Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"I Can't Understand a WORD"

The other day--in the coffee shop (where else would I be?)--I overheard a sometimes intense conversation among some, uh, "veteran" folks (i.e., my age and older). They were talking about popular music today--especially hip hop and rap. Most of the conversation contained complaints about (1) the musicianship ("These guys can't even sing!") and (2) the lyrics ("I can't understand a word of it!").

That conversation, of course, has taken place in just about every generation since the birth of music. (Can you hear the Neanderthal father barking at his son who's pounding a log with a club (I'm translating freely now): "You call that rhythm! Why, in my day ..."?)

P. J. Proby
In my own youth, my parents were alarmed by (who else?) Elvis. Dad called him "Elvis the Pelvis" (I was not allowed to watch his movies) and, seeing P. J. Proby on one of those TV rock-and-roll shows (which my younger brother, Dave, was watching), he said (Mother was not in the room): "That's the first time I've seen teeth on a horse's ass."

Dad, I must say, had a fine tenor voice (more than fine, really) and had flirted with an opera career before that annoyance called World War II came along. As I remember (and my brothers may recall otherwise), I don't think he cared even for the swing era--Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, et al. Mom had similar tastes. Both would complain that they couldn't understand a word of the lyrics.

I should say, too, that the Hiram School (when I was in the junior high grades) was pretty well divided between the Elvis Camp and the Pat Boone Camp. (I--to my shame--was in the latter.) I secretly liked Elvis (he seemed ... naughty, a trait I admired in junior high school) but stuck with Vanilla Pat (I just made that up) in the Grand Debates about the better performer.
Guess who?

Pat Boone

Later, I became a devotee of the Beatles (favoring them over the Stones, although I liked them as well--for the same reason I'd liked Elvis: Danger!), and the Woodstock musicians were really the last popular performers I loved. When Joyce and I saw the film Woodstock at the old Kent Theater (downtown), we loved it--as we did Let It Be, which we sat through twice (something I hadn't done since cowboy movies back in Oklahoma). We had albums by Crosby, Stills, and Nash and others of that era (we saw them perform in Cleveland right after May 4, 1970, and heard "Four Dead in Ohio" and "Find the Cost of Freedom" in their infancy). We also saw Dylan early on--he played his first set acoustic, then, after intermission, out came the electric guitars and bass.

But after that era, I sort of lost interest in popular music. I had a flurry of interest in Country (my roots, you know?), but turned away when most of it became irresolutely Right Wing.

A quick word about "musicianship." The folks I was listening to in the coffee shop have no idea, I think, how impossibly good you must be to rise to the top in the popular music world. I have an analogy--tennis. I used to play Early Bird out at the Western Reserve Racquet Club in Aurora. I could beat many of the men out there, but there were several against whom I had no chance. And those men had no chance against the club pro. Who had no chance against some of the pros in other clubs. Who had no chance in professional tournaments. Levels of excellence. Sometimes you can't really understand because you haven't ... played.

And as for understanding the lyrics? Well, the answer has always been this: The lyrics are not for you. So of course you can't understand them, not on any level.

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