The Worstest Generation: Hope They Die Before I Get Old!
On a completely unrelated topic, one of the most annoying things about the most self-regarding generation in human history -- the dreaded Baby Boomers -- is that they are constantly taking credit for things of which they played no part whatsoever. For example, at the time of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the oldest baby boomer would have turned just 18 that year, and couldn't even have voted until 1967. Indeed, a greater percentage of those old racist Republicans voted for it than did idealistic Democrats.
Those cool Boomers who discovered coolness are often seen as the generation that invented rock music, but this is clearly untrue. Rather, they are the ones who wrecked it for everyone else. The vast majority of the truly great rock artists are all pre-boomer. Obviously, the Founding Fathers were all born before 1946: Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, the Everlys, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, not to mention all the blues immortals: Muddy, Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker.
But the next generation of rockers -- the one most identified with, and idealized by, the Boomers -- was also pre-Boomer. Let's begin with the British Invasion. A short list of consensus all-time greats would include Lennon-McCartney (1940, 1942), Jagger-Richards (1943), Pete Townshend (1945), Ray Davies (1944), and Van Morrison (1945). The body of work laid down by these five -- Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Morrison -- is still the gold standard for British pop music. And if one is a fan of guitar gods, one could add Jimmy Page (1944), Eric Clapton (1945), and Jeff Beck (1944) to the list.
The same is true of America, where the most important artists were all pre-Boomers, e.g., Dylan (1940), Brian Wilson (1942), Hendrix (1942). In addition to the Beach Boys, the most important and influential groups included the Byrds (Roger McGuinn, 1942), Buffalo Springfield (Stills, 1945, Young, 1945), the Doors (Morrison 1943), Velvet Underground (Lou Reed, 1942). Other important songwriters were Paul Simon (1941) and Leonard Cohen (1934!), but one could name many more.
I wouldn't even be surprised if none of the performers at Woodstock were Boomers. Just checked: there was Tim Hardin (1941), Creedence (Fogerty, 1945), Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick, 1939), Janis Joplin (1943), and Joe Cocker (1944). Only Carlos Santana makes the cut, at 1947, but he's probably lying about his age.
Finally, none of the greatest soul artists were Boomers: Ray Charles (1930), James Brown (1933), Aretha (1942), Mavis Staples (1939), Marvin Gaye (1939), Smokey Robinson (1940), Sly Stone (1943), and countless others.
In reality, rock music only began to deteriorate after my generation got ahold of it. If one has only the above artists in one's collection -- and no serious collection is complete without them -- one would have a pretty good idea of what rock music is all about.
I can't think of any important or truly novel (in a good way) developments that have occurred in the genre after 1973 or so, since which time it's all been recycling and posturing, combined with a kind of ridiculous exaggeration of certain elements of the music: "rebellion," "non-conformity," "authenticity" -- meaning hollow and self-aggrandizing caricatures thereof, to be exact. Frankly, rock music has become about itself, in a way that it couldn't have been for its originators. At some point along the line it became simply a derivative, reactionary, and inbred lifestyle -- really, just a silly attitude of perpetual adolescence, and the juvenile politics to go along with it.
Obviously, the first generation of rock musicians couldn't have been influenced by rock, since it didn't exist. So what were their influences? Pretty much everything. Their ears were wide open to a host of influences, including a form of R & B that hadn't yet completely detached from jazz, and therefore had not just elements of swing, but of actual musicianship. Most of those guys who played on Atlantic and Motown sessions had some serious jazz chops.
The Beatles and Kinks were influenced by British music hall and other genres (the Beatles' first two albums included the Broadway show tunes A Taste of Honey and 'Til There Was You, while Brian Wilson's harmonies would be inconceivable without the Four Freshmen). Chuck Berry's guitar style was developed as a way to mimic the call-and-response sound of big band horn sections, as were the doo-wop harmonies of Dion and the Belmonts.
So what happened to the Boomer generation? Why do they, you know, suck? I think it is because they did the same thing with music that they did with everything else that preceded them: they tossed it all aside as being hopelessly outdated. For them, pretty much everything started in around 1964, or shortly after JFK was assassinated. And then they simply took credit for whatever they liked about the past. What they don't like is projected into contemporary conservatives in a transparently childish manner. But we are not the ones who were in bed with those southern racists for all those years. (Cue troll bearing the mythic "southern strategy.")
For example, they even decided that JFK was one of them, even though, if one actually reads his speeches, he was far closer to Ronald Reagan than to Barack Obama, whom he would have undoubtedly despised. Back then, not only was there a sharp distinction between liberal and left, but Democrats were just as anti-left as Republicans. I just finished McCollough's celebrated biography of Harry Truman, and he would have vomited at the thought that the party has been hijacked by people such as Reid, Pelosi, and Frank.
But that is what happened after the Boomers came of age. They tried to get their way by rioting in 1968, but eventually succeeded in nominating their man, McGovern, in 1972. Obama is simply the final fruition of that retrograde impulse. If he prevails in 2012, it certainly won't be a result of the post-boomers whom he treats as his personal piggy bank. Rather, he'll need widespread support of the greedy and entitled Worstest Generation.
It would be crossing the line to agree with Pete Townshend that we hope they transition from AARP to harp before they bankrupt us. But it may be our only hope.