'Read With Me' Author Explores The Impact Of Music

Jun 19, 2017

"Every human being is an archeological site. What passes for roots is actually a matter of sediment, of accretion, of chance and juxtaposition."

This quotation from writer and critic Luc Sante is a subtle prompt for us to dig into our own past for clues about meaningful experiences.

For NIU Professor Joe Bonomo, that "archeological site" is littered with music.

Bonomo is an award-winning rock-and-roll author. His latest essay collection, Field Recordings from the Inside, is our Read with Me selection for June.

Throughout his book, Bonomo revisits vinyl records, turntables and other artifacts, exploring how their content intersects with key memories. The opening essays include scenes from his suburban childhood.

The time? The 1970s. The place? Wheaton, Md.

The music? The Beatles. 10cc. Cheap Trick -- to name just a few.

Bonomo is fascinated by how music "can soundtrack our lives" without our realizing it, especially during our teen and pre-teen years.

"I'm especially interested in those moments when we hear a song and we can't quite catch up to its meaning," the author said. "It can feel profound, it can feel mysterious, frightening, but also joyous and sexy; but you can't find the language to articulate it -- and yet it matters to you. That's what really blows my mind."

Bonomo's book highlights numerous songs that are forever linked to specific memories. Other songs, like 10cc's "I'm Not in Love," raise questions -- followed by more questions. The author was nine when he first heard this 1975 hit. He describes the almost hypnotic effect of the overdubbed harmonies, the soft muttering of a Fender organ, and whispering acoustic guitars. In front of this lush wall of sound we hear the narrator's voice, and something's not quite right:

There's tension in the deceptively sweetly-sung lyric: self-absorbed, defensive sentiments threaten to pop the bubble of that ethereality, casual but controlling barbs insisting that the singer's detached, too uncaring to be in love, that your photo's only covering a stain on the wall, you'll wait a long time for me and if I call you don't make a fuss and don't tell your friends. Is that 10cc's game? Subverting the dream with cool indifference? Nothing so ghostly gorgeous can last long when, beneath it all, there's an insecure man threatening to destroy it ... I knew what "I'm Not in Love" was about, when I couldn't possibly have known. More: I understood the tensions and psychologies among the callousness of the words, the icy distance in the vocals, the dreaminess of the melody and arrangement -- before I could understand such grown-up things.

The medium for discovering music also can shape how we remember it. For Bonomo it was LPs, 45s and cassettes, followed by CDs. And, always, there was radio. His family listened to Casey Kasem's weekly Top 40 broadcast on WPGC-FM in Washington, D.C. As a student at the University of Maryland, Bonomo had access to an entire library of music while a deejay at campus station WMUC-FM.

Still, if he liked a song he had to remember the title or artist -- or write it down -- and then search for it. Today's music fan can use an app to know the title and artist in seconds and then download the song. In his book, Bonomo acknowledges this is a game-changer; but he suggests we also lose something. In an interview with WNIJ, the author recounts a decade-long search for a song he first heard on WHFS 102.3 FM in Bethesda, Md.

"It was a free-form radio station, and the afternoon deejay -- a guy named Weasel -- was a profound influence on my music tastes," Bonomo said. "One of the songs he used to play was a version of the Flamin' Groovies' 'Shake Some Action,' by Charlie Pickett and the Eggs." Pickett's band recorded this song in the early 1980s at a club called The Button in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"And I searched in every record store for it -- literally from coast to coast during my travels," Bonomo said. "I finally, in desperation, took out an ad in the back of Goldmine magazine essentially begging anyone who had a copy of this album to record it for me."

The ad took four to six weeks to appear, which was typical in the early 1990s. "Then it took another two months for someone to contact me," Bonomo said. "He turned out to be a record-store owner who was at that show and had the record." The man taped it for himself and sent the album, which Bonomo says took another four to six weeks.

"Now, that album I absolutely cherished," Bonomo said, "not only because of that song which I wanted to own but because of the lengths it took to arrive in my hands -- literally half a year."

Such long waits are history thanks to mobile apps like Shazam, which allow users to record a few seconds of music and buy the song almost instantly. Nevertheless, Bonomo says younger fans will create their own stories about musical discoveries, regardless of how they hear the songs. He expects today's listeners -- like he did -- will share their experiences, in part, by reminiscing about technology.

"A kid who's growing up now listening to music mostly on YouTube or streaming will likely become nostalgic for that way of listening as she grows into adulthood," he said. "Streaming is going to be replaced by something in the future, and she'll miss -- and probably value very highly, maybe disproportionately so -- the ways that she and her generation listened to music; and she might come to prize that old way of listening, or at least have great affection for it."

AP photo of a girl at a Beatles concert (1966).

Bonomo's essays aren't all inspired by songs. One, "Beatles Girl," springs from a photograph he saw in a book. In the video below, Bonomo recalls how this photo of a teenage girl prompted more questions than answers.

Joe Bonomo blogs about music and nostalgia at No Such Thing As Was. Field Recordings from the Inside (Soft Skull Press) is his seventh book.

Next month, our Read With Me series turns to science fiction with Aaron J. Lawler's novel, The Marvelous Paracosm of Fitz Faraday and the Shapers of the Id. As always, we welcome your comments about our featured authors in the space below.

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