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  • Rich Kassirer

Three music thoughts in 4 days

Hopefully, people will read this and won’t think, “wow, this guy is old and cranky.” That is not true – at least the second part. It just happens that in a few days I had some musical experiences that hit me in a way that made me reflect on music now and then.

Goodbye, Sister Disco

Recently, I went to a birthday party for a family friend of a certain age. By her request, the theme was 1970s era, and I guess I didn’t quite think out what that meant. When we got there, we picked up disco ball necklaces and light-up flashing rings as party favors. It didn’t really hit me till after dinner … till I saw the dance floor and DJ. And then it started – “Shooting Star,” “Dance to the Boogie Get Down,” “Staying Alive.” My worst nightmare was realized. I was reliving the part of musical history I despise most of all. OK, I don’t dance, so that is part of it. But it goes so much deeper than that.

I’m guessing there are quite a few people my age – early 50s – and predominantly male who feel this way. Disco was born roughly around 1975 and hit the mainstream in 1977 with the movie “Saturday Night Fever.” Those were my middle teen years. Before disco hit it big, I had just made the jump from AM soft rock to FM rock ‘n’ roll. I had just discovered Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aerosmith and Jimi Hendrix. It was like my brain exploded with guitar-heavy riffs. It was awesome.

Then disco hit, taking over the airwaves and infiltrating my friends. Dancing to disco was a way to get girls, for sure. But I couldn’t get past the constant beat, the insipid lyrics. By the end of the decade, even rock bands like the Rolling Stones had given in to the craze. A lot of the good rock of those years got lost in the sparkle of the disco ball.

So fast-forward to the birthday party: I’m sitting next to my brother, who is 20 years younger and, as many people know, in the music biz. Neither of us was really digging the music. I turned to him and said, “This music is like the death of humanity to me,” and then told him how it basically ruined music for a good half decade in my formative years. That surprised him. He wasn’t even born when disco was popular. For him, his only real reference to disco is as wedding and party music and “The Donkey Show.”

Generations removed, only a true handful understand my pain. Needless to say, I still had a great time at the party. But as for getting up on the dance floor and movin’ to the groovin’, let’s just say that I still can’t get past the constant beat and the insipid lyrics.

The bare facts about the Grammys

I don’t usually pay attention to the Grammy telecast, unless I have to for work. I know it doesn’t serve my musical tastes and that’s fine. There’s an off button on the TV for such occasions. This year, of course, work beckoned, so I watched. In general, I really do try to keep an open mind about the state of pop music and try to listen to popular artists, just to keep current. My kids have introduced me to a number of new acts over the years. This year, my son Adam had me listen to Lorde as she was just starting to hit it big, and I think she has talent.

However, when Beyonce opens the Grammys show by strutting her near-naked ass across the stage and is basically groped by her husband on national TV, I fail to see the artistry involved. If there was a message in her song (as my daughter tells me, she’s an empowering force to women), I failed to make the connection as she sexually straddled a chair. Music has always had a sexual aspect to it, and I like that, but really?

Then there’s Robin Thicke who, last time I saw him was grinding with Miley Cyrus on the MTV Awards. This time, he was fronting the band Chicago in a medley of the ‘70s band’s soft-rock hits… and, may I add, he was horrid. Pink, Katy Perry, Daft Punk… There is so much show and so little musical talent in some of these acts.

How about allowing some of the winners in the categories given out before the telecast play? I was happy to see Kacey Musgraves, a new country star, and Lorde perform. But allow American viewers to see the diversity of the winners, not just the ones with the most amped-up stage show. Yes, they trotted out Stevie Wonder and Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and it’s good to make connections between present and past. But the Grammys is so much about “the show” that they overlook all the talent in the many different genres of music they honor.

Obviously, the telecast is all about ratings, and they are petrified that viewers might change the channel, but if this is truly “Music’s Biggest Night” of the year, don’t we deserve to actually hear the year’s best music?

Pete Seeger: a giant influence

Pete Seeger past away recently. It was heartwarming to see all the tributes, remembrances, and good thoughts about a man and musician, who gave his life to social change. He was brave in the face of adversity and stood up for his belief in equality and fairness for all. He is a true folk hero.

Yet my specific memories of him, since I was very young when he fought for that social change and being blacklisted, may be a little different than others.

My parents had a Pete Seeger album called “Abiyoyo and Other Story Songs for Children.” It wasn’t an album of protest, but one of some of his great stories accompanied by guitar or banjo. The Abiyoyo in the title was a gruesome giant that terrified a small farm town, devouring sheep in its path to destroying the village: “He had long fingernails, ’cause he never cut ’em. He had slobbery teeth ’cause he never brushed them. Matted hair, ’cause he never combed it. Stinking feet, ’cause he never washed them,” Pete spoke-sang. Luckily, there was a magician and his son who had recently been banished by the town because they were pranksters. They are welcomed back after they made the monster disappear. As with many good kids stories, it starts as a rather scary tale and comes with a happy moral at the end. Seeger’s voice rises and falls with such great intricate detail, carrying the listener along.

The other long story, “Sam, the Whaler,” is about a young man wanting to go to sea to catch whales. Seeger’s half-story, half-song heads down the Hudson River, naming the towns as the ship sails out into the open sea. It’s amazing how easily my sisters and I got lost in the tale, remembering the funny lines and even those towns along the Hudson: Tarrytown, Yonkers.

Those two songs are worth the whole album, but the rest is filled with funny tunes like “Sweepy, Sweepy, Sweepy” and “Where’s My Pajamas” perfect for sing-alongs, which of course is what Pete was all about.

I shared the album with my kids when they were young, and even today when Abiyoyo is brought up, it brings a smile and usually a comment about how “he had stinking feet ‘cause he never washed them.

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