In Sean Wilsey's brilliant and exhilarating memoir, Oh! The Glory of It All, there's a passage wherein Sean and his high-school chums — tucked away in a bucolic Italian town — dance to all that is available to them, which is next to nothing: 1950s bubble gum and early '60s pop. He specifically cites the horrific Cyrkle tune (penned by Paul Simon) "Red Rubber Ball." I'd like to note that there are actually two rubber-ball songs from that era, and that they both suck. The aforementioned song contains the line, "The morning sun is shining like a red rubber ball," while the Bobby Vee tune goes, "Like a rubber ball, I'll come bouncing back to you." Great, so one's chorus conjures an apocalyptic dawn and the other a jaunty stalker.
In the Glory passage to which I refer, Wilsey and his friends — due to isolation and circumstance — find a way to embrace the song. But it reminded me that there are certain periods of music to which I can't quite relate.
During my more fervent record-hunting days, I picked up a lot of early- and mid-'60s records featuring clean-cut bands with mop tops and V-neck sweaters. Most of the album covers look the same, with bouquets of men in various arrangements. In my youthful ignorance and curiosity, and in pre-Internet and YouTube days, the only way to determine who was better between Jay and the Americans and Jay and the Techniques was to actually purchase the albums. How else to determine that The Turtles were a lesser beast than The Byrds? In the end, I bought them all: Herman's Hermits, Beau Brummels, Manfred Mann, Gerry and the Pacemakers. And as hard as I tried to embrace songs such as "I Like It" or "I'm Into Something Good," the music felt different from The Stones, The Small Faces, The Kinks, or the endless garage, soul and psych LPs that I'd track down later. What it felt like was my parents' music.
Why does one sound constitute a generational divide, while another lights pathways between them? Why have I kept my father's Neil Young albums while bringing the Chad Mitchell Trio LPs to Goodwill? I suppose we could talk about the timelessness of certain sounds, but then someone else might consider The Beatles outdated. Or grunge. What about Hank Williams, Julie London and Frank Sinatra? And what is it about certain music that makes it feel not only bygone but also powerless and small? No matter how large an artist loomed in the past, it's as if they can't crawl out of the speakers in the modern age without the conspicuous, killjoy, effacing tag of "golden oldies."
For a second, our "parents' music" might make us feel youthful, or perhaps affectionate with remembrances. But there's a joylessness that seeps in once the moment has been drained of nostalgia. I think the unease is created by a sense that not everything other people make — or that we make — will be loved, or will even last; it's impermanent. Our own dismissal of the past is merely a foreshadowing of future disappearances. I suppose, what we deem as "parents' music" depends what we're willing to let go of and leave behind. In other words, some crap — and I use that term in a wholly subjective sense — just isn't going to stick around.
So, while there's plenty of our families' music that we've assimilated into our own collections and hearts, what music is so confounding and unrelatable as to be called "parents' music?"
Lastly, and just for fun, here are the dreaded "red rubber ball" tunes. Warning: Both will stick in your head: