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Good Letters

Back when garage bands actually used to practice in garages, my local swimming pool sponsored Battle of the Bands nights. Sixteen-year-old boys with hair hanging down in their eyes used to flail away on their guitars, spurred on by visions of appearing on Shindig or American Bandstand, or, failing that, winning the adulation of a cute girl.

Using a highly refined process that was never entirely clear to me, Mr. Archer, a hip, young English teacher at the local high school, would tally the results and announce a winner at the end of the night, and some lucky band would walk away with the $25 prize. It was great fun, and it was my introduction to garage band classics such as “Hey Joe” and “House of the Rising Sun.”

Somehow, in ways that remain inscrutable, I have become Mr. Archer. Half a dozen times now I’ve been asked to play arbiter in musical contests that award the winners with money, publicity, and recording time in state-of-the-art studios.

I’ve done it, but I remain not-so-young, radically unhip, and as baffled as ever. Who, me? You want me to pick a winner from a batch of musicians that usually includes at least one raging punk band, a sensitive singer/songwriter, and an avant-garde performance artist? Just how does this work again?

Thankfully, most of the time this process has occurred behind the scenes. I listen to a handful of albums from aspiring bands, weigh the merits of the music in my mind, and then communicate my thoughts about the music in writing.

The happy winners spend their money and record their new albums, and I escape in relative anonymity. It’s a cold way to communicate about a hot medium, but it’s what I do. I can’t dance about music, or at least you wouldn’t want to see me try. So I write about it.

Occasionally, though, I have to face the music quite literally. It last happened about a year ago, when three other music critics and I were asked to officiate a real, twenty-first century Battle of the Bands at a nearby state university. Five bands played in a local dive, the friends of the bands packed the place out and pogoed shoulder to shoulder in the mosh pit, and I did my best to avoid bodily injury and listen attentively.

Theoretically, our identities as judges were to remain a secret. We were supposed to blend in with the crowd and mingle unobtrusively. And for the other three judges, who might have been in their mid-to-late twenties, it was probably no big deal. But I’m not sure the committee who invited us had counted on the realities of a 55-year-old guy with a hearing aid in the midst of tattooed, Mohawked college students.

“You’re either the parent of a bandmember or a judge,” one of the pogoers shouted to me about eight seconds after the first band launched into their set. “Yes,” I said, trying to maintain an air of mystery. “Yes, I am.”

By the opening band’s third song most of the 200 or so audience members had turned around to gawk at me. The telltale signs of what passed for whispering in the midst of a punk set were readily apparent; mouths behind cupped hands shouting into the ears of neighboring concertgoers, looks of open-mouthed astonishment cast back in my direction. There was no doubt in my mind that I had been outed.

And it brought back all the old (and not getting any younger) insecurities. Just what was I doing, anyway? Who did I think I was? Didn’t I know that rock ‘n roll was the purview of the young, and that my receding hairline and hearing aid looked absurd in the context of a punk show? “Hope I die before I get old” the ancient wankers known as The Who had once sung, but I had not followed the script, nor had I chosen to just f-f-fade away. And now they were talkin’ about my degeneration.

The moment—or, more correctly, the uncomfortable, seemingly interminable three hours—passed. We picked a winner, and the young critics and the old critic were united in their opinions. One band was happy, four bands were upset. The bands battled, and to the victor went the spoils.

I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. Aside from the discomfort, the experience helped me crystallize why I do this in my rock ‘n roll dotage: I still love the music. I can no more imagine “giving it up” than I can imagine that I will stop reading, or stop watching films. As long as I can hear, I will choose to listen. And if I didn’t hear five “winners” that night, I still heard two or three. The pity, and the injustice, is that we could only select one.

The process is no more refined than it was when Mr. Archer was picking winners back at the Worthington Swimming Pool. There are no formulas, and much of it is intuitive, imprecise, and highly debatable. What is not debatable—for me, and for many others—is the sheer pleasure of hearing a well-written, well-played, well-performed song come together on a stage, the lightning-in-a-bottle instant where impeccable craft and passionate spontaneity spark and ignite.

I’m not sure there is, or should be, an award for that. It happens, and whenever and however often it happens, the only proper response is gratitude. There is something of God in it every time.

Driving home the next day, feeling old and tired, that’s what stayed with me.

The metaphor was all wrong. It wasn’t a battle. It was a celebration.

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