Flashbacks, Flashdance and the Fabulous Fifties

When I was a kid —and this is a l-o-n-g time ago, trust me— we used to listen to the radio. My first recognition of music trends was the 1970s retro songs that harked back to the 1950s. You had movies like Grease and American Graffiti —the fabulous fifties when we pushed for homogenization of culture; fit in or be branded a traitor and freak. And the seventies conversely was the era of big afros, bigger flare pants in polyester and huge platform shoes that really pushed some envelopes.

There were also the international waves we went through. The British invasion was before my time, but we had Spandau Ballet, Wings and others, I experienced the Italian ripple of Laura Brannigan, the Germanic surge of Nena and Falco, the Aussie pop of Men at Work, INXS and the shrieking Bee Gees.

Slowly my music collected in my little treasure trove of cassettes (you had to crank up the volume to make copies). My music morphed to discs when I got to Japan. My musical tastes greatly changed while I was here as a student. We all shared music in our informal lending library of tapes that floated back and forth between friends and classmates.

Parties were my favorite time to experience music. The system is open; you are not in your comfort zone of home or work. Other people control and influence the music that gets played. There are all the wonderful elements of people, talk, food and of course, what adult doesn’t imbibe at will?

Different songs bring back different memories of places for me. I hear Sappho’s Train de Paris and I remember the countless times I was at Garde du Nord waiting to take the TGV to visit a friend in Holland, Belgium or Brittany. I get flashbacks of impossibly small cafe tables and tiny cups of espresso bitter enough to set my teeth on edge. The blasts of perfume as women walked past and the hint of a Gauloise being puffed in the vicinity completed the picture. The same artist but another of her songs, Abidjan, reminds me of an Arab market in Vienna’s Mitt Bahnhof area. For some reason, I think of Greek cheese and olives in plastic bags that are exaggeratedly oversized. If I am quiet enough to focus, I can smell turmeric and diesel fumes. When I hear songs from Flashdance, I remember the smell of hot train metal, concrete dust and damp air in the new sections of the Hong Kong subway system, and I can feel those cheap, thin, pink, transparent plastic bags cutting into my hands as I proceeded to my train.  When I hear Anita Baker, I think of my glamorous classmate from Fiji and how we used to sit and eat burgers at a little joint on a US base in Japan —I had such a bad case of puppy love for her.

I can’t say my taste in music has any reason to it. I have a few friends who are musicians. And I have their autographed albums. I know someone who was a backup drummer for the Dixie Chicks and when I hear his music, I think of going through the market stalls of Ameyokocho in Ueno with him and his wife. I think of Polk Street restaurants when I hear his friend’s jazz violin pieces -—and I get the tiniest bit homesick because the violinist and I both grew up on Guam.

I use music to distract myself from housework. Within two hours I could hear A Turkish song by Eartha Kitt, a Caribbean melody by Leena Horne and probably a Hungarian Folk Song from the play, Chess. There would also be songs from the 1980s and 1990s.  

Surprise hits me. My acquisition of music slowed way down. Why? Maybe the great music stores like Roppongi Wave, which was razed to make Roppongi Hills, the closure of most HMVs and the alien abduction of Virgin record stores —now you see them now you don’t— were to blame. As we switched to iTunes and Youtube and iPods, did I really need to buy music in brick-and-mortar establishments anymore? I also see far fewer DJ’s. They used to host events in stores, and in music shops you could ask one to let you listen to an album before you bought it. So here I am, working crazy hours without venues that expose me to music like they did when I was younger. Change isn’t always good.

I would like to say my music is “catholic”, meaning all-encompassing, but it is not. There are types of music I do not actively pursue. I have my favorites. I am open to a new tune now and then. I might even be coaxed into hunting down a music shop just to satisfy my curiosity like someone who goes to the Natural History Museum to see what things used to look like in the Paleolithic era. My music has slowly become a time capsule.

So a word of warning, if you should find my iPod, be prepared for a very eclectic song menu.