A while back--and apologies to Brian and Chi for not posting this sooner--I participated in an Asian American "blog summit" on the meanings and potentialities of the Golden State Warriors' Jeremy Lin. It's been up for a few weeks here (I also wrote about Lin for Ta-Nehisi over here.) Below, one of my "summit" colleagues, Jay Caspian Kang, recalls an unlikely reunion with a once-beloved song, and the memories carried by a stray out-of-out-of-context horn line.
* * *
SAILING TO BYZANTIUM
By Jay Caspian Kang
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.
You gotsta understand, Trick loves the kids
I don't quite remember where I was going, but at some point during my first year of teaching creative writing at a school for the children of San Francisco's liberal elite, I was walking down a hallway littered with unwashed, one-hundred-pound bodies, when I heard, with Swann's delight, a long-forgotten saxophone phrase. The sound was immediately swallowed up by the white noise created by forty teenagers talking all at once, and, as I picked my way through the tangle of legs, I wondered if what I had heard had merely been a misfire of my nostalgic imagination. Putting on a tired look, the look all scared first-year teachers reserve for these sorts of walks down the hall, I scanned the morass of faces for the source, but was quickly confronted with the ridiculousness of this particular witch-hunt--the phantom song had come out over ten years before and there was no reason for any of these kids to have ever heard it. But then, at the end of the hallway, I heard it again--the mellow sax, the tapping of the snare. I looked around and saw two kids sitting on a bench by a lone window. One was holding his iPhone up to the other's ear.
I asked, "Why are you listening to that song?"
The kid holding the iPhone looked up at me and smirked. He and his brother were in a rap group together. Their lyrics were almost exclusively about rolling joints and running guns. I, despite my attempts at becoming a grown-up, liked both of them for it. He said, "Yo. Mister Kang. What do you know about Smif-n-Wessun?"
I didn't trust myself to answer his question, but I hated him for asking.
From 1992 to 1998, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, I listened only to hip-hop. Like all kids who never can quite stretch their rebellion out to match the template in their heads, the music replaced the everyday facts of my suburban life with a proxy life, absurdly applied, sure, but prettier than what I had been dealt. Just as Homer Simpson cannot recall a time when he had hair without dragging along Queen or Grand Funk Railroad, almost all of my memories of adolescence are just memories of taking the bus to Schoolkids Records in my hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina to buy Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik, Ready to Die, Tical, Only Built for Cuban Linx, Me Against the World, The Infamous, Illmatic, Lethal Injection, Soul Food, and E. 1999 Eternal. I can remember listening to all these albums in my friend Seth's car, and I can remember Seth's graffiti-inspired handwriting and how it made every mix-tape seem all that much more illicit. I can remember the first time I watched Menace II Society, the first time I realized that 90 percent of my sense of humor came from Fear of a Black Hat. The clarity of these memories has convinced me that there was something vital, important about this music, and while I know it's probably the same for all generations and their rebellion rock, I cannot quite divorce myself from my conviction that we, suburban kids in Volvos bumping Biggie Smalls, were somehow special.
Since then, I've sat through enough lectures and seminars and I've heard enough words that described what we were doing and none of those words made me feel very good about my childhood interests or my ability to relate to anyone, really, but despite knowing better, I still hawk over the memories of those songs with a zealot's singular focus. And just as the zealot cordons himself off from all similar, but perhaps, not-perfectly-alike iterations of himself, I cannot, again, despite knowing better, quite bring myself to not hate all these fucking kids who bump Nas and think they know what's up.
Allow me this: Our interest in rap was sincere. And with the help of some math, I've gotten over feeling guilty about it. (embarrassment is another issue.) Consider the first few bars of Dead Prez's "They Schools," which, to those of us who couldn't accept the indignity of Zach De La Rosa's ethnic ambiguity, was our own personal "Killing in the Name of"
I went to school with some redneck crackers
Around the time 3rd Bass dropped The Cactus Album
But I was reading Malcolm
Changed my name in 89
Cleaned out parts of my brain, like a baby nine
If you shift the time-frame forward a few years, change The Cactus Album to Liquid Swords, change the reason for changing one's name from conversion to Islam to conversion to American citizenship and an adjustment to the clumsy pronouncability of Korean names, everything else fits perfectly. I did go to school with some redneck crackers and as a result of listening to KRS-One, I was reading Malcolm, which did clean out my brain, parts of it, at least, like a baby nine. I'd say that's about an 80 percent match. The arty white kids in school were discovering Pavement, the lacrosse players were tripping out to Phish. In what laconic Pavement pronouncement, in which twenty-seven minute Phish guitar noodle session could I have found even a 50 percent match?
But now you must follow your poems as they fly
Leaving trails of empty feeling
Perhaps when you watch all your dream lovers die
You'll decide that you need a real one
--Townes Van Zandt
This is what I listen to now--the sort of arty, salt-of-the-earth alt-country that appeals to people in my specific, race-blind demographic. A full decade has passed since I spent my last dime on a hip-hop release and although I certainly have not divorced the idea that the hip-hop of the nineties was a renaissance worthy of both great celebration and historical study, and although all those songs are buried somewhere on my hard drive, I hardly ever dredge them back up to the active life of iTunes.
Six months after overhearing Smif-n-Wessun in the hallways, I oversaw an activity during Freshman Welcome Week. The kids were asked to name the one thing in their lives that best explained who they were. Like all things that mix earnestness with fourteen-year-old males, it was a humiliating exercise for all involved until the kids figured out that they could get away with just naming their favorite music act. As I heard all the familiar names, I felt the same disorientation, the same vague anger I had experienced the year before when the rapper asked me what I knew about Smif-n-Wessun.
For these kids, existence was mostly an amassing of references and links--the nerds wore t-shirts for TV shows that went off the air a full decade before their birth, the jocks wore distressed Wu-Tang t-shirts and retro Air Force 1s, the depressives shared Love, Anthrax and Atmosphere videos over Facebook. From all that, they collectively determined that the rap of my childhood was the best ever. Then, as quickly as it takes to load a YouTube page, they excavated every last bit of it. There is certainly something liberating about such access, but for this old dinosaur, who rode the bus to buy CDs, who did not listen to old school hip-hop because he couldn't afford to buy the Strictly Business when the new Outkast was higher up on the priority list, there is something also unsettling about such gleeful, consequence-free abstraction. Why didn't these kids find their own music?
Are we really much more than our memories of our rebellion rock? Even when that rock is reduced to an old t-shirt and old drumsticks, the choice to identify with Leadbelly or Elvis or Hendrix or Iggy Pop or Ace Freeley or Nas is still remembered as a choice borne up out of sincere angst, and, yes, sincere vanity. Everything that came before is circumstantial--family, hometown, schooling, dysfunction, tragedy--and everything that happened afterwards is compromised. And even if one argues that our rebellion rock is also circumstantial, at least it doesn't feel that way. What else is worthy of our protection? And even if it's embarrassing (it always is) and pathetic, each generation defines itself mostly by the music they eventually outgrow.
There are old records by every deathbed, but we prefer to listen to them alone.
If Byzantium, when all is said and done, is just another country, where young men can just say that they are old men and nobody can tell the difference, then Yeats was wrong: the generations can repeat themselves, and, excerpted up from any context, there's no reason why any one person can't just be of any other generation. I have no opinion on whether or not this is good or bad, or even if good or bad are even relevant terms, but I do wonder if, in fifteen years, when those kids get to be about my age, if they'll feel a protective tug over anything, no matter how ridiculous.
When the rebellion rock of your youth is simply the honed, perfect synthesis of all the good rebellion rock ever created, what time are you remembering, exactly?
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.