced U2 during the making of Achtung Baby, and I didn’t go in search of other alternative bands in general. Mainly it was because I was still quite absorbed in comfy rootsy Rock & Roll, and though a doorway on a whole new musical world had been opened, I wasn’t ready to step through. As it turned out, I wouldn’t reach this new musical world with one step through a door, but, rather, it was as if I was on the other side of the house and it took a million baby steps over 10+ years to make it to the door, by which time I didn’t even stop to consider whether or not I wanted to pass through.
So, here I am typing this, listening to The Beta Band, certain that I will eventually discover more music from my lost decade. What remains to be seen is whether or not I’ll now become so immersed in music from the 90s that 10 years from now I’ll finally discover music from the first decade of the 21st century.