My Reasons for Listening

We all listen to music for different reasons. Better yet, we can never know for sure why someone else listens to music. So, since they are not you, it’s safe to say that their reasons aren’t your reasons. Or mine.

As a kid, music was a therapy for loneliness. For me. Bottom line. I needed it for that reason. The only kind of music that mattered was rock n’ roll. Classical was so sterile, so clean. It brought me nowhere. But rock responded to those pressures which made me lonely: from my family, my peers, myself, and dragged me kicking and screaming to a place where I could feel whole again.

And it did this by doing everything it you weren’t supposed to do. It was loud. You weren’t supposed to be loud. It was vulgar. You weren’t supposed to be vulgar. You see where I am going with this, right? Growing up, I had to do what I was supposed to do. And for some ineffable reason this felt wrong. I felt wrong. And rock, at least temporarily, fixed that.

We all listen to music for different reasons. Better yet, we can never know for sure why someone else listens to music. So, since they are not you, it’s safe to say that their reasons aren’t your reasons. Or mine. As a kid, music was a therapy for loneliness. For me. Bottom line. I needed it for that reason. The only kind of music that mattered was rock n’ roll. Classical was so sterile, so clean. It brought me nowhere. But rock responded to those pressures which made me lonely: from my family, my peers, myself, and dragged me kicking and screaming to a place where I could feel whole again. And it did this by doing everything it you weren’t supposed to do. It was loud. You weren’t supposed to be loud. It was vulgar. You weren’t supposed to be vulgar. You see where I am going with this, right? Growing up,

I had to do what I was supposed to do. And for some ineffable reason this felt wrong. I felt wrong. And rock, at least temporarily, fixed that. I’m not talking about older rock or the architects of classic rock like the Beatles or the Beach Boys. I’m talking more about the loud, angsty, angry rockers who sucked me into their sonic sanctuaries where I could nurse my childish grudges against mankind and feel justified at the same time. AC/DC, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Guns n Roses. As I got older and supposedly more sophisticated, I exchanged these bands for the Velvets, the Stooges, The Sex Pistols, Superchunk, Bruce Springsteen in his darker moments. I dug other stuff too, of course, and by no means is all rock is like this. But when I felt most at odds with the world, when I was at my lowest, this is where I took cover. That’s something classical music could never do for me. It seems that that was never its point. It’s not there to make you whole. It’s not there to fight your demons for you. It leaves that to you (as it should), and instead, assumes that you are already grown up enough to appreciate what it is about to give you. That is its starting point: the grown up. And from there it takes you to God, whatever or however you may perceive Him to be. I am not lonely anymore. So it make sense then that classical now makes sense to me. Rock is still there, but I don’t need it like I used to. I can still sympathize with Springsteen’s Magic Rat. I can still raise my fist with Bon Scott’s Problem Child or hurl profanities at my slack co-workers as Superchunk would have me do. But I cannot become these people anymore. I have a family, a career. I have more important things to worry about. But classical music is another matter. It is important enough. I did not know what beauty was until I first listened. I mean, really listened. Like in my mid-thirties. It took some effort and time, and then all I could wonder was how I could have lived so long without it. When Tom Lehrer referred to rock and roll as “children’s music”, it was funny, and somewhat true. Much of the time rock does speak to the maladjusted, underachieving teenager in all of us. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it is something that classical music never does. Instead, classical music requires an adult perspective above all else. This is why I believe we should expose our children to classical music as much as possible. Sure, they can still be kids. But someone who has that adult perspective as a kid will turn into one heck of an adult. One who is already whole and spared the dirty job of having to become whole while in their prime. Instead they could be doing great things.

Heart of Darkness: What a Cover Says

A friend once gave me an incredible find. It was a beat-to-heck paperback edition of Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad published by Signet Books in 1950.

The thing looked like it had survived a flood. Its bottom right-hand corner was barely even there, the split binding was holding on to pages for dear life, and the pages themselves felt like they could crumble like autumn leaves. Clearly such a decrepit specimen would not survive another reading. So why did he give it to me?
Because the cover looked like this:

This is an amazing book cover. I realized this right away, but didn’t stumble upon why it was so amazing until days later. Why is this such an amazing cover? Wait. Let me ask more closely, because anyone familiar with Western lit should realize the answer just as I did. Why is it an amazing cover for a canonized work of classic English language literature?

A friend once gave me an incredible find. It was a beat-to-heck paperback edition of Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad published by Signet Books in 1950. The thing looked like it had survived a flood. Its bottom right-hand corner was barely even there, the split binding was holding on to pages for dear life, and the pages themselves felt like they could crumble like autumn leaves. Clearly such a decrepit specimen would not survive another reading. So why did he give it to me? Because the cover looked like this: This is an amazing book cover. I realized this right away, but didn’t stumble upon why it was so amazing until days later. Why is this such an amazing cover? Wait. Let me ask more closely, because anyone familiar with Western lit should realize the answer just as I did. Why is it an amazing cover for a canonized work of classic English language literature? Answer: because Signet Books selected that cover in an effort to sell the book on its merits. Note the splash words on top (dishonest ones at that, since nothing akin to “romance” exists in either story). Note the lurid, sexy painting full of danger and suspense. Notice the clenched fist, the sidelong leers, the surrounded protagonists. What does this tell us? That the unbelievable story within is just brimming with such excitement that you simply cannot wait to read it, can you? It also tells us that despite all the claims of Conrad’s greatness on the back cover and all the big words and deep analyses in Albert J. Guerard’s introduction, Signet in 1950 still considered Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer to be pulp fiction to be sold alongside (and to compete against) other works of pulp fiction on the rack in local drugstores, five-and-dimes, and other mundane places where young men in the 1950s went to satisfy their urges for romance, terror, and exotic adventure. Don’t believe me? Then compare the cover to these covers and notice the obvious similarities. Publishers typically want to make a book cover accomplish two things: A) reveal at a glance what genre a book belongs to by making it similar to all the other book covers of that genre, and B) make the cover different enough from the pack to pique a potential reader’s interest. Clearly Signet promised much for Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, and based these promises in most cases on what’s actually contained in the stories. This is a form of advertizing, and it’s done when the product you’re hawking needs whatever nudge it can get to attract the eye of potential customers. After all, the good people at Signet have bills to pay, just like all of us. So in this milieu, does Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer look all that much different from its competition? To the uninitiated, “Joseph Conrad” could be just another pseudonymous hack cranking out cheap paperback gratifications one month at a time in whatever genre his publisher tells him write in. This is all so interesting because no one packages canonical novels this way anymore. Nobody ever sells classic lit on its merits. Now here is the cover of the same volume with the same introduction published by the same company 33 years later. (Note how it’s “Signet Classics” in 1983 whereas it was “Signet Books” in 1950.) What does this cover tell us? Not much, in fact. Lotta trees, lotta mist, lotta darkness, and a barely discernable human figure on the bottom. That’s what I thought when I first saw it in the 1980s and that’s how I still feel today. While thematically faithful to the Heart of Darkness story, the cover is what I would call…meh. It is the product of a company that does not have to sell Heart of Darkness and the Secret Sharer anymore. The novels’ status of “classic literature” does that for them these days. The presence of this volume on course

syllabi everywhere ensures that millions of high school and college kids are going to buy it whether they want to or not. And the cover reflects this. It does not beckon or entice or in any way compete for your attention. It does not make you want to reach out and buy the book and read the stories therein. Instead it informs you that you should do this. This is classic literature. Something important is being shared on these pages, so if you want to be privy to such a profound element of Western Civilization not to mention nab that slightly-harder-than-expected-but-still-pretty-easy A in your English class, then you better crack this puppy and get to work. Let’s look at a few other covers and see if they don’t give the same impression. What do these covers all share? Setting. Judging Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by its cover, all we get is that at least one of these stories takes place in some wild jungle setting. Apparently this is enough for publishers not to lose money on Joseph Conrad these days. Apparently enough people are familiar with his reputation that paperback covers telling us we should read him rather than making us want to read him are actually preferred. This may be interesting in and of itself, but why should we care? Because, ironically, Signet Books got it right the first time. Heart of Darkness, being the primary story of the volume and the basis for what seems like all of its covers, is a disappointing and tedious read. Swaths of it are slow and ponderous, especially early on. While not a bad story by any means, it is thematically unfocused, repetitive, obvious. It is, in a word, overrated. It probably did need that extra nudge Signet was giving it in 1950. I will discuss why Heart of Darkness is overrated in an upcoming post.

A Symphony of Whales

In 1999, the Harcourt Brace Company published a children’s book by writer Steve Schuch and illustrator Peter Sylvada called A Symphony of Whales. It’s an amazing story about a young girl living in the Chukchi peninsula who can communicate with whales through dreams. The Chukchi Peninsula is the northeastern extremity of Asia, across the Bering Strait from Alaska. The Chukchi themselves are the indigenous people from that area who have their own language and folklore. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 15,000 Chukchi in the world.

Anyway, the part about communicating with whales is made up, I believe. But the story’s main plot is not. In the winter of 1984-1985, thousands of beluga whales became trapped beneath the ice in the Senyavina Strait in the Bering Sea. The water was freezing rapidly, and the whales had no way to return to open waters. They would all die soon if not rescued.

In 1999, the Harcourt Brace Company published a children’s book by writer Steve Schuch and illustrator Peter Sylvada called buy viagra from canada A Symphony of Whales. It’s an amazing story about a young girl living in the Chukchi peninsula who can communicate with whales through dreams. The Chukchi Peninsula is the northeastern extremity of Asia, across the Bering Strait from Alaska. The Chukchi themselves are the indigenous people from that area who have their own language and folklore. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 15,000 Chukchi in the world. Anyway, the part about communicating with whales is made up, I believe. But the story’s main plot is not. In the winter of 1984-1985, thousands of beluga whales became trapped beneath the ice in the Senyavina Strait in the Bering Sea. The water was freezing rapidly, and the whales had no way to return to open waters. They would all die soon if not rescued. Back then the Chukchi were part of the Soviet Union. They radioed

a Soviet icebreaker, which must have been hundreds of miles away. The ship would arrive in a matter of weeks. It was up to the Chukchi to keep the whales alive till then. In the story, the young girl Glashka and her entire village chipped away at the ice, slowing its spread. During this time, Glashka learns she can communicate with the whales. She also becomes fascinated when she sees the older whales helping the younger ones stay above water to get more air. Things were growing desperate. This was the dead of winter north of the Arctic Circle. The villagers could only do so much. Soon there were would be no escape for the whales. The icebreaker finally arrived. It broke through the ice, giving the whales a clear path to freedom, but for some reason, the whales would not go. The ship’s captain tried to lead the whales to sea, but they remained reluctant. The water started freezing again, and the ship could not remain their forever. It was Glashka who realized what must be done. She radioed the ship’s captain and told him to play music. Maybe music would entice the whales to leave. First the ship’s crew played rock and roll. It had no effect. Then they tried Russian folk songs. That stirred the whales a little, but still they would not move. The ship was ready to depart, but Glashka begged them to stay. She just knew music could rescue the whales. Finally, the ship’s crew played classical music. Flowing and melodic classical music. The whales stirred, and began singing back the ship. One swam to the ship, followed by another, and another. Soon all the whales were swimming towards the ship, towards the music. The ship led them back to the safety of open water. Glashka and the villagers were overjoyed. Although this is based on a true story, there is very little mention of it on the internet. Shcuch’s main source material, it seems, are contemporary Soviet newspaper accounts. There is this New York Times article from 1985, in which the author drily reports that “The classical proved most to the taste of the belugas.” Apparently the majesty of this incredible rescue was completely lost on the editors of the Old Grey Lady. But what’s most amazing about this story is that no one has ever said what classical music was played that day. On the last page of the book Steve Schuch asks, “Was it Beethoven? Or Mozart? Or Tchaikovsky? The Soviet newspaper accounts don’t say. That part of the story is still untold.”