Sunday, July 5, 2009

never can say goodbye: letting go of our past

Last night I could have gone to see Todd Rundgren at a local festival. Tonight, Huey Lewis and the News are there. In the past few years in my own town, just down the street, I have seen such acts as America, what passes as CCR these days without John Fogerty, The Grass Roots, Grand Funk Railroad, Tommy James and the Shondells, and Electric Light Orchestra. Nostalgia acts like these can be found in festivals across the country, and they always draw crowds of people who enjoy sitting on lawns or hillsides listening and singing along with songs that take them back to days they wish that they could get back.

In the outrageous outpouring of emotion over the death of Michael Jackson, one thought I heard struck me most: the simple and logical question that a friend had asked on facebook: why do we care so much about someone whose career has not mattered to us in years? And it's true: most of us probably cannot name three songs Michael recorded after "Thriller." So what gives?

I think that our reactions to both Michael's life and his death are linked both to his undeniably intriguing individual characteristics and to the nature of pop/rock itself. As much as Michael the Entertainer riveted us and Michael the Curiosity confused and enthralled us, Michael the Aging Pop Icon held onto our hearts.

It isn't difficult to see (or prove) that, nostalgia aside, pop and rock are youth-oriented industries. That's why Mick Jagger famously said, "I'd rather be dead than singing 'Satisfaction' when I'm forty-five." Well, of course he is long past forty-five and still singing "Satisfaction," and as far as we can tell he has made peace with the fact that he is very much alive. The Stones still sell out stadiums, still release new recordings. But--and please forgive me, Stones fans--they don't matter any more. It has been years, probably decades, since they have released anything with real staying power. When you think of the Stones, your mind does not travel to anything of recent vintage; it takes you to "Wild Horses" and "Brown Sugar" and "Paint It Black," and, yes, "Satisfaction." And it's not a coincidence that it is those songs that the Stones are playing in those sold-out stadiums.

Paul McCartney, too, playing before international audiences in recent years after 9-11 or at the Super Bowl halftime show, did not regale us with ditties from "Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard." No. He played Beatles songs. These men, these giants of the pop rock world, have long since passed the days when their music mattered in that world. That is left to the stars of the moment, and each generation has its share. Next month I am taking my daughters to see Green Day, their favorite band. (I think of it as an alt punk REM.) But even Green Day may be pushing past its prime: the band members are all in their thirties now, and this is as much a young man's sport as pro basketball.

Yet we cannot deny that the musical icons of our youth are important to us in ways that perhaps we don't even understand. And because we--the middle aged fogies who seem so old to those children at the Warped Tour concerts--were, after all, the generation that invented rock and roll, the generation that gave birth to its icons, we have managed to keep them alive in ways that might well be unprecedented.

Think to the 60's and 70's. Your local AM radio station played all the hits as well as all the oldies. It played the Carpenters and the Beatles along with Steppenwolf and the Everly Brothers and the Big Bopper. But how far back did it ever go? On a super-oldies weekend, maybe you'd get 1956 and "Rock Around the Clock" or "The Wayward Wind." You certainly didn't go further back than that. In our youth, we acted as if music began when rock began.

We still do.

And that fact influences everything, even now. The high school kids I teach enjoy their contemporary bands, but many of them also have a deep appreciation for the Stones, the Beatles, the Doors, Eric Clapton, and so many others who are old enough to be their grandparents (if they are even still alive). They listen to a variety of radio stations, some of which broadcast only today's music, but others showcase rock's history. And the music of our generation remains alive.

It doesn't matter if Michael Jackson never again reached the pinnacle he reached with "Thriller." It doesn't matter to his musical legacy that he experienced whatever personal nightmares he experienced that led to his very public personal implosion. Like the other stars of the 60's and 70's, he defined an age. And perhaps more than most of the others, he defined it personally for many of us. We watched him grow up. We marveled at his dance skill and his singing voice. And then, in his incredible self-reinvention with "Thriller," we were, well, thrilled. He was the defining entertainer of his time. And it was no real mystery in the end: as we feel toward the rest of the icons of those days, we simply have a hard time saying goodbye.


it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

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