During my travels this past summer, I spent an afternoon at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland with family. It was instructive to stroll through the multiple floors of the hall with my kids and nephews, the digital music generation, and chat about the history and evolution of rock & roll. Walking through the maze of exhibitions, with guitars, posters, photos, cars of rockers, clothes of rockers, and the history of rock music, my thoughts turned to my own love affair with music, all types of music, including of course rock & roll.
The world of rock has become so vast now, so embedded in the Earth’s musical history that many melded musical forms now fall under the category.
As a scrawny pre-teen Indian kid, who landed in the States with his family in 1974, I began to soak in all the rockers on the radio through the years. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Queen, Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, and many others were the staples that later blossomed into the Ramones, Blondie, the Clash, and Bob Marley. It was the double whammy of raging hormones and an awakening disdain for the status quo that set me on a path and fueled a mushrooming obsession for music. The rock roller coaster left its bay clanking skyward for a dive into the musical whirlwind.
In the mid 70’s, it was all about rock & roll. It was all about what was played on the radio, which in the 70’s also meant AM radio stations. They had huge reach. Some New York City stations could be heard up and down the East Coast. Then in the late 70’s the confines of rock once again began to shift, as it has done every few years since rock’s beginnings in the early 50’s. Punk rock exploded on the scene in Britain with the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and others while the Ramones, Blondie, and myriad noisemakers heated up the American stages. The short reign of disco was ending and rock was on the move.
Fast forward to 1981. It was the first year of college and the beginning of serious record buying. The Cure would sideswipe Tom Waits and Elvis Costello would nudge away Ted Nugent before the motor city madman could reload his bow and arrow. The listening frenzy went on as the Buzzcocks, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Black Flag and Hank Williams Sr. began to fill the record crates. All manner of musical labels have emerged, merged, evolved and produced mighty fine music over the decades. Classic rock, rockabilly, punk, new wave, alternative, triphop, shoegazer, hardcore, metal, metalcore, Americana, blues rock, jazz rock, well, the list goes on.
It was Springsteen singing into the night with “Ties that Bind” and Hüsker Dü’s entire album Zen Arcade and practically the whole of Bob Marley catalog that helped temper the distractions of youth.
When I first heard The Who’s, “Won’t get Fooled Again,” years earlier, I knew I not only wanted to listen to music but push it, write about it, and bring it into conversations. Like every kid on the block I also bought a guitar and mimicked my favorite riffs.
So the 80’s rolled on. I frequented a hole-in-the wall club called Milestone in Charlotte where the two friends who’d been running the joint were starting an indie store called Milestone Records. So, in 1987, a handshake and a small wad of cash bought me a partnership into the record shop. I bought them out a couple years later and ran the place for 12 years. My musical knowledge expanded exponentially as tens of thousands of used and new records, CDs, and even cassettes went through the revolving doors every year. Turning people onto new or old or forgotten music was what mattered. A kid walking into the store and leaving with a Sonic Youth or an old James Brown record on my recommendation filled me with joy and optimism for the future of humanity.
Unsuspecting passersby who wandered into the store while waiting on an order from the Chinese fast food joint next door would smile when Massive Attack, Uncle Tupelo, Sun Ra or De La Soul awakened unused brain cells, if only for a few moments.
Hip Hop exploded and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet became a personal favorite. Forward thinking musicians and producers like Bill Laswell opened doors for DJs to mix it up, cut it up and put it all back together. The 90’s wafted in like a soft breeze and exploded into grunge, Electronica and myriad other branches of rock.
I decided to start a record label to feed the need of promoting good music and released several recordings. It was a grand time, albeit a venture that drained money. I’d have lot more in the bank right now if I had tempered my enthusiasm for the label. Hard lessons learned the fun way.
My past adventures in music merged with the flyers and billboards plastered all over the Hall of Fame. As I chatted with my kids and nephews about music and the history of the music while we strolled through the Hall, there was a sense of expansion, of passing along knowledge and history. Yet there’s also a sense of loss at the way people listen to music now. Digital delivery and downloading have become commonplace. While the Internet has opened up vast troves of music where no record really goes out of print, the way of listening to music has changed dramatically. Music has become a la carte, like taking a bite out of many dishes but never quite finishing a dish. The days of listening to entire albums, the way musicians meant them to be heard, seems to be fading.
It’s a different way of listening that seems an incomplete way to those who explored entire albums on vinyl. But that’s Ok. The loss of albums has been replaced by access to a band or musician in a multimedia manner that was impossible before the Internet. Videos, lyrics, art, photos, and connecting to musicians has become so easy. It’s a new way of absorbing music.
Live music, though, is thriving. The joy of live music - whether it’s a country hoedown, bodies flaying in the pit, twirling in dance frenzy at 3 am, or sitting in a cozy theater listening to a guitar master cast his spell - will always be a human experience. On any given day there’s a group of musicians putting on the best show of their lives. Music remains the universal language. It’s always an opportune moment to enlighten the curious on what has passed, what is here and musical explorations yet to come.
Over course of nearly three decades, the roller coaster is now steadier but still rolling through the musical landscapes. This ride is never over. The Hall of Fame rekindled many faded memories.
This essay originally appeared in the August 2014 edition of Saathee Magazine