Her name was Mrs. Washington. She was a beautiful, tall, statuesque black woman, and she was our ninth grade music teacher at Junior High School 143 in the Bronx, New York. She seemed way old to us, but in retrospect she must have only been in her mid-20s, maybe 30, tops. And she loved music, that much was clear. But I didn’t care, because I was a self-absorbed fourteen year-old among a classroom full of self-absorbed fourteen year-olds. I’ll say this, being a junior high/middle school teacher has got to be tough. You’ve got to be dedicated.
But Mrs. Washington was not deterred. Oh, how she tried to teach us. We did not listen. I don’t remember much about the class, just one thing. She said that really good music was that in which every time you listened to it you could hear something new. Hey, teachers say a lot of things to students. Most of it goes in one ear and out the other. But that phrase…her description stuck with me even if I didn’t think it was absolutely true.
And so it was that I was headed home from the airport recently, tired from a long day of flying (it is what I call “work”), and so preoccupied with other things that I was hardly listening to my iPod. I haven’t got quite 250 songs on it yet but we’re getting there (231 at last count). I leave it on “shuffle” and just let ‘er rip. There are very few songs I skip over, hand-picked as they were.
Ringo Starr’s “Photograph” began. Co-written by George Harrison, it’s one of my all-time favorite recordings, and I have rhapsodized about ad nauseum before. I’ve sung along with it countless times, holding my cellphone up to my ear and pretending to talk on it so other drivers will not think I’m crazy. (”Lookit that, Martha! That man is yelling into his cellphone…he must be crazy!”)
Bit of trivia: George used a little, descending-chord riff in “Photograph” that he later repeated in his song, ”Cheer Down" which was used over the closing credits of the Mel Gibson movie, Lethal Weapon II
But as much as I love “Photograph,” even this time I wasn’t paying attention, my mind a million miles away. The chorus played a second time:
”I can’t get used to living here
While my heart is broke...”
One small part of my brain focused subconsciously on the voices singing harmony. It does that sometimes. So clearly recognizable, it jumped out at me - George Harrison’s voice! Suddenly I was jolted out of my reverie. Not only had George helped Ringo write it, he sang on it as well. I did not know that. Alert now, I stopped the song and hit “replay.” As it began again, there’s this jangly acoustic guitar part that is also very clearly George playing. So he helped Ringo write it and sang on it and played on it too.
I wanted to slap my forehead with a Homer Simpson-like, “D’OH!” Why had I not heard this before? I’ve listened to this song countless times…I mean, literally, and I had never recognized George’s guitar playing nor his background singing. It just never registered. D’OH!
I’m stupid sometimes.
And with that revelation…not that I’m stupid, that’s no revelation…but the revelation of hearing something in a piece of music that I’d never heard before, I immediately thought back to Mrs. Washington’s music class and her telling us that bit about really good music. She was right after all!
Since graduating junior high I’ve tried to use that as a yardstick to determine whether I liked a piece of music or not. But to be honest, I thought it didn’t always apply. Sometimes, I thought, a song was just a song, the same song that I’ve heard a thousand times or more. The reality is that sometimes I just stop listening.
It was doubly odd then that I’d hear something “new” in a song that I wasn’t really even listening to.
And so it was in that spirit that I clicked forward until I found Kanye West’s “Stronger.” It’s one of the few songs I do skip over. I gave it another objective listen, hoping to hear something new. Nope, same crappy piece of waste-of-my-valuable-time crap song I thought it was the first time I heard it. Only its raging popularity caused me to download it (hey, we all make mistakes). Got home and, well, let’s just say we’re down to 230 songs on the old iPod now.
Sorry Mrs. Washington, it had to be done.