Diet for the Mind

When your child has an unhealthful, junk-food diet, you can either follow the encouragements of the mega-food industry (whose sole motivation is to get your money), and continue to feed him crap, since it’s what he craves and has become accustomed to, and after all, at least he’s eating something…

Or you can follow the advice of health professionals and put your foot down and say, “Enough! Crap is crap, and you don’t treat poor health by continuing to provide that which ruined it.” You fight (and it will be a fight) to restore healthful eating habits in your child, and perhaps to help other parents do the same by reducing the prevalence of junk food. A good way to do that last part is by refusing to buy what the purveyors are selling.

Sensible advice, right? The same holds true of the books we read and movies we watch. Perhaps your children crave the lurid, sensationalistic violence that pollutes media today, but that doesn’t make it less unhealthy. People defend this literary junk food by saying, “At least the kids are reading,” but that’s not good enough when it comes to food, so it shouldn’t be good enough when it comes to literature.  And how much is the desire for junk-reading due to it being the kids steady diet? The book-to-film industry insists they are simply providing what the people want, washing their hands like Pontius Pilate, but are they providing what kids want, or have the kids been conditioned to want it, for lack of any alternative that doesn’t seem as undesirable as brussels sprouts? Funny thing is, brussels sprouts are only unpalatable because they are so often poorly prepared. But there are some great recipes out there.

And there are great books; we just have to get kids used to the idea that conflict in a story doesn’t require physical violence, and the “stakes” don’t have to be death. Anyone who has had to eliminate salt or sugar or fat from their diets (I had to do one, and chose to do another) will tell you that at first it’s awful, that everything is bland and flavorless and makes you want that Bag O’ Calories all the much more. But gradually you adapt, and discover the amazing array of flavors that had been buried under all that sodium (I discovered the joy of black pepper when I reduced my salt intake). Subtle, delicate flavors that are far more rewarding. This is true of literature as well. When all you read is maiming and killing, anything else is boring, but eventually you can discover the much more profound strivings of the human heart and the human spirit, important things that were lost in the constant bloodbath.

I’m not all-or-nothing. There’s a place for tasty snax. But it’s a small place. I’ve always maintained that the key to healthy diet lies in two words: balance and moderation. Eat a variety of foods, and don’t eat too much of anything. Don’t deprive yourself of ice cream, but just have a small scoop, rather than the whole pint of Cherry Garcia in one sitting. It lasts longer, and you enjoy it more. Focus on quality: a six-ounce filet mignon is far more enjoyable than a two-pound porterhouse, and you are left feeling better afterwards.

But the interesting thing is, as far as the real junk food, the true crap, you find that, once you have reduced or even eliminated it from your diet, you not only don’t want it any more, you can’t even enjoy it. Once I got off salt, I became quite sensitive to its presence, and now I can barely stand salty foods. And this is as nothing compared to the experience of vegetarians who, having eliminated meat from their diets, find that if they do have meat, it makes them very sick.

I’m not advocating vegetarianism, although it’s a valid choice for people who know what they are doing. But I do think we should reduce or remove from our diets those things that make us sick once we’ve had a chance to step back from them.

And I think this can be true of media-literature as well. I hadn’t read much nor gone to many movies when I began my writer’s journey a few years ago. I’d been a voracious reader in years past, and once went to all the big movies. But I stopped, for reasons I’m unsure of. As a result, upon exposure to the media diet children subsist on today, I was literally sick, and, as you can tell, have perhaps not yet recovered. Had I been immersed as my fellow writers have been, the ones who responded to my horror with, “What’s your problem? I love that book!” I likely would have shared their enjoyment of these things. Yet a meager few actually listened and, taking a step back, looked at this stuff with clearer eyes and said, “Oh my God, this is awful!”

As I said before, some of my favorite movies were quite violent for their time, and I was concerned I was being a hypocrite. But that’s the key: for their time. Recent studies have shown that the ratings have changed. Movies that just ten years ago would have been solid R-rated for violence are now barely even getting PG-13. Dirty Harry, one of my favorite movies, was quite controversial for its extreme violence, and the glorification of it. But it would probably get a PG today. The level of violence in entertainment has increased, and continues to do so. When we feed our cravings, they are not satisfied. Drinking a sugary soda makes you want more sugar. Hyper-violent books and movies make you want more carnage. This has been confirmed in studies.

The junk-food industry isn’t going to stop producing Cheezy-Poofs, and the literature/film industry isn’t going to stop making carnage-filled movies, with higher and higher stakes, including younger and younger victims, and killers. So we have to be the ones to say enough. We must refuse to let them tell us what we want to read and to see. That’s the reason literary agents lie. They say they want something new and different, but they continue to go with vampires and zombies and dystopia and death. Something new and different is a risk, and there’s big money at stake. So they keep giving us more of the same, thinking it’s what we want, when in fact they are part of the conditioning to make us want it.

But if we stop, if we say, “I don’t want that, not matter how tasty you make it look,” then eventually they’ll have to do something else. As I said, there are good books. And there are good movies. Not just saccharine fare either, but rich, provocative stories that get awards, but rarely pack theaters or fly off bookshelves. Demand more of that, and less of the sick ugliness. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be healthier for it.

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Pearls Before Swine

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April 13, 2014 · 9:33 am

Speaking of Old Records

I recently read an article by a friend of mine that tackles the stylistic progression of a couple of bands. Being of an advanced age, this is the sort of thing I’ve seen a great deal of, and have some definite opinions on it. I’m happy to say that I’m not quite old enough for the Baby-Boomer nonsense of being asked “What’s your favorite band?” and being obligated to start the answer with, “You mean other than the Beatles?” as though the Beatles were everyone’s favorite band by default. That’s called not thinking for yourself. But the Beatles had a good plan. They quit. And then they stayed quit. George Harrison even put it in plain terms in the late 80s: “The Beatles will never get back together as long as John Lennon remains dead.”

I really have come to conclude that this is a path bands should strive to emulate. My concert-going days are behind me. Partly because my hearing can’t take it. That’s not mere curmudgeonry either. There’s an epidemic of hearing loss among teens and young adults. But the experience isn’t what it once was. More to the point, neither are the bands.

Now I won’t go as far as Grace Slick when she announced her retirement by saying that old people have no business in rock and roll. But, while I agree with Bob Dylan when he said, “Just because you like my stuff doesn’t mean I owe you anything,” I do think rock bands owe it to their fans to know when to hang it up. To that end, I hereby propose some rules that bands should endeavor to follow.

First and foremost, a band should really have an expiration date. Perhaps ten years. Many great bands went out high, and one wonders if they could have maintained that level. Granted, some do. Rush have been at it since the early seventies, and continue to be forward-looking. They continue to produce new music, and their live shows draw from the band’s entire forty-year catalog, always emphasizing the latest project. Aerosmith serve as one of rock’s great comeback stories, having been a major player in the seventies, then disbanding in the eighties, only to come back stronger than ever in the nineties and beyond. U2 continue to be relevant, if somewhat bloated and self-important. But those are exceptions.

More common is the band that just keeps hanging in there despite not having produced new material in years, playing the same small handful of songs they built their reputation on, until they end up looking like a pathetic parody of themselves, causing people to say, “Those guys are still around?” A nostalgia act at the casino. I used to shake my head when a quartet calling themselves the Four Tops would be on the marquee, until it happened to bands I grew up rocking out to. What Woody Allen said about relationships in Annie Hall applies to bands as well. A band “is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”

Part of the problem lies in the name of the band. We’ve see the spectre of a “band” playing at the state fair or in a casino with only the replacement bass player from near the end of the band’s heyday, along with a bunch of other guys nobody has ever heard of. It’s not even the band. Many would argue this is another thing the Beatles got right, collectively agreeing that, no matter their interpersonal conflicts, the Beatles were either all of them, or nothing. That’s fine, but doesn’t take into account the reality of change. Some bands have substantial personnel changes as they progress. Ringo wasn’t even the original drummer.

One of my favorite bands, Yes, are famous for their “revolving door lineup,” with no fewer than sixteen different people having been with the band, many of them leaving and rejoining multiple times. This constant turnover has been, to a great extent, the lifeblood of the band, and they didn’t reach their definitive, and most long-standing, lineup until they were on their second guitarist, keyboardist and drummer. But some of those personnel changes have met with great disfavor from fans, and even now many argue that the current band lineup doesn’t even count because they don’t have the founding lead singer. In fact, in the late 80’s there were actually two different versions of the band out there, both with a valid claim to the mantle, although only one actually had rights to the name.

This sort of problem can be avoided by applying a simple formula: fifty percent plus one. In other words, for a band to use the name, it must consist of over fifty percept of either founding members or else members at the time of the band’s greatest impact. Thus, a five-piece band has to have three “original members,” while a trio would need two. Even numbers are trickier, but a quartet with only two originals should be sure those two were prominent in defining the band’s sound and style. This metric would solve most problems, although I confess in the case of Yes it wouldn’t have resolved the fracture, because one group included the founding bass player and keyboardist, the longest-serving drummer, and the guitarist responsible for the band’s biggest hit, while the other had the founding singer and drummer, and the guitarist and keyboardist from the band’s prime period.

We also need to make allowances for bands that are really defined by a single member, supported by whomever he or she wants to work with at any given time. The Mothers of Invention were Frank Zappa’s band, Jethro Tull are ultimately Ian Anderson, Utopia started out with the more accurate name Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Chrissie Hynde went through more Pretenders than can be counted, and, although the other founding members might resent the idea, King Crimson were entirely Robert Fripp’s band. But, again, these are exceptions. If you aren’t the band you were, get a new name. Oblivion Sun are clearly Happy the Man redux, but the new name gives the members the freedom to do new things. Not that you’re likely to have heard of either band, but what can I say? My tastes are obscure.

And let me also clarify that in the above cases I’m talking about bands that were clearly understood to be one person’s vision. That included Creedence Clearwater Revival, which was entirely John Fogerty’s band, mostly because he was such a control freak that he drove his own brother out of the band (after taking over as singer) and refused to even acknowledge the others’ presence when they were inducted in to the R&R Hall of Fame simply because they didn’t back him up in a royalties fight from which he alone would have benefitted. But I don’t mean bands that are definitely bands, despite media focusing entirely on one person, be it Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, Les Claypool and Primus, Mick Huckall and Simply Red, or Phil Collins (and before him Peter Gabriel) and Genesis.

Now, if a band does decide to hang in there, or, even more horrifying a prospect, reunite, they really must focus on creating new material. Otherwise they’re just a tribute-act version of themselves, and chances are good that there’s a real tribute act out there somewhere playing better than the actual reunited band. To that end, more than one band have actually drawn from the ranks of tribute bands (Yes included). Then we have the sad sight of hungry, energetic young musicians playing alongside the aging shells of their heroes. But more on that in a moment.

If the tribute-act recruit is a genuine new member, that’s one thing. But then we have the problem of session players. That’s where the next rule comes in: if making a new album requires contracting session players, they must not outnumber the actual band members. More than one band have been guilty of this. Jefferson Airplane’s ill-fated reunion in the early nineties had a lot of session men, but at least they were in the background most of the time. Other bands end up producing albums where the session players are actually more prominent than the originals (Yes again). It ends up being like an early Monkees album. If you aren’t up to the level of play you are trying to reach, then you shouldn’t be doing it.

This goes double on stage. The backing musicians must not outnumber the band members the audience has paid to see. To be fair, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend had no choice given the other two members of the Who were dead. But, again, that’s where you decide to call it something else. And at least that wasn’t as insulting as Jimmy Page and Robert Plant calling themselves Led Zeppelin without even inviting John Paul Jones to participate. And when the Eagles have their umpteenth farewell tour, they have enough former members that they really shouldn’t need to carry around the entire Wrecking Crew with them.

But no matter what a band call themselves, or what they play, or who’s playing, the most important obligation a reunited band have to their fans is this: never pose for photographs. On stage the lighting obscures what we all know and pretend isn’t true: they’ve gotten old. But photos don’t lie. When you see a picture of the band you grew up listening to, some three decades later, it’s like Dorian Grey in reverse. The sheer horror of how old they look causes you to spontaneously age several decades. No one needs that reminder.

Mind you, one must acknowledge the exceptions. The Rolling Stones were still at it half a century on (with three original members in primary roles, no less), and one could only marvel at Mick Jagger’s command of the stage as a septuagenarian. But perhaps the old joke held true. Supposedly, when asked how he manages to look so youthful, he simply said, “By standing next to Keith Richards.” Probably not true, but a good joke.

What’s important in all this is the profound meaning these bands had, and still have, for their fans. In the age of recording and mass media, music serves a very important function, especially in the formative teen years where most of our musical tastes were cemented. It’s why fans often make it hard for bands to look forward when they want to, because the fans expect them to be just like they were all those years ago.

But there’s a reason for that. Our favorite bands provided the soundtrack for our lives. They provided the right songs at the right moments, anchoring us in triumph and in heartbreak. They helped us deal with anger and despair, and they were there for our most romantic, intimate moments. Messing with that is to mess with our past, our identity.

So, all you musicians out there, think carefully before deciding to get back on the road for old times’ sake. I know it was your livelihood, and that perhaps these days you aren’t as financially comfortable as you should be. Maybe music is still in your blood, and I would not deny you the joy of expressing it, a joy I understand firsthand. But you are walking on hallowed ground, so be respectful of your own legacy. Take pride in that fact that your music has meant so much to those who listened. Don’t cheapen it by trying to do something you are no longer up to.

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