One step up and two steps back.

I’ve been meaning to do this for years now. The other day I decided I might as well get to it now while I’ve still got my wits about me. So, just for fun, here is the story of my self-imposed musical re-education, which I’ve hinted at a time or two over the three and-a-half years I’ve been talking to myself on this blog without ever delving into many of the details.

I was a child of the ’80s, and I grew up listening to what was on the radio at the time. Some of the things I heard as Little Johnny I can still enjoy today — particularly the music of Billy Joel, Dire Straits, and Supertramp, which I’ve come to appreciate more over time as my taste in music has broadened. There are some great songs that never got played on the radio. I defy anyone who thinks Billy was little more than an MOR hit machine to sit down and listen to The Nylon Curtain and tell me who today is capable of producing a song like “Scandinavian Skies” or “Surprises” where they somehow seem to be channeling John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the same time while managing to retain their own musical identity and spin the Beatles influence into something wholly original. Oasis it ain’t.

I’m not about to argue that the music I was singing along to during my formative years wasn’t good, even if I can’t stand to listen to some of it these days. Without all those Journey and Styx songs that got my pulse racing as a kid, the drive to create my own music might not have been so strong. Those songs gave me a lot of happiness. But I can tell you I didn’t go into high school with a single “cool” album in my collection. If someone had ripped my headphones off of my head while I was walking home for lunch in those days, they probably would have found me with a Simple Minds greatest hits CD in my DiscMan. And I wouldn’t have been listening to the more interesting, angular material from the earlier days of the band. I probably would have been rocking out to “See the Lights”.

Looking back, the thing that’s surprising to me is the disparity between the music I was creating and the music I was listening to. While I was very much into pop/rock, with a strong slant in the direction of anything that fell into the “corporate rock” category, the music I was making with a keyboard and a tape recorder was pretty idiosyncratic, varied, and not derivative of any of that. It wasn’t pop or corporate rock by a long shot, and it wasn’t trying to be. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe whatever my musical vision was, it was already strong enough to go its own way. I mean, listen to the song I posted over here some time back, recorded when I was eleven years old, and try to hear where the music of Journey or Bryan Adams fits into that silliness.

I was content to listen to commercial radio all day long, but if a song didn’t have a piano or a synthesizer in it somewhere I didn’t want to hear it. That’s how open-minded I was. Today I can’t believe I ever thought that way, but I did.

Something happened to me when I was fourteen. I woke up one day and every album in my collection was boring. Everything on the radio was boring. Everything on television was boring. None of it did anything for me anymore. It wasn’t a progressive thing. It happened in an instant, as if some small surgeon had crawled inside my skull and cut into my brain while I was sleeping. It didn’t make any sense to me then, and it still baffles me now. How do you outgrow all of the music you love overnight?

Whatever made it happen, I needed to find something new to listen to. I had no idea where to start, and the radio wasn’t giving me any help. Someone out there must have been looking out for me, because after leafing through my Rolling Stone Rock ‘n’ Roll Encyclopedia and failing to find much that interested me, I came across this at the Chapters bookstore in the mall:

A quote from a review on the back called it a “sexy, all-conquering guide, with big, brash entries colourfully written by opinionated maniacs”, which is a pretty fair assessment. Instead of dry facts and chart information, here was a book written by music fans, for music fans. and the stuff inside…most of these artists were people I’d never heard of before, with no discernible genre attached to what they were doing. I devoured that book, scouring it for anything that sounded like it might be interesting and different, and started rebuilding my CD collection.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say this book is the single most important musical resource I’ve ever had. It became my Bible. Without it, I’m not sure what I would have done. I didn’t have a home computer. I didn’t have regular internet access, and the internet wasn’t what it is now. But with the book as my guide, I plunged head-first into an exciting new world of music that was totally alien to me.

I started with things that had some frame of reference I felt I could relate to. I’d already picked up Avalon by Roxy Music a year or two before without really knowing what I was doing, and it was something I could still listen to without wincing. David Sylvian’s vocal style was compared to Bryan Ferry’s, so I thought I’d dig into some of his work. I was surprised to find that most of this music, which seemed so obscure, was easy to find. I found both Secrets of the Beehive and the eponymous Rain Tree Crow album in different places on the same day, and then I went home and listened to them. That was a good day.

First I listened to Rain Tree Crow. One song in particular — “Pocket Full of Change” — transported me to some other place. I wanted to live inside of that song. I still hold out hope that someday I’ll have the chance to share a slow dance with someone while listening to it, preferably in some expansive space with an atmosphere that compliments the music. You never know…stranger things have happened.

Next I popped in Secrets of the Beehive and my mind was blown. This was the complete antithesis of everything I’d been listening to on the radio. Aside from the odd wash of synthesizer or a backwards piano treatment, there was nothing artificial about it. It was organic, three-dimensional, full of space and unexpected dynamic shifts. It was immediately the best thing I’d ever heard in my life, and by the time the album was over I felt I’d had an elevating experience. Music had never taken me anywhere like that before. I wanted more elevating experiences.

I read about what a very different kind of band Roxy Music had been in the years before Avalon and dug into the earlier albums, enthralled by the jagged edges and the otherness of it all. I read about Kate Bush and started with The Dreaming because it was described as her strangest, most difficult album. I read about Nick Drake long before the Volkswagen commercial introduced him to everyone and their iguana and was amazed to discover it was one man playing one guitar on Pink Moon, with no overdubs aside from a bit of piano on the title track. It sounded like two or three guitars.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of Fear of Music by the Talking Heads, the damaged brilliance of Syd Barret’s solo work, Television’s Marquee Moon taking the electric guitar to a place that transcended the typical rock band instrumentation, the gorgeous voices of Marvin Gaye and Al Green — the book introduced me to all of these things.

With Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, what I read convinced me to take a chance on two artists I had no interest in at all. In Tom’s case, I once caught the music video for “Downtown Train” on television and I did a bit of a mental double-take. That was the guy’s voice? He sang like that? It sounded like he’d spent a few years swallowing broken glass and then washed it all down with gasoline for good measure. I thought it was just about the worst thing I’d ever heard. There was nothing nice about it. Nothing I would ever want to listen to.

But the book told me Tom was a genius, and the book hadn’t steered me wrong yet. Might as well give it a shot, I figured. Worst case scenario, I’d be out a few dollars. I bought Heartattack and Vine and braced myself for the worst. To my amazement, I found myself enjoying it. Tom’s voice grew on me. In a short period of time, I went from hating what little I’d heard of his music to owning every album he’d ever made and loving all of them. The great irony is, to this day I have a hard time listening to his first few albums, as great as the songs are. The voice is too “normal” and smooth, and the gravel isn’t there yet. How funny is that?

It got to the point where i would walk around at lunchtime most days singing the theme from Westside Story in my best Tom Waits impression. It was a pretty dead-on impersonation, too, for a fourteen-year-old. Sadly it was also a terrible irritation to my vocal cords. I found myself coughing all the time, and I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t like I had a cold or anything.

Finally my on-again, off-again-until-he-decided-to-stop-acknowledging-I-existed piano teacher said to me, “I think you’re coughing so much because you’re spending too much time singing like your hero.”

He was right. I stopped singing like Tom Waits and my cough went away.

I used to make fun of Bob Dylan, imitating his voice and singing bits of “Like a Rolling Stone”. Just like with Tom, I thought, “This guy can’t sing! What’s the big deal?” And again, the book convinced me it was worth exploring. I listened to Blood on the Tracks and my opinion of Bob shifted forever. Soon I was imitating his voice not out of contempt but because I enjoyed being able to mimic the sound of someone whose music I’d grown to like so much.

My favourite Rolling Stones album will always be Exile on Main St. Everything that made the Stones great (back when they were still capable of being great) is on that album, along with a lot of odd detours that are very specific to the murky, unique atmosphere that seems to belong only to the time and environment in which those songs were recorded. No other album the band made sounds like it. I never would have even known it existed if I hadn’t read about it in my Rock book.

Listening to “Rocks Off” in the car for the first time, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I’d never heard Mick and the boys take an infectious rock song and then turn it on its ear like that, slipping into a smeared, druggy, inverted sonic world during the bridge section, making it that much more powerful when the original elements of the song came roaring back again. As much as I love Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, the back half of Tattoo You, and Black and Blue (an album I’m still convinced is much better than most people have given it credit for), if I could only have one Stones album to listen to for the rest of my life I’d choose Exile in a second.

I read about John Cale, who as far as I’m concerned was the real genius in the Velvet Underground, and soaked up the wild, unpredictable energy of his music. The first time I listened to Music for a New Society, alone in the dark, it scared the shit out of me. But it was an album I returned to again and again because the music made me feel something I hadn’t felt before. The same was true for Big Star — Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers both remain desert island albums for me, even though they hardly sound like the work of the same songwriter and inhabit completely different sonic and emotional spaces. I picked up There’s a Riot Goin’ on by Sly & the Family Stone and was fascinated by the dark, grimy feeling of it all, so at odds with the sunny albums that came before.

A Walk Across the Rooftops by the Blue Nile, David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” and Scary Monsters, Fun House by the Stooges, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, Isn’t Anything and Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, Surfer Rosa by the Pixies, Rumor and Sigh by Richard Thompson, Good by Morphine, Pink Flag and Chairs Missing by Wire, Pygmalion by Slowdive, Spiderland by Slint, Street Hassle by Lou Reed, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock by Talk Talk, Robyn Hitchcock’s I Often Dream of Trains — I could keep going forever. These were all hugely important albums for me, and all things this book introduced me to. Many of the artists (with the exception of Lou, who has so completely jumped the shark he may never touch the ground again) have remained favourites of mine. John Cale and David Sylvian in particular continue to redefine their musical identities, commercial considerations be damned. Following the different turns they’ve taken has been rewarding and exciting for me. It’s encouraging to see there are still people out there who have enough respect for their audience to challenge them, instead of getting lazy and sticking with a winning formula.

For whatever reason, I never really listened to any music by female artists in the first fourteen years of my life. Maybe I felt I couldn’t understand a woman’s musical perspective. I’m not sure what it was. But here again the book compelled me to explore. In addition to Kate Bush, I discovered the music of women like Rickie Lee Jones, Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Cocteau Twins, PJ Harvey, Bjork, and others. Two albums stuck out a proverbial mile for me — Jane Siberry’s The Walking and Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America, both impossible-to-describe masterpieces that sound like nothing else anyone was doing in the 1980s, warping song forms and stretching them out until they become something entirely new. Today some of my favourite music is being made by women, and it’s difficult to believe there was a time I ever felt a little strange about listening to music that wasn’t made by men.

There’s one album, though, that stands above all the rest.

UK’s Mojo magazine has a regular feature called Last Night a Record Changed My Life, wherein interview subjects will talk about albums that were important to them during their formative years and had a significant impact on the artists they became. If there was an alternate universe in which I was someone people wrote about in magazines, and if Mojo was one of those magazines, I would talk about Scott Walker’s album Tilt.

Scott was one of the people I read about in the Rock book. I thought he was an interesting character. He started out as a crooner in a band of fake brothers, setting the charts on fire with pretty harmless pop music (though “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” is a great chunk of Phil Spector-influenced infectiousness any way you slice it, and I can just about hear how Karen Dalton might have played it), went solo, found his voice as a writer, lost the plot for a while, stopped writing songs and released a few albums of schlock, almost became Tom Jones, and then turned his back on all of that and found a brand new voice, alienating his entire fan base in the process, rewriting his own musical language to such an extent that the songwriter he’d once been ceased to exist.

It all sounded very cool to me, especially when he was compared in some tangential way to David Sylvian, who I was a massive fan of by then. I was expecting to hear something along the lines of “David Sylvian with more electric guitars”, and that would have been just fine by me. I ordered Tilt on import, thinking that was the best place to start, waited a few weeks, and then got the call telling me it had come in.

I popped it in the car CD player on the ride home from Dr. Disc and heard this huge trembling voice come wailing out of the speakers. And I thought, well, that must be a guest vocalist or something. Surely that isn’t Scott singing. But it was him. The voice sounded barely human to me. Almost grotesque. It was a sweaty handshake that was too firm and lasted too long. There was nothing in the music I felt I could grab onto. The dynamics were all over the place, the instrumentation was orchestral one minute and industrial the next, there was hardly a discernible chorus in sight, and the closest thing to a “normal” song was the title track, which sounded like a country song played by a band of skeletons in hell, sung by a disembowelled opera singer.

I couldn’t believe I bought this thing. After a great purple patch, the book had finally let me down. I hated this music.

At home I took the CD with me down to the basement, sat at the desk in my little music room, and listened some more while I worked on a geography assignment I knew I wasn’t going to do well on. Geography was always one of my worst subjects, and my high school geography teacher was a prick. He told us not to ask stupid questions before we’d asked him anything. He did that a lot. He sounded like a poor man’s Charles Bronson when he said it. Sometimes when someone raised their hand to answer a question and he didn’t feel like hearing them speak, he would say, “You got the answer? Shut your mouth.”

He wasn’t the kind of guy who made you feel like it was a good idea to approach him when something wasn’t making sense to you. He wasn’t going to help me with geography or Scott Walker. I was on my own.

There was a dark-haired beauty named Tabitha in that geography class. She talked to me a bit. She was nice to me. At least there was that. If I had any experience or confidence at all, I might have picked up on it and seen that she liked me, and I might have worked up the nerve to ask her out. When she gave me a Christmas card before the holiday break and signed it “love” and I was the only person in our class she gave anything to, that should have been the tipping point. I should have asked if she wanted to go for a coffee or something. But those words weren’t there for me to say. I just felt awkward. The idea of a girl liking me didn’t begin to make sense.

So I was sitting at my hulking desk in the basement, trying to figure out this map I was supposed to draw, right before or right after the Christmas card and the awkward feeling, I can’t remember which. And I had headphones on and was listening to this insane music that made less sense to me than maps.

I might as well have been trying to take a bite out of a brick wall.

I was able to make it look like I did my homework without understanding anything I was doing, so it wasn’t a total wash. I listened to the last song on the album in bed. At least I gave it a chance. I got through the whole thing. I tried.

I went to sleep thinking not much had been accomplished in the time I spent struggling with the map. I still sucked at geography, I was still probably going to fail the class, and I still regretted buying Tilt. I was disappointed.

I was half right. That was one of only two high school classes I didn’t pass. The other was grade eleven math, when the concepts changed and the skills that had served me so well in the years before shrivelled and died. But I was wrong about Tilt. Something drove me to keep listening to those songs. I felt a need to get inside them and see if there wasn’t something there I could understand.

For the next week or two that album was all I listened to. And in the space of about ten days I went from actively despising it to thinking it was the most enthralling music I’d ever heard. It ripped my brain out of my head and performed a much more violent kind of surgery than whatever the tiny visitor had done that night he took my love of mainstream radio away from me, and at some point it just clicked. I would lay in bed at night reading the lyrics and listening. The words were like fever dream poetry. The voice that sounded so ugly to me before became this wonderful, unearthly thing that soared above and beyond the endlessly shifting landscape of strings and drums and flutes and detuned guitars.

This music changed everything about what I thought music could or should be. That’s not hyperbole. Without Tilt, half the music I have in my collection now wouldn’t be there, and if it was I wouldn’t be capable of appreciating it on the level I do. Tim Buckley, John Coltrane, those last two Talk Talk albums, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Suicide, Mingus, Ellington, Monk, Cat Power, Peter Gabriel’s Passion soundtrack, Nina Simone, Can, even Scott’s own more recent work, which almost makes Tilt sound warm and friendly — none of this would be part of my vocabulary. Brian Eno’s ambient music and Miles Davis’s electric period wouldn’t do a thing for me. I don’t think half of the music I’ve made myself would exist.

Take away Tilt, take away the growing it forced me to do as a listener, and I’m a different person and a different writer.

In spite of its importance to me, I’ve never made any music that takes anything on Tilt as a point of reference or strives to emulate it in any way. But then I’ve never worked that way. When people have asked me what my musical influences are, I don’t think they’ve often been satisfied with my answer. Instead of giving them band names, I tell them I’m influenced by the people I meet, the things they say and do, the things I experience, and the dreams I have. I’ve always felt it’s a lazy way of working to take something someone else has done and use it a building block.

I’m not trying to discount this in anyone else’s work. Some of the best music ever made in any given genre is derivative on some level, and everything influences everything else at one time or another. I just try to avoid outside influences as much as possible in my own music. I don’t want to sound like anyone else. I don’t listen to a great album and think, “I want to do something like this.” That would almost cheapen my enjoyment of it. The music I enjoy most says things I haven’t heard before and takes me places I haven’t visited.

I will only listen to something like Tilt or Laughing Stock very occasionally now — sometimes only once every few years — because I want to keep it as fresh as I can. I almost never put anything on repeat. I can’t listen to music that way. I want to absorb something completely, take in all it has to offer me, and then return to it only when I feel I’m in the right headspace. Almost like visiting another country. If I went there all the time I think it would lose some of its mystery, when that’s what I most want to preserve. At the same time, I can listen to plenty of things as background music on a long drive. But for me, that’s a separate thing from sitting down and really listening.

I’ll proudly admit there was a discernible John Cale influence in a handful of things I did back in the Papa Ghostface and Guys with Dicks days, but I was also an angry teenager who felt like screaming my head off, so those two things had the funny effect of dovetailing. And “No Better Than Before” on MEDIUM-FI MUSIC is a very deliberate Slowdive homage. Aside from that, I’ve never been able to easily compare myself to anyone else. It seems to be a problem other people have with my music as well. I take it as a compliment and an indication that I’ve succeeded in carving out my own musical identity. Now the trick is to keep messing with it and chipping away at it so it never remains static for long.

I still dig for interesting music that lives off the beaten path. The internet has become a great tool here, even if I still like to buy all my music the old fashioned way in physical form, and I sometimes miss the days of not being able to audition anything before I heard it and having to go in cold. There are a lot of things I intend to listen to that I haven’t got around to yet. I still have lists of things I first read about in that book and jotted down only to forget all about them later. Lists I wrote half my life ago. But it seems like certain things come around when they’re meant to. I wasn’t ready for Tilt when I heard it the first time, but I needed to hear it when I did.

The adventure continues. I haven’t willingly listened to a commercial radio station in the past thirteen years. And I still wish I asked Tabitha out in the tenth grade.

2 comments

    1. Ha! It might be tough to find. I could always burn you a copy and send it to you along with three dozen other things I’ve been meaning to send you forever. And it’s very much an acquired taste, especially that voice, sounding like the Phantom of the Opera took some bad acid and was never quite the same again. But for me, it was exactly what I needed to hear at that time to shock me into being able to appreciate music far outside of my comfort zone. I think if i had heard “Starsailor” first it probably would have done the same thing and scared my pants off just as much. I didn’t really “get” Tim until that Scott Walker album started to make sense to me, and then I went from thinking, “Meh, he can sing,” to, “OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! THIS MAN IS A GENIUS! I MUST OWN EVERYTHING HE EVER DID! LIVE BOOTLEGS! EVERYTHING! NOW!”

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