Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Industry of Cool

The other night on VH1 classic, there was a highlights show on ‘Live Aid’ from 1985. I have the DVDs from the show, but haven’t watched them in a bit. The highlights show was cool because it showed one song each, from only the real heavy hitters of the show. Clapton’s ‘Layla’ segueing into Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’ followed by David Bowie, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, The Who, and Paul McCartney. This got me to thinking, how lucky I am to be a fan of music, and to have grown up when I did. To have so many great artists, so many heroes of folk and rock around at the same time. The first album I can really recall listening to, was Abbey Road. It was at my cousin’s house… I was only 4, but I remember the apple on the album spinning around, and I remember sitting on that braided rug, looking at the album cover picturing these four strange guys crossing the street, in front of that white VW Beetle, and singing along with ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’. Fun song for a kid – then you find out later, your first favorite song was about a serial killer… I’m so conflicted.

After that, the radio and I became good friends. At bed time, I needed the lights out, and the radio on. Oh, and what a good friend it turned out to be. I was introduced to The Guess Who, Led Zeppelin, The Stones, The Kinks, (who by the way would be my first concert), Jim Croce, The Who, CSN, Cat Stevens, and on and on and on… I loved music. Eventually, I would be able to listen to my brother’s 8-tracks when he wasn’t around. It wasn’t easy either, I had to make sure I left each one on the right track, at the right place in the song where he had left it. Of course, anyone under the age of 35 has no idea what I’m talking about. You never had to learn the tricks of putting pennies on your turn table’s needle to play a record that had some scratches in it, or sticking a matchbook under one side of an 8-track tape to stop ‘bleeding’ from another track… Jesus, I’m old! But so are you if you know what I’m talking about. Sneaking a listen, which entailed ‘touching my brother’s stuff’, was worth the risk of bodily harm and potentially eating through a straw for a while, because being able to listen to a whole album was an experience quite different from hearing a scattering of songs on the radio, inserted amongst a cacophony of commercials, traffic and weather, and witty DJ banter. A whole album with all the fades, intros, and nuances that could never be heard on the radio? Nothing like it.

It was more of a special thing when albums came out back then… an event. There was sort of a ritual to it. Depending on the artist, you could get lost in the artwork on the cover. You’d read the liner notes. Then gently place the needle on the shiny black space before the first track, then just sit, listen, and read along with the lyrics on the album sleeve. The first album I ever bought with my own money, (that I probably got from my mother), was Elvis Costello’s ‘My Aim is True’… I actually still have it. Of course, the version I listen to now is digitized, and on my Ipod. And while it’s amazing to me still, that I have an entire record collection in the palm of my hand, and can take it anywhere, I do miss that feeling of bringing home the newest collection of 10 or 12 tracks you’ve waited months for, (or in Pink Floyd’s case, a presidential term), in that flat square bag, the likes of which are only seen in calendar stores now, and listening to it for the first time through those giant padded headphones that could block out the ambient noise of a 747 revving for take-off outside your window. We don’t really listen to albums anymore. We’ll put one on in the background at work, or at the gym, but it’s just for noise. Itunes, Zune, and Amazon allow you to buy 1 song, or 2, or 5… whatever you want. These days artists seem to try to compile a collection of hits, as opposed to an album. It’s a shame, but it’s not entirely their fault. Their record company’s bottom line, coupled with our ever shrinking attention spans, dictate what an artist has to do to survive these days.

Yes my friends, somewhere along the line, art, and artists have lost their way. Stardom used to be a by-product of artistic success, now it’s the goal. And a new hit on the radio meant just that – new. This past Summer’s biggest hit was Kid Rock’s ‘All Summer Long’, which was essentially ‘Werewolves of London’ with some ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ mixed in. The chorus even had the words ‘sweet home Alabama’ in it. Are you kidding me? The same is true in Hollywood. Remakes, remakes, remakes…

Think about it… Our parents, and grandparents had Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Sanatra, The Andrew Sisters, Benny Goodman, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, to name a few. And again, I’m lucky to have had the great artists I had to grow up with. Some of the greatest songwriters, singers, and musicians who ever lived, have written the soundtrack to my life. I wonder, in this world of Itunes, American Idol, and Making the Band, if there will be any ‘great’ artists remembered from this generation. I hope so, there are some really good bands around right now. I hope one day they can be free of A&R people, focus groups, and sales charts, so we can really see what they are capable of. I hope my son can look back on a moment as powerful, and as tangible as my Abbey Road memory.

“… and they will ruin rock and roll, and strangle everything we love about it… And then it just becomes and industry of cool.” - Lester Bangs (Almost Famous)