When I was a little kid, the majority of my Sunday evenings were spent riding home from grandma and grandpa’s house in my dad’s tiny Ford Ranger.
Dad kept a box under the bench seat with several cassette tapes of various styles and artists; Beatles, Jethro Tull, Beethoven, Monty Python, Guess Who, Mozart, more Beatles, et al.
“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64..?” Dad was 64. Right up until a month ago. No, he didn’t die; he turned 65, eligible now for all of those tremendous senior discounts, social security…
Once every year on those musical rides home, when the mood struck, he would pop in Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s seminal “Karn Evil 9” (https://youtu.be/fLS0Med0s6E). When the tune kicked in, he became pure energy, visibly passionate and animated, singing along, hitting the steering wheel perfectly in time with the drum fills, fingering the air organ (don’t be cheeky!).
The song lasted the whole drive home, and each time he played it he would point out all the different changes, extoll how “ELP” would occasionally cover classical music, and…
And now we have earworms. The general public is aurally assaulted on a daily basis with calculated productions, formulated to be catchy, financed to be played everywhere, advertised incessantly; productions cached and controlled by the very rich, who manipulate, extort, exhort, and exhaust both the songs and the artists who perform them.
Until finally, they are discarded, another empty Starbucks cup.
Ask anyone under the age of 25 “Who sings that ‘867-5309’ song?” They won’t be able to tell you…but they know those digits and can sing their melody. They’ve heard it for years in their cars and at Speedway stations and Gaps and at 7-11 and in TV commercials and at Cold Stone and…
My dad worked in commercial radio from 1969-1994, mostly in downtown Detroit, and his first 15 years were spent as a disc jockey. He loved exploring local record stores, always discovering new music to share. Taking his findings home, he would scrounge intensely for the “deep cuts,” songs that may not necessarily be fed to the radio station or considered commercial enough, but he believed would resonate with his audience.
Because he knew his audience. He encouraged his listeners to call and write to him.
And he would respond, both personally and through the music he would play during his time on-air. He took his role within the universal music community seriously.
Taking time to set up the context of songs before the lyrics kicked in, breaking down some of the core elements of songs after they finished, knowing when to keep quiet and simply let the music play…he ran his show like a well-oiled machine, educating his listeners on how to listen to music actively.
He was infamous among his colleagues for refusing to play “Stairway to Heaven” in its heyday; every other DJ was doing it, so he didn’t need to. A fresh impact each and every show was paramount, so if a song had grown stale among his fans, he stopped spinning it.
Early in his career, my dad unearthed a deep cut from a band featuring an albino multi-instrumentalist: a synthesizer-driven instrumental, with a working title of “Double Drum Solo”.
Upon first listen, he was blown away by the tune. Even though the song was over nine minutes in length, and had no vocals at all, he knew for sure his fans would dig it.
Understand: my father’s authenticity and attention to detail — two traits which he still exemplifies to this day, I’ll add — made his fans quickly grow to respect him. That respect, along with the subsequent growth in his audience, earned him the trust of his bosses and the freedom to work on his own terms.
But when it came to this particular song, the station’s program director called him crazy, shouting “It’s an instrumental!!!” and protesting “Nine minutes?! You’ll lose half your listeners!”
Fortunately for my dad, it was a time when disc jockeys were regarded across the country as the real tastemakers, and they had a modicum of power within the music industry. He had full creative control over his show, and despite the urgings of his boss, he broke that record that night. (To “break” a record, in radio speak, means to be the first in the world to play a song or album on the air.)
He was true to the music first — if it sounds good, it is good.
The song he debuted that night was originally released as the B-side to another song. The two were soon reversed by the band’s label when DJs across the US and Canada were flooded with phone calls and realized the song my dad played was the hit.
The name of the band was The Edgar Winter Group, and the song was “Frankenstein”.
Even if you don’t know the song by name, you’ll know it when you hear it. Here’s the part we all know — ba-da bop bop ba-da bop baaaaaaa!! — in a Buick commercial with Tiger Woods: https://youtu.be/MEQMxdL9ohQ.
Is my dad the cause of Edgar Winter’s success? Irrelevant in the bigger picture, though an argument can be made, I suppose. The point is…he took a chance on an unknown because he had the authority to do so, and it paid off for both of them.
Corporations believe they are the only ones in America with any real authority now. They have the money, so, therefore, they figure they have the power.
But they don’t take chances on unknowns anymore, only sure things and proven commodities.
In The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, published in 2015, John Seabrook writes “Over the last two decades a new type of hit song has emerged, one that is almost inescapably catchy. Pop songs have always had a ‘hook,’ but today’s songs bristle with them: a hook every seven seconds is the rule. Painstakingly crafted to tweak the brain’s delight in melody, rhythm, and repetition, these songs are highly processed products. Like snack-food engineers, modern songwriters have discovered the musical ‘bliss point.’ And just like junk food, the bliss point leaves you wanting more.”
Pop music is dominated by a few huge record companies that use data on past successes to replicate them again and again. This has led directly to the present situation, wherein only a handful of people, a crazily high percentage of them middle-aged Scandinavian men, write most of America’s pop hits. Popular songs, like most mass-productions, now get made via focus groups and formulas.
If you’re a DJ in American commercial radio today, you don’t have the freedom to debut any “deep cuts” — there’s a playlist provided to the station by their parent company (likely, this one) with all of the songs the labels want played, scheduled at specific times throughout the day.
The widespread influence of Big Pop even extends to music journalists who, working online, have come to understand that championing little-known artists commands far less traffic — and therefore less job security — than their critical explanations of the new Adele video or (another) Beatles re-release.
Bottom line: if you’re not making hits, or spinning hits, or talking about hits, you’re fired. Don’t look the part, or wanna play along? You’re left on the outside.
What the labels refuse to admit, or are incapable of comprehending, is that while algorithms and playlists and clickbait thrive on confirming one’s loves and hates, the best critics — or museum curators, or record store clerks, or DJs, or friends — peddle not only their own insights but also ways to arrive at new insights about things.
In a culture ruled by corporations, profit is the ultimate goal. Chances are uncertain, and cannot be taken.
Can you imagine a 9-minute instrumental featuring a double drum solo from a band fronted by an albino on today’s radio stations, in shopping malls…at Starbucks?? Fat chance. Forget “Karn Evil 9”. It’s nearly a half hour long, whose story, told in three parts, features a 15-minute instrumental section.
Admittedly, I dismissed Emerson’s passing as simply another of our great musicians moving into the next world. (George Martin, Maurice White, Paul Kantner, Glenn Frey, and David Bowie all said goodbye this year, and we’re not even through March!) He’d merely be showered with love for a weekend on social media, and then promptly forgotten, as so many others have been.
And frankly, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer never excited me in the same way as other artists. That’s unfortunate, since Keith Emerson was a musician of the highest order. Right up until the moment he killed himself at 71 years old.
According to his long-time partner, Mari, he was “tormented with worry” about an upcoming tour, and said he had suffered nerve damage to his right hand which affected his playing: “He didn’t want to let down his fans. He was a perfectionist and the thought he wouldn’t play perfectly made him depressed, nervous, and anxious.”
Noting heart disease and depression brought about by alcohol in the full report, the coroner ruled his death a suicide — t appears Keith Emerson had so much respect for his audience that he ended his life in order to ensure that he would never let them down.
After I told this news to my queen, she paused for a moment, and her first words thereafter were “John…please don’t ever do that.”
Because she sees me as I really am: I’m a perfectionist, too. On the occasions when I happen to screw up, it’s usually because I’m worrying too much about screwing up. She knows how passionate I am, and how I put my heart and soul into everything I do, what I create, into my music, my performances.
But she also knows that I absolutely dread the inevitable loss of my skills. There will come a day when I am physically or mentally unable to perform and operate at the level I regard as my standard.
The same goes for each and every person alive — we all erode in time.
“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”
Need me? Feed me? Don’t care. Will I still be able to create and perform music at the level I do now???
That’s why I believe no matter who we are, what our circumstances happen to be, or what passion we choose to embrace, it is crucial for each of us to engage in life with intensity, to make an impact during our brief time…
“In the face of our inevitable mortality we can do one of two things. We can attempt to avoid the thought at all costs, clinging to the illusion that we have all the time in the world. Or we can confront this reality, accept and even embrace it, converting our consciousness of death into something positive and active. In adopting such a fearless philosophy, we gain a sense of proportion, become able to separate what is petty from what is truly important. Knowing our days to be numbered, we have a sense of urgency and mission. We can appreciate life all the more for its impermanence. If we can overcome the fear of death, then there is nothing left to fear.” – Robert Greene, The 50th Law
The legends don’t really go on forever…
But what they create does!
When I heard last week that Keith Emerson died, I immediately thought of those trips home from grandma’s with my dad, over 25 years ago, when we bonded over the music he and Greg Lake and Carl Palmer made.
We can travel through time, if only in our minds.