There were five of us, huddled beneath the skirt of the Golden Gate Bridge. We had just come from a club in North Beach where we watched a band perform an almost comically delayed two a.m. set. The evening, fueled by alcohol and maybe some drugs led us here, accessed via a dirt road and a small warning sign our crew of side-eye rebels can’t help to scoff at. We were “so punk.” We watch the water glide over itself and marvel at a landmark and its sometime claim as monument to those sadly wishing to say goodbye to the world.
Below us, in the cold embrace of the San Francisco bay rest the memories of those very souls and it makes me question my position on life. Was I even remotely suicidal, or just meandering along the catwalk of pretentious self-banishment, triggered by lyrics to some fucking pop song I memorized. Some sit quietly while others (probably me) offer what I’m sure were life altering musings on the meaning of our existence. A pair of headlights in the distance squeeze through the fog, the strobes on the roof providing a clear indication that we weren’t nearly as cunning as we thought. A police officer reveals himself and a temporary suspension of all self reflecting mechanisms take hold.
To us, there was nowhere else we should’ve been. As the officer issues his slap on the hand, a $150 per asshole citation, we move along and watch the credits to our Stand By Me moment begin to play. No matter the genre, music always seemed to encourage these strange moments. Writing this, decades later while my wife and sons sleep down the hall, I reminisce how the romance began. And although my love affair with music may not be what it once was, its pieces remain ever so intact.
Let’s Revisit The Rambling, Shall We?
Four years ago, while on a leave of absence following my son Joseph’s cancer diagnosis, I sat on my couch staring at my laptop. I needed to write something, anything to counter the searing anxiety that choked me. I knew I wasn’t ready to write about what my wife and I were going through (which I eventually did) and the year long bout with chemotherapy our son would be facing, but I wanted to share something that was close to me.
What followed was a sort of drunken love letter to music and the relationships around which it orbited. Aside from being able to play a killer rendition of the Beverly Hills Cop theme song, I’m no musician. And honestly, never wanted to be. But I loved discovering new bands and the experiences that always seemed to hinge on whatever one of us happened to be playing at the time. So many significant memories that could be associated with certain bands — The Smiths, Joy Division, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead to name a few. And with them came others and more moments from my life they too began to score.
We all have those memories that are glued to our DNA, a first love or a sexual encounter we’ve linked to a song in some way, moments immortalized by the very music that accompany them. Some songs I can’t listen to without provoking, if only briefly, a corresponding memory. This is something we should hope for, an inner time capsule that’s continuously filled. What alarms me is the idea that it’s becoming more increasingly difficult to associate an experience with music the way we used to. It can still happen. But I fear the romance is fading, inviting a reality where all music becomes chore tunes, something to make the car ride to Safeway or the Dentist a bit more enjoyable. But who’s to blame?
Who Do I See About This?
One could easily look to streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music as the culprits, the combination of accessibility and mass consumption making them reasonable targets. We can click a button and be instantly gratified. And when that song is over, a “similar” one is delivered to you. Stress free. It’s like being on a hunting expedition and claiming only roadkill as our trophies.
I won’t lie. I myself have enjoyed the spoils these apps provide. I can listen to virtually any album that’s ever been on my radar — classic ones, new ones, rare ones, previews of upcoming ones. It also makes the sharing of said albums far more simple. But what it’s also given us is an infinite supply of immediate fulfillment, a rabbit hole of ease that, for me, has diluted the spark from when I would discover a gem in the past I knew none of my friends had heard. I always enjoyed being the one to expose a new album to them. A little vain, I know.
However, the idea of music streaming wasn’t just practical. It was inevitable. Steve Jobs knew this when Apple launched its iTunes Store in 2003 (although the company didn’t officially enter the streaming wars until 2015 with Apple Music) But the company broke new ground, creating a much more varied listening experience via an established partnership with the artists and record companies by allowing the purchases of single songs over the internet. To his credit, Jobs did this because of his own attachment to music and a desire to revolutionize the experience for the world.
But maybe for some purists (which I don’t really consider myself) what streaming has done is cheapen the excitement of unearthing that “new thing.” I’ve loved many albums recently but haven’t fallen for one in some time. (Julia Holter’s Aviary and The Antlers’ Hospice are notable exceptions). The search itself was part of the allure for me. The “come hither” look the simple press of a button exudes does allow for a little bit of four play, but the mental release I would savor upon the reveal of a truly great album has changed some since those early days of weekly record store outings. Is it for the worse? Who fucking knows? I love Spotify for the very reason explained above, that I can listen to anything I want, when I want.
But I may be projecting.
People like myself, who took those first steps sans the internet and only read about new bands in magazines or heard for the first time on college radio stations, will view this differently. Those who came along in the streaming age, with music players built into their phones, will share a different opinion. And I would be an asshole to assume that my way was better. It wasn’t. It was just different.
Music is universal. However one chooses to appreciate it shouldn’t matter, nor should whatever fucking methods they use to acquire it. Would my 18 year old self have been stoked to lay in a field at two a.m. with a portable bluetooth speaker streaming The Smiths’s entire catalogue on my iPhone? Fuck yes! But that wasn’t my experience growing up. And it may not have been yours. And that’s okay. Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Peter Quill plays cassette tapes on his Walkman then is blown away when given a Zune at the end of Volume 2 and learning of its 300 song capacity. Had he also been introduced to Spotify, holy shit!
One reality that does sadden me is the toll that this has taken on local record stores. Doomed by piracy and online streaming, some stores have faced closures while others continue to limp along. I recently visited Rasputin Records in Campbell and felt like I was at a garage sale. But it was still fun. I loaded up on albums I didn’t have in my collection, finding used copies from Wilco, Yo La Tengo, Tortoise, Tom Waits, The Sea And Cake, Cass McCombes and Neko Case. This was exciting for obvious reasons, the primary one being that I walked out of there spending far less money than I would have buying these albums on iTunes. But with the ultimate time suck that is having children and its impact on our daily schedules, online streaming and the iTunes Store, to put it simply, just work. But it does make me miss those days.
There are still albums I reserve time to listen to from beginning to end. Every time a new Radiohead album comes out, I put the kids to bed, throw a pair of headphones on and lie on the couch (I listened to A Moon Shaped Pool twice in a row) This seems to be a rare event nowadays, as some people I’ve talked to have admitted to only giving singles and tracks here and there their full attention. I try to do this as much as I can but the days of the uninterrupted spin are few and far between, with even car rides having been recently dominated by podcasts. When I write, music is always playing in the background, but still somewhat in the shadows.
That morning all those years ago, after my friends and I were sent away by that police officer, we jumped in the car and drove back to San Jose. We listened to CDs the entire way home, watching the sunrise spill over the horizon. Like on that rock, we barely spoke. We didn’t need to. Today, whenever I’m in the car with my family, I tend to play a variety of music, some from my past as well as new albums I’m currently into. When I play something our boys seem to like, it’s exciting for me, as I know when they grow up, moments like this may inform their own stories. Whatever technology exists at that time will just be what they use, with their friends and the people they love. Their experiences will be nothing like mine, and they’re lucky for that.