For years I have tormented my daughters with good music whenever they were forced to be with me in the car. By that I mean songs from the ’60s to the ’90s, and the few contemporary ones that sound as if they are. They suffered in silence, except for the music, of course.
As the music of their own generation became progressively more horrendous, I found myself cast as the middle-aged scold who disdains contemporary sounds. It’s not a good look but I embraced it. When it comes to these things, you go with your heart.
(The wallet soon follows: I own many hundreds of CDs and thousands of streamed songs. I love them all, and almost wish I could pay more.)
I thought I was nearing a breakthrough when the radio recently played “Us and Them” from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” I recited for my youngest its lyrics most sublime, a lamentation of inequality as powerful now as ever it was, with melody to match.
“This breathtaking song is from almost 50 years ago,” I said. “Just listen! Do you honestly think any of the new shit will be heard by anyone in 50 years’ time? Or even 5??” Yes, I used that word.
And yes, I know that music is an infinity and there is some decent new material. I also know that nothing can achieve scale today because there are a million platforms and channels and no one can agree on anything. Still. This issue does not bring out the best in me, I fear.
She agreed that it would not, but also did not seem to care. It’s just fun and games for the kid. I began to suspect something pathological in my passion for my music. I was a Classic Rock Supremacist.
So it’s an unresolved vexation. Cynics tell me a person always prefers the music of one’s youth, which seems to cheapen the whole thing. Maybe so, I reply, but it doesn’t make me wrong: a broken clock is still right twice a day.
Is it all just a matter of taste — or could my musical hubris be defended?
“It can be defended,” said a musicologist at a dinner with fellow parents at the American School. “Some music is superior, and some is inferior.”
I’m not an easily excitable guy, but this got me about as fired up as I’d ever been at such events. I began to probe how science might help me make my daughters understand. Is it the complexity of the meter, or something of that nature?
“No!” the musicologist scoffed. “Some stuff just obviously sucks.”
It is amazing what insights arrive when you resist the urge to overthink.
I shared my struggles with Howard Whitman, a high school chum whom I caught up with in Philadelphia last month. An upstanding Jewish fellow who looks like an accountant, he has a day job of that sort. But by night Howard’s a musician on a mission; the force is very strong in him.
It was one of those rare conversations in which you learn something new. Howard absolutely agreed that the music of our youth was a completely different beast. Not all of it was good, but some of it was deeply great, in ways that don’t exist today.
Just like classical music had its day, and just as ragtime had its time, so it was with classic rock, Howard said. It lived and then it died, and other things were born. Not necessarily good or bad; just different. (But yes, probably not as good.)
Howard’s tale is instructive. He has his own tunes, and they are fine without a doubt. But people are no more interested in adding to the pantheon of classic rock than in carving a new face on Mount Rushmore. Some new acts manage to squeeze in — Arcade Fire and The Black Keys come to mind — but that bar is pretty high.
People do love live music, though. Now that records have been replaced by electrons, that’s the business. They want to see The Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Elvis or The Cars.
Ah, The Cars. It is a silly name, but their eponymous debut album is one of my favorites of all time. You have not lived until you’ve heard “Just What I Needed,” “Moving In Stereo,” and, of course, “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.” For so many of us, too often, truer words were never sung.
So Howard dresses up as Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, and he and his boys, who go by the name You Might Think, play to sold-out bars. He hopes to be considered “one of the best Cars tributes,” but on no account will he declare himself the best. It’s a tough enough racket as is; ambition is good, but arrogance is certainly not your friend.
I told him I loved that my buddy led a cover band, and Howard almost choked on his drink. Then he set me straight: “Tribute bands” are not to be confused with cover bands that typically play the songs of various artists to “get people to dance and buy more drinks.” Tribute bands generally play the music of one band, though sometimes they’re paying tribute to a genre. In any case they are “high concept,” he said.
Howard’s theory is that this is the great music of the recent past, and English makes it global, and people want to experience it the way they might go to the philharmonic. With classical music they don’t need a Beethoven impressionist up there — but since classic rock combined composition with performance, here an acting element applies.
“A Rolling Stones tribute will probably have a Mick Jagger impersonator prancing around,” Howard said. “U2 tributes will have a singer doing his best Bono up front. An Ozzy Osbourne tribute band better have a pretty authentic Ozzy up there.”
It’s not the same experience, but it’s close enough, and the hunger for it supports my point. There will never be a tribute band for the nonsense on the radio today.
Apparently these tribute bands, which trace themselves to the late 70s’ Beatlemania show on Broadway, are truly entering their own golden age. For those despondent about the times we live in, which seems to now include everyone, they are a reminder of days that might not have been better in all ways, but their music perhaps was. (Another friend recently invited me to see Dire Straits with him in Jerusalem; he really thought it was Mark Knopfler’s band, unable to resist reuniting for a gig in Israel.)
Howard said that with so many of the greats are dead or dying, tribute bands will flower all the more. And soon after we spoke, two weeks ago in fact, Ric Ocasek was found dead.
So it’s official now: Howard and his band are all we’ve got. If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll convince my girls to care.