Thursday, October 27, 2011
The Lost Art of Listening
When I was a teenager, I can remember waiting for a favorite artist's album to be released. Back in those days, there was no PauseandPlay.com to keep you posted on the latest releases, so you had to rely on handmade signs at the record store and word of mouth from fellow aficionados. Then, on the release date, right after school, I'd make the sojourn to Peaches, Turtles, or Record Bar. I'd hold the album in my hands, turn it over and soak up the song titles, the cover art, even reading the sticker on the cellophane that boasted the presumed singles from the album. I'd lay down my cash, drive home, and lock myself in my room. Drop the needle, slide the liner notes or lyric sheet out of the cover, put on my headphones, and get lost.
The eerie immediacy of Springsteen's "Nebraska", the sonic exuberance of "Sgt. Pepper's", the layers of culture woven through "Graceland", the post-Lennon maturity of "The Nylon Curtain". I sat with those songs, those words, a child in church. The church of music and poetry. It's where I fell in love with words, it's where I learned to write and tell stories. In college, I gave myself over to the guttural street opera of Lou Reed's "New York", the calliope-infused surreality of Tom Waits' "Rain Dogs", and the earnest hallelujahs of "The Joshua Tree" and "Strange Fire".
Fast forward the tape some 25 or 30 years and take a look at how we interact with music today. We download our music with little effort or forethought. We listen to it through the compressed space of a laptop speaker. Our lyrics live as tiny font on a PDF file that we read from a screen, if we bother at all. And the days of album cover art? Long gone. Deader than the eight-track.
As sadly effortless it is that I-Tunes is killing the local record store, it may be even more tragic that we've come to view art as such a disposable luxury. Are we trivializing Billie Holiday's heartache when we don't give her our unguarded attention, at least once? Alone? In the darkness of a sacred space?
Music is a communal experience and a balm in isolation. It's, both, tantric healer and party starter. Certainly, not all music cries out for us to give ourselves over to it completely in order to appreciate it. But we all have those artists that speak to us, those that take us places we'd never dare go without their assured guidance. In honor of that album, or that artist, the one or ones who speak to you like no other, I challenge you to try this:
Go to a quiet place, with your I-Pod, your stereo, or yes, your laptop if that's where your library solely lives now. Take down the lights, settle in, and listen to a full album with no distractions.
It's 45 minutes, 60 tops. No longer than a TV show. Just...listen. Listen like you used to when you thought the music was written solely for you and the possibilities of life stretched out before you like an endless ribbon unspooling in sonic wonder.