One of the best loved and certainly most recorded songs in the country-music canon of Willie Nelson is Funny How Time Slips Away. It's a classic so familiar that most people who have heard it don't even realize that ol' Willie wrote the yarn for his debut album 48 years ago.
That tune has been flying around my brain a lot of late. Well, the 1973 version by Al Green has. Regardless, the sentiments of the song seem inescapable. Time always slips by at an unappreciable rate.
How many times, for instance, have you sat around with good friends, immersed in nothing but conversation, and found how quickly the hours pass? How many times when the first chill of fall arrives do you realize that you were just getting accustomed to summer? How many times has the growth of a child into an adult seemed as immediate as the snap of fingers?
Now try this far less accessible example. Have you ever taken up a vocation and become so immersed yet invigorated by it that not only years but decades speed by? That's my scenario. In my case, I picked up a pen in 1980 and have never put it down.
As of Wednesday, I will have written about contemporary music for the Herald-Leader for 30 years.
My editor tells me that's a milestone. I see it as something wholly unintended. On one hand, to engage in any line of work for 30 years seems like madness. On the other, I feel like a novice who has just scratched the surface of what he has to say while searching for a voice authoritative enough to say it properly.
Why, then, stick with this work? Well, mostly because I want to. Music has been a friend of mine nearly all of my life. It has made good times great and bad times bearable. I have come to crave its company while learning to respect its inspiration and reach. Music touches everyone — save, perhaps, those few piteous cultures who display the cowardice of outlawing it. And yet, the way it is created by an artist is as distinctive as the way an audience receives it. One man's Mahler is another man's Zappa, so to speak.
My first review was of a Don McLean concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts, which had opened only a year earlier. I remember taking a copy of the published review to show my then-girlfriend in Pittsburgh over Thanksgiving, feeling as if I had just won the Nobel Prize. I also remember the disconcerting appraisal from her father, as the review was less than complimentary, that I was destined to be a "negative thinker."
That in itself was an education — that music criticism is so openly viewed as a high-profile but classless means of spite, power and ridicule. I never saw it in anything that ever resembled those terms. I found it to be the opposite, a way to share the excitement of something that moved you in some seemingly profound way, good or bad. Either way, it's a respect of that expression that has to guide you.
Over the years, it has led me through changes in music composition, production, manufacture — everything, really. If it's good, it excites me with the same fire that John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival did when they changed forever my perception and appreciation for popular music in 1970. If it's bad, you still take something away from it. You don't unduly ridicule it or dismiss it, but you don't sugarcoat your feelings.
Best of all, 30 years of music has deepened my admiration for countless artists who have moved on from this world while their often incendiary music lives on. Among them: jazz titan Sun Ra, blues-rock guitar demon Roy Buchanan, seminal pop craftsman Alex Chilton, bluegrass dobro pioneer Josh Graves, regal vocalist Shirley Horn and rock troubadour Warren Zevon — all of whom I was lucky enough to have interviewed.
Recently, I came across a 1971 essay by then-Rolling Stone writer Jon Landau called "Confessions of an Aging Rock Critic," a title that resonates in frightful terms with me these days.
"Professional critics are usually people who begin as cultists and wind up careerists," Landau wrote. "Some initial love of an art form (books, theater, movies, art, music) drives them to express themselves through writing about it."
That's a somewhat voyeuristic appraisal, perhaps. But then, Landau had made good in the rock 'n' roll world. Since the late '70s, he has been Bruce Springsteen's manager. But Landau's essay rings true — well, at least it does until it begins detailing a purgatory of boredom and burnout that awaits most critics.
"Initial love" for music was indeed the firing pin for me. Today, 30 years on and with music critic purgatory still at bay, writing about something that has so generously befriended me has never been more fun or enlightening.