Unschooled by my Electronic Greek Chorus

I have already highlighted in several previous pieces the important if not critical role popular music – mostly heard on the radio or played on a stereo – has played in my life. It’s like I’ve lived my life to a soundtrack or with a Greek chorus accompanying and commenting on and informing my life’s context, trials, tribulations and triumphs. Looking back at particularly the first three decades of my life, I can think of no significant developmental moment that does not have a song (or several) associated with and helping facilitate it, a song that I heard frequently at the time with a lyric, a melody line, or a rhythmic gestalt that captured or informed the moment and somehow facilitated my developmental journey. Though I have not read or heard people talking much about this, I suspect that many within my generation of Baby-Boomer peers and the younger Gen-Xers and Millennials have been similarly impacted, but perhaps by a different set of songs.

Looking back, I am finally grasping that the extent to which these songs have played a key role in my life is as significant as any other thread in my developmental or educational experience. Particularly because I had no real connection with any religion or religious values, I think these songs have given me (or at least suggested) an ethical framework to live by which has been invaluable to me at many key crossroads. They have also given me an insight into the broader cultural context that has shaped my own life and others around me.

The Greek Chorus

From the Wikipedia article on the “Greek chorus” on its function in ancient Greek theater…

Plays of the ancient Greek theatre always included a chorus that offered a variety of background and summary information to help the audience follow the performance. The Greek chorus comments on themes, and — as August Wilhelm Schlegel proposed in the early 19th century to subsequent controversy — shows how an ideal audience might react to the drama. The chorus also represents, on stage, the general population of the particular story, in sharp contrast with many of the themes of the ancient Greek plays which tended to be about individual heroes, gods, and goddesses… In many of these plays, the chorus expressed to the audience what the main characters could not say, such as their hidden fears or secrets. The chorus often provided other characters with the insight they needed.

Those last two sentences resonate with the role popular music played in my own young life, whether it was The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Petula Clark, The Supremes or any of a myriad of recording artists whose music and lyrics were ever heard in the background, bathing my generation in acoustic insight and inspiration.

As a quick example, my own unshared and unrequited yearning for romantic love as a teen was captured by The Grass Roots song, “Midnight Confessions”…

The sound of your footsteps
Telling me that you’re near
Your soft gentle motion, baby
Brings out the need in me that no-one can hear, except

In my midnight confessions
When I tell all the world that I love you
In my midnight confessions
When I say all the things that I want to

This song, sung repeatedly by the electronic Greek chorus (on the radio in my case because I never owned the record) was critical, along with others, in validating my own unshared feelings. And by somehow externalizing them to some degree, allowed me to better process them and keep on keeping on towards the day when I would finally find my own romantic connections. This was not a trivial developmental victory for me, a shy kid, but one with a very passionate heart.

McLuhan’s Retribalization

What has helped me understand more clearly the pivotal role of recorded music in our times are the thoughts of media philosopher Marshall McLuhan. His ideas were introduced to me by my mom’s best friend Mary Jane, who was a sometimes colleague of McLuhan during the 1960s. I recently rekindled my interest in McLuhan’s insights when I came across a link to his extensive 1969 interview in Playboy Magazine. He elaborated on his concept of “retribalization”, brought on by our current immersion in the electronic media of telephone, radio, recorded music, TV and (now in the time after McLuhan’s death) the Internet. Here’s McLuhan from that interview talking about the concept…

The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems… are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another. But the instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of the old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence — violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial.

In my own life, shared music has played a key role in bonding me in virtual kinship with other people and a cause we share. For example, with thousands of other like-minded people at a rally singing together “All we are saying is give peace a chance” or “We shall not, we shall not be moved…” But even songs I hear on the radio when I am alone, particularly those generally referred to as “anthems”, that I know have a shared resonance with other people I know (or at least imagine) to have a virtual kinship with. The words of such a song give me so much more a sense of collective affinity than anything I could possibly read in a book or periodical.

Guides on the Side

In a previous piece, “The Soundtrack of my Life”, I have called out at least fifty songs that have played a significant role in my development in the first thirty years of my life. These songs collectively have provided me with as much guidance as any actual mentors in terms of helping me to build my ethical compass, get through difficult times, and find inspiration to take developmental challenges. Moments when we are alone are often those when we make the most profound decisions about our own course, feel the most pain, or crave the most inspiration. During those times when no corporeal mentor is present to guide me, these virtual “electronically induced technological extensions” – the voice on the radio, the stereo, or even the song rekindled in my mind’s ear – have been there for me with their sage advice.

More conventionally religious people often construct much of their ethical compass from their religious beliefs as one of god’s children or servants or with Jesus in their hearts. As a humanist rather that a believer in god, much of my own compass has been built around the sung words of my virtual “ministers”, “rabbis”, “priests” and “gurus”; among them the likes of The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Diana Ross, Harry Chapin, Petula Clark, and many many others. Their inspirational words were so often there when I needed them, again even if only recalled in my own mind, as the sung words tend to be so much more memorable than the spoken.

So what follows are some key threads in my life’s journey where my acoustic “guides on the side” have played a key role. All these songs can still literally raise goosebumps on my flesh when I hear them, either played from my own music collection or heard randomly on the radio or even just in my minds ear. They cut deep into my soul and speak to the deepest channels of my emotional development.

Getting Through My Parents’ Divorce

After a pretty ideal childhood, the first big trauma of my life was the run up to and the aftermath of my parents’ divorce when I was ten. I witnessed their relationship unravel and then all the continuing pain and anger between them in its aftermath. In retrospect it was an important developmental experience for both of them and for me as well, but my self-esteem took a serious hit during my pre-teen and early-teen years, and I struggled to find the motivation to keep on with my own life.

As I relate in much more detail in my previous piece, “Retribalized by my Life’s Soundtrack”, Petula Clark’s hit song “Downtown”, which I heard frequently on the radio at the time, played a key role in helping me navigate that period. As I wrote in that piece, the lyrics and her clear-voiced delivery represented…

The chorus accompanying my life’s tragedy was reminding me that life goes on and I need not despair, and at some level I understood and was heartened by that message… I would find my own love, my own mate to dance with some day. It would be very different than what my parents were going through. Just as both my mom and dad had committed to raise me with love (as opposed to the fear and anger directed at them by their parents), I would end up finding a partner I could share my life with in joy… Petula took me aside, my head in her hand. “Coop… hang in there sweetie! You’ll have your shot to make it right… just give it time.” And every of the many times I have heard that song since I can feel that loving hand.

Throughout the next ten years I probably heard “Downtown” on the radio more than a hundred times and each time it would remind me of my ten-year-old self and the context of my parents’ divorce. And each time I would be reassured and inspired by my “counselor” Clark who reminded me, non-withstanding the continuing issues of my life, to engage in the wider adult world that lay in front of me. Words of wisdom from my Greek chorus and trusted adviser!

Moved by Motown

And as I continued to live with my mom through my adolescence, particularly the Motown music I was hearing on the Detroit music station CKLW continued to give me an education in love and loss under difficult circumstances and the human condition that informed it.

Hearing Smokey Robinson’s words in “Tears of a Clown” somehow validating my own sadness, for my mom and for myself, a sadness that I had so much trouble sharing with anyone else…

Now if there’s a smile on my face
It’s only there trying to fool the public
But when it comes down to fooling you
Now honey that’s quite a different subject…

But don’t let my glad expression
Give you the wrong impression
‘Cause really I’m sad, Oh I’m sadder than sad
Well I’m hurt and I want you so bad
Like a clown I appear to be glad…

Now if I appear to be carefree
It’s only to camouflage my sadness
And honey to shield my pride I try
To cover this hurt with a show of gladness

I was coming to grips with women as real people just like me, with the same breakable hearts and human frailties. Learning they were not some alien species from Venus that stood in as iconic parental figures and unmoved love objects.

These sorts of messages came over and over from the various Motown configurations of the Greek chorus, whether Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, or Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.

From Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack”, a woman confessing her vulnerability…

My arms are missing you
My lips feel the same way too
I tried so hard to be true
Like I promised I’d do
But this boy keeps coming around
He’s trying to wear my resistance down…

He calls me on the phone
About three times a day
Now my heart’s just listening
To what he has to say
But this loneliness that I have within
Keeps reaching out to be his friend…

I wanna say, I’m not getting any stronger
I can’t hold out very much longer
Trying hard to be true, but Jimmy
He talks just as sweet as you

And for me it was particularly The Supremes, fronted by Diana Ross who also had that bell-like voice and beautiful diction like Petula Clark, and singing the well-wrought words of songwriters Brian and Edward Holland Jr. and Lamont Dozier. From their song “You Keep Me Hanging On”…

Set me free why don’t you babe
Get out of my life why don’t you babe
Because you don’t really love me
You just keep me hanging on
You don’t really need me
But you keep me hanging on…

You say although we broke up
You still want to be just friends
But how can we still be friends
When seeing you only breaks my heart again
[Spoken:] And there’s nothing I can do about it…

Why don’t you be a man about it
And set me free
Now you don’t care a thing about me
You’re just using me
Go on, get out, get out of my life
And let me sleep at night

The tale told was about a love between a man and a woman gone wrong, and the woman calling on the man to grow up. That resonated with me in my own budding feminism, inspired by witnessing my mom’s debilitation post divorce, and being exposed to the “personal is political” arguments of the feminist critique of society. In so many ways I was being taken into the heads and hearts of women, seeing them as struggling souls no different than me.

These are just two of the dozens of Motown songs telling stories of the lives of the urban underclass, struggling for survival, for dignity, and for human connection. Though I was a kid of white and at least middle class economic privilege I continued to resonate with the stories these songs told, and during my adolescence they informed my own developing moral compass.

Lessons Learned for Future Fathers

No song was more significant to me, a male person preparing for my future role as a parent, than Harry Chapin’s cautionary ballad, “Cat’s in the Cradle”, which I have written about in my piece by the same name. Consciously or subconsciously, I suspect it has had a similar impact on many other men of my Baby-Boom generation. Though the conventional cultural expectation from the 1950s was that fathers should focus on being breadwinners and disciplinarians, Chapin’s song was always there on my life’s soundtrack repeatedly whispering his lessons learned wisdom in my other ear.

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad
You know I’m gonna be like you”

And what goes around comes around, by the end of the song…

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time
You see my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you”
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

That song continued to haunt me from car radios and background music played at the various restaurants and other venues I frequented in my my older youth and young adulthood. Sometimes it was just too painful to listen to, but always when I heard it I would recommit myself to not be a parent like the one in Chapin’s sad ballad. And with his ongoing counseling, I became a very different kind of parent, fully engaged and in relationship with my kids, and focusing my career outside the home on facilitating my role at home rather than the other way around.

Turning a Phrase

Sometimes its the mantra, the grain of sand in perhaps just one line from a song that I keep hearing on the radio or playing in my head as I continue to build layer after layer of meaning around it.

From Paul Simon’s “Fakin It”, released in 1968 on their “Bookends” album…

I’m such a dubious soul
And a walk in the garden
Wears me down
Tangled in the fallen vines
Picking up the punch lines
I’ve just been faking it
Not really making it…

This feeling of faking it
I still haven’t shaken it

Whenever I heard that song playing and Simon going through his candid self-evaluation, I would ask myself the very poignant questions. Am I faking it and not really making it? Am I a dubious soul? When I was willing to be honest with myself the answer was often yes, and then at least for a moment, I would wrestle with what to do about it, and how to perhaps be more genuine moving forward.

Years later hearing the song again, all the feelings around that original self-examination would come rushing back, and again I would ask my questions and take stock of how I had progressed. The nuances of my own development, would inform the answers, still faking it and dubious to some degree, but definitely farther along the path.

Generational Call to Arms & a Broader Awareness

I also heard the call to arms on the ubiquitous radios and stereos from my generation’s voices of the “hippie” and “flower child” culture out to my entire Baby-Boom generation. It was a profound “curriculum” that many of my fellow Boomers had to wrestle with and has expressed itself both in various sorts of political and social progressivism on one side and even the “Tea Party” more recently on the conservative side. I pursued that curriculum by some initial flirtation with radical ideas and smoking marijuana followed by a more nuanced view and finally my deep dive into the feminist movement and particularly the last years of the ERA ratification campaign.

For some in my generation they got the fullest dose of the message attending the iconic Woodstock music festival (I only saw the movie). For me, I recall that initial clarion call came from the Jefferson Airplane’s song “Volunteers”…

One generation got old
One generation got soul
This generation got no destination to hold
Pick up the cry
Hey now it’s time for you and me
Got a revolution got to revolution
Come on now we’re marching to the sea
got a revolution got to revolution
Who will take it from you
We will and who are we
We are volunteers of America

So much of the popular folk and rock music of the 1960s and early 1970s which contributed to my life’s Greek chorus had those themes of love, liberation, expanding awareness, generational solidarity, and being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Some of the lyrics were admittedly hokey and cliché, like from Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes’ “Journey to the Center of the Mind”…

Leave your cares behind come with us and find
The pleasures of a journey to the center of the mind
Come along if you care
Come along if you dare
Take a ride to the land inside of your mind

Beyond the seas of thought beyond the realm of what
Across the streams of hopes and dreams
where things are really not…

But please realize you’ll probably be surprised
For it’s the land unknown to man
Where fantasy is fact
So if you can, please understand
You might not come back

But I liked the song and did not think the message was total bunk. I remember wrestling with that “You might not come back” line. What could that really mean anyway?

But when it came to broadening awareness no one sang it better than the Zen of The Beatles like here in Lennon and McCartney’s “Fixing a Hole”…

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go…

And it really doesn’t matter if
I’m wrong I’m right
Where I belong I’m right
Where I belong

And George Harrison’s “Within You Without You”…

Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you

With all this call to arms, call to awareness, I can remember being such a teenage wannabe radical, thinking I was going to join the insurgency of the Weather Underground and bring down the fascist state. But of course that self-indulgent imagined extremism was tempered (like just about everything else) by the ongoing wisdom of The Beatles, and John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s thoughtful song “Revolution”…

You say you want a revolution
Well you know
we all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know you can count me out…

You say you got a real solution
Well you know
we’d all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
Well you know
We’re doing what we can
But when you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell you is brother you have to wait…

You say you’ll change the constitution
Well you know
we all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well you know
You better free your mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow
Don’t you know know it’s gonna be alright

With all these songs calling out to us Boomers to free our minds, join the cause and transform ourselves and the entire world, that we had perhaps my generation developed some delusions of grandeur. And then in arguably not accomplishing very much of this agenda, we developed a materialistic ennui.

Gaining My Religion

But I for one did not abandon that vision of a transformed world, though I became more of a “pragmatic idealist”, as my son Eric would say. I have tried these past forty years to continue live my own life and work for social change to meet that vision from all those 1960s anthems. Many people conventionally think that one gains their ethical compass from their religious beliefs and practice. But I got most of my sermons from the radios and stereos.

How many times have I been called to share the utopian irreligious and anarchic vision of John Lennon’s “Imagine”…

Imagine there’s no heaven,
It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer,
But I’m not the only one,
I hope some day you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.

Within Lennon’s high-level context, I found my own ethical path forward in the feminist activism of my mom and her friends (my “Feminist Aunts”) and later in my own efforts. Every cause has its songs that inspire the faithful to keep marching. For me, song’s like Helen Reddy’s and Kristen Lem’s captured the emotional power of this movement for human liberation.

From Helen Reddy’s iconic anthem “I am Woman”, maybe sounding a little hokey the hundredth time, but still able to bring those goosebumps to my flesh…

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
Because I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again…

You can bend but never break me
Because it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
Because you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul…

I am woman watch me grow
See me standing toe to toe
As I spread my lovin’ arms across the land
But I’m still an embryo
With a long, long way to go
Until I make my brother understand

Oh, yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to
I can face anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

Well I was certainly one “brother” who was getting that message, and ready to fight the good fight to try and pass the Equal Rights Amendment, the same goal that had galvanized my mom’s earlier participation in the movement.

And then there was the much less well know anthem by feminist folk artist Kristen Lems’, her “Women Walk More Determined”, that I heard playing at many a NOW (National Organization for Women) work party where we prepared for a big rally or march…

You know, women walk more determined
Than they ever have
Women walk with a stronger stride
Than they ever did before
Take a look sisters and brothers
Because you’re going to find
You got another kind of woman
Who will ask a lot
And give a lot
And live a whole lot more

My friend, you and I have come a long way
And we’re gonna go farther still
For the more I learn about myself and my world
You know, the more both of us will

All the ancient fears are coming out now
And I’m getting them under control
For I realize until I love myself
Nothing else is going to make me whole

It’s hard to break all the traditions
And sometimes we want to give up
But we got to keep going, got to keep on growing
Because love ain’t going to let us stop

You know we owe it to each other
To grow as wise as we can get
And we’ll get to the end, my sister and friend
We haven’t seen the best of it yet

Do you remember how it used to be, now?
All the games we used to play?
Never bringing it out, full of defenses and doubt
Now everything that we believe we can say

You’ve hurt me a lot and I’ve hurt you, babe
And we’ll always bear the scars
But to learn about love and everything it’s made of
We’ve got to know just who we are!

Lems doing her stint as my Greek chorus, not only repeatedly rekindling my activism, but hitting on themes that continue to run through my more recent education alternatives and youth rights activism through my blogging. Trying to get all those ancient patriarchal fears under control that continue to place women in a secondary position to men and keep young people “seen and not heard”.

Going Forward

Though sometimes on the sappy side, I continue to have a soft spot for a song with an infectious tune even if the lyrics might be a bit cliché, like King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight”, with its lilting keyboard opening…

Everybody here is out of sight
They don’t bark and they don’t bite
They keep things loose, they keep it alight
Everybody’s dancing in the moonlight…

We like our fun and we never fight
You can’t dance and stay uptight
It’s a supernatural delight
Everybody was dancing in the moonlight…

Dancing in the moonlight
Everybody’s feeling warm and bright
It’s such a fine and natural sight
Everybody’s dancing in the moonlight

As an abstract right-brained person, I’m always looking for musical mantras to be or at least remind me of my “mission statement”. And the feeling in that melody and the lyric kind of summarize how I want to live my life, “loose and alight” without any unnecessary formality or convention. As I go forward with my life, now “over the hill” in my late fifties, trying to leverage gravity (or gravitas) as I now walk downhill. Trying not to “bark or bite”, but use my words effectively and speak my truth while not trying to get too worked up about it.

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