One year I moved to Washington DC and lasted almost nine months before packing up and moving back to New York. Not much time, I’ll admit, but longer than I had been able to stay in Houston the year before. Of course in my defense, I might have lasted in Texas a bit longer had I not come home from work one day to discover a mysterious set of tire tracks leading to my front door, and approximately one half of the objects that had been in the house that morning missing.
Plaster casts of tire treads weren’t necessary: my girlfriend had apparently decided to make a move of her own: to the home of the couple she worked for as a mother’s helper. She’d also apparently decided that the husband in question needed some of her “help” as well. Thus, thrown over for a hippie with a van, it was time to leave the state.
I turned on every light and gas heater in the house (the utilities were in my girlfriend’s name), packed my belongings and my dog Buster into my ’68 Toronado and headed northeast at about 85 per, making record time to New York and getting only one (still unpaid) speeding ticket. The following years brought with them eight or ten new addresses before I finally settled down a bit, allowing multiple years to pass before relocating.
But those were all relatively easy moves. I was still able to gather my belongings into a station wagon or small van and get them from one place to another with the help of some pizza-bribed friends, particularly when my moves transitioned from interstate to merely intra-city.
That changed completely once I went from eligible (to some) bachelor to married with children. Possessions accumulate with time, and multiplying the residents four-fold made that accumulation much more precipitous. By the time my family and I moved to Florida in 2003 we needed a semi and a professional crew to transport everything and since then, despite having gone through a divorce, I still have too much stuff; The thought of how to move it from here to any place new is a bit of a puzzle (and one I’ll have to solve soon).
The obvious answer is this: simplify. Get my possessions down to a manageable size. Considering my wardrobe consists almost entirely of black tee-shirts, some of that will be easy for me. But I do have three non-negotiable groups of items on my moving list: my instruments, my books and my music collection.
Aside from being representative of my entire life, those three things simply aren’t made the way they used to be, or at least not as often, having been at least partially replaced by digital representations.
Some say that the new-school electronic versions of old-school items are just as good: that a digital book contains the same words but adds the convenience of portability and searchability, that a digital music download is quick and easy while being indistinguishable to most ears from a CD or album, that computer-based instruments are just as good as a physical keyboards, drum sets or other instruments while requiring no storage space. Others say that’s all bunk, that no matter what benefits digital versions of these things deliver, they just aren’t as good as the genuine articles.
I fall somewhere in the middle. In the case of the physical objects I’ll confess that I, too, may border on curmudgeonism: they don’t make ‘em like they used to, and it’s sad to witness the value of the three dimensional versions decline.
Although I own an e-reader, it can’t come close to replacing the look or feel of a real book in my hands. Digital music downloads deny the pleasure of examining every inch of a record cover while listening to the vinyl it protected. Computer-based instruments lack the tactile pleasures of physically producing music.
But I’m not closed-minded enough to believe that the loss in quality has carried across to the content itself. It might seem like music and writing have devolved to the point that there is little out there for those of us born prior to 1990 to connect to, but that’s not the case. You might have to look a little harder, but there are legitimate present-day versions of things I’ve heard many people, myself included, lament the passing of.
Take, for example, progressive rock. Though occasionally the butt of jokes due to a tendency towards what some considered self-importance and indulgence in, maybe just a bit, Spinal Tapian bombast (Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s cape, for example), there’s no denying that some of the first wave of this primarily British-driven variation of rock still stands up as truly brilliant music.
Of the major U.K. releases from the early days of prog rock, my personal favorites include the first few albums from Yes (those recorded prior to drummer Bill Bruford’s departure to join Robert Fripp’s band King Crimson), as well as King Crimson itself. I have yet to hit my listening limit for Yes releases like “The Yes Album” and “Close to the Edge” (side one consists of a single 19 minute track in the form of a sonata), not to mention King Crimson’s “In The Court of the Crimson King” or “Larks Tongues in Aspic.” For those of you that have spent time wondering why no one has been able to capture the spirit of some of those early prog rock bands, I recommend the immediate purchase of some Porcupine Tree.
Not the “new Yes” or “new Pink Floyd” as some may describe them, Porcupine Tree is most definitely their own thing. But those early influences can be heard in the band’s music: some songs approach the 20 minute mark without feeling forced or stilted, changing form in ways that feel completely unexpected yet still work beautifully and make perfect sense.
The musicianship is brilliant, the writing is unique, the music is completely original – just like the releases from those early prog rock heroes. Is Porcupine Tree prog rock? I don’t know: maybe yes, maybe no – but they certainly bring the same sort of excitement and creativity to their releases that made those 70s records so fantastic. Try “The Incident,” “Deadwing” and “Fear of a Blank Planet” to start.
There are other musical styles that may appear to have been relegated to existing only as irritating reminiscences by people my age as well. For example, for those that, like I, spent copious amounts of time listening to music from Iggy Pop, Richard Hell, The Ramones, The Clash, the Circle Jerks, the Dead Kennedys and the like, it’s easy to think punk died 30 years ago.
Not true, it turns out. Try checking out Ty Segall, from San Francisco, to feel like you’ve gone back in time to a gig at CBGB’s in the early 80s. South Florida’s Kill Now?! carried the mantle proudly as well until their break up. They’re authentic current versions of music I love and there isn’t a poseur bone among them.
Then there’s the issue of books. While non-fiction seems as strong (and undervalued) as ever, it can appear as if the days of good literary fiction (John Updike dislikes this term, by the way. He says all of his books are literary by virtue of the fact that they’re written in words) have passed; that the only books on the market are the sorts that we used to call beach books, easy-to-read, repetitive pablum churned out by authors who’ve found a formula and are going to stick with it come hell or high water (“Super Cool Hero Man” book 13, or “Outcast and Misunderstood Mystery Solver” book 21).
But it’s not necessary to drag out a copy of “Cat’s Cradle” or “The Sun Also Rises” to be stunned by a writer’s skill. Pick up something by Ian McEwan (his most recent book, “Nutshell” will do) or Martin Amis to once again wonder how it’s possible to be so damn good at turning a phrase, or telling a story.
I’m aware that I’ve just scratched the surface here. There are dozens of musical and writing styles, to say nothing of films and television shows, that could be included in this list, and we can agree to disagree about which examples I used and which modern equivalents I recommended.
The point is that it’s easy (and a bit lazy, perhaps) to simply complain about the passing of great things, of things that felt like they really meant something. If you can get past being hung up on the changes in the media itself (you can after all, at least for now, still seek out physical copies), there is always brilliance to be found in the content.
A bit harder to find perhaps, and maybe somewhat rarer, but that just makes it all that much more rewarding to seek out, and that much more important to support.