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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A (mostly) undistinguished history of music appreciation

Without the benefit of any formal musical training - apart from a singularly uninspired year of trombone in the seventh grade - I have doomed more careers of musicians than the most persnickety Rolling Stone music critics.

Even as a child, I could hear a song I really, really liked on the radio, go out and buy the album (back in the dark days when music came on flat, vinyl discs), and the musician who recorded it would drop right off the charts and into the oblivion of one-hit wonders.

Want proof? Anybody heard of Susan Jacks and the Poppy Family? The first time I heard them sing "Which Way You Going, Billy?" on the top-40 AM radio station, I just had to get the album. A week of chores and lawn-mowing for neighbors gave me enough money to rush out and buy it. The result is history ... or non-history, as the case may be. Susan Jacks and the Poppy Family is now barely a footnote in the history of rock-n-roll.

Flash forward a few years and I can take credit (or blame, depending on one's point of view) for the death of disco. I was 19 and it was the nation's bicentennial and I was enamored with the first song I heard on my first trip to a gay bar. (For the record, the bar was The Dover Fox on Main Street in Kansas City which exists as a vacant lot today.) So I rushed right out and bought not one, but two disco remixes of classic '60s songs: Santa Esmerelda's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and "House of the Rising Sun." The house that disco built collapsed almost overnight.

The era of MTV arose from the ashes of disco and my poor luck with picking music continued unabated. The only difference was that now I was working and had more disposable income with which to demolish musical careers. Quarterflash, Bertie Higgins, Haircut 100, Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby all disappeared overnight, never to be heard from again outside of those K-Tel music collections sold on late-night infomercials.

About the only musical groups whose casettes I could safely buy were already established groups whose fame made them mostly immune to being relegated to the one-hit wonder status my curse bestowed on so many musical groups. But with the still new MTV introducing me to so many new groups back in the day when MTV actually played music instead of focusing on dumb "reality" shows, I was so tempted to risk dooming a group to the Wal-Mart bargain bin by purchasing their casettes.

One group I'd been following since I first saw MTV was the Irish rock band U2. I can still remember the music video for "New Year's Day" from the early days of MTV, but I resisted buying their music. Afterall, I made the mistake of buying the first album from Asia, rumored to be the first supergroup of the '80s, and the band promptly broke up. But in a moment of weakness, I bought U2's Joshua Tree album.

I loved that album ... every song on it. When it wasn't with me in my car stereo, the casette was in my home stereo. Surely this was tempting fate considering my luck at picking bands. I expected to hear any day that all the members of U2 died in a fiery plane crash on their way to a concert or were killed in a Northern Ireland bomb blast.

When no tragedy happened, I began to wonder if the curse had been broken. With every subsequent release of a U2 album, my fears that my mere touch could doom a band faded. I watched as the band became even more popular - even if lead singer Bono could be insufferably sanctimonious on occasion.

I was thinking back on U2's The Joshua Tree album just the other day when I stumbled across one of those "This Day in History" triva fillers on a web site. The Joshua Tree was released 20 years ago Friday ... and despite my curse, U2 is still around and making music.

My casette of The Joshua Tree is long gone and replaced later by a CD and most recently downloaded onto my iPod. Songs like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Where the Streets Have No Names" still speak to me with as fresh a voice today as when I first heard them two decades ago.

Maybe that's the definition of good music. If I were to hear Quarterflash singing "Harden My Heart" or Bertie Higgins singing "Key Largo" today, I'd smile about the memories and how the songs brought back a particular place and time. But The Joshua Tree album has a timeless quality that speaks to me in a new voice every time I hear it.