One of the best gifts I ever received as a child was a round Panasonic Panapet transistor radio, which came in bold, danish-style primary colors. Mine was a portal to a world beyond my own, which alternated between seeming like the center of the universe and nowhere at all. Through this plastic orb streamed the constant magic of CKLW, the Windsor, Ontario based AM station, which played the top 40 of the day — an unparalleled collection of music engineered for the consumption of the burgeoning youth market.
When I think about this rich musical stream, a seemingly endless list of pop masterpieces (an entirely subjective and arbitrary category, I’m aware) abounds, in completely random order: Green Tambourine; Bend Me, Shape Me; The River Is Wide; Dizzy; Israelites; There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over The World); Testify. In addition to, of course, the perfection of Motown and the relentlessly wonderful Beatles. When the Monkees came along, I was as drugged by their fabulousness as I was by the cavalcade of other gods of the airwaves.
What pop music gave me was a way of experiencing my emotions in a manner that was intrinsically pleasurable; happiness and joy were made even better, while fear, anger and sadness became tolerable. Part of the pleasure was knowing that other people were out there, with the same feelings I had. Being sad was just sad, but being sad with Diana Ross via “My World Is Empty Without You” was exhilarating and poignant. At the other end of the spectrum, I knew what euphoria was first hand (being a child and not the philosopher king I would become as a teenager), so when I heard the chorus of “The Letter” shooting through the quarter-sized speaker of my Panapet, I understood that The Box Tops knew euphoria as well.
Yet, whatever else it may be, the pop song is again a form ultimately designed as bait for a particular demographic’s attention and crafted to maximize the availability of air time for advertisements — the perfect sonic virus to separate a listener from their money, directly or indirectly. It is a mesmerising, money-sucking monster. Though the monster has gone on to take many shapes, it was and remains for meRock & Roll Frankenstein; I love it, I hate it, and I will never rid my mind of its exquisitely strict three-minutes-or-less tyranny.
The form is, however, somewhat malleable, particularly now that demographics can be pinpointed and updated with precision instantaneously. For instance, Bruno Mars’ latest album, Unorthodox Jukebox, has an average song length of 3 minutes, 29 seconds — not Inna Gadda Da Vida, of course, but over a minute longer per song than the Beatles album Help!, with an average length of 2 minutes, 26 seconds per song. My theory of the moment is that because markets are smaller and more easily identifiable, song-length tolerances have marginally increased — a terribly fascinating dissertation topic for someone, you’re welcome.
With anything but these issues in the front of my mind, I began to attach myself at an early age to the notion that writing and performing “popular” music would be my calling in the world. If I could infect them with melody, I could skew the balance of the universe closer to me being at the center, rather than in the middle of nowhere.
So it was that in the summer of 1968, me and four of my neighborhood buddies formed a neighborhood super-group, the name of which I can not recall. Though we had a couple of acoustic guitars and knew that they needed to be tuned to something called “standard tuning,” we did not know any chords. Thus, our masterpiece, “Let’s Stop Pollution,” was a primal throb in Em11, voiced with said two guitars, bongos played with drum sticks, and gang vocals:
Let’s stop pollution
Gotta find a solution
To stop pollution
Right now, right now
Gotta clean up the city
It’s such a big pity
To see the world so dirty
So let’s clean it up right now
I stole the title for “Let’s Stop Pollution” from a decal that I purchased from a store called Middle Earth, which I much later understood to be a head shop. It reeked deliciously of incense. The decal featured a hideous bloodshot eye, with the imperative “Let’s Stop Pollution” in Ralph Steadman-esque script, and though I found it repulsive, I stuck it proudly on the door to my room where it remained for many years.
Our neighborhood combo played one masterful ten minute concert in my bedroom for a handful of curious mothers and siblings, delivering once in a lifetime performances of the three songs in our catalogue (all, of course, in Em11). Having made it to the top, evidenced by this triumphant show, we disbanded shortly thereafter, with some drama, to pursue solo careers.
The last distinct memory I have of listening to top 40 radio (before making the inevitable exodus over to FM, which was a required rite of passage for any young teen interested in the esteem of their peers) was on a trip out west in the summer of 1971 with my father, his wife, my half-brother and my older sister. It was dusk when we arrived at Mount Rushmore, the gigantic stone faces lit in amber to the sound of the car radio playing Joan Baez’s version of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. I was too young to understand the profound ambiguity of the moment – Mount Rushmore being carved out of land that was robbed from and sacred to the Sioux and Joan Baez — the ultimate lefty folk goddess — singing an enormously popular song detailing the suffering of white (not black) southerners during the civil war; not to mention an irony I could not have known — an Afghan man and his family visiting a monument to the American empire, which would later play a pivotal role in ruining his homeland. The moment in my mind is quietly tragic and beautiful.