I’m thrilled to offer this wonderful essay by Ron Bachman, whose “writing bio” appears at the end, in which he is far too modest. Besides being a wonderful editor and insightful human being (or is it an insightful editor and a wonderful human being? Either way…), Ron has written professionally for public television. —BetsyG
It started with Grease.
It was the summer of 1978, and the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John movie was throbbing the hearts of teenage girls across the country. Riding the crest (or perhaps sustaining the life) of that peculiar 1970s obsession with the 1950s, the movie’s soundtrack was inescapable on the radio, not to mention in our house, where it had found its way into the hands of my younger sister, who played the record constantly.
While it wasn’t my kind of music—I was seriously in thrall to Billy Joel and Elton John at the time—it didn’t particularly bother me. “You’re the One That I Want,” after all, is ear candy of a pretty high order. No, what really got under my 19-year-old skin was an album she’d unearthed containing original ’50s tunes of the sort that inspired the musical. That record blighted her turntable nearly as frequently as the movie soundtrack, and it was perhaps the first time I realized that so-called “classic” rock and pop tunes had the power to shrivel my ears.
My loathing for those songs was rooted in a basic concept: they represented an era before my time on earth, and they sounded hopelessly old-fashioned and corny to me. Unlike some teenagers, who categorically reject the music of the previous generation on principle, I had no parental associations with this particular music; my mom and dad gravitated toward pre-rock pop singers like Doris Day and Perry Como. So I didn’t reject Grease-y ’50s music out of some hormonal impulse for youthful rebellion. I simply despised “Teen Angel” and its sappy ilk, and I tried my best to avoid the stuff.
It wasn’t until a few years later, though, that the concept of “oldies” started to acquire the more insidious overtones I now associate with the word. I moved to Boston in the mid-’80s, and, somewhat intimidated by a city that was considerably larger than the Pennsylvania town I grew up in, I gave up my car in favor of public transportation. This meant that when I visited my parents, I had to borrow one of their cars. I usually drove my dad’s Plymouth station wagon, whose only music source was an AM radio. This limited my listening choices to three formats: news, religion, and oldies. I opted for the latter as the least of three evils.
During one Christmas week I managed to hear the Elton John song “Daniel” nearly every time I got in the car. This was disturbing on several levels. First, by this time I had moved beyond my Elton John fixation of the ’70s. Second, it struck me, in a way it never had before, that oldies radio stations had rigid playlists just as contemporary rock stations did. I found this galling. With the entire history of rock music to draw upon, the best they could manage was to play “Daniel” incessantly? Most disturbing of all to me was that a song that had been a hit not much earlier in my life had now inexplicably become an “oldie.” I was still in my twenties! How could this have happened?
And that was the true beginning of my allergy to music nostalgia. As the songs of my youth entered the twilight zone of oldiehood, I resisted getting sucked into the vortex with them. Even now, at the age of 49, I’m unspeakably depressed by people who listen chiefly to the same music they enjoyed in high school or college. When I was in Pennsylvania this past Thanksgiving, my sister told me that a few days earlier she had found my brother-in-law dragging their old turntable upstairs to his home office. When she asked why, he said, “So I can listen to my old Kansas records.” As an erstwhile fan of Kansas and their prog-rock brethren myself—and you have no idea how much it pains me to admit that—I thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.” (I’m not above being an enabler, though. For Christmas, I got my brother-in-law a “Best of Kansas” CD, to liberate him from his turntable.)
The upshot of all this is that through much of my adult life I’ve invested an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money striving almost obsessively to keep abreast of new music, and the urge only gets stronger as I get older. This isn’t some misguided and pathetic attempt to be hip. (Well, maybe a little, but my very use of the word “hip” proves that I’ll never qualify.) It’s mostly driven by a genuine, insatiable appetite for fresh music and a desire to discover my next favorite band. But if I’m going to be honest, I also have to admit that it’s motivated, at least a little, by a fear of sinking into a morass of nostalgia from which there is no return.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not categorically opposed to nostalgia in all its forms. In fact, I’m quite willing to indulge it in other ways. Last summer, I tracked down a long out-of-print book entirely because I had fond memories of it from junior high school and wanted to reread it. (It was an obscure science fiction novel called The Mercy Men by Alan E. Nourse, if you must know.) I have also succumbed to the urge to buy DVD collections of TV shows I loved as a kid (Wild Wild West, anyone?).
But music is different somehow, because it sinks its roots more deeply into your psyche, especially when you’re young and impressionable. It gets more primally entangled with the intense emotions of adolescence and young adulthood, so that it’s impossible to hear certain songs without conjuring up vivid memories of associated events, relationships, or periods in your life. I have fond memories of reading The Mercy Men because its story stimulated my sixth-grade imagination, but Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” trumps it on emotional grounds because its lyrics contain—astoundingly, to my fevered teenage mind—a reference to a couple whose names were the same as mine and the girl I was dating when the song was on the charts. When you’re a teenager, that sort of synchronicity inspires epic thoughts about love, fate, and destiny.
I should pause here to make two important distinctions. First, I don’t mean to suggest that a song is inherently evil simply because it’s old. A good song is a good song, regardless of its vintage, and my music collection contains pop, rock, jazz, and blues tunes spanning 70 years or more. Second, just because a song is old doesn’t mean it’s an “oldie.” There is no one-size-fits-all definition of an oldie, because it depends entirely on your personal point of reference. But for purposes of this discussion, I’ll decree that for a song to qualify as an oldie for you, it must be one you were familiar with when it first became popular, and especially one that has enduring emotional resonance for you.
It’s that last sort you really have to watch out for, the songs that come weighted with memory-igniting emotional baggage, the suitcase bombs of pop music. The quality of the music is irrelevant. There are some classic albums I still like decades after their release, but I can’t bring myself to listen to them because they’re too closely entwined with memories of my youth. In my senior year of high school, I listened endlessly to two records that have since come to be regarded as classics: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and the Eagles’ Hotel California. Objectively I recognize these works as models of well-crafted, durable, pop songwriting. I even own the CD of Rumours, purchased to replace my long-gone vinyl version on the theory that this little slice of pop perfection belonged in the collection of any music connoisseur worthy of the name. But I haven’t listened to it once, because I can’t hear it without being mentally transported back to 1977.
You could be forgiven for assuming that I have bad memories of 1977, but nothing could be further from the truth, which is a bit more complicated. I picture my life dividing neatly into two halves, demarcated by my move to Boston in 1984. Because I believe my horizons would have remained much more constricted had I stayed in my small and very conservative Pennsylvania hometown, the memories of my life there sometimes don’t seem to belong to the person I’ve become. My resistance to music that evokes memories of those years is not rooted in specific associations that I’d prefer not to dredge up. Rather, the music conjures up a vision of what might have been—or more precisely, what might not have been—had I stayed there. In Boston, I’ve had opportunities and experiences my hometown could never offer, and if I’d remained home, I most likely would’ve ended up living a life much like my parents’. It’s a fine life for them, but the one I’ve made for myself suits me better. And so Rumours remains on the shelf, a fondly-regarded but mute memento of the road not taken. “Go Your Own Way,” indeed.
But it goes deeper than that. As I see it, giving in to the nostalgic impulse is a form of wishful thinking. It’s a desire to escape into the past, an attempt to deny the ineluctable fact that with each passing day you’re getting older, and as the years fly by with increasing speed, so too does the chance of realizing your unfulfilled dreams before the inevitable end. The tunes you’ve listened to over the years are potent markers of time’s passage. As your life progresses, more songs qualify as oldies, accumulating into a pile that grows and grows until it looms over you, blanketing you in its shadow. Yes, that one, as in “valley of the shadow of death.”
The irony, of course, is that listening to music is as life-affirming an experience as we can ever know, and I, for one, will keep at it as long as I live, my ears always open for fresh, exciting songs that thrill my soul in the way that only good music can. But I recognize that my anti-nostalgia obsession with seeking out the next new sound may well be, on some fundamental level, an attempt to outrun the Grim Reaper. A futile exercise, no doubt, and perhaps one day I’ll just throw up my hands and pop Rumours in the CD player on permanent repeat. But until that time, I can’t help longing for the days when nostalgia was something I still looked forward to.
Ron Bachman lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he shares a home with the manuscript of his unpublished novel. In his mind, he is a popular author of beloved books that have earned him a following of nubile groupies who’ve dubbed themselves “Bachmaniacs.” In reality, he works at a television station, where he has no groupies but can occasionally convince colleagues to talk to him if they are bored and he offers them cookies. He does not own a cat, but if he did he would call it “Rover,” for reasons he refuses to disclose but which may be rooted in a seventh-grade biology experiment gone horribly wrong. He happily accepts dinner invitations and promises to arrive with a signed note from his doctor attesting to his complete recovery from a fixation with sharp objects. Right now he is wondering why you are still reading this when you should be calling your mother.