Celebrity deaths don’t usually move me since my connection with any famous artist that I admire is primarily through their art, which survives their death. The death of David Bowie, however, has had an effect on me that is as unusual and unique as the man himself. I can’t help but think this has every bit to do with the way he died – a process he transformed into a work of art itself – as it does with the undeniable effect his music has had on me over the years. Everybody by now is aware of the circumstances behind the recording and release of his final album, Blackstar. The fact that an album recorded so late in his musical career can be held up to any of his best albums is an astonishing feat in itself, but that he made the album while knowing, after being diagnosed with cancer, he had only eighteen months left to live is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Thanks to Spotify, the music here at WMCW plays non-stop, even if yours truly happens to be the only one who tunes in to this particular frequency on my own radio station of the mind. Since I began my premium subscription at the start of 2015, I have found no shortage of music to listen to, and I have encountered few bands or albums that Spotify doesn’t have. This would be, on the surface at least, any music lover’s dream. Indeed, I’ve been wishing for this state of unfettered access since the internet has hinted it might be possible. But after more than half a year as a Spotify subscriber, the streaming service has made me more intensely aware of a disconcerting change that has been taking place in my relationship to music for some time.
I listen to a lot of music that a lot of people would consider vile. For that matter, I read and watch a lot of vile things, too. If what they say is true that we are what we consume, does this make me a vile person, or, as I believe to be the case, someone with a fascination for the darker aspects of life? If I were to write down a fraction of the darker thoughts and images that pass through my mind, or worse yet, sublimate these thoughts and images into a work of fiction or extended exercise of the imagination, would that make me in any way guilty of a crime? What if that work happened to inspire someone else to commit a crime that I would be incapable of committing myself? This is actually an extremely troubling development that is happening in the hip hop community, where certain rappers are being charged with murder on the basis of lyrics depicting the gang violence that comes part and parcel with the War on Drugs and life in the inner city. It’s one thing to commit a crime and then recount that incident in explicit detail in lyrics written for a song, which amounts to a confession, but quite another to depict realistically the various aspects of crime and violence that are an everyday fact of life on the streets in our inner cities. It’s not enough that our institutional racism and increasing income inequality in America tends to perpetuate and worsen these conditions, but convicting rappers for their lyrics is the equivalent of killing the messenger, which does nothing to solve the underlying problem. Such convictions demonstrate how scarily prescient sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick was when he envisioned a future where a person could be arrested for merely thinking of a crime before actually committing it.
Whenever I need a sure shot of inspiration, I can always count on the music of my formative years, the punk rock of the 80s. There are several reasons why this particular genre and era of music speak to me so intensely. First and foremost, the music resonated with the anger that was my constant state of emotion in my adolescence, and continues to resonate with the frustration I feel about society today. Punk also upended the notion that one had to be a competent musician to make music. The bands I listened to in those days had varying degrees of talent, but they all tapped into a kind of primal feeling that as a teen I was rarely able to articulate but knew when I felt it. It was akin to that heady rush one gets after a few beers where you feel the percolating prospect of something momentous happening, but you’re never quite sure what it is. Most times that feeling fails to materialize into anything, but that never stopped me from chasing it, because that feeling was potential at a time in my life when there seemed to be anything but. Seeing and listening to this music convinced me that any time I wanted, I could pick up an instrument and start playing. (That didn’t happen in actuality until much later, and by then it wasn’t realistic to become a real touring musician.) Ultimately, the bands that were making incredible music and giving my life purpose were made up of people just like me. We were kindred spirits through our perceived “outsider” status, and while my favorite bands were actually living the rock and roll dream, I was content (mostly) to experience their way of life and the music that came from it vicariously. It’s astonishing how great new music brings that feeling instantly back, and it has been rekindled anew by reading the super fun oral history of notorious Trenton, NJ music club City Gardens in the book City Gardens: No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes.
As a music hound and obsessive seeker of new, heart-pounding sounds in rock and roll (one of the mysteries of the modern world is how musicians continue to come up with new sounds and songs from the same three chords), I’ve always believed that the objective of collecting all these albums (I was never a singles guy) was to build a permanent storage of music that I could get my hands on whenever I wanted, in the event the music becomes obscure or goes out of print. However, over the years I have slowly been disabusing myself of the notion that the music I collect must exist as a physical thing, these days either a vinyl or plastic disc. At a time when nearly any album is available at the click of a button, it doesn’t make much sense to collect plastic discs that cost money, take up space, require shelves and cabinets, or organizational system (trust me, every music geek has one). Enter Spotify, which has essentially halted my music purchasing and downloading in its tracks. Spotify, one of the most popular of the music streaming services that have been cropping up, is like listening to a radio station over the internet, only you’re the programmer, DJ and announcer of your own station. Oh yeah, and no commercials (if you subscribe to the premium service)! I’ve become so enthralled with the possibilities of this technology that I’m embarking on an experiment to see how many purchases and downloads I can eliminate this year.