Nobody sings anymore.
Or barely ever, and it's a sad thing.
Quick thoughts this week.
This week I’m thinking about my first piano teacher as an adult, a Ukrainian man I studied with in the late 90s. About ten years earlier, he had emigrated with his wife, a fellow musician, and their teen son. They were Christians who’d grown up hiding their religious practices. A conservatory graduate in classical piano, he’d first learned about jazz by listening to Voice of America radio and buying contraband vinyls—a collection he eventually had to abandon. I used to think he exaggerated when he echoed Ronald Reagan in calling the late Soviet Union the Evil Empire—I knew that the United States has been its own style of capitalist/imperialist jack-booted thug in many parts of the world—but I still empathized with his family’s struggles, and his own desire to be artistically, religiously, and politically free in this country. These days, of course—although I still refuse to paint the USA as any kind of innocent world-actor—I’d agree his dim view of Russia’s persistent autocracy is well deserved.
I remember this man telling me that in Ukraine everyone had some music training: some piano in childhood, maybe a second instrument, and of course lots of singing. It was just a part of normal life, normal culture. Some who were more talented than others were shepherded into professional careers, but no young student was allowed to avoid musical training entirely, just exactly as no young student could finagle their way out of math class.
Back in the early 00s, and I’m sure for a hundred or more years before that, South Baltimore custom in good weather was to sit on your stoop watching the neighborhood go by, reading the paper or the latest Harry Potter with your morning coffee, or handing out candy on Halloween.
One late spring afternoon I was there on my front steps in the sunshine, lifting my baby boy to a standing position and dancing him left and right over my lap. I sang “You Are My Sunshine” in a soft, clear, plain voice—mommy-style, no jazz embellishments needed.
Meghan and Christina stood on the sidewalk, gawping. They were Catholic-school preteens with short plaid skirts, long straight auburn hair, and pencil-thin legs, who spent their late afternoons being watched (nominally) by Miss Margaret a few doors down. As usual they’d rushed over to see the baby. I kept my voice light, deliberately amateurish—but the girls stared as if they had never seen someone sing.
Do you know this song?
Want to learn it? C’mon. I’ll teach it to you. Just try to sing along, it’s very easy.
Don’t you girls ever sing? Not even at mass?
Eyes wide, they shook their heads slowly. No, no way. It was as if I’d asked them to torture kittens.
People I know raved about the fact that Pearl Jam plays three-hour-long concerts as a regular thing. And they mean this as a good thing!?!?! I dunno, that’s a hell of a lot of time in a concrete building with uncomfortable plastic seats, listening to songs that start to sound exactly alike after the first hour or so. From Eddie Vedder’s POV, I get it. It’s fun to play and to keep playing. From the perspective of the audience, and even if you’re a diehard fan, doesn’t the Less if More concept come into the foreground at any point?
Although I attended large concerts frequently as a teen and young adult, I began preferring small- and medium-sized clubs in my early twenties, as well as favoring the kinds of bands you might catch at CBGB or The Knitting Factory or Wetlands, The Beacon Theater or Birdland or Smoke (later Augie’s). I want to be close enough to see fingerwork on instruments, to feel vibrations direct from the stage itself and not only through an expensive sound system.
So I got cajoled into attending a Pearl Jam concert at what’s now called Royal Farms Arena maybe 6 or 7 years ago. It was good. I wasn’t transported or transformed the way I’ve sometimes been in small clubs with small virtuosic combos, but I do like a lot of their radio hits well enough. I sang along to several of them. As I did so, I looked around and saw hundreds, or rather thousands, of men—white for the most part, short and tall but generally buff, a stupendous proportion of them bald/shaved—wailing their hearts out at top volume. I realized this was kind of like a religious service for them. Where else did they ever get a chance to hide in plain sight while belting like Broadway stars? Where else could they get away with doing something as seemingly effeminate or unserious as singing a song? This huge collective space was a safe haven, a forum for low-risk public rituals. We were in a sports arena, and this was an experience akin to a football game: a chance to be borne away on passion even if the rest of your life demands (sometimes from both men and women) a certain kind of masculine reticence.
I wonder what it would be like to live in a time and place in which that kind of vocal letting-loose—and the emotional/cultural bond it creates—is just a part of our everyday lives, and doesn’t cost a small fortune to participate.