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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Broken Record

I admit it: I do tend to go on and on and on about my abhorrence of violence. Why? It’s just stories, right? Fiction. Entertainment. First, let me clarify that my aversion is not as much to violence as to killing. A life ended, snuffed out, never to be restored.

It would be easy to call me a hypocrite in this. I’m not a vegetarian. I’ll kill a black widow spider if I can’t safely remove it from the area. I support the careful application of capital punishment in rare cases as the only humane means of removing from society a monster who has been proven conclusively to be a great and unredeemable danger. But in every case, I am sad. Death is final, so in a way it’s odd that I am not particularly afraid of my own mortality. But perhaps that’s the point. My life is my own. It’s the one thing I have that is absolutely mine, and violating that in others is profound. That’s why the idea of death as part of an entertainment is so repugnant to me.

And I will acknowledge another hypocrisy as well: this is a comparatively new development for me. Some of my favorite movies have been Dirty Harry and The Godfather and the James Bond series. All have their share of killing. To be honest, since I reached this point in the past couple of years, I haven’t watched any of those movies, and have some trepidation about how I would respond to them today.

So what changed for me? I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the increased prevalence of children being mixed into these lethal entertainments. When children die, or kill, in these violent books and movies, an additional element is added, and taken away. Not only is there loss of life, but of innocence as well. The tragedy is doubled.

I understand the counter-argument. Conflict drives the plot, and the stakes are never higher than when life is on the line. Our emotional response is part of the enjoyment of what we read, or view on a screen as the case may be. It’s part of the essential catharsis. Okay, fair enough. But context is everything. You see, while the defenders of hyper-violent entertainment say that the tragedy of death is part of the overall “message,” they tend to undercut it by how they present it. In most cases, only a handful of deaths are actually tragic. We see this at the ludicrous extreme in movies where the main characters endure horrific catastrophe, where the end of civilization has occurred. But the dog survives! That scene always elicits a rousing cheer. Presumably because the dog also represents innocence. It’s enough of a cliché that writers and filmmakers will take great pride in subverting it, sometimes to drive home the seriousness of the story, sometimes for laughs.

SPOILER ALERT:  I’m guilty of the former case. In my book a beloved dog is killed when trying to protect a main character from the bad guys. I wanted to make it clear the stakes were high, and that the danger was real. Yet, oddly, that scene met with considerable objection from several of my critique partners, who somehow had no problem with all the dead children in The Hunger Games, but insisted that I revise my scene  so that the dog lives, or else readers would hate my story. Because of one dead dog. Twenty-two children hacking each other to death? What a great story! Pass the popcorn.

It ends up being a numbers game. Most deaths in violent stories are largely unremarked upon. Terrible, yes, but of import only in the moment. The story goes on. Sure, that’s realistic, because life goes on. And let’s face it, an action story where every single death was treated as a profound tragedy would not be a pleasant thing to watch.

But maybe that’s the point.

This all came to mind when I encountered a recent quote by Michael Gerson, writing about the way the people of Rwanda have dealt with the horrific genocide of two decades ago. They focus on remembering the victims. By affirming, in Gerson’s words, “that every human story is more important than the diseased narratives of dictators and killers.” And this is where the creators of dark, violent dystopian stories get it wrong.

These authors, and the filmmakers who come after them, think they are sending that message. But they aren’t. Perhaps they can’t. People claim these stories tell us about standing up to violent oppression, that every life matters. And yet, in these stories, the only lives that actually matter are those of the main character and her small circle of characters-with-names. The body counts are almost incomprehensible (brace yourselves, Hunger Games fans who are anxiously awaiting the next movie without having read the book it will be based on, where there’s literally death on every page). Stories like Game of Thrones make the frequency of death a selling point. But mostly it’s something that just happens. As long as the characters you are actually invested in continue to live, it’s all good.

But that disconnect is precisely what makes these stories diseased narratives themselves. It doesn’t matter whether the narrative is about a tyrant or the plucky young girl who stands up to him. Only some deaths matter, and all the rest are just part of the body count. Which brings to mind another quote, one that, nearly a century later, still speaks volumes:

“One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” The words of Josef Stalin. One of the dictators and killers. Who would understand that truth better?

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