Everything I Know (About Music), I Learned from Old Men
When I was about 21, I made a new friend. He would have been 43 at the time. We properly met in German class, when we were split into small groups and I was our group’s speech coach (if you want to know how to say “Kindertotenlieder” or “Gesamtkunstwerk” or anything similar, give me a call. That first word pretty much sums up conventional notions about German art, outlook, and language all in one, btw.). Anyway. We had known each other from our music classes, but became buds in German. One day in orchestration class, he asked me to go see his concert that night.
So I went. I had gotten dumped earlier in the week, so I called in sick to work and went to the show. It was good therapy. I have written elsewhere about calling in sick to work for concerts – I do not do this anymore, which is odd, because I could probably call up my boss now and he’d say, “Go! No problem! Sounds like research.”
After that, my friend and I were friends. For good. 14 years later, we still hang. He moved to Toronto first, and then spent the first year I was here taking care of me, showing me around the city, dragging my kitten over to his place to pounce around his middle-aged cats and get them mad by using their litter box. We’d hang out in his apartment and watch music documentaries, go to shows together when we both came back to Calgary. He was my bud.
This was the beginning of a series of friendships I developed with old men.
Sorry, guys. I realize you probably don’t think of yourselves as old. For clarification’s sake, “old” here refers to anyone that is 15 to 45 years older than me. In other words, 50+. I say this because I have an age ceiling of about 12 years for dating, and because the guy friends I do have who are around 10-12 years older seem like we’re from the same generation.
These old men have taught me pretty much everything I know about music.
When I told one of my “old men” that I was thinking of writing a post on this topic, he laughed and said, “Well, everything I know, I learned from young women.”
I’m still not sure if he was joking.
It’s a nice relationship, though, and as reluctant as I am to give away the secret as to why that is, here’s why. A lot of these men have been in the business – of music, of writing, or some combination of the two – their entire lives, and often in the background. They’ve been managers, writers, producers, academics, performers, radio programmers, etc., without being enormously famous, but they’ve gathered a wealth of knowledge along the way. Not only that, they’ve seen pretty big changes in the industry. So they’re sitting there with all of this information, and great stories, in their heads, and maybe don’t have a ton of people who want to hear it. I do. I will gladly sit down with any of those guys and say virtually nothing during the conversation; just let them talk. And talk they do.
For whatever reason, I don’t have the same relationship with older women in my life. Granted, I think there are fewer women in the biz the way these guys are, so that’s part of it. But where an older woman’s tendency might be to view me as a surrogate daughter, and as a result talk about a variety of things – career, child-raising, marriage and relationships, etc. – the older men in my life – who might also view me as a surrogate daughter – want to focus on music. We do get into the other topics, but not to the same degree.
I’d hate to ascribe this to gendered approaches to thinking about music as much as I’d hate to say I operate “like a guy” when it comes to the topic, but maybe that’s what’s going on. I’m a collector. I like to read articles about music. I have favourite artists and want to find out about them in detail. I like music trivia. I like talking about backup players and producers and mixers and songwriters – album credits – as much as I like talking about the frontmen. One of my friends just sent me a site full of “Stairway to Heaven” covers because he knew he could. To me, these seem like typically male behaviours, because when I see my girlfriends, and I have many girlfriends, they take up most of my Toronto social time, we don’t talk about music much. If we do, it’s certainly not in the same way. To be clear, since my girlfriends and I talk about books, wine, and makeup, and my old man friends and I talk about music, it may seem there is nothing left for me to talk to my partner about, so I’m reserving the upcoming apocalypse topic for that guy.
My old men friends fall into a variety of categories. There are the teachers: guys who I’ve taken classes from or visited to get advice on my research, who have sat and listened to my conference papers or read my work and given me feedback. There are the guys in the business: people who run venues and manage artists, promote concerts and do publicity. They’re the ones I run into backstage and drink with, or who surprise me with a free ticket to a show at the last minute. There are the writers, guys who have been interviewing musicians, writing articles, dealing with the publishing world for years, and who give me advice on what steps to take, while trying to get me to listen to their latest fave. And there are the guys who are none of those things, but are just into music and are old.
While I might sound a bit cheeky about the whole thing, I do have a point.
Once I hung out with a guy who was nearly 80 – one of the ones who isn’t really a friend – and he said, “Look, young people don’t know anything. They know nothing! I can’t believe it. Why don’t they take the time to learn?” And he’s right. We don’t know shit (I’m very generously making myself a sort of “young person” here). But is the definition of youth not ignorance? I think it is. And isn’t that ignorance what allows a young person to set off on a quest and do something he or she figures nobody has done before? And isn’t this young person going to find old people along the way who say, “Guess what dude, it’s been done. Let me tell you a story about it.” I think that’s what happened to me.
So now I know that I know nothing. (Don’t tell my students.) I go into every conversation with an old man knowing that I’ll come out having learned at least a little something. I figured out – about 14 years ago – that I should be listening to my elders, as it were, because they would strip away the blindness of my ignorance, would assure me that I did indeed know nothing, and would get me on the right path. When I screwed up, they would help me through and tell me what to do next. About the only thing I could give back to them was an interested ear for their stories, and some help in pronouncing “Kindertotenlieder”.
To Neil, Rob, John, Richard, Tim, Tim, Brian, Gord, David, and all the other “old men” in my life, thanks. You rock. You were the first to do so. Also, I’m very sorry for calling you old.