Instant Music Gratification

By TA-NEHISI COATES   07/09/11 NY Times

I saw Gil Scott-Heron perform, for the first time, in the fall of 1994. Like any scion of radical parentage, I was well acquainted with Heron’s sprawling catalogue. Still, even for me, a young man who reveled in the track listings of limited releases, the rangy Heron had packed a few surprises. In the midst of old favorites, he uncorked a haunting and somber ode to the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. If he gave the title I missed it, which is possible given that I was mesmerized by the song’s elegiac simplicity. I tried to commit every note to memory, but ultimately, I was left with shards of lyrics, pieces of melody and a deep intense longing for a song I couldn’t name.

Afterward, I prevailed upon family and friends, humming what I could recall, in a vain attempt to piece together the most memorable portion of that evening. I was haunted by my futility, and whenever someone mentioned Heron, I saw him in dream-time, presiding, gray and gaunt, over a keyboard, and hollering that lost anthem into the abyss. It was agony, but it was also familiar. A state of imposed ignorance was as native to pop culture nerds of the 20th century as it is foreign to those of the on-demand 21st.

We live in the time of Google the Great, whose all-seeing eye has ushered in a golden age of musical democracy. Out at your local bar, and faced with an enchanting, but obscure, slice of music, you can call up an app, hold your mobile device aloft like a scepter, and all the vitals — song, artist, album — are swiftly known to you. Failing that, an Internet search of quoted lyrics will have you, in mere seconds, faced with the tune in spades — live, acoustic, remixed by the artist, mashed up by fans, covered by random Kansans hoping for discovery.

The march toward universal music extends back to the days of Edison. But I recall, with a perverse fondness, the latter days of the 20th century, when the franchise was still the exclusive property of record pools and radio. Only the Fates could compel your local station to deliver “Fresh Is the Word” or “Sucker DJs.” This was before the lords of FM took to bragging “All hip-hop, all the time,” when, outside of the five boroughs, rap was midnight music for the urban avant-garde.

Kids with substantive allowances could purchase actual records, but the rest of us, trapped in prudent homes, had only Memorex tapes to save our favorite jams from the yawning void beyond the memory of playlists. Who knew how long it would be before we again beheld the splendor of “Cold Gettin’ Dumb”? Even the artists were ethereal. There was no Vibe or XXL to confirm the death of the Human Beat Box or Scott La Rock, or explain why UTFO faded away. Overrun by mystery, you had only divination and hours upon hours of deciphering cover art, hoping to confirm that the great Humpty Hump really was Shock G.

The mystery of music was the calling card of that pop age. Comic books were equally esoteric, alluding to back issues that would take months to procure, or that simply couldn’t be procured at all. Favorite cartoons would come and go — mid-continuity, plotlines dangling — without explanation. The star receiver of your favorite football team would vanish, leaving you in wonder, until years later when an announcer’s off-hand mention of a tragic car crash brought you up to speed. But the distance between what you knew and what you didn’t was magic, was a shared realm of legitimate fact and fan fictions. It demanded interpretation, completion, creation.

Now everything is at the ready and all the stars of that mysterious era have taken to reality television, where every sliver of privacy is auctioned off. This is the part where I mourn for the benighted children born into a world of “Ice Loves Coco” and “Basketball Wives,” of recaps and Internet campaigns.

No. This pop landscape, where every fan’s smallest itch is immediately scratched, is the world I so desperately wanted. Whatever the deeper gifts imparted by a world of longing, I was always looking for a way out.

Some weeks ago, when Gil Scott-Heron died, I knew exactly what I wanted to hear. Google the Great had long ago solved my old conundrum — the song was “95 South.” And with a few keystrokes there it was — the old raspy baritone, the mournful piano riffs. And there I was, circa 1994, the puzzle of memory now complete.


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