Long ago and far away when I was teaching students in all four grades of high school, I attempted to convey to them how the phrasing and diction used by authors such as William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and Edgar Allan Poe were as idiosyncratic as the sounds produced by popular groups and singers by playing a classroom version of Name That Tune with the aid of my personal Wollensak reel-to-reel tape player. After hearing the first dozen notes of Keith’s plucking on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or “Hey, You” barked out by Mick before ordering everyone off his cloud, even freshmen knew they were rolling with the Stones. Although most of the girls were toddlers during the King’s early reign, they repeated the folly of their siblings after “Little sister, don’t you do what your big sister done” by admitting that warning could only have come from Elvis. Boys proved to be true to their school, knowing that “Tach it up, tach it up” tagged that refrain as the Shut Down style of Brian Wilson and his fellow Beach Boys. The climax of “Just once in my life” was just enough to reveal the unmistakable, Righteous blend of Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield. The distinctive flavor of the Tijuana Brass came through after hearing a few notes dripping from Herb’s trumpet in the form of a taste of honey. A spelling lesson ended abruptly after “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” because those letters pointed to only one logical answer: A-R-E-T-H-A.
I doubt if any of those teens would have called that diversion “Fun, Fun, Fun” even if I had presented the winners with keys to T-Birds their fathers had taken from them, but maybe it helped them to see a connection between literature and music. After the students read “The Fall of the House of Usher,” The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and “The Chrysanthemums,” I used one of the district’s boxy Califone record players to play full versions of “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “I Got the Feelin’ (Oh No, No),” “It’s Too Late,” and “Early Morning Rain” as a way of demonstrating how tunesmiths Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Carole King, and Gordon Lightfoot played variations on the same themes of alienation, fatalism, or disillusionment as authors Poe, Carson McCullers, and John Steinbeck.
I still admire the craftsmanship of those three writers and four troubadours. Every now and then I also think about those students and wonder what they are doing with their lives as cooks, carpenters, wives, mathematicians, poets, singers, or educators. They are on my mind now, in Al Stewart’s words, like a “Song on the Radio.” Many recording artists produced such distinctive sounds that just hearing a few chords from any of their hits brings back instant recognition. My talking head says, “This must be the place” in time to that naïve melody just as that “wake up” start from The Cars is “Just what I needed” to help me roll with the changes. The bulb that goes on at the opening of “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” is illumination still beaming bright from the Electric Light Orchestra. I know the Moody Blues are out there somewhere in my wildest dreams. Though Chrissie Hynde is only human, there is no pretending that her inflections are so distinctive she can easily be heard doing backing vocals on overlooked gems like Nick Lowe’s “People Change.” What doesn’t change is that, even after 50 years of performing together, the Stones keep rolling on in their inimitable fashion, even when doing covers of “Not Fade Away,” “Just My Imagination,” or “Little Queenie.” The lengthy vamp that points toward “Swingtown” could only have been charted by the Steve Miller Band and would never be mistaken for the “Skateaway” path Dire Straits paved for the roller girl or for the opening swamp crawl that gave credence to CCR’s “Born on the Bayou.” The quirky lyrics and antics of excitable boy Warren Zevon indelibly stamp him as Mr. Bad Example. People have the power to distinguish between the totally different messages of Patti Smith and that of the warrior, Patty Smyth. Carly Simon keeps coming around with the stuff that dreams are made of just as Paul Simon is still crazy after all these years.
My grandnephews and grandnieces are amazed when I identify singers and song titles after listening to just a few seconds of recordings originally released years before Bill Haley and his Comets were rocking around the clock. I suspect that acute listening, attending to what is heard, has become a lost art. Because children born in the 1940s and 1950s came of age when sound was still more important than images, they learned to recognize singers and bands by their voices or instrumentations. In the days before the advent of music videos and the proliferation of personal appearances, youngsters often heard the music on AM radio before they even knew what the performers looked like. (To borrow some slang from that era, the patter of our favorite DJs while spinning platters from stacks of wax got in our ears before the Platters’ smoke got in our eyes on TV.) Singers demonstrated a distinctive vocal quality; that was what made them recording standouts. Indeed, the sleeves of Brunswick records carried the slogan “Every artist an artist,” suggesting that each of the musicians and vocalists in the Brunswick stable was sui generis. With my eyes (and ears) wide open, I could never misidentify the singular voices of Patti Page, Dinah Shore, Teresa Brewer, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Rosemary Clooney, Eartha Kitt, Peggy Lee, Pearl Bailey, Doris Day, and Jo Stafford. If I lived to the end of time as a prisoner of love, I wouldn’t let the stars that got in my eyes plug up my ears so that I could confuse Perry Como with Bing Crosby, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra or any of the other males ringing the gong on the hit parade like Eddie Fisher, Vaughn Monroe, Dick Haymes, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine, Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell, Vic Damone, and Tony Martin. None of us would even consider sitting under the apple tree with anyone other than Patty, LaVerne, and Maxine, sugartime could only be spent with Phyllis, Christine, and Dorothy, and melodies of love rendered by the Brothers Ames and Mills could only be misattributed by tune-deaf dolts unable to differentiate between a tiger rag and a rag mop.
I hope my former students, many of whom are now grandparents of teens themselves, have kept their auditory nerves fine-tuned to the differences in musical sounds beamed their way over the last 40 years or so. No perceptive listener should mistake Juice Newton’s complaint about how tough love has been on her with Olivia Newton John’s urge to get physical, or a Duane Eddy instrumental for one played by the Ventures or Floyd Cramer, much less confuse Linda Ronstadt with Bonnie Raitt, Bobby Darin with Bobby Rydell, Bo Diddley with Chuck Berry, Wilson Pickett with Little Richard, Sam Cooke with Otis Redding, the Supremes with the Shirelles, Five Americans with the 5th Dimension, Four Tops with the Four Seasons, Karen Carpenter with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jackson Browne with James Brown, Barry Manilow with Barry White, Bruce Springsteen with Tom Petty, Roy Orbison with Jack Scott, Gene Pitney with B.J. Thomas. Just as one would not mistake Chicago for Boston because of the distance between those famous places both in miles and styles, so it’s more than a feeling that the odds of confusing the hits of the rock bands named after the two cities are worse than 25 to 6 or 4. It would take more than four strong winds and a ride on the M.T.A. or a jet plane for listeners to forget the folksy harmonies of Ian and Sylvia, Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Kingston Trio.
If I shared the beauties of “The Chrysanthemums” with students today, I would stop by the “Side of the Road” “Once in a Very Blue Moon” in the tracks made by Lucinda Williams and Nanci Griffith. Steinbeck’s portrait of the yearnings of an unfulfilled woman injects a lasting ache in the heart just as the poignancy of the inimitable scale-climbing present in Lucinda’s “Did she love him and take her hair down at night?” and Nanci’s plaintive “Like I’m the only one who’s getting up from a fall” crush us with a wave of emotion that is almost too much to bear. After finishing that story and playing those songs, the reader/listener is sadder and wiser–which is what great works of art often do to those blessed with eyes to see and ears to hear.