Pop songs help us remember good times

Although we sometimes go weeks without a gig, the Retro Brothers have been working quite a bit lately. When I say “working” I mean “playing,” and when I say that, I mean “playing” in the sense of what you did when you were a kid: “Mom, can I go outside and play?” That’s what we feel we are doing except playing with guitars instead of cap pistols.

We play music from the 1960s through the 90s, hence the word “Retro” in our name. Our music appeals to a certain demographic audience which, you might say, skews older, although we have many less-old people among our regular listeners. We try to keep our set lists interesting for us as well as our regulars and are constantly adding new oldies to our repertoire.

It is curious how pop songs, especially older ones, evoke such memories in people. Songs heard early in life tend to imprint deeply in our memory centers. Surely that is one of the reasons our audiences know the words to the songs we play.

So often the songs from our youth are bound together with a particular time in our young lives — the summer just before high school when we practically lived at the lake and that song was always on the radio.

On a slightly different note (ha, ha), I find it interesting that for many people the actual meaning of the lyrics to pop songs don’t seem to matter that much. The melody, the rhythm and the pattern of the words as they work together, forming a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts — that gestalt is what pulls us in. What the song lyrics are actually saying is secondary.

Still, as someone who is interested in words and language as well as music, I occasionally find myself pondering the lyrics of the songs we do. Right now I’m thinking of the song “Old Man” by Neil Young. “Old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you/ Twenty-four and there’s so much more.”

Neil sang that in 1972. I was 21 years old then. Now I’m … well, I skew older. Now I hear those lyrics and think, “Gee, I am no longer the young singer contemplating life, I’m the Old Man he is talking to.”

Sometimes the lyrics reveal how our culture has changed. Recently, Retro Dan, my partner, heard an old song on the radio featuring a cool 12-string guitar riff. The song is “San Franciscan Nights” by the Animals. It is basically a love letter from lead singer Eric Burdon to the City By The Bay.

Even though it had been decades since either of us had sung it, we knew most of the lyrics from memory. Just to be sure, though, I called them up on the computer. (Boy, what time that would have saved back in the days when I would repeatedly drop the tone arm onto the record as I wrote down bit by bit the lyrics to a song I wanted to learn.)

I had forgotten about the last line of the song: “It’s an American Dream, includes Indians, too.” Whoa. Indians? My first impulse was the politically correct one: You can’t say “Indians” anymore. Wouldn’t “Native Americans” be the preferred term? I felt like we would need to issue a disclaimer before we played it.

Same thing with the song “Under My Thumb” by the Rolling Stones. As the title makes clear, the song is about a guy who keeps his girl under his thumb. Very misogynistic to me now, but when that song came out in 1966, no one in my world, male or female, gave it a second thought. It was nothing more than a Stones song, after all. I guess my consciousness has been raised over the decades.

We have several gigs in August and September. If you come out, you are welcome to sing along. But please read and sign the disclaimer first.