Monday, May 29, 2017

A Post About Music

Soul Coughing performing outside Criminal Records, Atlanta, 1993
In 1954, Shake, Rattle and Roll by Big Joe Turner reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. That same year, Rock Around the Clock, a rock song by Bill Haley & His Comets in a 12-bar blues format, became a number one single in both the US and UK.  And thus, with dual hits on the segregated radio charts, rock 'n' roll was born.

I was also born in 1954, so you can say that I've never existed in a world without rock 'n' roll and, although that claim can be made for a great many other people, I can also add that rock 'n' roll never existed in a world without me.  Only people born in 1954 can make both claims.

I grew up alongside the new musical form.  I was 10 years old when my parents let me stay up and watch The Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and even though I didn't understand it at first, I knew that it changed everything.  I was old enough to have wanted to go to Woodstock in 1969 but still young enough to have stayed home when my parents said "no" (I went to the movies that weekend and saw Monterrey Pop instead), but by 1973 I was old enough to go to Watkins Glen without bothering to get anyone's permission.  I graduated high school in 1972, the year Alice Cooper released the album School's Out, featuring the classic rock refrain "School's out forever."

In the following decades, I absorbed glam rock, prog rock, kraut rock, psych rock, punk rock, and New Wave, got schooled by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno on ambient music and the possibilities presented by tape loops, was taught a thing or two about composition, creativity, and jazz by Frank Zappa, and dove deep into the underground with Captain Beefheart, The Residents, and Sun Ra.  I could go on and on, but my point is music has always been an important part of my life, and as the music constantly evolved, I was taking notes and tagging along with it.

In the 1990s, I was into grunge and alternative rock, was a regular listener to Atlanta's alternative radio station 99X, attended the inaugural Music Midtown festival, and kept up with what was going on at the time.  When the internet emerged, I followed trends that I had somehow missed and filled in vital gaps in my music collection, and I still thought that I knew what was going on in music in the early 2000s as I entered my 50s.

So it was a revelation to me when I came across a Usenet article titled "Top 5 Albums of 2005," and realized that I didn't know any of the bands - never even heard of any one of them.  I followed the links and was introduced to post-Millennium bands like Spoon and Metric, the retro-psychedelic rock of Black Mountain, and the post-punk of Bloc Party.  I realized that something new was happening here but like Dylan's Mr. Jones, didn't know what it was.

So I dove back into music, once more into the breach, in time to catch what I consider the indie rock renaissance of 2005 to 2010.  Record sales were at an all-time low and the copy-cat acts and their record-label promoters, not seeing any profit to be made, moved elsewhere, but the true musicians, those compelled to make music regardless of whether there was an audience or not, started playing what they wanted to hear, without consideration of audience appeal and market potential. Informed by the limitless potential of the internet, they absorbed music from all over the globe from the past 50 or so years and picked and chose their influences.  During these years, it seemed I couldn't go on line without discovering some new band that I absolutely loved, that challenged my conceptions of what music could be and the relationship between artist and listener, and affirmed everything that I had come to love about rock music in a half-century of being a fan.

To be sure, the renaissance did not end in 2010 and there was still a lot of terrific music produced between 2010 and 2015.  I'm sure there's still great music being produced today (as I write this, I'm listening to the incredible Planetarium by Sufjan Stevens and friends, an ambitious 2017 amalgam of folk, modern composition, and rock, all based on the planets and other astronomical phenomena), but to be honest, I don't know where to look for it anymore.  The music blogs, Pitchfork, Stereogum, Brooklyn Vegan, etc., that used to so reliably provide introductions to new and exciting sounds eventually went mainstream, all seemingly covering the same predictable bands or trying to expand their market by also covering pop music, dance music, and hip-hop.  The music festivals are increasingly marginalizing the new and innovative musicians in favor of comebacks and reunions by old and largely forgettable bands, or headlining d.j.'s, rappers, and pop stars in place of rock bands. And radio has generally been a dead medium for at least a decade now, and when NPR took over the student-run station WRAS here in Atlanta, perhaps the last bastion of independent music broadcasting, it was time to stick a fork in the medium.

Maybe at 62 I just got too old to search out where the cool kids are doing their thing now ("I'm losing my edge"), or maybe after six decades of absorbing new sounds, I finally reached my saturation point.  All my life, I've been hearing that this "rock 'n' roll fad" will soon pass, even as far back as February 3rd, 1959 when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash on "The Day That Music Died."  No one initially expected The Beatles to be around for long or for The Rolling Stones to still be a band 50 years later, and in the 1970s the punks were declaring "Rock is dead" even as they were breathing new life into the form.   It's not dead, and probably will never die, but at this point in time, it seems to offer few rewards to those who want to keep learning new lessons or having their minds blown by hearing new sounds and discovering new possibilities. If that's what you're after, you're better advised to go digging through the archive - there's bound to be lots of great stuff even the most ardent fan missed - than by checking out the "New Releases" listings. 

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