Thursday, October 7, 2010

Looking for a One Man Dog


I received a comment on a post a while back, from someone I respect, questioning my taste for a specific music artist. It didn't particularly bother me in the "oh, no, she doesn't like my music" sense. My tastes in music are all over the place, and I have never really met anyone who likes exactly the same things I do. But it did leave me pondering how I might convey the impact that some of these artists had on the period of my youth, which I think we can (mostly) all agree produced a lot of amazing music. I have struggled somewhat to find a foothold, because most of these people have long been relegated to the genre of "music old squares listen to," while many of their contemporaries have been credited with helping to change the world. But at the time, it was all one tapestry of far out groovy heavy sound.

One possible stroke of fortune in my search for common ground is that my wonder years bore some striking similarities to the present time. There were contentious racial, economic, and political divisions in the country and the world. Common people were struggling. It seemed then, as it does to many now, that global industrialization and unbounded capitalist greed would put an end to the American middle class once and for all, and that our country was being divided cleanly between the "haves" and the "trickled down upon." The country was suffering through a long, increasingly unpopular war, and optimism for the future was at an all time low.

The media narrative of the time was almost universally grim. Body counts from the meat grinder that was Viet Nam topped the news nightly. Ghettos burned in cities across America. Churches were bombed. Banks were bombed. The Manson Family unleashed their special brand of helter skelter. American college students were shot dead by the National Guard. One political figure after another found the wrong end of a gunsight. Stories like the Son of Sam killings that would dominate the national media for months in today's climate, struggled to stay on the front page. The Apollo missions were virtually the only national bright spot in this violent, troubled landscape.

They say great art is born in suffering, and the young and rapidly expanding genre of rock produced some lasting and powerful music during these years. You've heard some of it, if only in movies. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, CSN (and sometimes Y), CCR, Richie Havens, Edwin Starr, Steppenwolf, and dozens of others produced music that was fresh, relevant, and powerful. They are the soundtrack to the pain, confusion, fear and hope of a generation of Americans. Their message was simple and compelling. Get yours now; the country is burning.

In the midst of all of this, a different movement emerged. Unlike today, this was not a movement of angry and frightened old people. Those were the people in charge. These grass roots were mostly young,   overwhelmingly white, and decidedly middle class. Their fathers fought in WWII, or Korea, and went to college on the G.I. Bill. Their mothers were housewives. Their grandparents had struggled through the Great Depression. These people believed in the innate goodness of America and its citizens, but could not delude themselves that what they saw in front of them was the American Dream. Instead of taking to the streets, they turned to each other.

The soundtrack for these people was written and performed by Simon and Garfunkel, Harry Nilsson, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Jimmy Buffett, and John Denver. That's right, I said John Denver. I dare you not to think of a John Denver song right now. And almost everyone my age liked his music, whether they will admit it or not. I knew people who had his albums right next to their Iron Butterfly. 

The music did not usually focus on the burning of America, but it also wasn't about surfing, or sock hops, or fast cars. It was music of the land, the seasons, and the road. Songs about love, and growing up, reflection, and loss. These songs reminded us that every story is a personal story, and that the only way to really make the world a better place is to be kinder to the people around us. It was about the things we valued most about our country and our lives, back then. These were the songs that people would play -- and sing -- at this time of year, outside around a fire, sometimes with a goat on a spit, or a pig roasting in a hole, but always with beer, and wine in skins or screw-top bottles. They were songs you could sing while holding your breath, which was very handy in those days.

Okay, maybe I can't explain it after all. That time is long gone, and no matter how similar this time feels to old farts like me, the world is a much different place now. Wood smoke adds to our carbon footprint, and I wouldn't even begin to know where to find a goat these days. Whole Foods, maybe? Young people have more serious things to worry about than "finding themselves," like whether the corporate recruiters are going to find the toga party pictures that their friend posted on her Facebook page.  Taking to the road is something only homeless people and illegal immigrants do.*** 

I guess I will have to be content to know that the people who didn't live it will someday struggle to explain Wilco, or Coldplay, or whatever music touched their heart when it was still tender. And every time I hear Everybody's Talkin'Moondance,  Bridge Over Troubled Water, or  You've Got a Friend, I will unabashedly sing along. Singing makes us feel better, right?

* The stuff in the picture is a mixture of basil, oregano, and mint. Seriously. I grow it myself.  I wouldn't even know where to look for that name brand weed the kids smoke these days.**

** Okay, so that's not precisely 100% true. I do work at a college.  But it may as well be true. The last thing I need is to be even more confused, forgetful, lethargic, and hungry than I am already.

*** Isn't this really what the Tea Party is up in arms about? The world got more complicated without their permission? After all, these are many of the same people. They are just old, sober, and frightened now.


  1. Got me. Had to smile about the John Denver reference - i've had him in the category of "guilty musical pleasure" for decades.

    didn't realize how common it was, though, until i was at a tech conference about 10 years ago, and a couple of us went out and rented guitars for a drunken sing-along at the conference chairmans posh suite in santa fe, complete with fireplace and wet bar...

    when i hit the first strains of "Lady" - warming up my fingers high on the neck - a couple people started singing. Pretty soon, we sang every damn John Denver song i knew.

    Before leaving the party, however, we made a blood pact that what went down in that suite? Stayed in that suite. No names have ever been ratted out, but as we've seen each other over the years, we've all had a little extra sunshine on our shoulders...

  2. No apologies here. John Denver was the first concert I went to. I was 15 and had to ask my date what that sickeningly sweet smell was in the air...inhaling your take on the tea party fiasco...seeing you in LR soon?

  3. p.s. Never forget the genius of James Taylor. My friend Mario married Shawn Colvin, who is a good friend of his, and says JT is as much of a gentleman and wonderful soul as one hoped he would be...

  4. OMG Not sure where to start (except please stop looking for goats to roast. Goats are good people!)

    Personally I was so out of touch back in the day that I loved John Denver without realizing how uncool that was until much later. . .

    But the music taste thing is weird. Me, I am apparently an age-mate of yours, judging from the references (really don't have to get more specific than that)and I am in a new relationship with a guy with three kids (young adults)all of whom seem to be stuck in an ipod timewarp of Stones, Beatles, Jimi, Jim Morrison (one of them, the kids, didn't know who Kurt Cobain was!)and when one of my honey's kids lived with us last summer he plastered black light posters the like of which I had not seen since 70's headshops all over our attic bedroom.

    I too have adult children, but the music they listened/listen to doesn't include Hendrix or Morrison - hippy music my daughters call that, dismissively - and it was through them that I learned to hear nine inch nails, coldplay, wilco, etc etc.

    Them and the internet.

    Not sure what I am saying; maybe it's just the irrepressible old impulse to say "I was at Woodstock, too!" at every opportunity. How boring.

    But I enjoyed your post I know what you're saying..

  5. daisyfae: somehow I knew you would have a story.

    Wye: I only met James once, but spent quite a bit of time with his brother Livingston. He was one of the nicest people I ever met.

    Two: I miss my black light. I'm amazed at how many of the kids at my college know almost as much about the music of our youth as I do. And then the others that know nothing older than five years.

  6. Hello, I'm Jon. I got here through 15 Minute Lunch, but it seems I could have just have easily got here through Sometimes I Make Lists or More is Better.

    I'm 31, and my musical awakening occurred between 1994 and 1999. There was not a lot of quality out there on the radio. So, for substance, I went to the music between 1968 and 1979 (including John Denver, and ending with Damn the Torpedoes). Unfortunately, now I have very few non-superficial musical touchstones with those of my generation. It's sad.

  7. Jon: Welcome! My wife came of age in the 80's, and she has had much the same experience. I continue to be amazed at how many people your age and younger are listening to music from my childhood. There was some good stuff created in the 90's, but you mostly don't hear it on the radio. As you can tell from my newest post, this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.