Why do people love music? To get closer to the heart of this riddle, I spoke with music lovers from all walks of life – a classical cellist, a world-renowned jazz guitarist, Vermont’s homeless population, a liturgical music director, and the front man of an up and coming Boston band. Like the question itself, the answers I got are both obvious and complex.
I just walked into a violin shop in downtown Burlington and met Nathaniel, one of the employees. He’s a classical cellist who’s been playing for twenty years. He looks kind of like a cross between a young Doc Brown and a hip founding father. I ask him if I can interview him about music. He kindly agrees, so I start out in the deep end.
“What is music?”
He searches for a second. “I mean, music is everything. It’s what we do as humans, it’s – it’s the universal language of human experience. It’s what keeps us from being robots.” His tone is a kind of baffled conviction both humbled by and a little suspicious of the question.
“What was the first music that really gave you, you know, that feeling?”
“Bach’s Prelude in G major,” he says without hesitation.
“Do you still play it?”
“Oh, of course. You’re never really done learning it. You can know all the notes, but you never really stop learning how to play it. There’s always something else to discover about it.”
The store is spotlessly clean. In every direction is either a beautiful instrument, sheet music, or no dust whatsoever. There are ties. On people.
“Why do people play music?”
He looks for a second like he’s trying to move something with his mind.
“Joy. It’s the greatest joy there is. It is the joy of itself. There’s no greater reason to do anything.”
“So, why do people hate guitarists?” I ask.
He waits for a second to see if it’s a joke. Then he breaks into loud, raw, hearty laughter, the kind you usually don’t hear in a store filled with Bach sheet music and violas.
“Oh boy, I – ” gathering himself, face reddened, lifting his glasses to rub his eyes “ – Look, I certainly do not hate guitarists. I really don’t.”
“Do some people?”
“Well, I don’t think people hate them. I think it’s just that guitarists have a tendency to be all – ” He makes a hunched motion and gestures toward his head. “In their own head. You know?”
The first time I heard John Stowell play, I couldn’t get out of my own head. His chords were bizarre and his harmonies were dense, and I got caught up in having the crap scared out of me by just how far along the path of harmony he seemed to be. About seven years later, I came across his playing again. This time, I heard something totally different, something I wasn’t hearing any other musicians do. I was intrigued but still a little befuddled. A few years after that, I was lucky enough to meet and play with John, and I learned more in an hour than I had in years. Something clicked, and now John’s playing is a constant source of inspiration and new ideas. He tours and teaches constantly, and he’s always eager to share his latest discoveries. I emailed him about this article and he wrote back to me within a day.
“Music has always been here as a force in the cosmos. Resonant frequencies surround us. Music sustains me and is my calling. I need to hear it and play it daily. Not all people care about music, but for those who do, it can function on many levels, from casual enjoyment as a hobby to a passion and a vocation. My hope is that music of substance will always be with us. It is an uphill battle given the dumbing down of our popular culture, but it’s worth fighting for.”
Worth fighting for, indeed. This same sentiment was echoed by another group of music lovers I interviewed. They’re usually on the sidewalk behind a coffee shop in downtown Burlington. Sometimes they have a sign asking for money, sometimes they don’t. I walk by them at least once a week, and most of the time I ignore them. Every now and then I give them a dollar, but what I’ve always wanted to do is talk to them. Not just about the weather – I want to hear about their lives. Until today, I’ve never considered asking them about music, but now it seems obvious and overdue.
“Well hello there.”
“Any of you guys musicians?”
“Nope. Well, I’m not, like, a musician, you know, but I know music.”
“Oh? What do you like?”
This is John Maloney. He has sharp blue eyes, a smile somewhere under a beard and a forehead tattoo.
“Oh, man. So much. Everything. Kiss, Aerosmith, Queen. I’ve seen them all, man.”
He’s sitting on a sidewalk near a coffee shop in Burlington. He glances up at me from time to time, but mostly his eyes dart around the downtown activity. People walk by with their heads down.
“Why do you like music so much? What does it do for you?”
“It calms me down. Or it makes my hyper. It does whatever you need it to do, you know?”
I sit down on the sidewalk with him.
“Absolutely, man. That’s why it’s so good,” I say. “Who’s your favorite band, if you had to pick one?”
He looks down for a moment and concentrates.
“The Who,” he says, definitively. “Totally The Who. Those guys – oh man, I saw those guys once, and it completely knocked me out. They were just so good.”
“I’m a country guy,” a new voice chimes in. I look up – I’ve seen this guy before. A few months ago, a seagull flew away just as I was walking by him, to which he said, “Hey man, don’t mess with my pet seagull!” I thought it was funny, well-timed and smart, a perfect groundbreaker given the context, but I just ignored him and kept walking. I’m hoping he doesn’t remember this.
“Oh yeah? Anyone in particular?”
“Hank Williams Sr., Blake Shelton, Johnny Cash.” Each names is well articulated and comes out with a hint of pride. He has his thumbs in his belt loops and one leg bent at the knee, his foot flat on the wall behind him. A perfect album cover.
“Nice. Hey, I’m writing an article about music,” I say, standing up. “Can I ask you some questions?”
I thank John and walk over to his friend.
“Do you mind if I use your name in the article?”
“Not at all. It’s Ted Peake. Peake with an E.”
“Ted – that’s a good name,” I say. “Ever hear of Ted Greene, the guitar player?”
“Nah, man – It’s Ted Nugent, man! That’s the guy! Stranglehold, Cat Scratch Fever – he’s got so many good songs. He’s on his own TV show now. Shoots deer from his backyard and shit.”
“Totally! I learned a bunch of those songs when I was first starting to play guitar,” I say. “I remember wailing on Stranglehold in my parents’ house and thinking I was a badass.”
“Man, that guy’s got it down,” Ted says, shaking his head. “He’s got all that property. It’s such a sweet setup. Dude hates drugs.”
“They got Bon Jovi singin’ that pop shit now!” another one of John’s friends yells out.
Ted, unfazed, turns back to me.
“What do you think is going on with music now?” I ask. “Where do you hope it goes?”
“There’s a lot of good music, but a lot of junk too. I just hope it keeps going, man. It’d be so boring without it. It makes things interesting, you know? It’s how people tell stories.”
“Why do you like music, personally?” I ask. “What does it give to you?”
“It takes me away,” Ted says.
“What does it take you away from?”
Jerome Monachino, local jazz guitarist and liturgical music director for St. Michael’s College, defines music as “a medium to encounter trust, intimacy, risk and hope; it is a place where I can tell my own story and connect it to the myriad narratives around me, both past and present.” After meeting Ted Peake and John Maloney, it occurs to me that the power of music Jerome is talking about is so potent that it extends beyond the world of music itself and infiltrates even the casual, day-to-day connections that happen in its shadow. Just the mention of music makes people take their guards down.
Jerome is a freakoid talented, technically pristine, that-squeak-the-door-just-made-is-an-E-flat type of guitar player. He plays for Gravel, a bold, heavy jazz trio that walks the perfect line between melody and reckless abandon, and Eight 02, a four-piece fusion outfit. I met him nine years ago, and my life hasn’t been the same since. There are a lot more metronomes, altered dominant chords and 13-guage strings in the picture now.
“Music is the place where the interface of reason and emotion becomes wonderfully messy,” he says. “Music is a way for us to hear the unseen, to connect with something bigger than our individual selves, and to articulate what makes us strategically different from one another in the context of our particular community as well as the community at large. I think people care about music because it helps us tap into the Divine and find a place, our place, where we belong.”
Thomas John Cadrin, front man of up and coming Boston-based trio Long Time, eloquently unpacks Jerome’s idea of musical belonging. “It connects us to our past, grounds us in the present, and gives us hope for the future, all while continually making the common new and widening your every day experience.”
Long Time balances a smack-you-in-the-face power trio potency with an uncanny sense of texture and space. They’re heavy and raw but melodic and deep. Is that another way of saying that reason and emotion are equally at play in their music, as Jerome might suggest? That gets me thinking: I wonder what John Maloney would think of their new single Bite Me Lovin. Would he hear the same thing in Tom’s guitar that he heard in Pete Townshend’s? Lord knows Ted would dig it – he’s a good heavy riff kind of guy. And maybe John Stowell’s ears would perk up when he heard some of Long Time’s rhythmic pyrotechnics. This much is certain: When it comes down it, it’s just for the joy of itself, as Nathaniel would say.
Thomas John continues: “The future of music, like any good revolution, lies within the community. Go out to a live show. Dance your ass off. Say hello to the artist. And tell all your friends about it. When you do this, you are justifying their need to be out on the road, you’re feeding your soul, you’re creating a global community. Get out there, listen, and then scream what you know from the top of your lungs.”
, writer, MusicStoreLive.com