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Good Letters

For the third time this week I’ve encountered someone who wants to talk about music. And I’m delighted. I love to talk about music. He’s just found out that I write about music for one of my paychecks, and he’s eager to engage in a spirited conversation.

“So,” he says, “do you think there’s ever been a better rock ’n roll guitarist than Eddie Van Halen?”

My soul sags, although I do my best to broaden the discussion to take in different musical eras, different stylistic shifts within the unwieldy, amorphous category of “rock” that make liberal use of the guitar.

I look my new friend over to get a better perspective on the person he might be. Yep. He’s mid-forties, maybe late forties. Eddie Van Halen would have been uncorking those wild solos right around the time he hit adolescence. My theory holds true.

And I understand. But I don’t understand.

Yes, the music we encounter in adolescence and young adulthood hits us hard. It has been this way forever, or at least since music could be heard routinely on the radio or purchased at the neighborhood Woolworth’s.

My grandfather thought Bix Beiderbecke and Fletcher Henderson were the most creative musicians to ever live. Not so coincidentally, he first heard their music in his late teens and early twenties.

My parents sniffed haughtily whenever I dared compare the virtues of rock ’n roll to the majesty of Frank Sinatra, the musical hero of their adolescence and young adulthood.

I can remember thinking, at the ripe old age of sixteen, that Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick represented the pinnacle of musical and literary expression. And my own daughters have experienced their own swooning epiphanies with Death Cab for Cutie and Andrew Bird, right on cue during their high school and college years.

I get it. That’s what I understand.

What I don’t understand is why so few people continue to seek out new music past the tender age of, oh, say twenty five.

Yes, I know, life gets complicated. Marriages and kids come along, and so do careers, and all those things sap energy and time. But we’re talking about an unending, life-giving source of joy, of connection at the deepest levels of our being.

Why would you ever give that up? This isn’t the fountain of youth (are you listening, Mick Jagger?), and those who try to make it so end up looking fairly silly.

But like all forms of art, it has the potential and the power to shake us from our lethargy, from the gray monotony of routine days, and awaken within us those emotions, sensations, connections, whatever they are, that make us feel more alive and more connected to those around us.

The music itself is not God, but I would like to think, and I’m fairly certain that I know, that God works through this process. And people like my Eddie-Van-Halen-loving friend routinely give it up. It’s a part of the past. It’s nostalgia. It’s the good old days.

Pardon me while I groan. What could be more stultifying, more crippling than being cut off from a source of life, and believing that the source of life is no longer available, that it is somehow unseemly and inappropriate?

Look, rock ’n roll has often worn the trappings of youth and rebellion. But here’s the deal: listen to the music. Go ahead, it won’t kill you.

What you’ll find is that rock ’n roll is as big and broad a category as “literature” or “painting.” There are a thousand different byways and tributaries, and if you don’t like one, simply venture down another. You don’t have to be stuck in the past, nostalgically looking back on the music of your youth and stolidly believing that it’s all been downhill since you graduated from high school or college.

The rest of life doesn’t work that way. Why would you believe that music works that way? Have you matured, gained new insight, seen the world in different ways since you were twenty one? Hmm, maybe you can apply the same ideas to the music you hear. Maybe you’ll encounter some old geezer with a guitar who can still shred like Hendrix, and who may have something better to say than “I want to rock ’n roll all night and party every day.”

Maybe you’ll encounter some young kid who is passionate about life (remember that?), and who is still trying to figure it all out, work through what it means to love in the midst of a world that is often confusing and disappointing, and who still believes that three chords and the truth mean something.

Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

That’s the monologue I carry on in my head, and now share with you.

Sorry to ramble. It’s just that I get lonely. Honest to God, I do. My needs are simple. I want to find human beings who pay attention to music. And read. And think. And don’t live in the past. And who believe that Ezra Furman or Southeast Engine, or others like them, may be on the same path as Bob Dylan, figuring it out and wailing as they go, even if they can’t shred like Eddie Van Halen.

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