As a music lover I’m lucky to have been a teenager in the eighties, because the music was so bad. Liberated from time’s creeping irrationalities, I could form my identity around whatever music genuinely tickled, moved, and deepened me.
I vividly recall first hearing Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” on the radio in 1985. “Do you like this song?,” a friend inquired. I panicked, intuitively understanding that I wasn’t simply being asked if the song delighted me: I was being asked who I was. Being twelve, I didn’t know who I was. The melody was upbeat; the instrumentation and mix of the song felt up-to-date; I couldn’t decipher many lyrics, but it seemed to have a go-with-the-flow message. I kind of liked it, kind of didn’t. Was I going to give my identity over to the embracing or the disdaining of it? There was a lifelong fate-vector in answering my friend’s question yes, and a very different one in saying no. Two roads diverged in my mental wood, and both that moment equally lay. You can see why peer pressure is so alluring: I desperately wished that my friend would say, “I hate this song,” or, “Man, I love Dire Straits,” so that I could climb aboard and be relieved of my existential nausea. “It’s okay,” I hedged; and my friend, probably perplexed as myself, joined in, “Yeah, it’s okay.”
The form my subsequent teenage rebellion took was primarily against my culture, the walk of life that everybody around me seemed to be walking. I felt that our society was depressingly thin, ticktocking between soulless bureaucracy and vain religion, and turned to artists who shared my disgruntlement, half-comprehendingly perusing the works of Kafka, Eliot, Heidegger, Sartre, and Allen Ginsberg. The 80s, in my view, were a cesspool; the 20s and 60s were epochs of exciting, artistic rebellion that flowed from my hero’s ideas. Naturally, I wanted a musical accompaniment for my personal uprising; and I checked out of the Iowa City Public Library curious stacks of albums by the likes of Stravinsky, Dylan, Ray Charles, Varese, John Lennon, and lots of jazz giants. It was in one of those stacks of albums that I found a belated–and unexpected–answer to my friend’s question of what I truly liked.
It’s often observed that taste is subjective. Would it were! Ninety-nine times out of a hundred taste is blandly objective. Based on when and where a person grew up–Vienna in the 1780s, Detroit in the 1960s–you can make a pretty solid guess about the music that person is into. Our taste in music is formed by laws nearly as scientific as those governing the salivation of Pavlov’s dogs. Insofar as we do pick our tunes, our choice, at some semi-conscious level, usually flows inexorably from the identity we want to have or to flee.
My rebellious, self-assertive side, in tandem with the badness of the music, kept me from simply bonding with the songs of my age. Because I’d given my identity over to modernist art, a musical Pavlov would have predicted my favorite album to be, say, The Rite of Spring or A Love Supreme, or at least Highway 61 Revisited. I did–and do–love those pieces of music. But once in a while, taste is truly and deeply subjective: we really do give our assent with complete freedom to a beauty that touches our tenderest self. What’s funny is that when, say, a piece of music speaks so erotically to our personality, our subjectivity seems to spill into a real world of value, a believable heaven. It’s one of those splendid paradoxes that when taste is most subjective, we feel it as objective; when beauty speaks profoundly to who we are, we think everybody else should listen to.
What cut me to the core and unleashed some surprising sense of who I was and who I could be was the music of Louis Armstrong: a joyful musician trying to please rather than alienate his audience. The first album I listened to is far from one of his most famous recordings (I had no idea then what his most famous recording were), but it’s still one of my favorites: Live at Winter Garden, New York and Blue Note, Chicago, a sweet album, recorded in ’47 and ’48, with Bobby Hacket, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, and Big Sid Catlett, among others. Despite the fact that my grandparents would have liked it, this music struck me as the true walk of life.
The only words I had then were: Jazz is freedom. But what I felt was much richer.
After a brief introduction by an announcer, the band swings into a swirling, incalculable polyphony; Louis’s trumpet blaring majestically, Bigard’s clarinet looping around the melody, Teagarden’s trombone sliding every which way, and the rhythm section holding everything together, each in a completely distinctive way. How could something so crazily individual work so miraculously together? Though Big Sid Catlett doesn’t take a solo, the rhythm of his drumming embodies what I awkwardly but accurately named freedom: his drum’s surprising, jumpy explosions somehow built a solid structure for the band, as if the unpredictable poppings of popcorn in hot oil fit perfectly with what was playing on the radio. Every other instrument, down to Arvell Shaw’s bass, does take a solo, as if to say that everybody in the universe has something to contribute. And everybody does.
In the music is a profundity I’m still trying to understand, which perhaps can never be fully understood but at best embodied. This profundity, which has something to do with the blues, is shot through every tune on that album, but it was most apparent to me at the end of “Someday.” The song is a heartbreaking ballad, which Louis composed in his sleep and wrote down in the morning; the gist of it is, “Someday you’ll be sorry,/ The way you treated me was wrong,” the kind of sentiment I thought I knew well as a sixteen year old. The gravelly, deeply-human voice so spoke to me it brought tears to my eyes. Then, as the ballad draws to a sad close, Louis immediately drops the tragic persona and starts laughing joyfully, almost maniacally. Here at last is someone, I realized, who doesn’t anesthetize the suffering and yet who’s truly and honestly happy, a soul firmly in possession of what Whitman calls a “strong-fibred joyousness and faith, and the sense of health al fresco.”
As tunes like “Basin Street Blues” and “Tiger Rag” and “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” rattled my speakers, I felt positively giddy, like I’d been let in on some big, shocking, hilarious, meaningful secret. Freedom isn’t rebellion. Freedom is something infinitely lovelier, something intimately bound up with the health and increase of the soul. It is possible to be great, uniquely great, right here, right now, in America, among commercialism and Methodist potlucks. Ralph Ellison says, “Even though few recognized it, such artists as Ellington and Louis Armstrong were the stewards of our vaunted American optimism and guardians against the creeping irrationality which ever plagues our form of society.”
Oh, I recognized it.