Thursday, November 01, 2007

That Was Now

After a certain age you get to be afraid of your own taste. It's not that you can't bring yourself to turn on the radio, or download from iTunes, or check out today's music channels on XM or Sirius, it's more that you're afraid you'll get it wrong.

I suddenly realized that I was a victim of this fear. I had started an email family game: Battle of the Decades. It worked like this: I would go to XM Online, and copy and paste the "Now Playing" list for the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Whatever happened to be playing at that moment. Then we each had to vote row which decade had the best song of the moment.

A good game, a good email connector for a far-flung, music-loving family. But, my 27-year-old niece asked, what about the 90s?

The 90s? Did anyone care about the music that came out of the 90s? Well, Alex seemed to. Hard to imagine...she was a Richards, wasn't she? But I added the 90s, and sure enough, the songs began garnering votes, and not only from Alex (The Notorious B.I.G. over Chuck Berry?) but sometimes from her sister and even her cousins--my own daughters--all older than she.

And from me? As Commissioner of Battle of the Decades, I figured it was my duty to listen to at least samples of the songs I didn't know. And sometimes--like if the 50s Channel was playing Connie Francis and the 60s had Brian Hyland and the 70s had The Carpenters--the 90s Channel might turn out to be my choice too.

That was when the fear set in. Suppose I really liked someone on the 90s, and I voted for it, and it turned out to be the 90s version of Brian Hyland?

I'm serious. How could I be sure I could distinguish, in 1997 or 2007, between the hip and the unhip?

I who once was the arbiter of hip. I, who knew that Big Joe Turner was the real thing and Paul Anka wasn't, that Miles was hip and the Dukes of Dixieland were frat-boy pap. Well, that one would have been too easy. I, who knew just how far you could go in digging Cannonball Adderley and still be on the cutting edge of hip. I, who knew why "We don't want to think we're Listening to Lacy -- it's gotta be Bird, Pres, Shearing or Count Basie." And knew why Shearing had made the list, and why he no longer belonged there.

Worse, maybe I did know what was cool and I didn't care. That started to happen around the mid-80s, after The Clash and Springsteen. After that...I knew who Metallica and Van Halen were, but they didn't sound hip to me -- they sounded like kid stuff. Paul Anka with more noise. I watched Ozzy Osbourne on TV, dripping eye makeup, singng that he was going to take me to hell, and I knew that his chances of offering a credible guided tour of that zone were on a par with those of any State Farm agent.

And then, of course, the great generation-divider, as sure as rock and roll in my youth -- hip-hop.

So I accepted who I was. As Jesse Winchester once wrote,

Someday I'll be an old gray grandpa,
All the pretty girls'll call me sir
Now they're asking me how things are
Then they'll ask me how things were

And sure enough, the pretty girls in my English class were writing in their evaluation, "He's like the grandfather I never had."

That was now; this is then.

And that was fine. I knew what it meant to see the Alan Freed holiday show at the Times Square Paramount, with Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Moonglows, and Buddy Holly and the Crickets, or the Coasters and Frankie Lymon at the Apollo, or Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry at the Five Spot. And I'm fine with being the human archive who can tell about what it was all like. turn on XM, find something I like, only to discover that she or he is the 21st Century equivalent of Air Supply...? I'm not sure I want to take the risk.

Anyone want to listen to some Big Al Sears?


Patrice said...

Tad: What a FABULOUS commentary on music, hipness, and the moving culture. I think you should apply to either or the Huffington Post and become their culture blogger. I have no idea what the pay arrangement is, but your words and wisdom (ouch, does that make you feel old?) should be getting out to the greater masses. Hey -- I'm 52, and I know you're a little ahead of me, but we are all getting older... so I feel it, bro.

You're always hip to me, o wise one.


Tad Richards said...

Same old story...I don't know how to market myself.