Three great music stories

Music gives us so many amazing experiences. Here are three of them.

THE VAST ROLE THAT popular music plays in the lives of teenagers and young adults reinforces the fact that music derives much of its power from courtship and mating. But what of the elderly and middle-aged?

Some of our strongest memories in middle and old age involve a song that was playing when we first met, danced with, or made love to somebody special. The fond recollection of the music of our early adulthood, when we stood on the threshold of our sexual prime, again reinforces the link between our musical and sexual identities.

Even well into old age, people report that music helps them to understand and develop their identity, connect with others, maintain their wellbeing and express their spirituality. Apart from some differences in emphasis, this is pretty much the role that music plays in the lives of the young.

The difference is that the middle-aged and the elderly listen with a sense of reminiscence and sometimes of regret. That is why we pay big money to attend reunion concerts or see long-forgotten acts from our youth.

Writer Mark Dapin pointed me to the following quote, which he believes may apply to all reunion concerts. It comes from a piece by the modern historian Timothy Garton Ash, writing about the audience at a reunion of the sixties Czech pop group the Golden Kids: “Sometimes they clap along. But when the Golden Kids sing [Leonard Cohen’s] “Suzanne” there’s just total silence:

Suzanne takes you down
To her place near the river.
You can hear the boats go by:
You can spend the night beside her.

Tense and heavy with regret: the silence of the middle-aged remembering sex.”

Extract from Rob Brooks Sex, Genes & Rock n Roll

And not only does it give meaning and solace to ordinary individuals, it can also offer healing to the severely impaired, like Henry.

Science tells us that humans are hard-wired to respond to music. What better proof than to watch the magic spell it casts on Henry, an old man languishing in a nursing home? In this video, a trailer for “Alive Inside,” a new documentary featuring famed neurologist Oliver Sacks, Henry sits in a wheelchair, depressed, dead to the world around him. Then he’s given some ear phones, and the music from his era begins to play. Instantly, he lights up. His eyes pop open wide and his body begins to rock. Henry is no longer in the present. The music has transported him back. For a moment in time, he’s young again.

And sometimes, just sometimes, music can be a transcendent experience for a whole community. This is one aspect of the amazing story of Sixto Rodriguez told in Searching for Sugar Man. Rodriguez’ music career went exactly nowhere in his home country of the USA or in the UK. He was a minor league cult hero in Australia and toured twice, but the fact that he released only two records in 1970 and 1971 meant that he soon enough vanished from popular consciousness even here. And that’s a concrete cold fact!

South Africa was trying to keep the rest of the world at bay so as to keep any ideas inimical to the doctrine of white racial superiority out. The rest of the world so despised Apartheid that trade sanctions were put in place against South Africa, and this only reinforced its cultural isolation in a rapidly changing world. Somehow a copy of Cold Fact found its way to South Africa and was repeatedly copied and passed on until it became an underground hit. Eventually the album was released in South Africa after Rodriguez had been cut by his record label, which itself was soon swallowed up by another record company.

“He was like our Elvis.” The three key records said to be common to white liberal South African households by the mid to late 70s were Abbey Road, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Cold Fact. Not that Rodriguez knew anything about this or received any royalties from South Africa as he worked as a casual building worker back in Detroit. Most of his South African fans had heard that Rodriguez was a burned out rock n roll suicide.

So it remained until Cold Fact was reissued on CD in South Africa in the mid 90s after the fall of Apartheid and a quest was launched to find out what had really happened to their idol. Eventually his daughter heard about the search for her father and responded to the South African fans. And so began the resurrection of Rodriguez career which has thus far featured tours to South Africa, Australia and more recently to “new” markets such as the UK, Europe and the USA. Searching for Sugar Man was made by a Swedish film maker and Rodriguez has recently received one of the US’s highest accolades: an appearance on Letterman. Forty years of build up to being an overnight success in his home country!

One of the key moments in the film is when he first steps on stage in Cape Town in front of an audience barely believing that he was really alive. Over the bass intro to I Wonder the audience spends eight minutes clapping and cheering ecstatically simply because he is there in front of them. This could be the best concert none of us ever saw! The audience were so emotionally engaged in thanking a man from another country for articulating their hopes and fears in the face of a nasty racist regime and inspiring in them the confidence that it could be defeated. Their joy and relief at what had been accomplished in their country in their lifetime is a massively impressive expression of the human spirit.

Rodriguez’ performance lived up to their heightened expectations and he has returned to South Africa to perform on several subsequent tours. When I saw him at the Corner Hotel 18 months ago I was transfixed by the man’s sheer joy in performance. His somewhat curious career path also means that even approaching 70 he still has 90% of his voice.

Note to music doco makers: please give us the black South African soundtrack of the struggle against apartheid. That would be something special: Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and all the other great music I haven’t even heard of. See if you can sneak in Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon as the token white guys.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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One Response to Three great music stories

  1. memorysong says:

    Great to read. Music is truly an amazing thing on so many levels. Dr. Sacks has been one of the few people to write about it in such a comprehensive way… I am currently working on a project where people recount how music links to specific memories. I’d love to have you pop by the page.

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