++ Needle Drops is now an occasional music column that a number of Neumu writers take turns writing. All columns prior to March 2004 were written by Philip Sherburne.
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Monday, January 3, 2005
+ Fresh Ears For Old Songs
By Jennifer Kelly
+ For a while last fall, if you'd looked at the 25 most heavily played songs on my iPod, you would have seen Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and "Paranoid," the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and "Hey Joe" along with the usual weird and non-mainstream stuff.
Before anyone accuses me of being a rockist, let me explain that I share my
iPod with my 9-year-old son. That is, I hand it over to him whenever we're in
the car together. He's learning guitar now, and he has a whole playlist of songs
that he's working on. They are, with the exception of the White Stripes' "Seven
Nation Army," several times as old as he is, all heavy, riff-based classic rock
of the type I thought I was done with decades ago. I'm kind of enjoying hearing
But I'm not, by any stretch, enjoying them in the same way as my son does. The thing is, my son is able to do something you and I can't. He can hear "Satisfaction" not as an aged warhorse of a song, battered by decades of heavy play on unimaginative radio stations, bled of every ounce of life by inane layers of cultural reference, mocked to death by, of all bands, Devo. He hears it, without history, as a great song with a big, memorable riff that, with a little practice, he can play on his guitar. He hears it from the inside, and he's changed the way I hear it, too.
+ Since Sean started playing guitar, I've learned a lot about how people make the guitar sounds I love. I've caught up with terms like "hammer-ons" and "pull-offs," come to recognize a pentatonic scale, and gotten a small-scale introduction to what the different kinds of pedals do. But I am still an observer, not a participant. Watching him trying to figure out "Foxy Lady" or "Highway Chile," I'm taken back to those long afternoons in the basement when I was a teenager, pounding out the drum fills with Chicago or Rush or Van Halen on the headphones. I was never any good, never had any better than middle-of-the-road, Midwestern hard-rock taste until college, but there's no question that I listened to music differently in those days.
People who write about music tend to get caught up in its genealogy and history and
forget about the visceral pleasure of a stupid-good hook. For instance, a couple
of days ago, my son and I were listening to Derek and the Dominos' "Layla." I
had gotten no more than 10 percent into my explanation of how the song was written
by a man who fell in love with another man's wife, how it combined two of the
best blues-rock guitarists in history in a single song, how people used to scribble "Clapton
is God" on overpasses and subway walls, when I noticed that my son, very sensibly,
wasn't listening to me. His fretting hand was twitching a little, and he had
already absorbed the central, important thing about "Layla," that killer riff
that kicks the whole thing off. "Can you play it again from the beginning?" he
said, and so we did.
+ I understand that my son will eventually have to find some sort of music that I don't like, just because that's what all kids do, and that at some point, I won't be the first person he wants to hear whatever song he's working on next. That's fine. Musically, as well as personally, everyone's got to go on from where they started and get away from their parents. Still, it's been a really good thing going back to songs like "Paranoid" and "War Pigs" with someone new, someone who doesn't care about how old the songs are or what's happened between then and now, or really about anything but those giant, metal guitar riffs. That was the point, really, wasn't it? I just forgot about it.