About a year ago, I discovered an alarming conversational trend: I spent an awful lot of time talking to other parents about Costco and the deals and products found therein. I’d formed very strong opinions on the merits of the boneless skinless chicken breasts in the meat section versus the individually quick frozen breasts in the freezer section. In one particular conversation, I tried to change topics and mentioned some concert tickets I just bought. “Ugh,” one mom said, “we’re just too old to go to concerts anymore.” Others nodded. I felt as if she’d hit me with her giant mom purse, the full weight of the goldfish crackers and Purell smacking me in the face. There I was, in the tail end of my 30s and discovering that my friends were giving up. I drove home in my four cylinder brown Honda with little footprints on the seatbacks feeling very depressed.
I’ve had these moments of realizing how pathetic I’d become before; most recently when it occurred to me in quick succession that buying “dry scalp” shampoo and “relaxed fit” jeans was letting marketing folks make me feel better about being fat and having dandruff. There was also the time my wife told me I was barrel chested then swore she meant it as compliment. And this had nothing to do with the time she came back from getting her hair done and I told her she looked like Cheetara from Thundercats.
One day last year, I was really enjoying Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On” and I realized it came out in 2005. Not coincidentally, my oldest son was born in 2005. I’d thought I still had relevant and interesting taste in music. I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t one of those parents who hadn’t noticed that Sting became a punchline in the mid 90s at the same time that U2 became a mediocre U2 cover band. I was wrong. I’d noticed that U2 became a cover band, but then failed to notice that Wilco hadn’t been a scrappy underdog Chicago band in an entire decade. Some folks are trapped in the musical world of their college years, and I was trapped in the musical world of pre-children. That’s not better.
While I can’t help getting up at 6:30 on a Saturday or having to command another human to urinate, my waning musical relevance was something I could change. I dug out my headphones, subscribed to some podcasts, and started actively seeking out concerts. Just not ones that took place on school nights. Or might not have a place to sit, or featured too many kids dancing, or started after 9pm. But then, all I needed was a babysitter, earplugs, shoes with good ankle support, convenient parking, and a low calorie beverage and I was ready to rock.
My taste in music comes with a big caveat: I just don’t care how sad some twentysomething with a Pennsylvania Dutch beard is about losing his girlfriend. For God’s sake, Bon Iver – you’ll meet someone else. I can’t understand what you’re so upset about. And if I want music I can’t understand, I want it to be because I don’t speak Tamasheq. Or French. For that, there was the best concert I saw all year – Bombino at Martyrs‘. His guitar spoke to me. It said “hold onto your pants, because I’m trying to rock them off.” Luckily for other people in the audience, I could execute arrhythmic knee bends in my comfort-waisted jeans without them dropping. Probably because of this great elastic belt I got at Target. Rock on!
If Bombino was the show of the year, my song of the year might have been Parquet Courts’ “Master of My Craft.” My sons heard the title as “Master of Minecraft,” which meant they thought it was a pretty great song, too. “Master” has all of the key elements of a great rock song: barely intelligible yet catchy lyrics, a driving guitar, and a singer of exceedingly limited range. If you want beautiful singing, get a canary. This song makes me want to engage in some full-out erratic and awkward dancing, which I would do but for the fear of a witness calling an ambulance and looking for one of those defibrillator kits.
“Master of My Craft” was rivalled in play by “Rouse Yourself” by JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound. In food culture, the locavore movement is all about showing how connected you are to the earth and your community by buying crappy chard at prices that no one else on earth or in your community can afford. Thankfully, there’s no equivalent in music – the local stuff is great, and costs the same as the GMO frankentunes Big Music is trying to shove down our gullets. JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound is a killer Chicago band on Bloodshot Records, a label that is a block from my house. How’s that for local, you foodie mope? This is what going local is all about: feeling superior to everyone else — and I just put my carbon footprint on your ass.
I further burnished my locavore cred when I caught the great Chicagoan Mavis Staples at the Hideout Block Party. You really can’t feel old or slow when the 74 year old performer on stage is openly joking about this being the first concert since her knee replacement surgery. I worry that my hairline is beating a hasty retreat to my ears, and Mavis is belting out both classic and new songs with her grandkids in the wings. Following her resurgence in the last couple of years has been inspirational.
Speaking of inspirational – as is well documented, I am not a fan of God. No one should spend a significant portion of their weekend praising such a petty, mean-spirited, and vengeful deity — much less writing songs to and about him. Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers are the big exception to this. Even their most downbeat songs are optimistic, and the upbeat ones are ecstatic. It makes me wonder why anyone would listen to sappy heavy handed Christian “rock” when there’s still gospel music in the world. (Side note: the best cover song I discovered last year was the Staple Singers doing Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.”)
When I went back and reviewed my purchase history, I noticed that I only bought about a dozen new albums during all of last year, and went to a similar number of shows. Not all of those were new – I drag my wife to Steve Earle and Amadou and Maryam whenever they’re in town, and I bought Neko Case’s and the Arcade Fire’s new albums. But I did get to take my kids to a couple of shows, in the hope that someday they’ll have their own years in music that’ll be better than mine. And in 2014, I’m going to do better. I also just bought two pairs of regular fit jeans.
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