By Terry Barr | Contributor Published: 06/13/2013 8:00 am EST
About six years ago, when my daughter was getting ready for school one morning, I heard a song beating from her room. Both of my girls have gone through very mainstream pop music phases: Britney, Jessica. Lil’ Wayne. Usually I try not to listen and wonder what happened to their singing “Ring of Fire” or “Baby It’s You” with me in the car. I was happy when they latched onto The Dixie Chicks, because simply anyone was better than Ashlee Simpson.
But on this day, the music I heard sounded more than pop. It sounded kind of psychedelic, kind of 60’s. Summoning up my courage, I walked into her 13 year-old room.
“Hey sweetie. Who’s that you’re listening to?”
Her glance up at me fell somewhere between suspicion and wonder.
“They’re called MGMT.”
“Oh. I think I like this song,” not knowing that I was risking consigning MGMT to teenage hell.
She grunted and moved on that morning, sifting through the clothes in her bins, on her dresser, on the floor. I bought the record later that afternoon, and I’ve never looked back.
My kids have brought me into the world of Passion Pit, Kanye West, and The Killers. And I have to say that not only do I appreciate it and hope they aren’t too embarrassed by my embracing “their” music, I also see that what’s going on with us is just another way that I’m like my Dad.
When my Dad passed away in 2000, I inherited his cassette collection, all neatly contained in two faux leather cases. As I sorted through his Swing, Dixieland, and Big Band music, I saw a homemade tape. One I had made for him containing an array of his favorite tunes: my father’s very own mix tape. There was Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Pete Fountain, and Al Hirt. And then, at the very end, there was a song I threw in for filler, for fun: “Ophelia,” by The Band. It was such an after-thought when I included it. But of course, after-thoughts are never just that.
My Dad and I didn’t exactly define music in the same way. If you know the old Justice League of America comics from the early 1960’s, you’ll remember that every August they’d stage a two-part series where the JLA of Earth One met the Justice Society of America of Earth Two. Most superheroes, then, had a counterpart: two Hawkman’s, two Flash’s, two Green Lanterns. And best of all, Earth Two had Dr. Fate who had the power to…but I digress. Suffice it to say that my Dad’s taste in music was Earth One.
Occasionally, he’d make some concessions to “my music.” In 1966 when ABC aired The Beatles playing Shea Stadium, Dad watched some of it with me. He didn’t care for “I’m Down,” at all, but before he exited to the living room to read his paper, he acknowledged that Paul McCartney played the bass really well. He verified his feelings a few years later when he told me that he liked “Come Together” because of the bass line. That was pretty cool.
In 1971, he also offered that Creedence Clearwater’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” was a really fine tune. I guess he didn’t understand the lyrics, but then, he claimed that there was too heavy an emphasis on lyrics in…”my music.”
His list of rock music to abhor, naturally, could double the thirty-mile round trip he made to work and back every day. He happened to hear Led Zepplin’s “Whole Lotta Love” once, and as Robert Plant was moaning and wailing, Dad turned to me and cried, “That sounds like pigs stuck under a fence.” Of course he didn’t know what they were simulating, and of course, even though I was a rebellious fifteen year-old guy, I didn’t enter that discussion. Not then. Not ever.
On another occasion in 1970, when I was listening to Birmingham’s “free-form” FM station, he heard John Lennon’s primal scream about his “Mother.” Dad made me turn the radio off then, and imagine his surprise when the following week I bought my own copy and played it on the family’s console. What fun we had.
Sometimes we’d find common ground. We both liked Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass. He didn’t think Tom Jones and Glen Campbell were so bad, and I agreed that Sinatra was pretty OK. But those moments could be confined to a 45 rpm disc. We had few long playing 33 and a third stretches. Most of the time we yelled through, over, and behind each other’s favorite tunes.
I wish I could tell you now that I came to appreciate Dad’s music all on my own, or especially through a revelation I had sitting next to him: a revelation where I said, “Oh yeah! Now I see how intricate Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ really is.” But the reality is that it took Woody Allen to help me expand my musical tastes. For so long I considered Woody to be America’s greatest mainstream filmmaker, if he was ever really mainstream. So when he used Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” to open Manhattan, or when he filled Radio Days with all the sounds of the 30’s, I loved it. I owned it.
I’m proud to say that when I bought my first CD player, my first two records were Glenn Miller’s Greatest Songs of the Big Band era, and The Essential Stan Getz. I told Dad what I was listening to and he was definitely pleased. I wish, though, that I had told him that he was right all along about “his music.” But I never said those words. I never gave him a moment like he did me.
For after I had given him his mix tape with Big Band and Dixieland and Swing music—the one where I snuck in that song by The Band—he called me one day:
“You know sonny, when I’m listening to that tape you made, I can’t wait for it to get to that song. ‘Ophelia.’ Now that’s good music!”
I’d think about him then, on his sales route, driving his Red Buick Regal and listening to “my music.” I’d imagine it all and at those times, I’d wish I could be there with him.