[no_toc]As I’ve mentioned before on this weblog, there wasn’t much Judeo-Christian worship in our family growing up. Nevertheless, there was always plenty of religion in our home. Through the years, my brother and I absorbed large helpings of an eclectic gospel authored by our father, Edwin London, the founder and sole rabbi of the Church of Dissonance.
When we were growing up, our church didn’t yet have a name. It was more of a free flowing set of ideas and attitudes–a way of being, or an outlook, if you will. The name came much later, courtesy of our buddy Pete Sheehy.
At a summer barbecue around 1999 or 2000, I was describing to Pete the childhood experience of attending my father’s atonal, contemporary music concerts, and how hard my brother and I found it to sit still through music so difficult to absorb that 10 minutes of it often felt more like an hour.
“That sounds a lot like it was for me going to church when I was a kid,” Pete interjected.
“You’re right,” I responded, “I guess we were raised in the Church of Dissonance.”
Since that day, I’ve intended to record the most important lessons of our church for posterity. And now, on Father’s Day, in the year of Edwin London’s passing, I think the time is finally right.
So I give you 17 lessons learned in the Church of Dissonance (“COD”):
1. Avoid cheap beer, rot-gut whiskey, and sweet mixed-drinks.
When I was in high school, my mom cut a cartoon out of the New Yorker and put it on the wall in the breakfast nook of our kitchen. There was a guy sitting at a bar talking to the bartender. The caption read “The good Scotch James. My body is my temple.”
Drinking was not frowned upon in the COD. But drinking low-end alcoholic beverages was. On more than one occasion, I got advice along the following lines from my dad:
“If you don’t like the taste of an alcoholic beverage on its own, don’t drink it mixed with other stuff to hide its flavor. Very little good ever comes from doing that. If you can’t afford to drink the quality, good tasting stuff, save your money until you can.”
As I enter my 35th year of drinking on a semi-regular basis, I’ve found my dad’s advice on these matters to be solid. I don’t always follow it (I do enjoy a limeade Shandy; sometimes, I make it with cheap beer), but when spirits are involved, dad was right: If one anticipates a long night of drinking, it’s best to avoid the Well and confine the mixer to an H20 derivative (e.g., ice, water, or club soda).
I’ve had a K-Mart radio for over 30 years now. It receives AM, FM, and shortwave frequencies. It was made in Japan before that was a compliment. Nevertheless, it aspires to be hi-fidelity, with knobs and switches for bass, treble, volume, and loudness, plus a separate woofer and tweeter. It even has inputs on its side for things like microphones and electric guitars. Yes, I have played guitar through it.
A while back, a housemate of mine moved out and took the boombox from our kitchen. After months of cooking without music, I remembered the K-Mart radio, dug it out of storage, and put it back into service. Worked like a charm. No CDs, cassettes, or MP3s. Just whatever’s on the terrestrial airwaves when you power it up.
Around 1975, my dad gave both my brother and me one of these radios for Christmas. For me, it replaced an old tube table radio that had originally been my grandmother’s. That radio had a cool orange light on the front of it and wood on the sides. But it was on its last legs. As it heated up, the volume would drop until you couldn’t hear much of anything. It also didn’t have good AM reception. So I couldn’t listen to WLS, the Top 40 station from Chicago. But I did listen to Champaign’s WLRW Solid Gold FM on it: “Poison Ivy,” “Charlie Brown,” “Rag Doll,” and things like that. Strange to think that those oldies were younger in 1975 than the K-Mart radio is now.
I come from a mixed faith marriage. My mom is Episcopalian. My dad is Jewish. There are undoubtedly a lot of reasons why the faith of the mother determines the faith of the child in Judaism. But one reason might be that women are often the ones who maintain the family cultural traditions. That was pretty much true in my family. Perhaps because of the mixed marriage, I got very little traditional religion growing up. We never attended church or temple. Mostly, we worshipped in the Church of Dissonance, which really wasn’t a place as much as a way of being. But that’s a subject for another time.
We did, however, celebrate Christmas. Presumably, my mother was the instigator of this. As a very little boy, we went at least once out to Oakland, California to celebrate it with her mom. Probably, there were more times before that. But I don’t remember them. Maybe we celebrated it for Grandma’s sake. I don’t know. But when I was 5, Grandma died, and we kept on celebrating Christmas. So it either meant something to somebody, or by that time the habit was formed. The Londons are nothing if not creatures of habit, and Christmas certainly helped organize our yearly consumption of consumer durable goods. It also gave me one less thing to feel like a freak about (let’s just say that most of the kids I knew growing up did not worship in the Church of Dissonance).
Kids and Christmas are a very comfortable fit. At least that’s how it’s always seemed to me. Everyone is happy to see kids. People give them things. And why wouldn’t people give them things? Kids really make Christmas fun. They embody the joy of the season. Even today, it’s easy to please a kid with less than ten dollars. Try really pleasing an adult with less than 10 dollars. It’s virtually impossible. Only a kid delivers that much positive feedback for ten bucks.
As a kid, I didn’t think much about Christmas. It was just something we did. Consequently, I never really considered the possibility that my dad, the Jewish guy, might have a more complicated relationship with the holiday than I did. Of course, in retrospect, it’s clear that he did.
On the one hand, my dad definitely had the outsider’s anthropological curiosity about Christmas. In the late 1950s, he wrote an opera about Santa Claus to complete his Ph.D. in music composition. And in the 1970s, he composed a suite of Christmas music under the pseudonym “Bjørne Enstabile”. (Maybe he determined that since Irving Berlin had written a famous Christmas tune, it was a rite of passage for all Jewish composers to try their hand at writing one too.)
On the other hand, I think celebrating Christmas was always a little bit weird for my dad, like getting an invite to an annual party you have routinely been excluded from in the past. Even if the party is pretty fun, you never completely shake the sense that there’s something a little wrong about being there.
I’ve dated a few Jewish gals over the years, and on a couple of occasions they celebrated Christmas with me. While I don’t want to project too much of their experience with Christmas onto my dad, talking with them about it did provide me with at least a little bit of third party Jewish perspective on what it feels like to participate in the Christian rituals.
My takeaway from these conversations? Dad liked the family togetherness of Christmas. He seemed to like that low budget positive kid feedback part too. But he was nevertheless ambivalent about the holiday, and he expressed this ambivalence each year by putting off his Christmas shopping until the last possible moment.
Typically, the drill went something like this: Finals would end a few days before Christmas at the University of Illinois, where my dad taught music theory and composition. Then on December 23 or December 24, my dad would go have a few afternoon drinks, maybe with his friend Salvatore Martirano, maybe with some other folks, maybe alone. I don’t really know. But having some drinks was usually involved. Then he was ready to head off and do some Christmas shopping.
The year of the K-Mart radio was definitely a Christmas Eve shopping year. In fact, I think it was an unprecedented Christmas Eve night shopping year. This is probably how K-Mart got involved. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have been dad’s go-to shopping destination. But it was one of the few stores open late on December 24th. So he didn’t have much of a choice.
The K-Mart in Champaign, Illinois was on Bloomington Road near Prospect Avenue (it’s a Home Depot now). From our house on West Hill Street, you drove north up Prospect across the railroad tracks, past Unc Blacker’s Tavern (“Coldest Beer in Town”), Top Boy Hamburgers, Putt Putt Golf, Dairy Queen, Shakey’s Pizza , Dog and Suds, and Foremost Liquors. I think there was a Red Lobster up there too.
We didn’t live far from the K-Mart, maybe a mile or two away. Once I got to junior high school, I biked it pretty regularly (indeed my junior high school was between our house and the K-Mart). But it was definitely in a different part of town. Our neighborhood sort of defined the northern edge of the nicer part of Champaign. It was nothing fancy, but it mostly consisted of reasonably well-kept, middle class, single family homes. As you headed north out towards K-Mart, things got progressively more low rent and run down. If you headed due east from K-Mart, you eventually found yourself in a poorer, African American part of town. And if you headed due west, you’d find a lot of poor and lower middle class white folks.
Whatever their ethnicity, these people were the regular customers of the K-Mart. And that Christmas Eve night was no exception. My dad later painted a rather bleak picture of the scene: people struggling under the dingy glow of the fluorescent lights to get some last minute shopping done with whatever cash they’d managed to scrape together before the impending deadline–many of them undoubtedly hoping their meager budget would be enough to win some positive feedback from their children.
Dad, the tipsy, middle-class academic, was most definitely a tourist in that sea of desperation. But he was not a stranger to it. He’d grown up poor in Philadelphia during the Great Depression. While he never said so explicitly, I’ve wondered whether the scene conjured up some unhappy childhood memories for him. All I know is that he never hit the K-Mart on Christmas Eve night again. And he rarely went to K-Mart at all after that.
So this night was different than all the other nights. It was like a higher power drew my dad to the radios. For they were of a quality rarely encountered at K-Mart before or since that day. I can’t remember anything else I received for Christmas in 1975, but the K-Mart radio left its indelible mark almost immediately. How different our lives would have been if dad had not gone to the K-Mart that night.
The day after I got the new radio, I was a little more of my own person than the day before I got it. Receiving it was like encountering Martin Luther’s 95 Theses during the Protestant Reformation and contemplating for the first time the possibility that no sacerdotal middle man was necessary to convene with the divine. Suddenly, I had my own direct connection. Now, it was about me and my peers. What did I like? What did we like? Who was cool? Who wasn’t? Before too long, we had our own cultural theology.
Of course, thinking about it almost 40 years later, my illusions of autonomy seem pretty quaint. Even if the K-Mart radio took my parents out of my cultural loop, there were still plenty of adults in the abstract ether of the mass media, constructing and structuring most of what we kids consumed. Sure, there was a symbiotic feedback loop. These people were eager to see what we liked, because their livelihood depended on it. But ultimately, it was a very top down system of dissemination with an incredibly powerful supply-side filtering mechanism. Many were called. But we only heard the very few who were chosen by the gods of the mass media.
Today, we live in an era of media fragmentation. Choice and individuality are buzzwords. The old enforced scarcity of mass media and supply-side filters has given way to a networked, hyper-abundance of digitized culture products. Often, it feels like almost everyone is both a publisher and a consumer.
Contemporary kids embrace a cultural theology far more radical than anything we could have conceived of in the 1970s. Many aren’t just skeptical about the privileged role of the sacerdotal middle man. They question the entire notion that any divine “other” exists outside the confines of the peer-to-peer Hive Mind.
Devices like the iPod allow people to carry tens of thousands of songs around in the palm of their hands. To anyone born before 1980, having easy access to such a huge archive of recorded music feels like an episode of Star Trek. All you have to do is say “Computer, play me some John Coltrane, Chuck Berry, Mississippi John Hurt, Minutemen, Hank Williams, Nick Drake, Death Cab for Cutie, and Soul Asylum.” A few moments later you’re listening to it.
In the face of this abundance, the shuffle feature has become a popular tool for addressing its challenges. Don’t know what to choose? Put it on shuffle. Who knows what it will play next? When shuffle does a good job, one may even entertain the possibility that the algorithm is tapping into something divine. But this is an illusion. Ultimately, all the control remains with the user. Don’t like the song that comes up in the shuffle? Skip it. Or put on your own customized play list. In the end, each iPod user has the godlike power to craft their own personal pop cultural experience.
That sort power seems pretty great in theory. But in practice, wielding it can be rather overwhelming. Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, eloquently addresses this conundrum. More choice, he argues, doesn’t necessarily mean more happiness. Often, it leaves people drained and dissatisfied. So many choices. So many what-ifs after a choice is made. Did I really make the best choice? Maybe I should have gotten the Chipotle, Cool Ranch Doritos instead of Extra Spicy Nacho Cheese.
This problem is particularly acute in the context of music consumption. So much old music is easily available and so much more new music is constantly being released. It’s like trying to drink from a high-pressure fire hose. Gerald Casale from the band Devo recently addressed this in an NPR interview: “What’s happened is that so many CDs are put out per month, possibly 10,000 a month. Nobody can possibly even know half the music that exists out there.”
For the people who try to keep up with current releases (e.g., critics and super fans), it can feel less and less like it’s about the pleasure of listening and more and more like it’s about just trying to find a way to process the never ending stream of data.
One wouldn’t want to miss out on some important new release. Yet is any release important anymore? How do you even locate and contextualize various releases when there’s such a glut of old and new music floating around in the big atemporal reservoir of song.
Radio, of course, doesn’t work like this. It’s less about control and more about collective experience. As my buddy Pete Sheehy put it to me a while ago, “a radio is a wePod not an iPod.” Everybody gets the same playlist and the same three choices when they tune into a radio station: (1) listen to it, (2) change the station, or (3) turn it off. That’s not a lot of choices compared to an iPod, especially given the limited number of terrestrial radio stations in most markets.
But even with these limitations, radio remains a great deal. It gives you the music for free, and it simply asks you to keep listening when the commercials come on (or the sponsorship messages, or the pleas for donations). Evidently, enough of these commercials have been listened to year-in and year-out to keep the business model viable for many decades.
Probably, I’m just getting old and nostalgic, but I often prefer letting someone else choose the playlist, especially if they are good at it. Compared to the average shuffle mix on an iPod, the classic top 40 of the 1960s and early 1970s still provided a more cohesive mix. Whether it was Motown, British Invasion, Stax/Volt, or San Francisco Psychedelia, if it made it on the top-40 in this period, there was something catchy and pop at its core.
Hell, the same could probably even be said about the average 1970s free-form station. There was a human filter involved, somebody with judgment. There was also the knowledge that a bunch of other folks in your town were listening to the same thing at that very same moment that you were.
When I first visited Seattle in the summer of 1990, my brother had KCMU on in his house (the predecessor to KEXP for any youngsters or Seattle newcomers reading this). As we moved around his Capitol Hill neighborhood, it seemed like every business we entered also had it on.
Fugazi was scheduled to play a show at some movie theater in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood that has long since been razed for condos or something. Riz Rollins was the afternoon DJ then, and on the day of the Fugazi show, as he talked about it on the air, it really felt like Seattle was a very small town and everybody who lived there was going to be attending the show that night. I found that astounding, especially in a city the size of Seattle.
At that moment, I was reminded of the power of the wePod, and I understood why Seattle’s vibrant music scene was fast becoming an international phenomenon. Along with local music magazine “the Rocket,” KCMU was taking the energy of the local scene, aggregating it, amplifying it, mixing it with complementary stuff from the world outside Seattle (like Fugazi), and reflecting it back to the local community. All you had to do was tune in to be a part of it.
Today, social networking sites like Facebook seem to offer a richer platform than radio for aggregating and sharing these sorts of social experiences. So perhaps we don’t need radio as much for that anymore. But as I celebrate another year with the K-Mart radio, let’s not prematurely write off the venerable wePod either.
Sure, its status and cultural relevance may have declined somewhat in recent years. And it certainly has its flaws (the present state of most commercial radio offers ample proof of that). But in the right hands, a radio can still change your life, just as it changed mine that Christmas morning many years ago.
Everyday, staff members at stations like KEXP continue to drink deeply from the fire hose of cultural production, distill it, and beam the results back to the people. In doing so, they reaffirm that a carefully curated set of music provides an unparalleled opportunity to sidestep the noise and commune with the divinity of the pure signal.