Listening to the music of time
By the time I started listening to Charlie Parker, he’d been dead for five or six years. I was in my early teens, too young to have heard “Parker’s Mood” and “Ko Ko” and the rest of his music as it emerged, first as 78s on the Savoy and Dial labels and then on Verve albums, interacting in real time with everything else around it. That didn’t stop me forming opinions and eventually writing about it. But it was a long time before I realised that older listeners might consider their opinions to be worth more than mine, simply by virtue of their perspective on the music’s initial impact.
I think the penny dropped in the 1970s during a bad-tempered exchange of letters with Derek Jewell, then the jazz and pop critic of the Sunday Times. Twenty years older than me, he tried put me in my place by telling me that he’d been listening to Parker’s records when they were new, while doing his national service in, if I remember correctly, the RAF. With the arrogance of youth, I answered back. But I did so with the uneasy recognition that, however much we both loved Parker’s music, his feelings about it might be intrinsically different from mine, his connection more intimate.
Now, half a century later, it’s my turn to have the sort of feelings that underpinned his words. Occasionally I find myself wondering how someone in their twenties or thirties today can possibly understand the music of Jimi Hendrix, or Martha and the Vandellas, or Albert Ayler, or Anne Briggs, or Curtis Mayfield, or Laura Nyro the way I think I do. I mean, you had to discover “Heat Wave”. “Quicksand”, “Live Wire”, In My Lonely Room”, “Dancing in the Street”, “Wild One” and “Nowhere to Run” in sequence, at the time, to make proper sense of them, didn’t you?
Soon nobody alive will know how it felt to experience that music as it came into the world, all brand new. But people will still want to have opinions about it. And there’s a possibility — heavens above! — that their opinions will be just as valid as mine, and possibly a lot more interesting.
This came home to me while watching Lisa Cortés’s new documentary about Little Richard in order to review it for Uncut magazine (seen above in a page from the June issue). I found it an extraordinary piece of work, on two levels. First, and most obvious, is the enduring charisma of Richard himself, who sets fire to the screen every time he’s shown either performing or giving an interview. The second and more unexpected level is the one on which it made me listen to the director’s choice of talking heads: young academics of colour, female and male, some gay, from American institutions, discussing Richard in terms of his self-presentation — derived from a sexually fluid segment of the black entertainment world — and its wider impact.
White rock critics of my generation, in other words the sort of people who generally get rolled out for such projects, are conspicuous by their absence from this project. But, as I say in the review, I listened to the views of Zandria Robinson, Fredara Hadley, Jason King and others, threaded throughout Little Richard: I Am Everything, with the feeling that I was hearing a new kind of voice discussing a familiar subject from a different and extremely valuable perspective. It gave me a jolt, but an inspiring one.
It’s possible that none of those young academics could list Richard’s first half-dozen Specialty singles in chronological order. Certainly none is anywhere near old enough to remember the precise cultural explosion each one caused on its release, just as I’ll never know how it felt to absorb Duke Ellington’s compositions as they emerged, one after another, on 78s in the 1920s and ’30s. But at this stage, perhaps there are more interesting things to know, and more important things to be said.
* Little Richard: I Am Everything is in selected UK cinemas on 28 April. The June issue of Uncut is out now.
Great, thoughtful piece on the Little Richard documentary. Valid points all around. If pop music and pop culture cause this multiplicity of perspectives then think about how many people passionately feel and think so many things about history, say the American Civil War or Winston Churchill. The mind boggles.
That’s a thought provoking piece Richard, thanks!
Thank you Richard, these are topics that have been on my mind as I contribute to FB pages that share old soul records and I wonder who is listening and how. I’m in Australia now so reading uncut is easy and I’ll find a way to watch the doc. Thanks.
Fascinating and insightful piece. The older/newer listener thing resonates a lot these days – I’m just a few years younger than you. Love the prospect of your exchanges with Derek Jewell!
Also interesting to compare and contrast your views on ‘I Am Everything’ with those of Max Decharne and his less enthusiastic *** review in June’s Mojo (an ‘interesting yet uneven consideration…’)
Good points. And of course your/my viewpoint on the Vandellas singles as new releases is very different from a Black American teenager’s experience on the spot.
That’s a very good point, Ady.
What you describe is something I too have felt, more so lately, as the cusp of geezerdom draws ever closer. With age, our preferences may evolve, but certainly emerge, and eventually make many of us fart dust, at least in the eyes of those who succeed us in the critical hierarchy (after all, they couldn’t possibly replace us, eh?). I too believe it is true that new works are more fully appreciated in the context of their times of creation, heard when new rather than heard anew, however many years later, after some of our colleagues have connected enough dots for the unknowing as to have contrived a context, usually within a framework designed more to fit their theories, no matter how cockamamie, than to follow historical fact. Such presumptuousness skews a smoother turning of the cycle of progress, but it is the nature of the younger to bitch about the perceived shortcomings of the older. What was foundational for us is historical to younger folks, and so on. How can they know what we know? They can’t – nor can we know what they know. So it has always been and always will be. One thing you mention which I find especially encouraging is the diversity of the talking heads in the documentary. As an American southern white boy of a certain vintage (old enough to remember segregation at its fullest and most fetid), I celebrate the now-ongoing, long-overdue displacement and dismantling of straight white male dominance in too many things. We had our turn and weren’t very nice to one another, much less anyone who had the nerve to not remind us of ourselves. Obviously reading what you wrote spurred many thoughts and I thank you for that. Right on and write on!
Thanks for writing that, Patrick.
Yes, food for thought, Richard. I have seen Jimi Hendrix in ’68 at the age of fourteen and didn’t get it. I rather listened to the hits of the day. I later found out that he liked that stuff too.
Really thoughtful piece of writing. Also a good clue on how to keep all that revolutionary 50s music alive and kicking!
I couldn’t agree more Richard. Undoubtedly anyone has the right to express their enthusiasm/opinions on the arts, and such views can be interesting from a studied retrospective perspective and valid to an extent, but to appreciate the import or significance of a piece of music you need to experience it in “real time” to fully understand it’s impact.
It’s impossible to describe what Little Richard sounded like coming out of the radio in 1958. So extreme and so outlandish that reasons were required to ‘explain’ it: he was insane; he was in a mental home; he was possessed.
Dylan’s voice, delivery and imagery required similar ‘explanations’: he was very ill; he was a junkie.
In a retrospect built partly on their influence, such innovators now appear to fit easily into the historical musical narrative. No one can now ‘experience’ what we experienced then. How could they?
Thanks for yet another interesting and thought-provoking essay. As an oldie (73 next week), I echo the implied question: “how can young(er) people possibly understand the impact of first hearing The Beatles, The Doors, Astral Weeks, Hot Rats, In A Silent Way, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, etc.” But here’s another perspective: the critics of the day often got it wrong. See https://tedgioia.substack.com/p/why-did-the-beatles-get-so-many-bad?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email
As far as I know, RW’s criticism has always been on the mark, but I think many of us lesser beings have had to own up to being, if occasionally, stubbornly deaf to innovative and exceptional art. Why were Scott Walker, Tim Buckley, Gene Clark, Frank Zappa, Tom Verlaine, for example, so ignored or misunderstood? Is it all to do with popular taste (or lack of it), or are there other more important but unacknowledged factors?
[I admit that the examples I gave can all be considered “critics’ darlings,” but I think the question is still valid.]
I am interested to see this film. I do feel that us traditional white male fans never focussed for example on Richard’s gayness or his drag queen early incarnation and I hope this is corrected even celebrated. However last night I saw an Aladdin Sane tribute concert at the Festival Hall, featuring a fresh generation of artists but ending up insipid compared to Bowie’s cheek and bravura. I’ve never thought of snowflake in any pejorative way but something did rumble on the way home kart night I’m sad to say.
It does us all good to see things from a different perspective.
Light streams through a stained glass window in many ways illuminating aspects of composition you may never have noticed before.
It is the same with familiar music.
Always a pleasure to visit here.
I was born in 1962. It took some years till I started listening to music. My oldest vague audio memories are of some Beatles songs, Creedance and Chico Buarque´s A Banda played on my parents´ Blaupunkt wood encased sound system. Further on came the glam rock years and the radio played songs that touched us teenagers. Later punk, post punk and new wave shielded us from anything recorded pre 1975 – Dylan, the Stones, prog-rock all this was forbidden, probably only Peter Gabriel was tolerated. It took many years to realise, aprehend that actually there was music worth listening to outside the post-punk/new wave years and that much of post-punk/new wave was actually quite mediocre. How much music we obsessed in our younger days follows us through life, and all the music we missed due to prejudice related to time fads are things no one can really escape. It is inevitable, we are molded by time, but it is also true that great music is timeless, otherwise how could Mozart, Bach, Charlie Parker and others be fully appreciated in 2023…
Whilst listening to Dark Side of the Moon this week, I wondered what it was like to experience its release in 1973. I was born in 1963, so 6 – 10 years too young to have experienced it. I have other albums from 1973 in my music collection, but have never thought about immersing myself in other albums released that year, to get a sense of what those time were like. It will encourage me to listen to ‘new’ albums and styles which I haven’t tried since I starting buying music regularly in 1980.
I didn´t listen to The Dark Side of the Moon in 1963 (for the reasons I mentioned yesterday), in fact, only a few years ago was I persuaded by my son, by Gilles Peterson and many others that this recording deserved to be aknowledged. It does!
I suppose we will never conclude on the differences of listening now to listening then in 1973, so what better to do than just enjoy?
I was 18 in ’73 and l thought ” Ummagumma this is not ” exactly as l do now ( and now as back then , if ever listening to it at all , l skip ” Money ” and the sax solo ). ” Time ” redeems It though . I also remember that before a King Crimson gig in my hometown in ’74 TDSOTM was played TWICE in a row through the sound system . So l had my fill…
Fascinating piece – thanks Richard for uncovering yet another jewel and offering such a profound perspective.
A few well chosen words from the much derided white rock critics would have been welcome amidst the psychobabble emanating from the talking heads featured.