Thursday, 9 March 2017

Songs in the key of old are easy listening

Home Truths column in The Australian, in which I advance my pet theory on music and ageing. 
For years I have advanced a pet theory whenever the conversation swings to music or ageing, or ageing music. Jason’s first law of techno dynamics states that you start to get old when you close yourself off to new music. I watched it happen to friends from as early as their 30s, with the musical shutters slamming down and them being content to wallow in their personal easy-listening golden oldies playlists, their inventories of coming-of-age anthems, getting-laid grooves and breaking-up-is-hard-to-do laments.
A jobbing DJ until recently, I made an effort to keep abreast of new sounds. Not so my mates. I would smugly note another old codger in the making as glazed eyes and bored expressions greeted my enthusiastic encomia about the latest rebirth of cool. Namechecking this left-field genius or that must-listen new album won no kudos. Ah, but let them stick a dime in their life’s jukebox, baby, and watch the flood of emotion take them over.
There are sound scientific reasons why it’s so comfortable to hermetically seal yourself off in your sonic tomb of personal greatest hits. Our brains are wired to send us spiralling into an maelstrom of nostalgia and a gamut of emotions the second we hear the familiar strains of a song that means something to us.
Some call it the “Proust effect”, for the writer and his madeleines, the taste of which, dunked in coffee, transported him back to his childhood in such vivid detail. Tunes and rhymes stick in the grey matter (ask any advertising jingle writer) and when a life-shaping event is thrown into the mix, the memory is indelible and all the more powerful for being what Art Institute of Chicago composer Robert Snyder calls implicit memories, outside our control or consciousness.
Since returning to Australia, I’m still trying to figure out if the stylus of indifference has skittered off the vinyl of personal discovery for the last time, marking the start of a music-free old farthood, or if I’m just in one of my periodic funks where I temporarily lose interest in anything that comes in beats and bars.
Throughout my alleged adult life, there have been seasons marked by the sound of silence, when groove wasn’t in the heart and David’s sacred chord might have pleased the lord but left me cold. Eventually, some epiphany or recommendation or article or review would pique my interest or stir my passion, and once more I’d be alive with the sound of music.
Three times in the past week, powerful memories have flooded back to me via music.
The first sonic spell was cast by Wizard, whose See My Baby Jive came on the easy listening station as an old mate and I sipped single malts and reminisced about our earliest pop memories and our musical coming of age. It was a time when K-Tel compilations reigned, their lurid covers emblazoned with rubrics like UnrealSuperbad and Ripsnorter, often across a piece of bare female flesh. The Wizard track was on Unreal, and hearing it again unleashed a concatenation of other 70s memories from the same record, the likes of Sweet (Fox on the Run), Suzi Quatro (48 Crash) and, er, Gary Glitter (I Love You Love Me Love) as I relived an era when music was performed by people with very long hair and satin bell-bottoms.
A day or two later, I read an article on Trainspotting 2, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s 1996 flick based on Irvine Welsh’s dark masterpiece, and all I could hear was the thundering drums that introduce Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, along with the film, seguing into Bedrock’s For What You Dream Of and Brian Eno’s Deep Blue Day. Now I was back in Hong Kong, discovering raves and drugs and special clubs, along with the intoxicating thumpy-thump of electronic music.
The third bit of time travel with its own soundtrack came as I flicked through the menu of ABC’s iView and stumbled over David Bowie: The Last Five Years, an affecting and deftly executed look at the final act of an artist who changed many lives, including mine. Snatches of classics from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from MarsHunky Dory and Aladdin Sane were enough to send me spinning back to north Queensland, where a callow lad had somehow fallen in love with ballet in an age of poofter-bashing and virulent ocker machismo. Bowie made it all seem normal and possible and cool in a place that didn’t take kindly to men in tights or boys embarking on a real-life version of Billy Elliot.
Perhaps my love of music is about to come flooding back. And maybe it’s time to embrace new genres, starting with Songs in the Key of Old, and Swingin’ Hits for Grumpy Old Men.

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