something moving in the sidewalk steam

EASTER_genesis_groupWell, folks, I’ve been scooped – but The New Yorker is a worthy scooper. Check out Jon Michaud’s wonderful piece upon the fortieth anniversary of Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, won’t you – for the crazy video stills of Peter Gabriel performing in character in 1975, if nothing else. Maybe rethink what “progressive rock” is or was, or has to be, a little bit, because Michaud really does get at the odd bits of this record that defy the Spinal Tap-py story of indulgence and excess that has held for so long.

I personally have been neck-deep in Lamb this spring for the first time since high school, trying to use it to understand why I didn’t listen to some records for the first time so much as recognize them. Something in the musical motifs themselves are deja vu-ish, from the first moment I heard them. A striking # of these are Genesis themes: some from Lamb, but also the big motifs from A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering. As mentioned previously, Radiohead’s OK Computer had this uncanny zing for me as well.

I wonder what this suggests about the pre / ante-cognitive qualities of childhood and how they echo down into adulthood. How could I recognize songs the first time I heard them? Three possibilities come to mind:

  • Had I actually heard them before, somehow? Maybe. But my folks weren’t too likely to have Old Grey Whistle Test on the telly, and their record collection tended – splendidly – to Herb Alpert and his hangers-on. So, no. (1)
  • Or do they echo other grand motifs I did grow up saturated in: church hymns, maybe? I responded early and often to the deep hymn culture of the faith I was raised in. Maybe that’s where I learned that music can move you deeper than anything else, can become the most important thing in the world. (Remembering my dad, a chaplain, once describing liturgy as “the stuff between the songs.” Indeed.)
  • Or third and most likely, and most exciting: were my ears uniquely pricked to the power of sweeping prog rock themes by the circumstances in which I first heard them? i.e., under the tutelage (and sometimes the actual headphones) of older, more experienced and infinitely emulate-able kids, who took my upstairs in literal and figurative ways by turning me on to big records as well as the way to listen to them: raptly, reverently, intensely? I think so.

Rock music was so much more than pastime to me as a kid: it was a ticket in to a different world, a ticket out of the world I wanted to escape. A ticket up to becoming someone so much cooler than I was. The music wasn’t just an accessory to this ascension: it was the door.

I remember being mocked on a long campout with older kids from a different Boy Scout troop about this point. It was an odd trip, a last-minute change of who I’d be with, and I was struggling to fit in with the is already-established group of guys who weren’t too keen on having an interloper around for a couple of weeks. One of them overheard me singing the theme from Heavy Metal while rolling my sleeping bag, and mocked me for it. I responded that I was kind of an expert in rock and roll, thank very much, and knew what I was singing about, so they should step off. The gauntlet was down, and I was teased, oh yes.  Was quizzed hard on big 70’s rock arcana and did pretty well. The difference between Uriah Heep and Jethro Tull was one topic, I think – it all gets kind of hazy, and of course I really wasn’t so expert (no Zeppelin in my experience, yet).

But it was so important that I be THOUGHT of as one. Seeing myself as expert in AOR radio stuff was crucial for my emerging sense of being, and it felt very vulnerable to NOT know something. My path to assertion of a self were closely tied to my relationship to music.

Turns out I was turned on by the “gnostic” aspects of big 70’s progressive rock, in Allan Moore’s formulation (which I found in Kevin Holm-Hudson’s terrific ethnography of the record – thanks inter-library loan!). For him, prog rock is all about:

…concentration on obscure or occult (in the sense of ‘hidden’) matters, lack of obvious personal reference and a clear attempt to provide an alternative way of looking at things, even if this was not clear to the uninitiated…gnostic faiths are based on the belief that salvation is gained by knowledge, rather than by faith or works or some other means…obscurity is hence to be striven for in their construction, since it intensifies the achievement of the goal (p. 14).

So mastering the obscurity was the point, the more obscure the better.

And while mastery of arcana isn’t the exclusive domain of the prog rockers, it’s uniquely important to them (us). Because the music I loved was set apart from pop and heavy rock by its sensitivity, its complexity, and above all its musicianship. The “sessionman-virtuoso culture” (p. 18) of prog was the way an emerging musician like myself (I was an excellent clarinet player) could transform the “band geek” skills and sensitivities I was developing into something like cultural cred.

At least, that’s how it worked among the other band geeks I joined in the band room every morning, to listen to TDK copies of Rush and Genesis albums at the highest volume the band director would tolerate and argue over how difficult passages where constructed. This was a promising social gambit: some of the band geeks weren’t so geeky, after all (some were even drummers), and the black concert t-shirts so desirable as token of cool were worn by a lot of them. I remember wowing a group of upperclassmen one morning by jumping on the drum kit and demonstrating mastery of the stuttering pattern of the middle section of Rush’s “La Villa Strangiato“. Their applause felt like sinking a clutch free throw. Music was my way in to the culture. It’s not an exaggeration to name it the primary way I located myself w/r/t to the rest of the world.

So (back to my point), maybe I listened to these grand musical themes more intently than I listened to anything else in my life – since, truly, my life depended upon knowing them. And so (as is the case in actual deja vu) my listening was in fact a remembering, a captured echo of an (immediately) previous intense experience. Maybe, if we are really paying attention, everything is a remembering, because everything matters.

This insight matters a lot for an educator (and an education blog reader – dear reader, forgive the indulgence). Because it gives yet another glimpse into the intensely sociocultural nature of learning: how we are not brains in vats but rather communal entities, judging value and attention due the passing course of life (currere) through an intimate process of how its meaning refracts our relation to the world around us.

Less obtusely: we learn because we care, and we care because we want to be in satisfying communion with the world and ourselves. Pure, logico-aesthetic connection with the world happens, sometimes, I grant – but more frequently, I think it is intensely mediated by what it tells us about ourselves, how it connects us to those we care about, how it “matters” in a material, lived world. I don’t remember and love the texts of my own prog rock curriculum as deeply as I do only because of their beauty: I love them because of how and why they mattered to me socially and culturally.

Could our culture’s present common-sense understanding of education be any further from these principles? The current state and fed policy sure doesn’t get it. Consider:

  • As we script curriculum across classrooms and states, we assert the value of standardized inputs and outcomes and scotomize the value of individual experience.
  • As we lock teachers into impoverished models of accountability and efficacy, we starve their capacity to build personal relationships with students that are tuned to what really turns them on and what they want their lives to be about.
  • As we tell teachers, year after year, that only those outcomes which can be captured and compared quantitatively have value, we devalue the sacred impulses which brought them to the classroom.

And as teachers see their most precious love – for really connecting with another, for changing someone’s life – devalued, they begin to believe what they are told: that they are only worth their output. They die inside, burn out, despair, and therefore apart themselves in their practice from the only love that can really vitalize it. Or they leave – and a LOT of them are – in search of employment that better feeds their vocation.

Yes, these things are connected. Real learning understands that the stakes aren’t merely intellectual, and sometimes aren’t intellectual at all. I celebrate the thousands of teachers who work to help children embrace what they most love and what most feeds their connection to the world, even when they are doing this work in airless rooms. And I wish them the capacity to find their own air – in their own attachment to the texts and experiences that feed them, in their attachment to their students, in their attachment to each other.

Now go find some headphones.

(1) – meanwhile, apparently this exists. Let’s call it homage, and return to our breath.

Longhair Genesis portrait taken from this awesome fan site, with thanks.


One response to “something moving in the sidewalk steam”

  1. I agree with the idea of the “gnostic” passing of the knowledge by older heads, but I think there may be a fourth possibility. At least for me. I find that many people listen to music on a very superficial level and only respond to a catchy melody and lyrical content. I believe that as band geeks we were beginning to understand the artistry and importance beyond those basic elements. I know that I still respond to the rhythmic brilliance of Neal Peart, the complex structure of early Genesis, and the cosmic intuition of the Grateful Dead.

    It’s that background that follows me on my continuing musical quest and allows me to appreciate artists like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. It also allows me to see that the subtleties in a well performed blues song are every bit as satisfying as a well rehearsed symphony orchestra.

    In short (too late!) I love the music of what’s being played (or not played) over a catchy melody. Not that I would sneeze at a catchy melody – it’s just not the only part of the song.

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