WHEN MUSIC WAS STRANGE
Jennifer Finney Boylan
In the age of the Internet, where do new ideas come from?
BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — IN 1975 it was my friend Daryl — one of the very few African-American students in my mostly white prep school — who was the champion of the new. “Boylan,” he said one day after school. “You have to check this out.” Then he put Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” on the turntable.
The album had been out for a few years and was already big — though not in the strait-laced neighborhood I grew up in. I wrinkled my nose as the crazy jazz fusion filled the room. It wasn’t exactly “On Green Dolphin Street” or “Milestones.” It sounded strange, a little atonal. I said as much.
“People don’t know what they like,” Daryl noted. “They only like what they know.”
I recently had occasion to remember this exchange when I picked my 18-year-old son up at the airport and we drove home listening to songs on his iPod, wired up through the Honda’s sound system. He played music by artists like Sufjan Stevens, Streetlight Manifesto and Murder by Death.
As we listened to this music, we talked about it. My son and I got into a particularly rigorous discussion of Mr. Stevens’s song “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders,” which sounded, to our ears, like it consisted of sections written in 11/4 (or 11 beats per measure) that then alternate with sections written in 5/4. I compared this to the Grateful Dead’s “The Eleven,” in which a section in sixes gives way to 11/4. My son gave me a patient, long-suffering look as I spoke all excitedly about the “Live Dead” album, recorded 27 years before he was born.
I was grateful to him for introducing me to songs that shocked me with their unconventionality and thoughtfulness. It made me wonder why