I think it started at about age 16 when a friend got me into The Beatles. It was something of a revelation for me to learn about Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper, and “Hey Jude.” Part of that was because the Beatles we just that good, but another part of it was that it felt hugely relevant to me. Rather than some musty relic of the 1960s, I discovered that they were as vibrant as anything I had ever heard. It wasn’t a museum piece at all, it connected with me right there in 1999. I’m a little embarrassed now that I ask asking other friends about whether they had heard something like “I Am The Walrus.” Their responses were justifiably a baffled variation on “of course I have,” which mystified me. Surely something this good would be played all the time right?
I’m a lot older now, but I still discover music in much the same way. It starts when I make an effort to get into an artist I’ve always heard about, and then I spend well over a year digging into their back catalog to really get a sense of who they are. Sometimes this ends up being more educational than anything else. I love the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, but it’s a love I’ve had to approach from an academic angle. In that case I’m not sure I totally got the love for it until I attached myself to Brian Wilson’s iteration of Smile. Then I was able to go back and connect with the album that brought us “Caroline, No” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” This has also been the case with a lot of iconic bands from the 1990s. I like Pearl Jam as much as I like any 1990s rock, but it never really was “my” music if that makes sense.
But then there are times when you hear something for the first time, and you suddenly understand what people mean when they say something is timeless. One situation where this happened to me was Who’s Next, the classic 1971 album by The Who. That’s an album that is sheer perfection. Every song hit me right in the gut, surging with the energy of a band firing on all cylinders. I like other Who music fine, but nothing has ever approached my experience of falling in love with that album. Keith Moon’s drum explosions at the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was something I had never been exposed to, shocking as that may seem. Another one was U2’s Achtung Baby. The swirling riff that opens “The Fly” might be what made U2 my very favorite band for several years.
In all of these cases, I hadn’t been exposed to these songs beforehand. I’m not totally sure why this happened, though I think it’s because I really began to get into music when it became obvious that the mainstream was dying. Many keystrokes have been spent writing about how the internet now allows you to surround yourself with the media that you want to be surrounded with, even when the access increases exponentially. I didn’t become a huge music fan in a world where everyone was exposed to R.E.M., so I had to expend the energy and get into them retroactively just as they were breaking up.
I find myself in this place once again, this time with Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. For a long time most of what I knew about Springsteen was that he played the Super Bowl in 2009 and actively campaigned for every Democratic presidential nominee in my lifetime. But no one told me about Born to Run. It is frankly an astonishing album, at once bursting with youth and cracking from weariness. There’s that line in “Thunder Road” when he says, “So you’re scared and thinking that maybe we’re not that young anymore.” That’s exactly where I find myself on my worst days. Clarence Clemons’s sax solo on “Jungleland” is one of the most expressive and beautiful moments I’ve ever heard in a rock song. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the title track. “Born to Run” is justifiably considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time, and when that opening guitar line kicks in I understand why. It was released in 1975, but here we are in 2014, and it hit me in my emotional gut in a way that I was not prepared for. Part of me wants to write a lengthy review of it, but it’s already a classic album. It’s often considered Springsteen’s crowning artistic statement, and one of the best albums ever. If I were to tell people they need to hear it, most rock fans will already be highly familiar with it. They heard it years ago, loved it, and moved on.
But then, maybe not. I hadn’t heard it until this year. What about music fans even younger than me? I’m sometimes worried that the relentless march of new media has made it hard for some mediums to keep up. Most modern television fans essentially dismiss fifty years of TV, starting their list of the best ever in the late 1990s. I’ve written about how board gamers have terribly short memories. It’s getting to where classics like El Grande will languish out of print while people throw money at Kickstarter campaigns that might not even materialize. Music fans are lucky to have something like Spotify, because radio isn’t helping people connect with stuff they haven’t heard. I hope those kids make the effort, because while being a latecomer can be disorienting, it allows you to keep discovering amazing stuff as your life goes on. Not only is there all that new stuff to discover. There’s the old stuff too.