– There’s a mockingbird in my neighborhood. I never understood what a mockingbird was until I heard this guy. He sits in the tree outside my house and mimics the cries of the other birds relentlessly.
Yesterday, I woke to my alarm, which has a very unmusical three-note tone. I turned it off and stepped outside to get my newspaper. The mockingbird was on a branch outside my open window, singing my alarm clock tones over and over again, the sadist.
-I’m thinking about how art is viral—and contagious.
I didn’t care about music growing up. My parents made us listen to the Texaco Opera on the radio (they had subscription tickets to the Metropolitan). I had no use for opera, it sounded like shrieking to me. The only thing I liked about the Texaco Opera was Milton Cross, a man with one of those old-time radio voices that whispered ‘dignity’ at every turn. Here’s a little Milton, though I think he got a bit more melodious on the Texaco broadcast. Poor Milton had the unenviable job of reading the plot of the opera between acts. No one with a sense of dignity should ever be given such a job.
For example, an excerpt of Act One of Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel, chosen at random:
The innkeeper shows Ruprecht, lately returned from America, to a poor room. From the next room he hears Renata crying and begging some visitant to leave her alone. When he breaks down the door and finds her cowering against the wall, he can see nothing when she points to the figure which is terrifying her, but orders it to vanish and takes the distraught woman in his arms to comfort her.
She becomes calmer, and addresses him by name, ignoring him when he asks how she knows it, and tells him that when she was seven she first saw a fiery angel called Madiel, who continued to appear to her in his own and other forms. When she was older he told her that she was destined to be a saint, and she undertook a life of self-abasement and penance, until she was 16, when she estranged Madiel by begging for a physical as well as spiritual union. When he became angry, she seized him, but he vanished. Her despair was alleviated by his voice in the night telling her that he would come again in the guise of a man. Recognising him in young Count Heinrich, she had become his lover, but Heinrich always denied that he was Madiel and after a year he left her and now she constantly searches for him.
Believe me, there are plenty worse. So I found Milton Cross reading these things totally hysterical. I’d be curled on the floor laughing while my mother demanded ‘be quiet, this is culture’.
My sister caught on to the Beatles and dragged us to ‘Hard Day’s Night.’ I liked the Beatles. They were funny and even an idiot like me couldn’t deny those songs. But they weren’t my band, they were everybody’s band, they were everywhere. So I didn’t identify in any personal way.
Later, I heard ‘Eleanor Rigby’ which opened a hunger in me that I barely recognized and had no idea how to satisfy. It was like I knew there was something out there that could fill a hole in me but had no idea where to find it.
So for a while, I continued doing what we did at home, which was to watch television. If you seek something long and hard enough, you’ll find it wherever you look. So even on TV, I found two musical influence that sent me on a sublime path, even though they started from absurd roots.
First, there was Ricky Nelson on Ozzie and Harriet. Early Ricky wasn’t much in the way of rock n’ roll, not really, but he seemed like a nice guy and very American. I could kind of relate, at least to the TV character. I was too young to really understand the disconnect between characters and real people, even on a cartoon like Ozzie and Harriet.
The second influence was Flatt and Scruggs. I heard them every week on The Beverly Hillbillies.
So let’s just repeat this for those of you who just came in: you’re reading the reflections of a man who couldn’t learn music from opera but could from the Beverly Hillbillies. You’re on your own from here.
I eventually noticed that I was willing to wait through that entire show just to hear the bluegrass theme song at the end.
Anyway, so a year or so goes by and a friend plays me a new band—and when I look back now, 45 years later, I realize that what I found there was the mashup of Flatt and Scruggs’ intricate instrumentals with vocals that owed more than a little to Ricky Nelson: ‘Go and Say Goodbye‘ by Buffalo Springfield. My first musical love, the first band that was mine.
Since then, I’ve fallen in love with Miles Davis and Gustav Holst, Planxty, the Band, Gato Barbieri, Dylan and Joni, Bernard Hermann, Mark Knopfler, and Anton Webern. All that music and more came to me through Ricky and Flatt and Scruggs, whom I still admire and Neil and Stephen and Richie, whom I still love.
But it’s funny looking back at the way things come to you, recognizing the threads and watching them grow on into Drive-By Truckers and Mumford and Sons, among others. And still growing beyond…
If you’ve got a story like this, I’d love to hear it. Weave straw into gold, indeed…