Some things are constant, death, taxes, Clintons and Bushes in the White House, and bad classic rock at work. The music they play in the kitchen of the establishment that employs me as a dishwasher is almost the exactly same music they used to play at the school supply warehouse where I had my very first job, all the way back in 1986. The only difference, perhaps, is that in 1986, some novelties from the 1960s – Oliver’s “Jean” or Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” –would occasionally slip through. 2016 has added a few “alternative” numbers from the 1990s, but for the most part it’s the same, musically unimaginative, soul crushing, corporate schlock, lots of Elton John and Billy Joel, Billy Squire before he tarted it up on MTV and destroyed his career, “The Heat of the Moment” by Asia, and above all Journey.
I have no proof that the CEO of Clear Channel sold his soul to Steve Perry – who I suspect is really the devil – in exchange for the constant rotation of the song “Don’t Stop Believing” on the radio, but it’s the only explanation that really makes sense. The song is everywhere, up to and including the ridiculous last episode of The Sopranos. It’s a familiar part of the American musical landscape. It’s only when I’ve listened to it six or seven times during a twelve hour day of scrubbing dishes, however, do I genuinely understand just how bad it is. That is was released in 1981, when I was fifteen years old, the very age where you are most vulnerable to bad music is proof that I’m cursed. Deep down inside, part of me, a part of me that I dearly want to keep hidden but that, as aspiring writer, I must confront, a part of me actually likes Steve Perry. Leaning over a sink full of pots in a nondescript little suburb in New Jersey, I dream of living in San Francisco.
When the lights go down in the city
And the sun shines on the bay
Do I want to be there in my city?
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
I quickly come to my senses. I realize there are only seven “ohs” when there should be eight or nine, that the music is generic, dull, stadium rock. I also begin to understand that by liking Journey, even for a few seconds, I have demonstrated that I’m a dull, tawdry person with little or no taste. That I can actually feel emotion while listening to “Wheel in the Sky” is perhaps part of the reason I’ve ended up washing dishes at the age of 50, that my inability to connect with women has its origins in the way they can always detect emotional mediocrity in the male sex. I was, as a younger man, just perhaps, superficially attractive, but women would somehow always know that my conception of romance often resembled an REO Speedwagon song.
And I’m gonna keep on lovin you cause it’s the only thing I wanna do. The hell you are you boring ass suburban white loser. Get the hell out of my face before I call a cop.
The final epiphany comes during the eighth or ninth rotation of “Don’t Stop Believing,” usually at the end of the night. It’s only then that I realize I’m in hell. I’ve washed my 500th load of dishes. The prosperous bourgeoisie in the dining room have eaten the final meal of the night. A brief flicker of hope perhaps flits before me. Someday I think, it will all be over. I’ll be dead. My consciousness will be extinguished. I will be out of my misery. Then Steve Perry, like the devil emerging from the mist, crushes my soul completely.
Some will win
Some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on
Walking home from work, during that brief reprieve from labor we proletarians gets to drink ourselves to sleep, I begin to realize just how important good art, and good music are, not to the rich and privileged, but to the working class. I realize that during the day, something good occasionally slipped through the censors at Clear Channel. I grew up listening to Manfred Mann’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light.” It’s dull stadium rock, but some of the complexity of the lyrics still manages to come to the surface.
“Some brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone preacher from the East, he says dethrone the dictaphone, hit it in its funny bone, that’s where they expect it least.”
Just for a moment I can see the nineteen or twenty year old Springsteen on the boardwalk at Asbury Park, or maybe in the East Village, buttonholed by the kind of marginally homeless weirdo that often gravitates to a young man who, looking for something to do on a Friday night and finding nothing, is willing to listen to anybody will will talk to him. I begin to see the connections begin the black church and the birth of rock and roll, the idea of the singer as preacher. I wonder if Springsteen himself made the same connection and decided to pay homage to whoever it was in one of his songs. I wonder who it was.
Yes, everybody who heard Blinded by the Light in the 1970s thought it said “dressed up like a douche” instead of “cut loose like a deuce” but mishearing song lyrics isn’t always a bad thing. Teenage kids in the 70s who heard Kiss’s lyrics “I want to rock and roll all day and party every night” as “part of every night” demonstrated they had an inward urge for moderation. Occasionally the Clear Channel Station at the restaurant will play “Bye Bye Love” by The Cars. It’s a breakup sarcastic, pessimistic, breakup song, and most of the lyrics are simply bad, but for some reason I hear it as “my love my love,” almost as if it were a Paul McCartney song about how “my love does it better.” What’s more, while the lyrics of “Bye Bye Love” are as bad as any song by Journey the music is interesting and complex. After many hours of brutal labor, my mind, out of necessity, responding to the music and not the lyrics, transforms a vapid breakup song into a romantic ode to “my love my love.” Suddenly I understand something about American culture. The music of the 1960s was genuinely dangerous, not because it was angry or rebellious, but because it was Utopian. Radicalism in the form of popular culture become a genuine, mass movement. It let you imagine a better world. It gave the promise of romance, community, transcendence. It died before I was old enough to understand it, played out, and recycled into dull stadium rock, and banal “edgy” heavy metal.
The music that at one time gave the promise of liberation is now part of the landscape of our oppression. I look back at myself as a youth, and begin to understand why, in my senior year of high school, I only listened to classical music, why I refused to turn on MTV or the radio. When I get home, I shower, sit back, open a can of beer, and put on Mozart.