I just got off the phone with the Specialist; on the job, she's the Specialist; off the job, she's Bugspray: full name Rocker Nutley Bugspray. I've written about her before. We were talking about music and musicians like that guy Jeff Tweedy in Wilco and Leonard Cohen. The Specialist commented that certain relatives, close relatives of hers, seem to have no emotional association with music, which made me think about my own family and three remarkable examples of this: my father, my brother David (an actor and now a recruiter for the drama department at Yale University and the London Academy), and my son. I come from a family of eight children, and every one of them, except David (who changed his last name to Byron during his L.A. movie/TV years) has an intense relationship of one kind or another with music. My oldest sister married a songwriter/musician (whom I used to play with in a high school band) and has sung with him for years. My next younger brother, Paul, who died in 2003, was hands down the best rock-and-roll (and fusion) drummer I've ever played with. In fact, an early memory of Paul is his weeping while listening to Harry Belafonte sing a song about the crucifixion called "Take My Mother Home." The next sister is a rabid rock fan, though not a musician. The next one down is a rock bass player (who once played with Joe Walsh). Then we have David, who sits with bemused fascination at Christmas gatherings while everyone else plays live music nonstop for days. Andrew is a brilliant pianist and composer in New York. The youngest, Roni, went to Juilliard, is classically trained in voice and piano, and has written incredibly moving ballads and rockers.
Memories of my father and music are brief. One involves him whistling Bent Fabric's "Alley Cat" and something called "Across the Alley from the Alamo." He had a deep moral suspicion of rock and roll and once wrote a letter to WGN in Chicago urging the removal of Hollywood A Go Go from the airwaves. He was deeply disturbed by the miniskirted go-go girls, and after hours of study and deliberation decided that youth, I suppose, must be protected from them. Meanwhile, he remained apparently unfazed one way or another by the Who singing, "Hope I die before I get old," and so forth, the Kinks, and at least a half dozen other rock bands at a rare moment in musical history putting out stuff as passionate, if primitive, as any decent opera.
I have no musical associations whatever with my brother David, though I once watched the man onstage at Yale for 20 minutes, enthralled, near tears, before I realized that it was my little brother I was watching as Cyrano de Bergerac.
My son does have a relationship with music, but it is certainly unlike my own. The first record I bought for him when he was a child was Mike Post's theme to the television show
Greatest American Hero. You remember? "Believe it or not I'm walking on air...." He enjoyed Taco's one hit of "Puttin' on the Ritz," an '80s techno-camp equivalent of "Across the Alley from the Alamo," possibly. For years, during which he did have an ongoing fascination with Megadeth (we attended one of their concerts at Soma), the only real music in his life was pretty much the soundtrack to video games that evolved or devolved into death metal (currently the band Into Eternity), which he listens to while still playing video games.
I have a theory about my son's connection with music. Some years ago he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and, likely, schiz-affect. The flattened-affect aspect of this affliction is entirely in keeping with death metal. While the music does an end run around emotion, it instead taps imagination and has an additional salutary effect of rendering paranoia into manageable cartoons. My son's friend and sometimes roommate, Curtis, has been living with me briefly and has a similar diagnosis as my son. Currently, Curtis's favorite death-metal group is from Finland and called Verjnuarmu (no idea how to pronounce it) and timidly branches into melody above speed-crunch guitar and drums. This strikes me as almost apologetically introducing emotion into the music, all the while blustering away with 16th and 32nd notes on fret board and percussion as if to say, "Hey, we're still bad, oh yeah, don't worry, but dig this." "This" being emotion. Any kind of emotion.
Between this paragraph and the last, I checked e-mail and readers' comments on the Reader message board, and here were more blustering complaints about my constant Oprah-like whining. The tone of these brief letters was tough guy/punk or say, heavy metal macho, which sent me off on a tangent about the secret sentimentality of hard rockers. Why do so many of these leather-clad, tatted, nipple-studded, and shaven-head brain trusts turn to pudding over Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," one of the most pukingly effete epics of whine rock ever perpetrated? The answer is appallingly simple and has to do with sentimentality breeding everywhere in bad art in the absence of imagination, intellect, and genuine emotion.
The lyrics will have to do in place of the music or melody here, but in both these cases that will serve. They are roughly equivalent in depicting (1) sentiment and (2) emotion: Skynryd attempts to emote with the poetic equivalent of mascara running with beery tears: "I'm as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change...." Leonard Cohen's lyrics to a song called "Blue Alert" in as many chords on a lone piano, slow, sharp ninth chords intertwining through the vocal like cigarette smoke: "Your lip is cut...on the edge of her pleated skirt." One makes you want to weep into your 40-ouncer, I suppose; the other makes you want to blow your brains out with the lost glimpse, that long long gone down a deep blue drain of love apprehension of impossible beauty.