Monday, March 30, 2009

Changing of the Guard

Something odd occurred to me while shopping in Best Buy the other day. Best Buy … even in Manhattan, you want to buy physical product of a CD or DVD, unless you go to J&R Music World, or one of the few indie stores in the Village, that’s all there is. That is what occurred to me. This is how life was circa 1975 or so, when I bought most of my albums at Woolworth’s.

I’m talking purely retail here, of course. You go online now, you can find just about anything for free. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there’s been a recent explosion of blogs putting out RAR files of entire albums for even the most obscure artists – I’ve found everything I’ve been looking for on recent spelunks for out-of-print material … and realized there was plenty of in-print albums on these blogs, too. Each blog will have page after page of complete albums -- hundreds of albums in a lot of cases. If you feel like paying, you can go to Amazon or Half and get it used at reduced cost. Like a quirky new single you hear on a commercial? Go to Hype Machine … chances are, more than a few blogs will have the single posted.

It’s a radically different world for music from 1975. But in terms of retail, that’s how it feels to me. (Best Buy even had a row of vinyl albums for sale – Van Morrison’s Moondance staring me right in the face.) You want to physically buy product, you go to what amounts to a department store having a sale. I bought many great albums at Woolworth’s – the building blocks of my rock years, Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Elton John, Bowie, etc. And then there were Listening Booth and Record World in the local malls. Listening Booth had surprisingly deep catalog – they’d always have at least one copy of rare or punk albums I’d read about in Creem or Rolling Stone. These were infinitely cooler places to hang than Woolworth’s. But Woolworth’s often beat them on price. I didn’t discover truly cool record stores until I went to college.

I buy about a dozen CDs a year now. I used to buy a dozen in a month. Nearly everything is downloads now, be it my 90-per-month take at Emusic, or whatever I stumble on going around the web, which these days is a lot. (Emusic features only indie artists, which suits me fine, as the major labels put out very little of what I want -- usually older artists, thus the "dozen albums a year" edict I made earlier.) With the Emusic stuff, I rarely download an entire album – I cherry-pick tracks. Think I always wanted to do this. Even with great albums that held together as albums, there were always one or two duds that I could live without. Ziggy Stardust? I don’t need “It Aint Easy.” Abbey Road? Don’t ever need to hear “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” or “Octopus’ Garden” again.

But I’m starting to realize the real changing of the guard going on with music now isn’t how we purchase it. Sure, that’s a whole new world, but if you’ve been following along and listening to music in the past decade, what’s going on now has been slowly flowering and is not new to the experienced web surfer. We’re seeing the waning days of the CD as the dominant format, which is a shame, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s been the best physical format, and I got a few thousand stored away in my six-drawer dresser as proof.

The real change going on is how we “see” music, especially for kids. It’s just not the same anymore, doesn’t hold the same cultural value it once did. Even me … once upon a time, if any of my favorite artists was putting out an album, I’d be up on it weeks in advance, would have that Tuesday release date burned in my mind, and that day, would make a beeline to the record store after school or work and nail that album, rushing home to listening to it. There are a few albums like this that I have distinct memories of hunting down like that: Ian Hunter’s You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, The Clash’s London Calling, Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I had heard The Wall being played on WMMR in its entirety on Thanksgiving morning, 1979. The following Tuesday, man, I was on it down at Woolworth’s!

How did I get that fanatical? By reading magazines and books about the artists. Creem. Rolling Stone. Biographies about The Beatles, Stones, The Who, Dylan, etc. There was no MTV. I’d never miss The Midnight Special. Or Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert. Or the various pre-MTV video shows, like Night Flight and Radio 1990. I recall seeing cool British shows late at night on the weekends that would hip me to stuff like Alex Harvey and Roy Wood. I’d listen to Rock Over London every Sunday night and pick up on all the cool British new wave stuff that was going on in the early 80s. The local rock stations would play live concerts of my favorite bands, the King Biscuit Flower Hours and such. Radio didn't pick up so much on new wave, but it solidifed and constantly reinforced all those classic rock artists, often playing music that would be considered deep catalog now.

There was a thriving culture dedicated to rock and roll, and it felt huge to a kid. Now? I’m aware of my favorite artists putting out new material – I’m still tuned in. But when I buy it, often not on release day, I’ll let it sit in its cellophane for a few days sometimes. That “buzz” of new product isn’t the same. It’s there. I know it’s there. I know I’ll like it and pull a half dozen tracks from the album into my MP3 collection. The music ultimately still has the same value to me. I get excited when I know The Gourds are putting out a new album. Or The Flaming Lips. Or Wilco. Or even older favorites like Dylan or Ray Davies. But it’s nothing like the thrill I’d get buying a new album in 1978 – and I mean nothing like it at all. Part of that is experience, of going through life, getting older, different priorities and what have you. But part of it …

It’s just not as exciting as it was once was. Lately, I’ve been wondering why that is. What have I come up with? The simple fact that the way rock and roll culture was constructed and, basically, worshipped from the 60s through the 80s, no longer exists, and we are now left with a more honest, albeit less exciting, musical world, where it’s one of dozens of options in terms of “coolness,” especially to kids. The music hasn’t changed as much as we have.

That old world doesn’t exist for a number of reasons. A key one no one can seem to admit or acknowledge is that the culture of printed word about rock and roll no longer exists on that exalted level. The really good magazines, like Mojo, write mostly about older acts. Rolling Stone still exists, but is a shadow of its glory days, where different strands of culture were weaved into that overall sense of being part of something. People who write about rock and roll no longer have the forums, or the cultural power, to spread their wings, to try something new, to inspire fans, or share in that excitement of discovery. That was crucial in its time: it was how the myths were made around many of these hugely popular bands. Newspapers and magazines are downsizing all the time. Now you get thumbnail reviews and articles about artists well under a thousand words. I was raised reading sprawling stories about musicians, with the writer tagging along on the road for days or weeks, and bringing back excellent overviews of a world that seemed romantic and exciting as hell to kids anchored in small towns or nowhere neighborhoods. It wasn’t so much heroic as just different from anything we had known. I may think Cameron Crowe is a lantern-jawed pussy, but he tapped into that vibe with his movie Almost Famous.

This has been replaced by websites and blogs. You have to know where they’re at. And they’re not into myth-making – they’re into bringing the artist and the music down to their level, to fit them down into our media-crazed world and find a usable place for them. The reviews are often snarky and damning with faint praise. There’s virtually nothing legendary going on – a lot of good music, but nothing legendary. Which is fine. But it doesn’t build myths. Or make you long for life on the road, or wish you were a star. You got bullshit like American Idol for that which strips down stardom to its most empty, base, temporary terms. We’ve made the mistake of separating that level of stardom from artistic quality – once upon a time, they peacefully co-existed. You better believe Jagger and Bowie and Springsteen and so on wanted to be stars on that level: it drove them as artists. They made themselves good enough to reach that level, through touring endlessly and writing songs until they got it right. Now, this shit is delegated to a panel of jackasses and 1-800 numbers to phone in your choice … for inexperienced cover-band singers who are not artists in any real sense. It’s sickening to see how wildly popular this show is.

This whole “less is more” vibe started with alternative rock in the 80s, which seemed like a good idea at the time, and was, but was never meant to overtake the whole rock culture, which it has. It was meant as what it claimed to be – an alternative, not the main show. Throw this in with hiphop and boy/girl bands taking over everything in the 90s … and a huge void was created … all these aging classic rockers still doing their thing, but no one coming up behind them with that same burning desire to exist on that high a cultural level. The 90s were a morose time for rock music in general, whether we’re talking the sickly grunge-influenced spate of “daddy hates me” goat-boy bands, or the realization that rock wasn’t meant to be fun anymore. Cheap Trick was fun. The Ramones were fun. There were bands in the 90s who got that (Ben Folds Five, Flaming Lips, a few others), but it felt like various shades of emotion were wiped from the slate. The Backstreet Boys had fun. Pearl Jam was serious. Christ, how I hated that shit. Both of them! It felt that divisive and over-simplified to me. Rock became "serious" in a way that was utter horseshit and the antithesis of what rock set out to be back when guys like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lew Lewis were blowing the roof off.

And all of what I’ve written already may be meaningless in light of the fact that video games have dwarfed music in terms of “coolness” to kids. I don’t like video games. Too violent and frightening? No. They make kids docile and alone. If they do reach out, it’s to get with a network of kids tapped into the same game they’re simultaneously playing. And if you haven’t heard those online conversations, they’re idiotic, like Facebook, nothing real is communicated. White boys in the 90s pretended they were gangstas, en masse. That somehow morphed into video games, and kids pretending to be killers, en masse. Everyone pretending to be something they're not, nor ever will be. Granted, being a teenager is all about finding novel ways to waste time, but this shit was and is ponderous.

Like so many other things with computers and new media, video games isolate kids from each other, much less from their parents. Watching a kid playing a video game for hours is a pretty mind-numbing process – and reality is the kid is doing this most nights of the week. It achieves nothing. What was I doing at that age? Driving around with my friends at night. Listening to Van Halen and such. Shooting pool. Achieving nothing, too. But the point being I was with my friends and achieving nothing. Physical contact. Socialization process. However meager it was: it worked. We were ourselves. And we inter-acted with other people. I realize how fucking silly that sounds, but you watch a kid zoned out in front of a video game for four hours, and realize he's doing that nearly every night, you have to wonder.

Granted, you can say the same about listening to music. But from what I’ve experienced in my own life, music will inspire me in a lot of ways, make me want to create my own art, give me the energy to do things, a sort of understanding of the world that’s communicated to me through the music. I don’t know what you learn when you’re pretend you’re a shotgun-toting murderer killing everyone in sight in a blighted urban landscape or desert. What the fuck does that mean? I know there’s the thrill of killing someone in a video game, I can get off on that, but for how long. Hours every night? Night after night? Hell, no.

With music, even the bands have changed. The most notable change for me is with lead singers. It’s almost embarrassing for them to have real talent, to have big voices, to be able fill a room, with nothing but their voice, and make everyone stop and listen. Most indie bands I like, the weak point is always the lead singer. The singer’s voice will lack character or strength. Sure, it will have a certain personality, but it often sounds weak to me. A good example of this was the band Grandaddy from California. A band that seemed to aspire to ELO levels of rock artistry. But had a lead singer who sounded like a librarian. I liked Grandaddy – a lot. But if I played a Grandaddy song for someone who was into 70s rock and hadn’t made the jump to more current indie rock, they would laugh and always say something like, “The music’s great, but that guy sounds like a weasel!”

And they were right. Rock bands seemed to have accepted that they’re never going to be stars or cultural icons on that sort of Stones/Springsteen/Dylan level ever again. In a way, that’s liberating. In a way, all this is liberating. The pressure’s off. Only the people who like and search out this music will be aware of it. There won’t be hundreds of bloated, stoned, bullshit people milling around at shows who are there only for the event, and don’t really care about the band.

(Sidenote: another issue is how many people who go to shows don’t really seem to care about the band on the stage, even if it’s the headliner. They’ll talk through ballads, a constant buzz of talking, often on cellphones. I don’t get that. Never have, never will. Didn’t see this happen until the 90s. And it still unnerves me those rare occasions when I see a band now. I couldn't even hear my fucking cellphone ring at a show, and it wouldn't occur to me to call anyone while at a show.)

But I have to accept, as a fan who remembers life before, that the sense of rock music mattering on that high a level is a thing of the past as a result. If you treat music as music, musicians as musicians, and nothing more, than that’s all they will be. And there’s a simple beauty in that. An honesty I can appreciate. In fact, I ultimately might prefer it all this way. It’s just a complete 180 from the way rock and roll was once upon a time. The culture around music now is more familiar and less exclusionary. You can approach these people and talk to them after shows. They’ll often be friendly. Email them – chances are, they’ll answer. They’re one of you, basically. Shit, they probably even need a day job when they’re not on the road. The guy you see on stage might serve you a coffee in a Starbucks a week later. A result of that, too, is that you won’t have as many flamboyant, other-worldly figures floating around the world. You'll have nerds in Savlation Army sweaters. Imagine David Bowie as Aladdin Sane helping you out at the Home Depot. It didn’t work that way. But if these people need day jobs because they can’t make a living solely through music, they’re going to have to appear “normal” on a very base level to get work.

It’s all some strange shit to think about! But some of the stuff I’ve come up with recently on why I don’t feel the same way about rock and roll anymore. Conversely, I have branched out so far into other types of music – most recently celtic and reggae – that I never stop growing in terms of having something new to listen to. There’s so much to learn – and I’ll never learn it all, or even want to. My plate is always full with music, overflowing in fact, simply don’t have enough time or the inclination to digest it all. But these are strange times we’re heading into now, and not just because of the MP3 revolution. Much more than that has changed in the past few years.

1 comment:

Andy S. said...

Great piece, Bill. There's a lot to digest and comment on here, but overall I think you pretty much nailed the current state of rock and roll.

One thing I will comment on is the video game phenomenon. When I was visiting my sister at Christmas, I noticed how much time her son was spending playing his Wii system. It wasn't just the fact that it was a violent war game, it was the fact that he'd spend literally the whole day doing nothing else. It really limited the amount and quality of our interaction. (He's also getting his musical taste from American Idol, but that's another story, and I'm hopeful that I can help him grow out of that someday.)

But the most bizarre thing about the video game phenomenon as it relates to music is the Guitar Hero or Rock Band trend. As you know, these games use real songs, and they are becoming a big source of licensing revenue for record companies. But what freaked me out was the story from a few months ago about this kid who won the Guitar Hero tournament. He's a real guitarist, but instead of playing his actual instrument, he's busy mastering the fake one, and getting rewarded for it. To me, it was one of the saddest commentaries on the state of modern music I've seen lately.

Anyway, great piece. Maybe I'll have more to say about it when I have more time.