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Music Freaks

Just when you thought it was safe to listen to a tune, here come the...



“Sure. It sounds like fun. No one else listens to my music.”

The response over the phone is cordial, but slightly cautious. It’s not every day that you get a call from a stranger who wants to come over to your house and listen to music. But Aaron Hansen, a 25-year-old student who used to work in the adventure travel business, is used to adventure. This is small-time stuff.

“It’s funny, because I don’t really listen to a whole lot anymore. Sometimes I think I’m so picky about music that I don’t even listen to my own collection,” he says.

His living room is pat, tucked and clean. Asian statues and murals dot and drape the room where a lazy dog reclines on the sofa. Hansen’s listening chair sits next to the stereo and his array of vinyl LPs and a stack of CDs, over which the John Coltrane catalogue looms large. With a ginger, studied touch, Hansen pulls out five vinyl LPs.

“I don’t really have a lot, do I? It’s pretty moderate, really,” he says, almost in defense.

By moderate, he means about 150 vinyl LPs and about the same number of CDs, give or take.

The receiver’s on. The turntable is ready. It’s show time. His first selection is the electro-acoustic music of Iannis Xenakis, a Greek avant-garde composer who strove to free music from any expected course. It seems a willfully obscure choice. The music tumbles out of the speakers like a xylophone and snare drum trapped in a spin dryer. But Hansen himself is not willfully obscure. This is of genuine interest to him.

“It’s all a representation of math, I guess. But it’s the kind of stuff I’m into at the moment. I think this is one of the coolest records I’ve come across, then I’ve got stuff like this,” he says, pulling out LPs by Faster Pussycat, Bang Tango and other assorted ’80s hair-band-heavy-metal records.

There’s a yellow vinyl pressing of Bad Brains’ debut record. A John Denver sleeve. Baroque music. A bevy of 20th century avant-garde and modernist classical LPs. Steering toward the mainstream, Hansen admits owning a CD copy of Radiohead’s OK Computer. Then there’s a slew of soundtracks: The Shining, Altered States, A Clockwork Orange, Planet of the Apes. Hansen likes scary music. Stuff that he says might “bite your head off,” but definitely “rearranges expectations.”

If he yearns for the sentimental, the music ought to remind him of his youth. A Styx record, maybe. He remembers high school, a time when kids drew lines in the sand and chose social circles, based on rock tunes. You had to choose your camp wisely. Now, the free reign of being an adult is so refreshing.

“Before I got married, music was really a part of my life,” he offers with a trace of nostalgia. “My wife just puts up with it. It’s hard to even talk about it when you hang out with friends. It’s hard to share things even with them, because they’re all about their own music that they listen to.”

There’s an important distinction between hearing and listening. As French critic Roland Barthes so distinctly put it, “Hearing is a physiological phenomenon, listening is a psychological act.” Listening to music doesn’t entail a lot of action, but there’s a whole lot going on inside the brain.

Hansen speaks in a casual tone that belies his vast music expertise. As a topic, he could turn music on its head, pull it inside out, turn it around, shake it, and still never arrive at anything wholly satisfactory. Figuratively, he could give it an autopsy. To clear his head, he’s even gone through extended periods of silence. But he always comes back to music. “It’s always a part of me,” he says.

“Music,” Beethoven once said, “is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” For many, that’s true enough. More than one person has said they’ve felt the gates of heaven open whilst listening to the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Music is good for a lot more than the sublime.

Music is pleasure. Music is dreams. Music is good for dancing. Music is fun. Music is seduction.

But if music can be so many different things, what is it? These days, it’s everywhere. On the radio, on your stereo, in the bank or grocery store, on your alarm clock when you wake up. But for an art form as all-pervasive as it is, music rarely gets a spotlight under the microscope of analysis. Like certain parts of our bodies—an arm, leg or finger—we take it for granted. But when something goes wrong with it, when something’s out of key, we pay attention to it almost immediately. Music is a force that’s easier to react to than it is to explain or analyze.

Consider our nation’s recent spate of school shootings. After the Columbine High School tragedy, pundits asked, “What did the killers listen to?” Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold preferred Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails to Mozart. Andy Williams, the 15-year-old who allegedly killed two and injured 13 of his classmates at a high school near San Diego, listened to the “Mook” music of Limp Bizkit. The latest installment in generational name-tagging, a Mook is that young teenage male, usually with bleached-blonde hair and tattoos, who’d rather take a dump on your front lawn than follow society’s mores. And he’d rather listen to Eminem than his parents.

So let’s blame the music. And let’s keep it in line. John Lennon was obviously out of line when he compared the Beatles’ impact to Jesus Christ. So right-wingers took to the streets and burned the band’s records. Or perhaps they just couldn’t stand the sight of their daughters listening to Beatles music, shaking and screaming in fits of pent-up sexual frustration at the sight of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

America’s rigid old guard predicted that the beat of rock ’n’ roll, “black music,” would ensnare youth into dens of sin and iniquity. Beats and rhythm are part of ancient fertility rites, the Southern preachers bellowed. And it’s to a beat that young women realize their sexuality! After all, classical composers such as Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf succumbed to syphilis.

Even in the 21st century, people worry about music’s effects without ever bothering to explain why it is that we should all show concern. Florida prosecutors called out the police over 2 Live Crew. At a recent conference, the LDS church warned against all-night “raves” of dancing. “Backmasking,” or playing records backwards for hidden messages, was one of the ’70s’ sillier exercises, along with pet rocks. Concern was rampant. As ludicrous as it sounds today, parents were convinced that heavy metal music was Satan’s tool. Just look at Charles Manson. After listening to “Helter Skelter” one too many times, he and his “family” smeared the title onto walls with the blood of their victims. Like most fears, that too was overstated. Society still stands. Heavy metal music now seems like one of the ’80s’ sillier exercises, along with Ronald Reagan.

All we can really be sure of is music’s power to move us. Sometimes we expect even more of it. Rock music is now considered a respected cultural arena. When people study the ’60s, they study Bob Dylan. For a while it was thought that listening to Mozart might raise the IQ as much as 10 points. Parents rushed to buy CDs titled Build Your Baby’s Brain Through the Power of Music.

If we really want to learn about music, why not ask the people consumed by it, who make it a central part of their lives, those daring enough to hazard a few guesses about the mysteries it holds. Want to know about cars? Ask a mechanic. Curious about particle physics? Ask a professor. How does music fit into the grand scheme of human consciousness? Ask a music freak.

“When a man abandons himself to music, “Plato pronounced in The Republic, “he begins to melt and liquefy.” Plato never had the benefit of meeting Aaron Hansen.

“I think music really isn’t all that special,” Hansen says. “Music doesn’t have to be anything. There are a lot of times when I feel that music isn’t necessary.”

So much for melting.

“Some people I know think about it way too much. There’s times when I want to sell it all and not listen to music. It becomes so complicated. It shouldn’t be that way.”

The danger in getting too close to the object of your desire is that you might understand it too well. Maybe the mystery fades. Maybe you get bored. But the apprentice keeps coming back to the mentor. Hansen is a musician, a tenor saxophonist and member of the Iceburn Collective, a free jazz ensemble better known outside of Salt Lake City than in its hometown.

Hansen fell under the spell, along with many others, to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by way of the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange. Then it was a detour into rock. Bang Tango, an LA “hair band” circa 1989, was a first love of sorts. They sported purple hair, a quirk that endeared Hansen to their aura. For a while, Hansen even dressed to match. But he chose blue hair. He flirted with long, buttonless dress shirts tucked into the pants. “I remember getting really painful nipples in the winter,” Hansen recalls.

Parting ways with all that, he gave a big hello to jazz—free, riotous, avant-garde jazz. He’s driven all the way to Oakland to hear a concert by avant-sax guru Anthony Braxton. Working at a dry cleaner years ago, he played John Zorn records on the sound system. It was difficult, intractable stuff with little in the way of conventional rhythm or melody. “People could feel the tension in the air when they walked in. I could feel it in myself. It became really interesting after a while,” he remembers.

“People are programmed to avoid confrontation. Some music forces you into thinking. I have nothing against music as entertainment. But I like music that puts a different spin on something.”

Hansen is better off describing what music is not than what it is. Music is not as large as life. Music is not more important than family. (Hansen has a stepson, Simon.) Music is private, though, a quality that almost makes him nervous talking about it in too much depth.

“It’s kind of embarrassing to talk about your music as if it’s really important,” he says. “You listen to something when you’re in a mood. If it’s a bad mood and you listen to music to get you through, it’s like talking with your dad. You put on something that understands you. But music’s on a different level than life. There are events in life, then there are things you do while you’re listening to music.”

It’s a reserved, rational perspective. Take yourself and your passions too seriously, and you risk coming across as the passionate, obstinate music geek. Hansen is not a geek. He’s cool. But not averse to entertaining the thought that he might be a music snob.

A synchronized piece for cello and electronic sounds by Mario Davidovsky percolates in the background, rising to Hansen’s own thoughts. It’s a great soundtrack to the conversation.

“The good thing about being a music snob is that it saves you money. If you weren’t looking for something in particular you’d have to buy everything, wouldn’t you?” he posits.

Our next willfully obscure tune is also willfully humorous: Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo in C Minor, as performed by Bruno Hoffman on the glass harmonica. That’s glass harmonica, as in an arrangement of crystal wine glasses played with moist fingertips. Purists would guffaw. But as the wine glasses ring out, you have to remind yourself of Hansen’s crucial point: It’s about rearranging expectations.

Through all of the ’80s and most of the ’90s, Bill Goldsmith ran his Discriminator Music shop in Sugar House with the kind of care and passion most people reserve for a close friend. It served a circle of loyal customers small enough to know one another. Although the word is usually reserved for pop culture phenomena, his store was “a scene.” And Goldsmith’s vast knowledge of classical inspired deep confidence. A customer once gave Goldsmith $4,000, then asked him to assemble a music library dictated solely by his expertise.

Large, column-like speakers tower over two adjacent corners of Goldsmith’s living room. At another wall, large oak shelves heave under the weight of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of vinyl LPs. A tie-dyed banner, a gift from his Deadhead son, hangs from the ceiling at a spot marking entry into another small room. A dusky sunlight beams through windows. There’s a fecund, almost damp sense about these environs. A sense of earnest graciousness permeates it. Goldsmith quietly enters with a tray of coffee and cookies.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., he speaks with the kind of robust pronunciations the borough is famous for, but without the clichéd, exaggerated accent most film actors end up with. Moving from New York to Utah for school, he almost completed a Ph.D. in counseling psychology before taking a job at the Granite Mental Health Center. After ten years as a shrink, he opened his store. It’s hardly surprising, then, that many of his comments are colored by psychological analogies. Faced with competition from the Internet and retail music clubs, he closed his store four years ago, but still maintains a consulting service for classical junkies. Goldsmith is sometimes frighteningly articulate, never overbearing, and polite when disagreeing. Rock music, for example, is little more than sugar in his gas tank.

“It may well be that I’m an anachronism,” he begins. “My son sent me a 10-video set on the history of rock music. I found it absolutely fascinating as sociology, anthropology and cultural history but only occasionally fascinating as music. How can I explain it? In some cultures, people eat insects.”

Like Hansen, his first taste was through Beethoven. Unlike Hansen, it was the Fifth Symphony. All of it. Not just the all-familiar opening. It immediately enriched his life. One record turned into 10. Ten turned into 100. One hundred records turned into hundreds.

“These are not icons to be worshipped. They are tools to be used,” he says, looking toward his collection. “I don’t prize them as items. They’re simply the best way to experience music. If you wait for live concerts, you’ll never hear much. What this wall represents is someone’s experience with music. There’s a very personal history in the collection.”

His “collection” is a pathway to communion with some of the greatest creative forces the world’s ever known, he explains. In real life, we meet others in a random manner. If we’re lucky, we meet the right people at the right time. Music enthusiasts, by contrast, pick from a limited pool of candidates by choice. Then, through studious, passionately engaged listening, grow to know those composers intimately. It’s a relationship between listener and creator that transcends almost any barrier you’d care to name.

Because it’s a relationship, music is also therapy. In fact, it’s therapy on at least two levels. Obviously, it’s a source of spiritual solace or support. It’s an alternative to human relationships when they aren’t going well. “A balm for loneliness,” as Goldsmith calls it. “Music serves very well for people who meet it half way.”

To get to the second level, we must go all the way. Let’s say we divide music into two types. There is “representational music,” which hangs on a thematic or dramatic foundation. A Wagner opera is a good example. Pop songs also qualify, because they all have lyrics and titles that reveal their emotional direction. “Pure music,” is different. It’s music, and music alone. The best available examples are probably the fugues and preludes of Bach. No subtext fills up their spaces. The listener is left to decide what each piece means, if “meaning” is the right word. Therein lies the higher, more complex, realm of therapy. Like a Rorschach ink blot test, listeners must identify meanings for themselves.

“You can get yourself into very deep, interesting water when you’re trying to make assumptions as to what you’re supposed to feel,” Goldsmith explains. “Is it the music, or is it you? With pure music, the imagination has free reign. You have to check and see that your neighbor’s feeling the same thing.”

Nick Hornby posed the same sort of question in his best-selling book, High Fidelity. Did his main character listen to pop songs of heartbreak and despair because he was depressed and lonely, or was he depressed and lonely because he listened to songs of heartbreak and despair? Just who’s in control here? If you think that’s a valid question, we’ve essentially opened up the possibility that music is a drug of sorts, a narcotic built on vibrations.

But if music is largely sensation, Goldsmith is the first to realize that music isn’t fail-safe. It can be quicksand. Plato held a deep distrust of music, and all the arts, because they were largely imitations of a changing, material reality, not permanent, higher forms of knowledge. Goldsmith concedes that—to a point. Even when music has a message, no one can be sure it will be successfully, correctly received. Many classical music buffs well remember conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler’s legendary March 1942 recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in front of a Nazi audience in Berlin. The irony was grotesque. Here was a piece of music dedicated to the brotherhood of man offered to a room of warmongering murderers. Needless to say, they didn’t get the message. Furtwangler tried, producing what many consider the most anguished, furious reading of the symphony ever. He still fell short.

“How is the abuse of music any different from burning heretics in the name of religion?” Goldsmith asks. “Music is not good in and of itself. There is pornography in music, just as there’s pornography in literature. Although I’d be opposed to the censorship of music or literature there’s no doubt that, in music as in life, people will seek their own level. But it’s not the fault of music, whether debased or exalted, it’s the choice of people who are abusing it.”

Oddly enough, Goldsmith opts not to play any music at all during conversation. There’s silence between words. He’s comfortable with that. At 62, he gives the impression of someone who’s had his fill—of music, and labels such as music obsessive, music freak or music snob. Snobs impose their taste on others. The word “obsessive” brings out the former psychologist in him.

“Obsessive-compulsive is a personality disorder. The key element is control, which applies to any realm of pleasure. Let’s call it a less pejorative term: the enthusiast. Part of the excitement of life is finding something you can become truly absorbed in.”

People might look at the shelves of records on his living room wall and disagree. But they can’t really. For it’s obvious that Goldsmith has it all under control. Everything’s ordered. After listening to so much music, he can imagine doing things differently but he wouldn’t choose to. He briefly discusses the autographed portrait of Leonard Bernstein hanging on his wall.

“I believe he once said, ‘Everyone can respond to music,’” says Goldsmith. “But he was an optimist.”

With Jenny Thomas, a woman in her late twenties, we reach that most common species of music freak, the indie or alternative rocker.

These are the people most likely to obsess about a certain period in the history of rock music: London in 1977 with The Clash and the Sex Pistols; New York City’s CBGB Club in the mid ’70s; Seattle circa 1991; the “Northern Soul” ’60s era of Detroit Motown; the early ’70s “Krautrock” bands of Dusseldorf and Cologne, Germany. They’re also the most likely to get into the “big arguments.” Did American bands invent punk, or was it the British? Is Trent Reznor the real deal or an industrial music poseur who refuses to take his Prozac? Out of The Falls’ nearly 100 records, which is the best?

Thomas knows these arguments. She’s had these arguments. At her high school she debated—for real—the question of whether punk rock was a more legitimate music form than heavy metal. Her pivotal argument: Punk was more closely aligned to the protest music of the ’60s, therefore more socially relevant.

“I won. People voted on it,” Thomas recalls with pride. “But I realize that arguing like that becomes less fruitful as you grow older. You just have to let it be. If people aren’t willing to open their ears, or if they listen to Dave Matthews, I can’t help them there.”

That’s one of many digs at Matthews that Thomas offers. Her living room is so darkly lit it could pass for a candle-lit restaurant. Incense burns in the corner. A black cat meanders across a sea of carpet and the islands of a futon, easy chair and, of course, a generous CD rack.

“I’d be at a loss without these. When I walk in here and see this, it’s affirming. All this. It’s where I can go if I want to.”

The punishment for anyone who dares abscond with her collection? “That person should be forced to listen to Dave Matthews,” she says jokingly. But she says it with such force there’s little doubt that she could be completely, utterly serious.

Thomas has enough listening years under her belt to make her opinion count. Bluntly put, she knows her shit. She has a master’s degree in pop culture from the University of Wisconsin. She’s DJ’d for community and college radio stations. She writes freelance criticism for web sites.

In terms of family, you could call Thomas blessed. She had that crucial link to good rock, the older brother with all the right tunes. Mom listened to The Beatles’ Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. “Those were the first albums that let me get inside my own head,” she remembers.

A quick learner, she found her own identity early on, both as a music freak and a woman. First record at age 15: The Go-go’s. First concert at age 15: Roxy Music at the Oakland Coliseum. And by the way, that bit about her identity as a woman is no small matter. More than one person has sought to explain the differences between how men and women collect music. Men assemble their music in a more mechanistic fashion, utilizing critics’ lists, magazine recommendations and guides, while women simply follow their hearts. Or, so says the cliché. Cast back to Hansen’s collection, which stretches from Bang Tango to the glass harmonica, and the cliché is shattered. Thomas flat-out rejects it. But she suspects that, for men, size does matter. “I would say that, for guys, quantity is definitely more important,” she says.

Let’s just say that society’s expectations count. For all of rock music’s supposed “radical” elements, women are still largely discouraged from participation. “Most women will go to concerts with their boyfriend, sometimes with friends. But you don’t see a whole lot of single women at concerts who’re there just to check out the band,” she notes. “Women who do that—we’re the rebels in the crowd.”

Only years ago, there was big media to-do about women in rock, with Courtney Love and Liz Phair assuming the spotlight. Lately, the turn has been toward misogynist tendencies. Eight rapes were reported following Woodstock ’99. Eminem denigrates his mother and girlfriend in his songs, and Fred Durst does it “for the nookie.” Once again, music’s an extremely weak tool for imposing ideals onto society. People on the left naively believe music can maybe, just maybe, mobilize change. Why else did Rage Against the Machine yell so loudly? Meanwhile, people on the right naively believe music is responsible for certain behaviors. Neither assertion holds. But, paradoxically, few deny music’s power.

“Music’s a powerful thing, but it’s not directly responsible for anything,” Thomas says. “But it definitely shapes the consciousness. I remember [film director] Quentin Tarantino talking about how even before he wrote a script, he’d rifle his record collection to find the spirit and sequence of his movie.”

PJ Harvey’s latest LP plays at medium volume while she pauses for the next sentence. Not surprisingly, the music takes over her attention. The song that does it is a duet between Harvey and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. Chef-like, Thomas kisses her fingertips in obvious delight. “Ah yes, the duet!” she says.

Life without music? Forget about it. “Oh, my God. Let’s not talk about that. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for music. I can’t imagine being here without it. A lot of people can. That’s incredible to me. If people don’t have a craving for it I just don’t get them. I definitely see them as inferior. No wait, I wouldn’t say that. Talk about a snob! No, I take it back. Let’s just say that for me music gets top billing.”

As store manager for Graywhale CD, Derek Fonnesbeck knows a music freak when he sees one. And he knows the music snob from the music freak. The snob is someone who amasses music knowledge for the sake of making an impression, and for the sake of maintaining a stylish, up-to-date demeanor through calculated music purchases.

Fonnesbeck’s even identified and labeled the genre most likely to fall under the music snob radar. He calls them, “The Cranky Bands.” Bands such as Labradford and Low.

“Sometimes If I haven’t heard of a title some 16-year-old asks for, it’s as if my credibility has gone down the toilet,” Fonnesbeck laments. “I really had a falling out with some types of indie and alternative music scenes. Music should be about affecting people instead of amassing obscure knowledge designed only to impress people. I think that’s why so much music today doesn’t make you feel anything. It’s just posturing.”

Enter Gareth Allen, every CD store’s ideal customer. It’s not that Allen is in the store so often, although he used to visit Graywhale five days a week. It’s that Allen has such an unabashed mission—no, let’s call it a burning, raging quest—to find and listen to every great tune before he dies.

“Allen is definitely into it for all the right reasons,” says Fonnesbeck.

Dressed in a poncho and black pants, and with long brown tresses beneath a weathered hat, Allen checks the latest stacks with a slow hand and a quick eye. He almost seems to hold his breath when an important discovery is made. This 44-year-old man, who openly admits that the best music makes him teary-eyed, has a gruffy kind of charm.

“If music didn’t exist?” he asks, rephrasing that terrifying, impossible question. “I think I’d spend a lot of time in therapy. People untouched by music—I feel sorry for them. I really do. I don’t mean that in a nasty way. Music touches things nothing else can touch. It’s there for a reason.”

He’s loath to pigeonhole his own taste, which ranges from folk to heavy metal. But at the moment his big love is Gothic music. Call it “dark wave” if you like. Allen’s traveled as far as Chicago for a Gothic music convention. That kind of music is a long way from the small vinyl 45s his father bought by the score. Those small discs were his introduction to collecting.

Arguments about the merits of certain music aren’t his territory. The same goes for any overt theorization about music’s nature. You get the feeling that he’s too overwhelmed, too respectful of his passion, to give any of that the time of day. To understand why, listen and watch as he performs with his Gothic trio, Death Through Grace. They make quiet, almost prayer-like music. The band’s recent performance at a Sugar House coffee shop stopped short of turning into a religious ceremony. The singer carried on with an entombed moan. The drummer made do with a spare tom-tom and his own hands. Allen caressed his double-neck guitar, tugging dirge-like harmonies from the core of the band’s collective psyche. Even if you don’t like this music, you gotta be touched the band’s wrought sincerity.

Days after the concert, it’s obvious that this is a man who’s found his own sense of inner peace and refuge. All the extraneous explanations slip away. Allen’s contentment with music almost approaches the child-like.

“I might be a rich man right now, if I’d spent my time differently,” he says, nursing a mocha in a coffee shop. “But this is where my heart is. I wouldn’t be true to myself if I’d done it any differently. That’s the bottom line.”