I was sitting at a café in North London the other day, admiring the resilience of the freezing European winter rain in the teeth of mid-May. The café is not a great café, the coffee it serves is less than scintillating (especially for a café run by Italians, which this is), but it’s the best place in my locality to terminate a long, wet walk, the best place to pause and catch my breath before heading back to my bunker. Needing to smoke, I was huddling outside in the arctic-temperature covered area where they have ashtrays and really, really slow and lackadaisical service. The service is slow because the waiters and owners know there is nowhere else people can go in the precinct, and the slothful arrogance they generate comes close to challenging the great work-shy waitering traditions of Paris and a certain famous establishment on our own Park Street that shall remain un-named. So I was watching the flurries of rain and drinking my not-so-good-but-neverthless-expensive coffee when I noticed the piped music coming from the speakers. It was B.J. Thomas singing Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s great classic “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”, from the film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Suddenly, I was transported.
Suddenly I was back in early Seventies Calcutta, watching the film in one of the English film cinemas around New Market. There was that peculiar smell of air-conditioning that one only seemed to find in Calcutta movie-halls showing English (read Hollywood) films. There was that beautifully erotic, sun-drenched song-scene with Paul Newman and Katharine Ross on the bicycle. And there was that final cul-de-sac of a gunfight ending in that famous freeze-frame, the climax made all the more poignant by the song having come before (much earlier in the film). The thing is, the song left behind the husk of the film and found a life of its own: I may have revisited BC&TSK two or three times since, maybe once on VHS and then on DVD, but the song has stayed with people of my background and generation across the years. The other thing is, no matter all the many different places I’ve heard it in, for me the song will always remain inextricably linked to Calcutta.
There were, actually, succeeding families of song, clusters, aural tree-rings from different times and contexts across one’s growing up. For instance, “Raindrops…” gets attached to other songs from Hollywood films of the time, first of all “Old Turkey Buzzard” sung by José Feliciano, from McKenna’s Gold, and then moving away from the modern Western, “Freedom” by Richie Havens, which springs out at the beginning of Woodstock. Before them, there were Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, maintaining a certain molecular integrity with Harry Belafonte on AIR Calcutta’s Lunch Time Variety on weekdays and Musical Band-Box on Sundays, compered by the unctuously lechy BJ. Afterwards, in the newly-discovered compact-cassette world, there was the joint rule of Pink Floyd and The Doors. Around 1976, came the pestilence of disco, (as I saw it, then) ruining everything and pricking my almost perfect rock-music bubble, and, on top of this excresence of Abba and Bee Gees floated the baroque-rock scum of Queen.
When I went to America in 1979, to a ‘counter-cultural’ college in Vermont, I carried with me all this, my limited knowledge and boundless love of classic Sixties and early Seventies rock, my prejudices against all the music that I saw as attacking its purity. It took me about one week to realize how out of it I was. Here in America, the American music I loved was mostly dead as different sub-species of the dodo. The stuff I held as canonical was all so Sixties man, while people were knocking on the gates of the Eighties, using the battering rams of the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Talking Heads, not to mention groups with names like Devo, the B-52s and the Gang of Four. Furthermore, disco was not to be sneered at, in fact it was to be revered as the soundtrack, the dancetrack, of lesbian and gay freedom and seen as avant garde and super-cool. Some of ‘my’ music did make it back through the re-entry barrier of Planet West, somehow, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Stones and Bob Dylan had different passports and they could come and go as they liked. The Beatles, too, quietly sneaked back in. But a whole host of others in my personal Rock Hall of Fame were just consigned to the rubbish heap — you could find their albums in the second-hand music stores for 50 cents or a dollar but you didn’t want to have that stuff lying around your room, not unless you wanted the cool girls to laugh at you.
It took me a while to develop a taste for the music my fellow students were listening to, Punk, New Wave, electronic stuff like Kraftwerk, re-discovered oldies like Lou Reed (whom I’d barely heard of in Calcutta) and Iggy Pop (whom I’d never heard of). By the time I returned to India in 1982, I was immersed in this stuff plus some crazy, brand new Brit groups like the Clash and Joy Division. When I got back to Calcutta, everyone was mellowly swaying to something I first deciphered as ‘Sulterns of Swing’. To make a more precise unfair sweeping generalization, Jodhpur Park and Jadavpur were in dire straits, while New Alipur and all the posh club types were just beating it with this machined freak called Michael Jackson. Only about two people wanted to hear the music I now liked and I couldn’t bear most of the music that was sending everyone into ecstacies. For me this made for a somewhat difficult twenties.
Just as Calcutta could once lay claim to staging the most number of plays by Bertolt Brecht in non-European languages, I’m sure there was a period when the city had the largest number of bands playing Pink Floyd numbers exactly like Pink Floyd. If I sneered at this phenomenon once, I don’t any more. A sort of realization came when I began to spend time in Paris. Suddenly, there was this time-warp on the café music systems, Pink Floyd, endlessly Cohen’s over-played “Suzanne”, equally the enervating and threadbare “Imagine” yet again re-burying poor old Lennon, Crosby Stills and Nash, and so on. None of this stuff would now play too often in London, New York or San Francisco, nor in Berlin (which has its own self-respecting musical tradition), but it was ubiquitous in France, in Cyprus, in Rome and, of course, in Calcutta.
It took me a while to understand this thing differently, to develop a more tolerant attitude. Perhaps it was the Anglo-American cities (where most of these ‘classics’ were produced) that were the oddities, obsessed with the new, too quickly bored of the ‘old’. Perhaps the cities to which this music was still somewhat ‘foreign’ were the ones where people, oddly enough, made this music their own, where they took time to savour the repetition, just as we in India savour our old film songs and even our Hindustani or Carnatic music. Perhaps these non-Anglo cities were the ones that took possesion of these songs, even as the factory-heads of London and New York discarded them. Perhaps there is nothing odd or ‘archaic’ about old tracks playing in unexpected places, or, at least, the question — “Why on earth are they playing this ancient stuff when it’s so done with in England and America?” — becomes irrelevant.
So now, when I hear “Raindrop” in London, or “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” wafting from a night-time bar in Marseilles, I feel a jolt, a pull of home, as if I’m suddenly hearing Rabindrasangeet or Mohammed Rafi. For people like me, a whole host of Western music will always feel like music from home, there are some rock songs that will forever be from Calcutta and nowhere else.