A Sonic Education
By Anisha Ralhan
In the house where I grew up, music lived in the air. On school days, it was Gulshan Kumar's high-pitched, devotional songs—recalling the various triumphs of Hindu Gods—that stirred me from sleep, and not my mother's emphatic Good Morning. When the last hymn on the cassette ended, Mum would promptly turn on All India Radio, the only radio station back in the early 90s, a mellifluous medley of Kishore Kumar and Mohammad Rafi songs.
My parents would spend most of their weekends fighting for control over the Philips music player as if it were unoccupied land on the India-Pakistan border, not the bulky piece of technology that occupied most of our living room. Mum, courtesy of her anglicised education, liked bopping to the Bee Gees, ABBA, and Boney M while waiting for curry to simmer. Pa, on the other hand, preferred drowning himself in the all-encompassing melancholy of ghazals over a glass of single malt. Thankfully, the two made a truce over The Beatles. Every time 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' played in our living room, six-year-old me would leave everything to join my parents in singing its supremely catchy chorus. If there was a movie made of my childhood, The Beatles would feature prominently on the soundtrack.
By 2002, globalisation had firmly sunk its teeth into India. American channels like VH1 and MTV had twelve-year-olds like me under their spell. One of the first videos I watched was called 'Remember the Time', featuring Michael Jackson in an Egyptian palace, dressed in an embellished gold outfit, wooing his queen with a bit of magic and a whole lot of dancing. It was a fairytale told through moving images and peppy music. The more I discovered Jackson's sonic gems, the more I was convinced that he made music just for me. Dancing: Check. Catchy lyrics: Check. Groovy beat: Check. Electrifying videos: Check. Our frequencies matched perfectly.
Unlike Mum, who as a teen would have had to wait months for a diasporic uncle to bring her the audiotapes of her favourite bands, all I had to do was ask my father, nicely, to take me to the nearest music store—a short drive from our house in Central Delhi. He didn't mind. I suppose he knew teenagers aren't the easiest to please. The owner of the shop, a short affable man with a Pablo Escobar moustache, had been friends with Pa for a very long time. One day, he convinced Pa to buy a third-generation Sony Walkman at a discounted price of 400 rupees. Pa looked at me and said, 'Happy Birthday in advance.' I've received some really thoughtful gifts in my life, but the memory of unboxing that new shiny silver Walkman is something I wear like a tattoo on my heart.
As months passed, Jackson's groovy music paved the way for the emotional purrings of Dido and Céline Dion. Dido's breakup ballads were just what I needed to get over Mr. DreamyEyes (my first boyfriend), after he told me he was moving to another city. Those days, I would go to school with blurry eyes because I would've been up all night memorising the lyrics of 'White Flag' and 'Thank You'. As the curtains fell on the sky, I would lay in my bed, tethered to Céline Dion's voice through a four-hundred-rupee device—feeling confident that, like Rose from Titanic, I too would find my Jack one day. That my heart will go on.
After graduating from high school, I decided to study journalism. Back then, only three colleges in Delhi offered an undergraduate degree in the field of my choice. It was supposedly a new and professional programme. Because of my mediocre grades in the twelfth standard, I didn't qualify for the first two colleges, and went with the third one. Bad decision, in hindsight. There was nothing intellectually stimulating about the course or the crowd that it attracted. We weren't given a choice of electives. Instead, we had to sit through mind-numbing lectures on the history of printing, media theory, and fundamentals of design. None of these courses, as we eventually found out, were of any use in our journalistic careers.
I could have dropped out. I should have dropped out. But back then, I didn't have the heart to tell my recently widowed mother to forget about the fifty grand she had paid in tuition fees. So, I sucked it up and started writing rap, under the influence of my angsty brother Eminem. 'Her mind isn't at ease. / Despite the cool breeze. / She's looking down the balcony. / Dejected by humanity,' I wrote on my blog, the psychiatrist's couch on which I laid in a foetal position in my darkest hours. But even though I had found refuge in Eminem's raucous rap, I didn't really give up my daily diet of Enrique Iglesias, Backstreet Boys, The Pussycat Dolls, and Beyoncé. Like most nineteen-year-olds, I wanted to be with the times.
One day, a short girl with curly hair sat next to me in the lecture hall. She was wearing harem pants and a black T-shirt, which had an intriguing image of a prism refracting the colours of the rainbow. I couldn't decide if she looked geeky or cool.
'Nice T-shirt,' I said after the lecture.
'Thanks. It's such a great album'
An awkward silence hung between us.
'Dark Side Of The Moon? Don't tell me you haven't heard of Pink Floyd.'
She pulled out her iPod and handed me the earphones.
Acoustic guitar, processed to sound as though it was emanating from a car stereo. A sweet and melodious tune accompanied the garbled guitar sound. A minute went by like this. I shot the girl a quizzical glance. She was arranging things in her bag.
David Gilmour began singing: 'So, so you think you can tell/ Heaven from hell/ Blue skies from pain/ Can you tell a green field/ From a cold steel rail?'
I liked the jangly guitar combined with contemplative lyrics. The music wasn't exactly my type, yet it was oddly comforting. There was something about the singer's voice that told me he knew things that I didn't.
When the last guitar riff ended, I took out the earphones, turned towards her and gasped: 'Holy Moly! This shit is deep.'
It was the day I met my best friend, a lost soul in my fishbowl, and realised how little I knew about music.
After the brief but intense rendezvous with 'Wish You Were Here' in the lecture hall, I knew I had to find my way to the haunting aural landscapes of Pink Floyd. With YouTube as my faithful guide, it didn't take long. Like most Floyd newbies, I instinctively gravitated towards their 1979 cult classic 'Another Brick In The Wall'. It was lyrically and instrumentally better than anything I had heard before.
'We don't need no education / We don't need no thought control', sung by a choir of school children, struck me like a lightning bolt. Roger Waters's lyrical critique of modern education perfectly summed up my pathetic college experience. Hey teachers, leave the kids alone, I wanted to sing to the fifty-year-old professors who barfed out Marshall McLuhan's theory of communication, word for word, in the lecture hall, and expected us to do the same in our yearly exams.
To counter the anarchic energy of 'Another Brick In The Wall', I dived into 'Comfortably Numb'. True to its name, the six-minute composition had the effect of morphine on my anxious mind. David Gilmour's soothing voice and Waters's lyrics—straight out of a therapist's mouth—lured me into thinking that I had control over my feelings. Each time I heard the words 'There is no pain you are receding…You are only coming through in waves', I felt a cloud of calm passing over my head. Just a small dose of 'Comfortably Numb' ensured a peaceful sleep. Even now, at thirty-three, I seek the comforting voice of Gilmour to prepare myself for a dentist's appointment. Aural sedation at its finest.
Dan Wieneck describes Gilmour's chord progression in 'Comfortably Numb' as 'simple and effective in classic Floydian manner: a B-minor verse alternating with a D major chorus, each section acting as the distorted mirror image of the other'. At the time, I didn't know the technical language of guitar, or of any other instrument for that matter. Neither did I know that Rolling Stone ranks Gilmour at number fourteen on their list of the hundred greatest guitarists of all time.
While listening to Pink Floyd's rock ballads, I was ignorant of the influence they had on Thom Yorke, David Bowie and Bono. Or the fact that Pink Floyd's album Animals was a musical tribute to George Orwell's allegorical book Animal Farm. Nineteen-year-old puritan that I was—who hadn't smoked or drank or even knew what drugs looked like—I had no clue about the band's monumental appeal in the stoner community.
All I knew was that Pink Floyd's electric guitar and experimental sounds, combined with unsettling lyrics, challenged my idea of music. After listening to deeply haunting Floydian soundscapes, it was impossible to enjoy the bubble gum lyrics of Colbie Caillat or the simplistic tunes of Enrique Iglesias. I wanted drums, distortion, and chills down my spine. I had tasted rock and there was no looking back.
In the following months, I discovered Rolling Stone's list of '100 Greatest Artists', getting acquainted with The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Clash, The Doors, Janis Joplin, The Who and Jimi Hendrix. Finding The Beatles on this list was akin to spotting a familiar face in a crowded party full of strangers: Hey there, Lennon. Nice to see you!
Slowly, I trained my ear to tell the difference between Blues (lots of instruments, a dash of melancholy, origins in African-American communities), Hard Rock (electric guitar, drums, provocative lyrics, lots of head banging), Punk (the noisier cousin of Rock) and Folk (everything Bob Dylan). Jazz sounded too complex—I kept my distance.
Music taught me what no history textbook could. Through Joplin, Hendrix and Santana's music, I came to know of the counterculture of the Sixties, the civil rights movement, the effect of the Vietnam War on the human psyche. In Bob Dylan's sonic poetry, I heard a plea to end racial injustice and a call for brotherhood. Lennon and McCartney implored me to read between the lines. (Heck, what did I know? I used to think 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' was about a girl named Lucy and her fetish for diamonds.)
The three years of college went swiftly by as I harboured dreams of becoming a music journalist, inspired by child prodigy William Miller in Almost Famous. I read Kerouac and Rimbaud—whose work had a stark influence on my beloved poet/musician Jim Morrison—and dated a guy whose idea of fun involved ranking The Beatles' albums. In the wee hours of the morning, I'd be alone in my dorm room perfecting the transition from G-major to E-minor on a second-hand acoustic guitar. To paraphrase Waters: the sun was the same in a relative way, but I was older.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 4 Oct 2022
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