Talkin’ ’bout my generation
Baby Boomers will spend money on music — if it’s from the golden age of rock
Or, conversely, they have listened to more contemporary music, found it lacking, and returned to their old favourites — sepia-tinted music for old dudes.
A journalist friend was recently sent to California to cover what can only described as a binge concert. It lasted three days and featured Neil Young, The Who, the Rolling Stones and a host of other acts you might have once loved, like Roger Waters and Paul McCartney.
Artists such as Hendrix and Joplin laboured under the romantic myth of creativity, in which self-destruction and creativity are linked like a Masonic handshake
Aside from a twinge or two of envy, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in his shoes. But he was winningly bullish about the 72-hour jamboree. He pointed out blithely that the Palm Springs event was exquisitely niched. Promoters have woken up to the fact that for many ageing punters, Neil Young and the Stones represent the end of their musical line. People have listened to nothing since.
Crucially, said friend pointed out, they now have the money for concerts like this. Indeed, the late middle aged are a demographic — the “amply proportioned” rather than the “missing” middle — who have the cash reserves to fork out US$150 for the questionable pleasure of seeing a dwarf-like Roger Daltrey on a faraway stage while they nurse their nonalcoholic beverages and watch the big screen. All the while, they’re sort-of hoping they’ll be hit on in the bar.
But let’s quickly rewind the tape, as it were. Once upon a time, rock stars died young. The Doors’ Jim Morrison died at 27; Jimi Hendrix died at the same age across the channel in London. Janis Joplin died at 27 too, becoming a member, along with the late Brian Jones, the original leader of the Stones, of the retrospectively dubbed “27 Club.”
The thing to remember here is that artists such as Hendrix and Joplin laboured under the romantic myth of creativity, in which self-destruction and creativity are linked like a Masonic handshake. Remember Lord Byron? He of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage? The fabulously promiscuous Byron died of malaria aged 36 as he tried to steer a middle path between Turkish chest-thumping and Greek independence. Rock stars of old were exactly like him — flaming libertines who could pout and reel off a rhyming verse not so much at the drop of a hat but at the dropping of their pants.
Though there are notable exceptions — Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse — early rock ’n roll death doesn’t happen to the same extent any more.
Young, who appeared at the Palm Springs concert, was born at the end of 1945, just as World War 2 was nearing its horrible conclusion, and he’s lived a long and impressively creative life.
To coin the title of a song he might have written, Young has “walked a long road”. Not only has he walked long, he has worked hard. He has prospered despite despair, and his journey reflects the journey of many of his fans. (Or at least they like to think so, which is a self-deluding strategy people play on themselves and by which they become fans.)
Young’s birth in Toronto was on the cusp of what sociologists were later to dub the “Baby Boom” generation — those born between 1946 and 1964, their parents the beneficiaries of post-war housing and education subsidies. Bruce Springsteen was born roughly four years later in Long Branch, New Jersey.
These artists share more than age and longevity — they share a 1960s-influenced belief in the worth of their vision and a desire to change the world.
Both Young and Springsteen have a self-proclaimed left-leaning slant. Those who have grown up with their music share many of the same intrinsic beliefs and, because they are Baby Boomers, there are more of them (and so more fans) than ever before.
Being beneficiaries of post-war welfare interventions and booming economies means this generation is educated and prosperous; prosperity manifests as leisure time — and time to nostalgically reflect on what once was.
The Baby Boomers as a demographic have a residual distaste for free downloads and streaming off the Internet. They’ll pay for boxed reissue sets and even dubiously “rediscovered” out-takes. They’ll even buy records because they love the bluesy memories of vinyl. Songs on vinyl remind them of girlfriends they once had, holidays in the sun, their first leather jacket. Cars, jolling, fondling, sex.
Because these artists are part of the soundtrack of their lives, the Boomers will also attend fresh tour and reunion concerts. It’s the perfect creative and commercial circle — and it perhaps accounts for why Young and Springsteen fans can be so astonishingly partisan. These artists might be gentler than they once were, but they’re still fighting the world. And within the context of Baby Boomers’ penchant for success and respectability, their fans are, too.
However, all this comes with a strange twist. Aside from the occasional artist — Gnarls Barkley, for me — music just doesn’t sound like it once did. I suspect this is true for many of my generation. This is partly technological, but has more to do with the inexorably plodding steps of age. Some of us might still listen widely, but we’ve either heard versions of what we’re now hearing before, or the old stuff just seems more memory-coated and therefore more legit, more real. Listening to Springsteen sing “Tunnel of Love” or “Lonesome Day” or “Brilliant Disguise” feels like, well, coming home.
Essentially the same
This isn’t always so, but it’s mainly so, which perhaps accounts for why some of us just can’t get rid of our old Leonard Cohen, Dire Straits and Fleetwood Mac albums. We kept them, thinking they would be of interest to our kids — but our kids listen to house, death metal, rap or hard rock. And sometimes they listen to some jagged indie muck from Rochdale or Newcastle, which makes our already burdened hearts contract to the size of a sultana.
We love them too much to tell them the horrible truth about this music: that we’ve heard it all before, because these bands once had different names — Wire, the Young Marble Giants, the Only Ones and Shriekback — but essentially played the same music.
Then again, we shouldn’t generalise too widely. I have danced a simple dance with one of my three sons for years now: I introduce him to Steely Dan and Donald Fagen and, in return, he will deconstruct the lyrics of the Arctic Monkeys for me. I introduced him to the Black Keys, particularly the supersonic El Camino, and, in a majestic sleight of hand, he now pretends he introduced them to me. It’s a little domestic gambit I’m only too happy to — ahem — play along with because, unlike his dad, my son can actually play alternating guitar parts on the album, while I can only rock back and marvel in pride.
When he has played and I have listened, I can always go back to listening to Mark Knopfler or Stevie Nicks, or Tom Waits when I’m feeling lachrymose. The albums will be waiting should he want them, but he won’t really want to inherit mine. He’ll have music of his own to cherish. He is part of a different generation, a generation to whom Dire Straits and Knopfler’s head and wrist bands are the absolute zenith (or should that be the nadir?) of middle-aged naffness.