Summer is drawing to a close, and we’re taking the week off. We’ll be back with new posts after the Labor Day holiday.
In the meantime, a book recommendation for those last few days on the beach, Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl In A Band. Gordon is the former bass player of the band Sonic Youth, and while the book does tell the story of the band, it goes well beyond that, chronicling the transformation of the New York art scene in the early 1980s as, “the traditional art discourse of creating a show around an idea…deteriorated into setting up a room with objects for sale.” The influx of money and commercialization of the art world runs through the book as New York itself transforms from a place where artists could afford to live and create to a moneyed playground of the ultra-rich. Written just after the band, and her 27-year marriage to bandmate Thurston Moore had ended, Gordon’s writing is emotionally raw and unflinching, both in confronting her triumphs and heartbreaks.
Having moved to New York during that same decade, much of this hits close to home (and a Summerstage show in Central Park featuring both Sonic Youth and Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Arkestra remains one of my favorite double bills of all time). The change of seasons is always a good time for a bit of navel-gazing, so forgive me for going a bit off-topic here. It feels a bit strange to have reached an age where a major cultural thread of nostalgia addresses one’s own youth. Having been forced to live through the baby boomers worshipping at the altar of the 1960s for so long, and having been born just a bit too late to experience punk rock firsthand, it’s nice to finally see the value of one’s own culture broadly recognized.
But today’s nostalgia is a different beast. Growing up, we lived in a culture of scarcity. Yes, you could find the occasional bootleg album or maybe get a rare chance to see that infamous Rolling Stones movie, but none of these things were readily available and had to be painstakingly sought out. Now every obscure cultural relic can be found at the click of a mouse.
Just last week, two friends sent links to stunning early video recordings of great bands, young and full of energy and potential, long before their late career malaise made them so much less interesting. Here, the B-52’s from 1978, just after the release of their first album and still with the amazing Ricky Wilson on guitar:
And here R.E.M., back in 1982, when Michael Stipe had a full head of hair:
While both recordings are tremendous, I can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt at being able to see them so easily (insert joke about grumpy old man shouting “stay off of my lawn” here). Something about it feels unearned, and I wonder if that ease takes away from the mythology. Would Jimi Hendrix’s early gigs in London be as legendary if we could watch them on our phones rather than being passed down through folklore? I remember seeing Devo on Saturday Night Live in 1978 and having my mind blown, a truly life-changing moment of discovery. Seeing it again on YouTube for the first time nearly 40 years later gives a momentary thrill of recognition, but ultimately saps something of that moment’s power. In my memory, it was a lot bigger.
It will be fascinating to see what happens to the current generation, where every moment of every day is recorded and available for playback. Where concerts look like this:
If you can go back and rewatch it seconds after it has happened, how can you make up stories about it? What effect will that have on nostalgia and reminiscence? Do you need to remember something fondly when you can instantly watch it again? Maybe this is a good thing and we’re better off without the hazy veneer of nostalgia. But as story-telling creatures, I wonder what this does to our culture.
See you next week.
6 Thoughts on "The End of Summer and Musings on Nostalgia in an Age of Abundance"
Yes, the loss of memories really. I loved anxiously awaiting the new album in the stores, lining up on the street for concert tickets, experiencing the music live instead of capturing it on a device (with dubious sound quality). The availability of music on YouTube is great but it’s not the same and I still prefer my memories. Having said that, I’m a baby boomer who loves the B52s and REM so thanks for the clips!
Yes, I think those early Hendrix gigs would be just as legendary because of what they represented — a seismic shift in the fundamental foundation of rock music, the electric guitar. That would transcend how they have been seen, and with all their value intact. My 19 year old, a substantial musician in his own right and definitely a man of his era, marvels at the sheer audacity of that playing. My own commitment? The first four measures of “Purple Haze”, that defining moment for me and many, many guitarists, is tattooed on my right arm.
I’m not so sure. It’s not a question of the quality of his playing nor how revolutionary it was. But since we don’t have a direct recording of that evening, we don’t really know exactly how he played (and how much of the audience’s reaction was chemically enhanced). If you could pull it up on your phone and watch it, the show would be clearly defined. But as a non-recoverable piece of history, there are gaps that one’s imagination must fill in, what must it have been like, how did it sound, etc. Because of that openendedness, a legend can grow rather than dealing with an event limited and defined by the recording.
Ricky Wilson was amazing indeed. But “Kate … Kate and Cindy”! (And Fred and Keith!) Thanks for sharing!
Of course, the occasion for us to reminisce on these artists was the video. Like Beth Staehle, I waited to buy albums and concert tickets, experiences that I enjoyed with friends and fellow fans, experiences for which there is no substitute. The other week, I witnessed a walkoff grand slam in Camden Yards, and there is nothing like seeing the Baltimore Orioles win in person that way.
I would also suggest that digital media–just like radio did, but moreso–magnify and prolong the effects of those eyewitness experiences: They allow us to enhance our stories along new dimensions by allowing us to share them repeatedly and more broadly as we tell our stories. If that objectifies the art, it also makes it more accessible and enables us to share more easily, with perhaps some unexpected connections being made with other B-52s fans.
Has any guitarist ever done more with only four strings? But yes, Kate, Kate and Cindy are remarkable (and “Candy” remains one of the best things Iggy Pop has ever done, largely because of Kate).
I do think having instant access to everything has its advantages. I’m not trying to say one is better than the other, just that it makes things different. In writing this piece, I was thinking about seeing Star Wars in the theater 10 times. You’d go to movies over and over again because you never knew whether you’d ever get to see this thing again, so you very carefully soaked in every detail, lest it disappear. The same with television — it’s only going to be on once (maybe twice if you catch a re-run in the summer) so you better pay attention because when it’s over, it’s gone. Now, knowing I can rewind or just grab a copy on iTunes or Netflix means I don’t have to pay all that much attention the first time.
There’s also some serendipity that stems from having limited choices. With only three networks, you watched whatever was on. You’d watch some things that you normally wouldn’t have chosen for yourself, and maybe every now and again you found something surprising or great. Now, you’d never even consider watching something outside of your current range of interests. One would also sit through things that seemed a little boring or less than perfect because there wasn’t really any alternative. And again, because you persevered, every now and again you’d stumble onto something great. Now, why bother with patiently working through something that’s not immediately fun, delete it and move on to the next thing.
Of course the choice and the quality these days is through the roof, so much better than what we used to have. But we interact with it in a different manner.
Full disclosure–I’m a dreaded baby boomer! And I would have LOVED to see any and all live moving images of the Beatles–at the airport, at the hotel, in the swimming pool, and every single concert! I’m seeing them now (especially in Ron Howard’s masterly Eight Days a Week), but I have changed and the times have changed, and it’s no longer nostalgia, it’s history.