Oct 212009

My first rock and roll record was Waterloo, by Abba. A 45, of course, and inexpensive enough that my mother was willing to buy it for me. This must have been about 1974, and I would have been about 12 at the time. I never had summer jobs as a child, and not much of an allowance, so I depended on the good graces of my mother for little luxuries. She had grown up in the Great Depression, and she often reminded me of the deprivations she experienced. Later on I was allowed to buy Cher’s Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves, and I think Ringo Starr’s Photograph. Terry Jack’s Seasons in the Sun was in my collection. So far, so good. But then a subtle shift occurred when I got The Night Chicago Died by Paper Lace. This time my mother expressed to me that she found the music a little bit “hard” or perhaps “coarse”.

My mother was a Lutheran, though she didn’t talk too much about religion back in those days. She was not one of those stereotypical Christians who thought rock music was the music of the Devil. Rather she was more of the elitist snob, who felt that The One True Music was classical. But she had a weakness for schlock, and owned records by the Tijuana Brass and Bert Kaempfert. We even had Whipped Cream and Other Delights in our house! She watched Lawrence Welk with some degree of reverence.

Young people today may not appreciate the intensity of the “generation gap” that many people my age experienced growing up. Long hair and rock music were not just part of the maelstrom of popular culture like they are today. For many people back then they were extremely potent and divisive symbols.

A strange and sadly comedic episode occurred at the Crowley house one day, as my mother complained that rock music was intrinsically inferior because “you couldn’t understand the words”. True enough for some songs, but the lyrics she couldn’t understand were those to The Night Chicago Died. The specific line was “and I asked someone who said, ‘bout a hundred cops are dead”. I heard the word “cops” fairly clearly, but my mother couldn’t. She enlisted my brother, whom she claimed had very acute hearing. My brother listened carefully, and pronounced that Paper Lace was singing “cubs”.

Yes, the word “cubs” made absolutely no sense at all. But bigger conflicts and stranger interpretations were to come. Not surprisingly this began for me with puberty and high school. I remember reading in Skateboarder magazine in about 1977 or 78 that some particularly cool skateboarder liked “Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, and Hendrix”. By this time, I had been given a hand-me-down 8-track player. I scraped up enough money to buy Led Zeppelin’s Presence. It was immediately obvious that this was something vastly cooler and more profound than Cher, Abba, or Paper Lace. I became a life-long fan of hard rock.

Unfortunately my new-found appreciation of hard rock deeply conflicted with my mother’s growing disdain for it. I was allowed to own the records and listen to them, but was subjected to her constant and irrational arguments.

Somewhere around 1980, I discovered the book Subliminal Seduction by Wilson Bryan Key. It made quite an impact on me. Unfortunately though, my critical thinking skills at the time were in a nascent stage. Certain concepts struck me as plausible, but Key’s analysis of rock music seemed farfetched, even then. I seem to remember reading about George Harrison’s song My Sweet Lord, as the background vocals clearly say “Hare Krishna”, “Krishna, Krishna” and related lines.

I remembered that my mother had this song on a 45 disk; she bought it because it was a Good Christian Song. To tell the truth, I don’t think I had listened to the song very critically until I read Key’s analysis. I put the record on, and sure enough, the Krishna stuff was there, plain as day!

My mother had a bad habit of promoting a particular logical fallacy, namely that superior perceptual capacity is equivalent to superior ability to discern value. The problem is that “value” is a metaphysical concept, an arbitrary human invention, not the subject of science or mathematics. In fact this is the core conundrum of all aesthetic thinking; at best one can argue meaningfully about whether concepts are logically consistent, but you can’t point to a “good” in the universe like you can point to a chunk of aluminium.

My mother claimed that she had once taken something called the “Seashore Test” and had done particularly well. It was an audiology test. Now I have no doubt that audiology is a genuine science, and that meaningful data can be gathered. There are plenty of perceptual tests in psychology that are grounded in good science. I didn’t doubt my mother’s claim. So I was curious how she would react when I told her that My Sweet Lord was really about Krishna. Payback time!

At first I just told her. Understandably she didn’t believe me, so we went into the living room and put on the record. At first I couldn’t believe my mother couldn’t hear (or perceive) the background vocals. I think I put the record on again, this time lip-syncing along with the “Krishna, Krishna” vocals.

Unbelievably, my mother still couldn’t hear it! At this point I had one of the first epiphanies of my life. I realized there were only three logical possibilities. The first was that she genuinely couldn’t hear it. I don’t think this was the case; she was not hard of hearing. It wasn’t as if the sounds were at 16,000 Hz and too high to hear, or super-faint. The background vocals are clear and obvious.

The second possibility was that she was lying to me. I don’t believe this either, though I must accept it as a possibility. My parents were both profoundly moral people. Our family never “joshed” each other, never “told stories” even if they were revealed as such later, and absolutely never bullshitted each other. It was a very rigid upbringing emotionally, and very much out of step with the rest of the world.

No, what I think was really going on with my mother was that she was in denial. Clearly the situation was too much for her; for the first time in our series of never-ending musical arguments I was absolutely and unequivocally correct. Her vaunted perceptual skills had failed her, and rather spectacularly so. And I’m sure it shocked her that what she thought was Christian was really Krishna!

Of course she had to come up with some kind of rationalization; “There’s too much noise” or “You can’t understand what they are saying”. Frankly I don’t remember what it was…

This was the first time I had seen a human behave like this, and it happened to be my mother. It came as a shock to me, and I began to feel bad that I had hurt or confused my mother in some deep, dark, and strange way.

As I grew older, I became much more of a skeptic about all sorts of things. Skeptics see the kind of denial that my mother exhibited all the time. Evidence for extraordinary claims is scrutinized, and sometimes it’s clearly shown to have a prosaic explanation. For most people it becomes like that old V8 Juice slogan; “I could have had a V8”. When you see the prosaic explanation, you think, “Oh my goodness, that’s so simple, how could we have possibly believed it was evidence for Bigfoot/Orbs/Ghosts/ESP, etc”. Yet there will ALWAYS be true believers who madly cling to the original belief.

The hardest lesson that I take away from the My Sweet Lord episode is that intelligence does not guarantee good judgment. I could see that early on with my mother, and as the years go by, I see it in myself.

 Posted by on 10/21/2009 Growing Up In Montana

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