One of the best things about listening to and collecting music is that you get the chance to challenge old opinions and hear things with a fresh ear.
When I was 13, I loved Grand Funk Railroad. It was my favorite band for a couple of years. Around that time, I started to buy magazines devoted to rock’n’roll. It soon became clear to me that the writers at Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone did not like Grand Funk. I soon found bands I liked more, and in time I unloaded my Grand Funk Railroad LPs. I can’t be sure it wasn’t the fact that critics hated the band that drove me to seek out other music.
It was easy in those days to take rock critics seriously. I had plenty of natural curiosity about music, but reading articles and reviews in the rock press helped form a lot of my musical tastes. When I read Lester Bangs’s review of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, for instance, I decided to check out Beefheart’s music, and my respect for Bangs was such that I gave Beefheart the time and patience his music needed for me to appreciate it.
About 20 years ago, I was going through the record bins at Goodwill and found a copy of Grand Funk, the group’s second album. I hadn’t heard it since I was in high school; for a buck, I thought it might be worth revisiting and bringing back into my collection. Memories came sweeping back as I listened, and I was surprised at how well some of the songs stood up over time.
A few weeks later, I was at Goodwill again and stumbled upon a used copy of Closer to Home, the third Grand Funk album. I had continued to like the hit single from Closer to Home, “I’m Your Captain,” even after I had dumped the band’s albums. But, again, I was surprised at how good some of the other songs were.
Still, I felt a bit sheepish about having picked up those LPs until recently. I was playing them again and decided it was worth adding On Time, Grand Funk’s 1969 debut, and Survival (1971), the band’s fifth album, to my collection. I’m not going to make any claims that Grand Funk Railroad is ripe for reappraisal. But I think some of the negative reaction from critics can be traced to the on-the-cheap production style of manager-producer Terry Knight. Grand Funk and Knight parted ways acrimoniously (and litigiously) in 1972, and later albums do, indeed, sound better.
And yet, I’m fonder of those early albums. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Or maybe I just like the music for its unfussy simplicity. I listen to Grand Funk as actively as I do other music, but sometimes it’s OK to just enjoy something without overthinking it.
I’ve often revised my opinions. For years, I hated the Grateful Dead’s music and enjoyed that feeling. My epiphany occurred nearly 25 years ago, when I was listening to a tape of Working Man’s Dead—the only Dead album I liked—that a friend had made for me. I was listening to the tape on a boombox while doing some yard work on a beautiful spring day.
My kids, who were about three and five at the time, were outside with me. At one point, I looked over and saw them doing the typical free-form dancing that folks do at Dead shows. I realized that the Grateful Dead were able to tap into the uninhibited child in people, and I’ve grown increasingly fond of their music. I even purchased audiophile pressings of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
Music defined my generation in the ’60s and ’70s. It helped start discussions about civil rights, the anti-war movement, youth culture, and much more. It’s possible we gave music too much credit for some of the cultural changes that occurred during those years; but when I think back to that time, it seems to me that music was at the center of things.
Because pop music meant so much to us, we could sometimes divide into camps and decide that some genres didn’t fit our definition of what was “good.” Soul music was fine; disco, not so much. There was plenty of bad disco music, but The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Donna Summer, and many other artists made great records in the ’70s and into the ’80s that still sound fresh. Earth, Wind & Fire made music that took in all kinds of influences, including jazz, but disco was in there, too.
However, while I didn’t wear a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt in the ’70s, I did dismiss a lot of other disco artists that—I now realize—made some good records. Maybe AM radio didn’t allow me to hear how good the rhythm tracks were on Barry White’s records, for instance. I’ll never like the Bee Gees’ disco-era records or Village People, but when I’m in a drug store or restaurant, I often hear a tune that used to make me cringe and think, “Well, maybe it’s not as bad as I remember.” I’m at the stage in life where I find myself going easy on music I used to be indifferent about, or even that I actively scorned.
Over the last several years, I’ve been replacing records I discarded from my LP collection when I started to feel guilty about having so much music, or feared I was running out of storage space. I’ve gotten over those feelings. I get endless enjoyment from my music collection, and I’ve learned how to build more shelves. My first reacquisition was The Return of the Red Baron, a 1967 LP by the Royal Guardsmen. It was the first album I ever bought—as a kid, I had found it in a Woolworth’s cut-out bin. Believe me, it was not essential to bring that album back into my collection, but it gave me a sense of completion—more biographical than aesthetic, perhaps.
I’ve repurchased other music that I really do think enriches my collection. I’ve picked up prog-rock albums I unloaded in the early ’80s. I had taken a bunch of them to the used-record shop because I thought they weren’t rock’n’roll; punk rock caused a back-to-basics revolution, a desire to rid music of its excesses and high production costs, to move it back into the hands of regular musicians playing in a garage. That had been the ideal for a lot of rock critics for some time. Prog didn’t seem cool any more.
My wife is a fan of Yes, and after years of respecting but not really liking the band, I got to hear its music with fresh ears and really enjoyed The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971), and Close to the Edge (1972). This was in the ’90s, and some of the assumptions I’d made about prog and its place in the rock hierarchy didn’t seem so valid any more.
I had continued to like King Crimson and Soft Machine when I dropped prog. The music of both groups had a strong jazz component, and their big ideas were matched by formidable skills as composers and players. What surprises me is how my tastes for prog now are so broad. I keep running into obscure prog rock in the cheap bins at record shops. I’ve found some of my favorite LPs in those bins. I picked up a copy of Rare Bird’s second LP, As Your Mind Flies By (1970)—I’d had the group’s first album years ago. After listening to As Your Mind Flies By, I tracked down a copy of its eponymous 1969 debut on Discogs.
The universe, or my record collection, at any rate, was set right again. But it wasn’t just nostalgia that made me happy to have those Rare Bird albums. Yes, they bring back memories of my 14-year-old self who went to the record shop with high expectations—expectations that had often been rewarded by the LPs I bought back then. I was also excited because I had rediscovered music I liked. That, in turn, led me to consider why I had turned my back on it later.
Music has always been a source of refuge for me, a reminder that the world is a better place than it seems to be on a really bad day. Closing myself off from music because it doesn’t fit some preconceived idea keeps me from experiencing its potential delights. If I listen to the people who say a musician like Jimmy Smith didn’t play “serious” jazz, I’d miss the sheer joy of his records. In 1972, I squirmed in my seat as much as most of my friends did during Ravi Shankar’s performance in the film The Concert for Bangladesh. I now wish his section of the movie was longer and I have a lot of his music on CD and vinyl.
At my age, many of the musicians I have loved have died, and others soon will. It’s natural to wonder how long their art will outlive them. I don’t think it really matters. Time’s selectivity will decide that, long after I’m gone. In the meantime, I’ll keep listening, and try to give music both old and new a fair hearing to see what new excitement and joy they hold.
. . . Joseph Taylor