Time Machines

Yesterday afternoon I was waiting to meet an acquaintance I hadn’t seen for several years at Eisenberg’s, a wonderful old-school New York luncheonette that has proudly resisted all the hip “here today, gone tomorrow” design trends of the last 80 years and looks pretty much the way it did back when it opened in 1929. He was running late in order to catch the amazing Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim which I had waited on a line for nearly an hour in zero-esque wind chill to see, so he’s totally forgiven.

But I was a tad bored, having brought nothing with me to read and I was not really focused on anything else to look at or listen to. (I’ve been there countless times, and have therefore virtually memorized the menu as well as every crevice of the place, plus the place was relatively empty since it was late.) So I found myself listening rather attentively to the oldies radio station they had broadcasting as background sound. Perhaps they always have it on—it’s hard to tell when the place is crowded—but I never really paid attention to it before yesterday.

What caught my ear was a song called “In The Summertime” recorded by a band called Mungo Jerry, which had a wonderful anachronistic sound (even by oldies’ standards)—it reminded me of old time string band music from the 1920s. I only discovered the title and recording artist after looking them up online this morning. None of this was announced after it was played, or maybe I didn’t hear it, but I did catch the station ID, WCBS-FM, and luckily their website keeps a rather detailed playlist of songs played the previous day with airtimes and, in most cases, a 15 second audio sample. This seems a great use of web technology to me. I had barely remembered the song from my early childhood—I must have not heard it in over 35 years, and I certainly never knew the name of the band.

The rest of what I heard didn’t quite do it for me—KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty,” the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and, gasp, a song by someone called Lobo named “Me & You & a Dog Named Boo” which brought back memories for me of the early 1970s that were so vivid I felt like I was cutting class at my elementary school. After it was over, I felt relieved and I hoped I’d never have to hear it again—a very primal reaction. But, of course, the following day my analytical mind started getting the better of me, and I couldn’t find a particularly compelling reason to have such dislike for it outside of personal history. (It was in heavy rotation on the radio when I was in grade school and my memories of that time are not particularly positive.) Sure, it’s musically repetitive and predictable as are its lyrics which felt saccharine to me back in the ’70s and still do, but tons of stuff I treasure in a variety of genres fits that very description.

And, indeed, if I had such a strong reaction to this song (albeit a negative one), wasn’t its power to affect me somehow a testimony to its artistry? Might “Me & You & a Dog Named Boo” be for me what pieces like The Rite of Spring or 4’33” were for listeners at their premieres? Or, given that my negative reaction to that song is based on personal associations almost exclusively, might this just be extraneous circumstance? But don’t most people listen to pop music and build their relationships to it (both positive and negative) on such circumstances? And if that is the case, are they actually informed about the musical and or lyrical qualities they like in what they are listening to or are they merely reflecting back themselves?

2 thoughts on “Time Machines

  1. colin holter

    Two lyrics from “In The Summertime,” submitted for your consideration:

    If her daddy’s rich, take her out for a meal
    If her daddy’s poor, just do what you feel

    Have a drink, have a drive

    Just wanted to share that with you all.

    Reply
  2. Frank J. Oteri

    Thanks for that Colin. I actually didn’t pay attention to the lyrics so that was certainly not what I found appealing from what I’d heard. I couldn’t even deduce the name of the song from what I had heard and luckily found it on WCBS-FM’s online playlist.

    Funny when music is meant to be listened to as background what gets ignored and what gets across when your ears perk up briefly. In my own case, despite a seeming verbosity, I tend to only get lyrics when I’m paying complete and undivided attention to something.

    Reply

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