Curt Cloninger’s Music Lessons

Music Features


When I was seven and had the chicken pox, my tutor was the Starland Vocal Band, endlessly looping. At age 18, my tutor was Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen,” upstaging every other record on the college radio station shelves—Megadeth, the Butthole Surfers, Jane’s Addiction. Even as I type these words, I’m getting schooled by Nina Gordon’s mosh-pop anthem “Hate Your Way”: “Had to sell my soul but you were so rock and roll / I’m a fool for you.”

The music of my life isn’t just in my head; it’s set in my spirit and rings in my soul. For good or for ill, the damage is done. Like Rich Mullins says of the Truth, “I did not make it / No, it is making me.” So, in a moment of autobiographical exhibitionism, here are some of my most influential musical tutors and what they taught me:

Age 2 | Carpenters — Close to You (1970)
My parents must have worn out the groove on this album. Just like you don’t get to choose your name, you don’t choose the music you listen to when you’re little. And, frankly, I could have been exposed to a lot worse. The combination of Karen’s flat, calm voice and Richard’s hyper-lush arrangements, together with their lyrics, taught me on some fundamental level that this whole ride called life was going to be OK. If “Close to You” promised a sunrise, “We’ve Only Just Begun” guaranteed a brave new world. “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” was so full of cheer and good hope, how could evil triumph? Can anybody post-9/11 listen to this album without a cynical rolling of the eyes? No matter. I was two, it was 1970, the peace got in me—and it can’t be undone. White lace & promises, baby!

Age 8 | James Taylor — JT (1977)
I could have picked any James Taylor album from Mud Slide Slim to Flag, but this one stands out because it’s both confessional and polished, both sad and beautiful. In “There We Are” and “Secret O’ Life,” Taylor dares to place his life and his wife in the context of the entire universe, but he’s not dwarfed because he knows that human existence is pretty darned deep, and human relationships are veritably unfathomable. He sings to Carly Simon, “And though we are as nothing to the stars that shine above, you are my universe, you are my love.” In “Looking for Love on Broadway” and “If I Keep My Heart Out of Sight,” love is a sad-making, tricksy heartbreaker. Still, with that silky string section, those enveloping ninth chords, and the chiming acoustic finger-picking dancing through it all, even the bitterest of bittersweetness can taste wondrously strange. “Try not to try too hard, it’s just a lovely ride.”

Age 10 | Michael Jackson — Off the Wall (1979)
Fifth grade, with all the confusion of puberty coming in on waves like nausea. What better way to dissipate the sexual tension than funk? “There’s a steam beat, and it’s coming after you.” Off the Wall demonstrated that at any given moment, life can erupt into a celebration. Life is no longer smooth and calm; it’s sparking, snare-cracking, and zoot-horn funky. Quincy Jones is at the top of his production game, and Michael can’t sing straight without an irrepressible ejaculation of “eeh’s,” “wooh’s” and “a-heeeeaia’s.” With each new spin of the disc, life shows itself a lot less tame than I ever suspected. That beat beckons—an undeniable double-dog dare that shan’t be denied. And as often I give myself over to the locomotive groove (usually several times per evening), I’m taken for a ride. The groove is a punch-drunk conductor, and I’m hanging on for dear life, shaking that skinny white caboose like a raggedy chew toy! “Keep on with the force, don’t stop! Don’t stop ‘til you get enough!” Whoa! Geez, Mom, doesn’t anybody knock around here? Yes—I already did my homework. OK, OK—I’m turning it down …” (Needle returns to groove.)

Age 11 | Yes — The Yes Album (1971)
Listening to The Yes Album for the first time transported me into some overblown Norse myth, one mapped by Bill Bruford’s ornate drum work at a vertiginously erratic pace. From The Yes Album, I learned that alternate worlds are as near as a pair of over-the-ear, noise-canceling headphones. This music taught me nothing about reality—it transported me out of it. While my peers were watching MTV and listening to Flock of Seagulls, I retreated into the soundscapes of prog rock yesteryear. My ticket to ride wasn’t a tie-dyed magic carpet or a heavy history with hallucinogens, but rather a simple interest in the music and a willingness to familiarize myself with its melancholy intricacies. I reckoned that if this baroque planet existed, there were probably thousands more equally exotic worlds to visit. And off I went to purchase every Yes album from 1969 to 1980.

Age 12 | Adam and the Ants — Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980)
This album has been called pre-New Wave, but at the time, who knew what it was? Posh Euro-dandies dressed up as hybrid Native American/British Redcoats playing fuzzed-out power chords over massive Burundi tribal drum beats … how awesome is that? Who’s heard its like before or since? My friends and I didn’t know where it came from or how to classify it—we just knew it was the coolest thing since early Devo, and we were all over it. Kings of the Wild Frontier proved that the world is laden with strange and quirky possibilities, that something mainstream and accessible can still be completely other. Odd can work, possibly even be desirable. So what if you have to spend half a day at the hair salon to pull it off ? All is forgiven. “And if evil be the food of genius / there aren’t many demons around. / If passion ends in fashion / Nick Kent is the best-dressed man in town.” Word.

Age 14 | R.E.M. — Murmur (1983)
My first band (the ill-monikered George and the Weedeaters) covered half the songs on Murmur. R.E.M. was from Athens, Ga., not too far from our hometown in Southern Alabama. Our guitarist’s big brother had even seen them in concert! Their tunes, though sometimes challenging, were never impossible, and the thrill of playing them live was nothing less than spiritually intoxicating. Murmur taught me that anybody can create brilliance, anywhere, anytime — maybe even me. I didn’t have to live in Los Angeles; I didn’t have to live in the ’60s; I didn’t even have to be that technically proficient. Hope was in season, and mysterious portent lurked within every kudzu-covered culvert of late-20th-century Southern America, as much as anywhere else in the world. Profundity lived in the woods behind my house, and she danced nightly on the dewy grass, dispensing cryptic moonlit wisdom in a barely decipherable Southern drawl. None of us had the slightest idea what Michael Stipe was even singing, much less what the words literally meant. But Murmur proved that you don’t have to say what you mean, as long as you’re able to show how you feel.

Age 15 | Velvet Underground — White Light/White Heat (1967)
Ouch! This was the beginning of the end for me. The more I listened, the more my defenses were assaulted, and gradually I was opened up to a world of noise as music and music as noise that has stalked and thrilled me ever since. White Light / White Heat taught me punk-rock lesson #1: You can get by on sheer guts and attitude, provided you have enough of it. You don’t need a tune, or good production, or good arrangements, or even a lot of time. If the spirit is right and the spirit is pure, it covers a multitude of sins. Abandoning craft altogether might even improve the spirit of a thing. After 17 minutes of “Sister Ray” relentlessly undermining my senses, I was ready to believe anything. White Light / White Heat was a big fat grease-monkey uncle opening the padlock to a vast, forbidden junkyard of rusted, mangled, marvelously multifaceted metal. Nothing I would listen to hereafter would ever seem too noisy. From this point on, there was no out of bounds. “And then I felt my mind split open.” Ouch!

Age 16 | The Jesus and Mary Chain — Psychocandy (1985)
Hüsker Dü — New Day Rising (1985)
Sonic Youth — Bad Moon Rising (1985)

Our R.E.M. cover band eventually acquired a blistering drummer and transformed itself into a punk-rock outfit called Voodoo Bar-B-Q. Hippies had their summer of love; 1985 was my summer of punk. Playing college bars until dawn on weekends, practicing all hours on weekdays, up to our ears in distorted feedback, loving every minute of it. Of all the music we listened to that season, three albums stand out: Psychocandy enshrouded bubblegum pop in a haze of monster distortion; New Day Rising added speed and screaming to the distorted equation. And Bad Moon Rising wallowed in the sheer convoluted bleakness of all things teen. Punk rock lesson #2: Brooding melancholy directed outward at breakneck speed knocks shit down. Punk rock lesson #3 (in the words of Surrealist André Breton): “Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all.”

Age 18 | Big Star — Third/Sister Lovers (1978)
Revelation of revelations!—You can write brilliant pop tunes, sing like an angel, maintain a sense of ethereal irony and still be punk! Punk-rock lesson #4: Punk has nothing to do with distortion, crappy musicianship or hiding behind your bangs. Punk has everything to do with how you approach life. To quote Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips (writing years later), “We have accidentally made a record that is not a response to music that we love or a reaction against music that we hate. Finally, there are no more enemies, and there are no more heroes … just sound.” I’m not obliged to submit to The Man; but neither am I obliged to perpetually stick it to him. I’m finally free of The Man because it’s not about The Man at all—it’s about the music. Yes, approach everything with aplomb and verve, but don’t tread upon the rare and tender moments that inevitably arise. Scrap metal in the rough is no big deal. A diamond at Tiffany’s is no big deal. But a diamond in the rough is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Age 19 | Black Sabbath — Master of Reality (1971)
Metallica — Kill ’Em All (1983)

College: Sewanee, Tenn. On a campus full of tree-hugging neo-hippies, I find myself fronting a speedmetal band called Infinite Scrotum (I’m not making this up). Only now do I realize that all those heavy-metal stoners in high school knew more about angst than I ever suspected. If scattershot punk rock knocks stuff down, tightly focused speedmetal annihilates. Master of Reality taught me that life can be heavy, overblown—even corny—and all the more thrilling because of it. Kill ’Em All humbled me, forcing me to confess my pride and elitism for what it was—a thinly disguised veil of fear that was hindering me from throwing my sorry lot in with the rest of the moshing metal masses. Kill ’Em All — its voice like sandpaper, its breath like nitrogen—counseled me: “The groundlings shall inherit the earth, punk, so dive into the pit and thrash like lightning! In an era full of timid, cynical minimalism, a little overblown baroque passion speaks volumes. Now hit the lights and crank it!”

Age 20 | Arvo Pärt — Tabula Rasa (1977)
Word of Mouth Chorus — Rivers of Delight (1979)

The first Arvo Pärt piece I ever heard was “Fratres.” It was at a Kronos String Quartet concert, and they played it right before the intermission. Halfway through the piece I began weeping uncontrollably, and throughout the entire intermission I couldn’t speak, even when my friends asked me what was wrong. Later that year I heard Sacred Harp singing in a music appreciation class and had the same reaction. Through music, the Creator of heaven and earth had sought me out and was convicting me with sledgehammer blows of relentless mercy. Pärt’s Tabula Rasa sounds like the broken heart of God: resonant and subtle, beautiful and sad—music so elemental that nothing comes through but his shining glory. And the Sacred Harp anthology Rivers of Delight manifests the crushing density of eternity and the deep beyond. “Great God, and wilt Thou condescend / To be my Father and my Friend. / I, a poor child, and thou, so high. / The Lord of earth, and air and sky.”

Age 21 | Keith Jarrett — Köln Concert (1975)
Joni Mitchell — The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)

Keith Jarrett’s live solo-improv grand-piano scheming on Köln Concert still blows me away. In the midst of everything fused and fried, remixed and rehashed, Jarrett’s music stands out like a virgin in a brothel. Lyrical genius crafted on the spot, performed with all the soul and integrity of any authentic Mississippi bluesman you could name. Köln Concert taught me that if you’re good and passionate and pure enough, you can still send the cynics packing. Then Joni Mitchell takes those same jazz scales, so tart and tangy to a recovering headbanger like myself, and creates something even better. How does a Canadian post-hippie manage to fuse Beverly Hills, the Deep South and Africa into a single, unforgettable album? Lyrics like a Rousseau painting, Mitchell’s voice, and jazz–The Hissing of Summer Lawns awakened in me all the dormant promise “We’ve Only Just Begun” had failed to fulfill, but this time hope had her eyes wide open. Life is sweet and wondrous yet again! Cracking its candy-coated surface only reveals an even more alluring layer of shimmering darkness. “Edith and the Kingpin, each with charm to sway, are staring eye to eye. They dare not look away.”

Age 23 | My Bloody Valentine — Loveless (1991)
Loveless is the shiznit, the apex, the pinnacle, the culmination, the fulfillment, the full embodiment, the roaring vortex, and all points in between. It’s been described as the loudest silence ever heard, and I concur. Loveless combines the fuzz of Psychocandy, the ambience of Another Green World, the tunecraft of Third/Sister Lovers, and the heaviness of Master of Reality—all baked into translucent layers of ultraviolet noise. My Bloody Valentine uses distortion not as a metaphor for angst or a badge of alternative honor, but as an intentionally oversized abstract paintbrush. Loveless exhorted me to explore the detritus of life without getting lost in it. It encouraged me to harvest beauty amongst the wreckage, and piece it back together into something new and shining and beautiful.

Age 29 | Radiohead — OK Computer (1997)
Critic David Dark refers to what he calls “the tired gladness” of Radiohead. Theirs is not a throw-in-the-towel cynicism. It’s a yelling-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-as-you-yearn-for-the-truth-to-materialize cynicism. Dark argues that such a stance is best understood as apocalyptic. It’s not that there is no truth, it’s just that this ain’t it yet. OK Computer will not go gentle into that good night. Neither is it some hail-Mary act of desperate bravado. It’s more like an immovable object deflecting all the crap and lies crashing into it and into us, silently hoping beyond hope for the real thing. OK Computer taught me to cry out in prayer for the reclamation of my generation, for the vindication of the Truth, and for the revelation of the Real.

Age 31 | Sigur Rós — Agætis Byrjun (1999)
“Sigur Rós reflect all the breathtaking glory of the Icelandic wastes—a fairy-tale explosion of unhinged elemental majesty that’s finally crystallized here.” “Children will be conceived, wrists will be slashed, scars will be healed, and tears will be wrenched by this group.” “They sound like God weeping tears of gold in heaven.” Any band that can inspire such rhapsodies from mere rock critics is onto something. Agætis Byrjun harkens back to the Druidic realm of The Yes Album while managing to incorporate the crashing noise of the universe that has ensued since. The din from which Enya flees forms the very wings on which Sigur Rós ascends. Yes, the world is fallen, but not beyond redemption. Agætis Byrjun evokes a great kingdom that once was and will be yet again.

Bill Shakespeare gets the last word:

“The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils:
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such be trusted. Mark the music.”

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