It’s a wonder that I listen to good music. I came up on my parents’ Billy Joel and R.E.M tapes, in much the same way that lifelong Beatles fans are spawned at an early age in their parents’ minivans on road trips to see their cousins in Buffalo. Exposure to Joel, the prince of failed marriages, left in me an indelible predilection for sniffing out the genius in well-orchestrated, indulgent, ornate rock ‘n roll. I’m convinced that Billy Joel subliminally pointed me towards Queen, Rufus Wainwright, Elton John, and even Axl Rose. Some time thereafter, I became heavily involved with the Counting Crows, but only “August And Everything After.” Then, suddenly, Metallica and Rage Against the Machine and Korn and Anthrax and Black Sabbath and Megadeth and Deep Purple (and even Everclear) were all I knew. My tastes shifted from happy, positively directed pop/rock to deeply angry, thrashy sonics. I wasn’t alone—everyone I knew forged years-long relationships with some pissed-off band, and we were broken into camps: my tribe undulated in our rooms with Metallica, some skipped the foreplay and went right for Slayer and the Deftones, while others trod the middle ground and spent their teenage careers on Pantera and Sevendust.
I was especially enamored with Metallica. My first real concert was the S&M show at Madison Square Garden in November 1999, when years of agonizing over every single note of every single guitar solo climaxed in a 3-hour orgasm. Metallica and the St. Luke’s Orchestra pleasured the hell out of me and 20,000+ other pumped motherfuckers. I was just beginning my freshman year at an all-boys’ yeshiva high school in Teaneck, NJ, so, like anybody else in that position would have done, I let Metallica’s adrenal phantasmagoria have its way with my system of beliefs: I knew—knew—that I was a Metallica lifer. Like all the 50- and 60-somethings at MSG with me that night, I took Metallica as my one and only, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.
Then three things happened. First, I embarked upon a steady diet of substances and Pink Floyd. The combination opened my eyes to perverse pleasure and misery far beyond what Metallica could offer. Second, Metallica released the album “St. Anger” and the movie “Some Kind of Monster,” the latter of which documented the near-breakup that preceded the former. I’ve never been more let down by an album or a band’s self-centeredness, and I began to question 1999’s post-S&M Metallica marriage. Third, I went to Israel after high school, and by interacting with dozens of new faces I realized that I knew nothing about music. Nothing. While I knew virtually everything about the 15 or so bands that I loved, I couldn't identify a single detail about anyone else. I couldn’t name an Allman brother. Couldn’t put the Beatles’ catalogue in order. I thought “Hit the Road Jack” was something the New Jersey Nets wrote for when an opposing player fouled out. I knew about 2 Rolling Stones songs, and they were both "Satisfaction."
So I went to work, compiling a borrowed library of thousands and thousands of new (for me) songs, and put myself through an abbreviated education in popular and unpopular music. I consumed everything from Beck to Berlioz, from Radiohead to the Roots. I burned CD’s, made mixes, and spent hours poring over my friends’ iPods. Besides, I was mired in yet another all-boys’ institution, this one in a Jerusalem bedroom community, and there was nothing else to do. Metallica became a thing of the past, as did Rage and System of a Down. I became a clearing for something new.
But nothing new ever stuck. While I had previously fixated on a few groups and let the others slide, I now confronted the opposite problem: I let nothing slide, but I didn't fixate on anything, either. My tastes became an expansive, level, unbiased showroom where no car stood out from any other. Meanwhile, I was getting more serious about playing bass, and single riffs and phrases became just as important as whole songs or lyrical messages. In other words, at the same time that nothing in particular caught my ear, I just wanted to hear music—experimental and out-of-the-box, regardless of how reputable it was or wasn't.
Enter Sigur Ros. The Benevento/Russo Duo. Electoronica, house, dance, trance, techno, and all kinds of hip-hop: Michael Jackson, Blackalicious, Wu Tang, A Tribe Called Quest, Common, and R. Kelly. Afrobeat. Country. With high school and its socio-musical pressures gone, I could sit back and take in anything I wanted, without a clique to satisfy or a lunchroom conversation to dominate. Eventually, smaller ensembles got redundant, and I introduced big bands and orchestras into the mix. World, West African, protest, pop—it all had a place in the pantheon.
These days, I sit before my computer, scrolling through iTunes and hoping for something novel to pop up during a shuffle. Tonight, it’s Bobby Sanabria’s “Big Band Urban Folktales,” and yesterday it was Ryan Keberle’s “Double Quartet.” Tomorrow, it could be anything. Even Metallica.
Stay Swinging, Sanabria
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