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 exponentially. 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 most 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 without any doubt, 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.

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, nor did it aspire 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 or twelve 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. none of it did anything for me anymore. there was no progression there; it happened in an instant, as if my brainwave patterns had changed while i was sleeping the night before. it didn’t make any sense to me then, and it still puzzles me now. how do you outgrow all of the music you love overnight?

whatever caused it to happen, i needed to find something new to listen to. the problem was, 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 blurb 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 provided by dour critics, here was a book written by music fans, for music fans. and the stuff inside…most of these artists were people i had 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 went about completely rebuilding my cd collection.

it isn’t an exaggeration to say this book was, and remains, the most important musical resource i’ve ever had. without it, i’m not sure what i would have done. but with it as my guide, i plunged head-first into a strange, exciting new world of music that was completely alien to me.

i started with things that had some frame of reference i felt i could relate to. i had 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 happily surprised to find that most of this music, which seemed so obscure, was easy to find locally, at either HMV or dr. disc. i found both secrets of the beehive and the eponymous rain tree crow album in different places on the same day, and then 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” — just took me to some other place. i wanted to live inside of that song. i still hold out hope that someday i’ll 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 had been listening to on the radio. aside from the odd wash of synthesizer or a backwards piano treatment, there was nothing artificial or hyped 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 strange turns of phrase. i read about kate bush and intentionally started with the dreaming because it was described as her strangest, most difficult album. i read about nick drake long before the volkswagon commercial rendered him more than a mere footnote in music history, and was amazed by the fact that 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 creepy 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 had 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 can’t listen to his first few albums…because his 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, because 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 dustin 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 had grown to like so much.

my favourite rolling stones album, by quite some distance, is and 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 have belonged 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 ever, 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 & blue (an album i’m still convinced is much better than 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 plastic ono band, john lennon’s first proper solo album following the dissolution of the beatles, and was shaken by how raw and unguarded it was. i read about john cale (who, as far as i’m concerned, was the real genius in the velvet underground, so thoroughly does his solo work thrash lou reed’s) 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, was a singularly unsettling experience. 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 i first learned of while reading this book. 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 incredibly 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 people 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 masterpieces of wholly original artistic expression 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 in any genre is being helmed by women, and it’s difficult to believe there was a time when i 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. mojo magazine (the only music magazine i feel is worth reading anymore, as it happens) has a regular feature called “last night a record changed my life”, wherein an artist will talk about an album that was especially important to them when they were developing as a musician. in a bizarro alternate universe where i sell my music like normal people do and go on to experience commercial success, leading to an eventual article in mojo, i would talk about tilt by scott walker. that album really did change my life.

as with so much of the music i discovered during this time, i read about scott in my first edition of rock: the rough guide. i thought he was a fascinating character. he started out as a crooner in a band of fake brothers who set the charts on fire with pretty harmless pop music (though “the sun ain’t gonna shine anymore” is a pretty great song any way you slice it), and then gradually turned his back on all of that until he had effectively alienated almost his entire audience, rewriting his own musical language to such an extent that the crooner of old no longer existed.

it all sounded very cool to me, especially when he was compared in some superficial way to david sylvian, who i was already a huge fan of. given how similar the first music i heard by sylvian’s band japan sounded to late-period roxy music, at least on the surface, i was expecting something along the lines of “david sylvian with more electric guitars”. i ordered tilt from dr. disc, since it wasn’t as widely available as most of the other things i had been adding to my collection, and waited impatiently for it to arrive. when i popped it into the car cd player for the first time on the ride home from the store, i didn’t quite get what i was expecting.

i heard this huge operatic voice come wailing out of the speakers, singing, “do i hear twenty one, twenty one, twenty one?” like a disembodied auctioneer on barbiturates. and i thought, “well, that must be a guest vocalist or something. surely that isn’t scott singing.” but it was. the voice sounded barely human to me. almost grotesque. like a sweaty handshake that was too firm and lasted an uncomfortably long time. there was nothing in the music that was familiar to me — 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 if i’m completely honest it kind of scared the shit out of me. i couldn’t believe i’d bought this thing. the book had finally let me down. i hated this music.

let me paint the picture for you more vividly, if i can. i’m fourteen years old. i’m in grade ten. i have short hair, believe it or not, and am still dreaming of being able to cultivate facial hair someday. i’m sitting at my desk in the basement of the house we’re living in with two women and a psychotic little dog, in my tiny little music room, working on a geography assignment.

i know i’m not going to get a good mark. geography has always been one of my worst subjects, and my teacher, mr. kuzowski, is a fucking prick — good for little more than his amusing admonishments to us to “don’t ask stupid questions”. he sounds like a poor man’s charles bronson when he says it. he will also sometimes say to someone he doesn’t want to respond to, “you got the answer? shut your mouth.” not exactly a teacher who inspires you to ask him for assistance when something isn’t making sense to you.

a pretty girl named tabitha tatar is friendly to me in geography class, so there’s that. if i had more experience and confidence where the opposite sex are concerned, i would probably see that she likes me and work up the nerve to ask her out. but i don’t…and i don’t. it’s pretty much a given that i’m not even going to pass the class.

so i’m sitting at my gigantic desk in the basement, trying in vain to figure out this map i’m supposed to draw, and at the same time i’ve got my big black sennheiser headphones on and i’m listening to this insane music that makes no sense to me. i might as well be hitting a brick wall with a baseball bat. nothing positive is going to come out of this. i manage to make it look like i did my homework without understanding a thing about what i’m doing, and finish listening to the last song on the album in bed.

“well,” i think to myself, “at least i can say i gave it a chance and got through the whole thing. i tried.”

i go to sleep assuming nothing much has changed. i still suck at geography, and i still regret buying this cd, which is a complete disappointment to me.

it turned out i was only right about one of those things. something drove me to keep listening to tilt. to this day, i have no idea why i didn’t just put it away for good. generally, when i decide i don’t like something, i stay away from it. maybe it wasn’t that i even felt this music was bad exactly…i just didn’t get it. i felt a need to understand it. i wanted to get at least something out of it. 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 exciting thing i’d ever heard.

at some point, somehow, it all clicked for me. i would lie in bed at night reading the lyrics while listening. they were like some sort of fever dream poetry that followed their own internal logic. the voice that had seemed so ugly to me at first became this wonderful, otherworldly, resonant thing that soared above and beyond the endlessly shifting sonic landscape. i still haven’t heard anything else quite like it. it’s music that is a universe completely unto itself.

this album rewired my brain, and changed everything about what i thought music could or should be. that’s not a hyperbolic statement; without tilt, i know for a fact i wouldn’t have half the music i have in my collection now, and i wouldn’t be capable of appreciating it on the level i do. miles davis, tim buckley, john coltrane, those last two talk talk albums, bark psychosis, helium, aphex twin, autechre, suicide (the band, not the end-of-life choice), charles mingus, duke ellington, nico, cat power, peter gabriel’s first four albums and the passion soundtrack, nina simone, laura nyro — none of these albums and artists would be a part of my vocabulary if it wasn’t for scott walker, because after i was able to make sense of tilt nothing else ever sounded so foreign to me. nothing seemed impenetrable or impossible to connect with (unless it was just genuinely bad, which is another story entirely).

without that album, a lot of things would just be noise to me, and a lot of the most exciting musical moments i’ve experienced from other people’s work never would have happened at all. i never would have spent a small fortune on tim buckley’s long out-of-print starsailor, nor would i have been able to enjoy bitches brew as the soundtrack for a train ride to toronto. i wouldn’t have revisited an album like the charity of night, which i initially dismissed because it didn’t have any keyboard sounds on it, and come to recognize it as perhaps the best album bruce cockburn has ever made (and the man hasn’t made many albums that aren’t at least very good). brian eno’s ambient music wouldn’t do a thing for me. i don’t think half of the music i’ve made myself would exist. if you take away tilt, i’m a different person, and a different songwriter.

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, because instead of giving them band names, i tell them i’m influenced by the people i meet, the things they say, 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 knowingly 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 the time is right…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 completely 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 nicely. aside from that, i’ve never been able to easily compare myself to anyone else musically, and 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 all the time, and the internet has become a great resource, even if i still buy all my music the old fashioned way and avoid online distribution as much as possible. 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 read about in the rock book and jotted down, only to forget all about them. it took me more than a decade to get around to hearing anything by the band wire, for instance. but it seems like certain things come around at the right time, and if i had heard something like chairs missing ten years ago i probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much as i do now, with all the different music i’ve absorbed in that time.

the adventure continues. i haven’t willingly listened to a single commercial radio station in the past thirteen years. and i still wish i’d asked tabitha out in the tenth grade.


    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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