The Guilty Pleasures of Abbey Road
This little insight was unusual for me since I have experienced a love/hate relationship with popular music; I can't listen to songs involving the English language when I write or read, for example. And growing up in a household that cultivated a taste for classical music above all other forms of music (Elgar rather than the Eagles, Brahms over the Beatles, you get the picture), I was content to listen to my parents' preferred composers and ignored my sister blasting Guns N Roses (I believe their album, "Appetite for Destruction", might have nearly given my father an apoplectic fit). Secure in my imaginary ivory tower, I convinced myself that it was unique to learn the violin in order to perform the lofty compositions of my long-dead 19th-century European heroes. Eschewing the plebeian taste of my primary school friends who praised bands like Tears for Fears and Duran Duran, I imagined I was the last bastion of culture temporarily mired in blue-collar-ish Northern California.
My stance on Good Taste and High Art and the unworthiness of pop tunes meant that I could not admit, even to myself, when I heard a great tune. Plagued by the occasional heavenly earworm that I would squirm to remove from my mental tape deck, I cursed the ability of certain catchy songs to overwhelm the Beethoven Symphonies set on permanent replay in my head (I still listen to those Symphonies when I want a reminder of the blissful ignorance of my childhood).
But what child of the 80's can hear the word "Rio" and not be instantly reminded that "Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand"? Well, maybe it's just me. But I think that my resistance to the music enjoyed by my peers made my final capitulation all the more sweet and therefore memorable. Most people remember the first album they bought, cringing at their terrible pubescent taste. Or the opposite, later rejoicing that they had a parent or older sibling who took them to an incredible concert; early U2 or the Grateful Dead or Prince. Whatever floats your boat and makes you think, "That was a moment I shared with 30,000 screaming fans and I was too damn young to realize I was part of Pop History."
Not me. I remember the albums I didn't buy, or hear or experience until I was a highschool or college student. Distinctly I recall my loathing for a noxious boy in 3rd grade wearing a t-shirt that said "The Police" and thinking that I would die rather than hear a band endorsed by the likes of him. While my classmate was indeed worthy of my scorn for various reasons, the band was not, and once I got hooked on Sting as an 18-year-old (and subsequently his possibly greater collection of songs with The Police), I rued my inflexible ban on popular music and my deprivation of songs that I could have been living with for years on my mental tape deck (now upgraded to a mental iPod, of course).
The eventual release from the uptight prison of my own making came from an unlikely source: my fellow classical music students at the Aspen Music Festival. Some classical musicians, whether 14 (the age I was when I first attended Aspen) or 40, are ignorant and dismissive of popular music, preferring the thin air of their ivory tower of High Art. But most of the very best and most interesting classical musicians I know are connoisseurs of music created in the past 50 years, and I'm not talking about John Cage. Listening to a 4-minute opus by Radiohead is just as meaningful as a 45-minute opus by any of my favorite composers, but it's not necessary to compare the experiences as they are equally valid.
So it was through my elite musical peers (future symphony members, professors and soloists) that I learned about albums like "The Joshua Tree"; this is when a complete album was still an important concept. I dived into the 90's with both ears primed for alternative and pop radio. Unfortunately for me, the 90's left a lot to be desired musically: Grunge is heavily masculine (as are certain bands from previous eras, like The Who or Pink Floyd) but I managed to find Britpop to my heart's content (Erasure, anyone? C'mon, I was 16!) and very late in the game, decided that Guns N Roses were pretty f**king cool after all. This was partly under the influence of one of my closest and most talented violinist friends, who seemed to spend much of her senior year at our boarding school in the library crying over magazine articles elaborating on Axl Rose's terrible childhood, or instigating clandestine dance parties in the Music Pavillion set to Metallica's Black Album, rather than practicing the ol' violin. And to think her mother blamed me as the bad influence!
By the time I ran away from graduate school and ended up in Los Angeles, I harbored an open affection for many bands who wouldn't know Bach from Berlioz but had sold millions of albums, and imagine my delight when I began to get hired to play with these celebrities (I don't say artists because frankly, some of my gigs did not involve anything remotely artistic. Remember the name of Jessica Simpson's ex-husband's short-lived boy band? Yeah well, neither can I, but at least the gig paid well). I didn't always get to perform music that I adored, but it felt glamorous and amusing and gave me a lot more cache with my non-musical friends than if I was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. While that too is a wonderful job and is the sort of thing I was actually trained for, being in the Phil doesn't have the same ring to the average person as "The Grammy Awards"; like any professional musician, my ego soaks up enthusiasm.
When entering an iconic studio for a recording session, at a place like Capitol Records in Los Angeles or Abbey Road here in London, I feel my coolness factor rise skywards in a guilty egotistic pleasurable way, but what is really more gratifying and important is that I am a part of something bigger than myself. If I record my violin with a pop artist or for a film score or tv show, I am part of history. Sure, not every artist will last longer than their 15 minutes, and hundreds of films and shows bomb without reaching their intended audience. Or they reach the audience and are roundly derided. But looking at the pictures on the walls of Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland (Capitol) and the Beatles or Stevie Wonder (Abbey Road), I feel privileged to enter the same rooms in order to create a tune or two for posterity.
Besides, the crazy fans I've encountered over the years (not fans of me, simply of the artists I've worked with) have reminded me how exciting my job is, even if it really crushes my ego as much as it inflates it. We supporting musicians see the famous artists we work with as mere humans, petulant or delightful or lazy or hilarious or unfaithful or inspiring, but still as human as we are. But the fans often raise these untouchable entities to the status of gods or demi-gods, and who doesn't enjoy a brief sojourn on Mount Olympus?
Next time I fight my way into the studio, headphones feeding me a tune to drown out the traffic and distract me from my commute and the heaviness of the violin case on my back, past the unflagging stream of tourists re-enacting the ubiquitous album cover (seriously, do those rowdy Italian teenagers own any Beatles songs? Do they?), perhaps I'll experience another insight, inspired by any band that is appreciated by different generations and can remind me why it's good to be alive, doing a job or taking photos or just crossing the street. And that is not a minor epiphany.