Consummation of consumption
e are such selfish suckers, we music listeners—and I mean that in a literal way. The consuming of music is usually monodirectional; the consumer sucks everything he or she needs from the art and doesn’t feed or replete the music in return. And we are such demanding beasts. We are never sated, are always clamouring for more food, newer, brighter, cleverer, more different food. It’s a wonder we don’t stagger to our local gastroenterology clinics complaining of semibreve bloating and quaver reflux. The key to loving music, however, as opposed to simply swallowing it and excreting it out, is to absorb, perhaps even befriend, what you hear and use its qualities in a manner which not only leaves you a more educated and genuinely satisfied human being, but also refracts upon the world and maybe—just maybe—make it a better place in which to walk.
But what music do we choose to hear, and how far is personal choice a shaping element when it comes to our preferences in music? The ongoing debate is whether the deliberate monoculturalism of closely adhering to and monitoring developments in one specific strand of music provides more wisdom and enlightenment than a necessarily foredoomed attempt at omniculturalism; to try to listen to everything. Was John Peel, a man who probably did own a copy of nearly every record ever made, necessarily wiser than Tim Westwood, who legendarily owns every rap and hip hop record ever made but few, if any, records in any other genre?
Well, for a start, it’s impossible to listen to every new piece of music, just as it is impossible to meet every person on this planet. We have to choose out of necessity, even if some of us endeavour to cover as wide a waterfront as possible, because we are scared, petrified even, that we might just miss a moment of transcendence in an unpromising-looking package, overlook the three novel seconds which could make a difference to our lives. And this in turn may be a forlorn attempt to recapture what it must have been like to experience listening to music in childhood—the guttate tingle of never having heard anything like this before, hearing it for the first time.
It’s childhood and our forebears that decide our choices for us, really. My late father owned what was probably one of the largest collections of jazz and classical music in Glasgow, if not in the whole of Scotland. As with me now, he made conscientious and genuinely enthusiastic efforts to keep up with the flow of ceaseless newness, never shutting the aesthetic door. Thus in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s did I listen to Ornette and Stockhausen before I heard the Beatles or Bolan; Beefheart ahead of the Bee Gees. Added to that was my mother’s own and not inconsiderable collection of easy listening and Italian-American bel canto records. Exposure to both, in that specific order, conditioned me in my listening habits, maybe fatally.
But then punk came along. I was 12 or 13 and for the first time felt the tinge, the craving for music which was mine. I doubled back to Mod and Nuggets and sideways to dub and disco, and drew my own conclusions. And that learning grew in tandem with what I’d previously learned from my parents. You learn to formulate your own perspective on what music can do to you, as well as for you. As it turned out, Mod led me onto contacting a young girl in Oxford, and from thereonin it was a case of two minds working in benign tandem. The unbounded joy of jointly discovering music we hadn’t previously known, sometimes by musicians who themselves didn’t quite know what they were in the process of discovering; and how that joy refracted into our everyday lives and the way in which we viewed the world. The euphoria of hearing Julio Iglesias’ “Begin The Beguine” while sailing over the Westway on a sunny morning, the entire city before us. The ecstasy of Prefab Sprout’s “Desire Is,” and this isn’t the place to delineate that further. Attending the first public performance of Pulp’s “Common People” at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in Christmas 1994 and knowing that This Was Our Moment. Quiet afternoons for the Durutti Column; deathless nights for the Cocteaus or either Buckley. A burnished golden autumn, my first in Oxford, looking over the Isis flowing in the morning as the sun cleared a path and Scott Walker, biblically, epically, sang “Mist falls…” An unforgettable Saturday in January 1982 with snow, freshness, disorientation and A Certain Ratio’s “Knife Slits Water” irrevocably bound. A Friday morning in January 1997, Christ Church Meadow slit white with frost, hearing “Your Woman” for the first time.
And then Laura passed on, four years ago, and for a few dark weeks I never wanted to listen to music again. Eventually I forced myself to relearn the art of consuming music, but also relented in order to allow music to consume me, which happened one bleary, grievously grey Sunday morning as Gillian Welch dreamed a highway at half volume. A new audience had to be found while the old audience had to be commemorated; thus The Church Of Me. Thus also a sidestep into being a published music critic, where the art of writing cogently and concisely about 15 new albums in the space of one weekend wasn’t quite as gleeful as spontaneously discovering 15 new albums over the course of a weekend. As with English classes at school, learning a book by rote doesn’t by default bestow the same degree of useful wisdom as finding a book by chance, reading it and absorbing it in terms of your own, fortuitously undecided mindset.
Having regained the old habit, however, I’m loath to relinquish it again. In the mind of every conscientious music consumer must exist the case study of Ian MacDonald, who decided unilaterally that music could progress no further, meaning that he could progress no further, and made a premature, if comparatively peaceful, exit. Does giving up on the future freshness of music mean digging your own grave? If we consider that life is either a series of ongoing and constant new discoveries or else is not worth having—if we’re just curious about what happens in the next chapter; how many troubled souls opt to stay alive out of curiosity rather than fear of pain, of non-ness?—then it’s natural that we should wish to continue to listen to new music. As long as we do not imprison and thereby suffocate ourselves in our own needless theory about what music Should Be, rejecting potential futures for not fitting in with what we alone have decided is “The Future”—which in itself is very much a mirror image of “The Past”—or seeking suicidal consolation in switching ourselves off, cell by cell, and declaiming that They Don’t Write Them Like They Used To, or It’s Not As Good As When I Was 14 And Music Meant More To Me Than When I Was 4 Or 44 (how ironic that Paul Anka, of all people, should have recently come out with an uncomfortably eloquent demolition of that particular mindset), then we remain open to new ecstasies. For my part, I am grateful that I succeeded in living long enough to experience the simple transcendence of Bill Fay’s quarter-century-old “Strange Stairway,” the tingling grief of the final track of the Arcade Fire’s Funeral, the dizzying depths of the Lethal Bizzle album, the scintillating sting/kiss/touch/twang quadrant of Rachel Stevens’ “Every Little Thing,” the scalding brainshock of Plan B’s “Sick 2 Def,” Lady Sovereign gleefully deconstructing her own pop as she goes along, as if this were Ze Records and 1981 all over again, the sympathetic if unfathomable wisdom of Eno’s Another Day On Earth, the Family Dogg recherché of the Shortwave Set’s The Debt Collection. And, like every worthwhile person, you don’t just take what you need for the moment and discard the records like TV dinner foil wraps. You learn from them, learn to live with them, find out their hidden depths, search out their humour. If you meet the right person, you might wish to spend the rest of your life with them. Those who genuinely love music tend to demand less, and understand more. Thus do we profitably remain alive.
London, September/October 2005
By: Marcello Carlin
Published on: 2005-10-11