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.