In James Bidgood’s 1971 film “Pink Narcissus,” a playful Adonis lit in pastel neon puts on a record and pouts. The boy, played by teen runaway Bobby Kendall, picks up a phone, lights a cigarette and talks to no one as he looks longingly in the mirror with “I’ve Grown So Lonesome Thinking Of You” spinning in the background. He turns the phone dial with his finger, strips a bit and falls into bed, rolling around until he catches his own face in the mirror (hello there), as if he’d never seen it before.
Lately, I’ve felt a bit like Bobby — at least musically. At surface level, “Pink Narcissus” is a beautifully lit erotic drama in an old shut-in queen’s Manhattan apartment. Beyond that, it’s an otherworldly sequence of dreams — in which our bulging Narcissus lounges about in private, fantasizing himself a matador, Roman slave, virile fantasies of himself projected onto us. Since seeing it, I’ve been hung up (heh) on the space between two worlds: private and public music.
Last month at the Kerrytown Concert House, I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture from one of WCBN’s most respected DJs, Arwulf. He is one of many incredible music lovers at the station, whose range of taste knows no bounds and whose exaltation of music eviscerates much of my hard-won jadedness. During his lecture — an unfairly limiting word considering he had a backing band, complete with an oboe, accordion and chocolate fountain — I began to review the emotional ejaculate in the air as Arwulf listed a long line of jazz musicians from the mainstream and left-field. Rising to a near-gospel trance, he called out “Sun Ra … Archie Shepp … Ornette Coleman,” as excitable adults nodded, grunted, laughed and gradually shouted out responses. In that noise there was a conversation — memories and declarations of affirmation. I know what you’re talking about. I’ve felt that too.
This practical ritual — the communal energy of music — is funny because, as I think about it, I realize that most of the time I listen to music by myself. Thousands of kids on campus listen to music by themselves. Thirty kids ride a Bursley-Baits bus wearing earbuds, in their own world, some of them listening to the same song. When I write reviews, I usually listen to the albums by myself. I think about them, put them on repeat, digesting them alone.
I’ve been a DJ on WCBN for the last two years now, and you might consider it a social experience. Though in the end, it’s me, alone in a studio for a couple hours, listening to music being sent out there, listened to by maybe 100 people, maybe none.
And my music of choice? Disco. By all means, the spartan “purpose” of disco is dancing — it’s social music, meant for crowds. Disco 12″s were made for the clubs, for the dancing people, whose sweat and shouts to the music granted it life or death.
But I’ve also come to love disco almost entirely alone. Much of the time I spend researching music for my show is done late at night, wearing headphones alone in my room.
I refuse to deny the pleasure of a headphones album. The private fantasia of letting music serve as your sensual tableau — clutching tightly to songs heard by thousands of other people clutching it just as close.
Last month, during a birthday party at my house I tried to seclude myself in my room. Blasting Gino Soccio brought the knocks of total strangers. Within a few minutes there was a miserably tipsy dance party in my room. My world of privacy was suddenly public, and I was loving it. Glancing at the YouTube comments for any number of obscure disco classics, you’ll find heartfelt odes to pasts probably colored in with nostalgia: “Oh, I’ll never forget” and “I remember when this song ___ed my life,” the occasional paragraph epitaphs for private memories now public. People experiencing the same feeling, far away, over phone lines, continents, earbuds, decades, dance floors.
Writer Frank Kogan’s idea that we can’t simply consider music as content, but as a viable activity we engage in during our day-to-day, is part of this cycle. I buy records owned by other people in time, strangers who listened to the same songs, and our conversation is inherited. We hear a song alone, we talk to friends and realize they reached the same conclusion, maybe a different one. Pop radio elicits boos and cheers, often in the same car. We share an album with a friend like a page from our diary. There is joy in the privacy, joy in the open and some unfathomable infinity in between.
It is the activity of our musical lives, not a soundtrack. It’s a living, breathing broadcast. The music you dance, drink, cry, feel, study, walk and masturbate to. Hell, you knew what Bobby Kendall was going to do at the end of the movie, right?