Growing Old With Dolly Levi

I first encountered Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker a 1958 film starring Shirley Booth. There was no singing and dancing. This was back in the sixties and I was still in my teens. I identified with Barnaby and Minnie and felt Cornelius and Irene were older, in their twenties. Dolly and Horace were very old, like my mom and dad. I could imagine myself as the youngest romantic couple and assumed I’d be in Cornelius second stage of getting married romance soon enough. But at that age, it was quite disturbing to imagine Shirley Booth and Paul Ford in bed together, to imagine later life-stages of romances. I didn’t sympathize with Dolly then. I didn’t understand she was an older woman making a romantic comeback. I didn’t realize the story was about the other end of a lifetime looking back towards my end.

I’ve never seen a Broadway play. And over my lifetime, I’ve seen less than ten musicals performed in a theater. I have seen quite a few famous film musicals but it took me years to acquire the taste for them. I didn’t see Hello Dolly! with Barbra Steisand when it came out in 1969. Maybe the first musical I saw was the film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in 1970, which also starred Streisand. I went because of the story but ended up liking the singing. That led to seeing Funny Girl and Hello Dolly! All-in-all I probably saw five musicals on film in the 1970s. At the time I equated them with music for the elderly. Old people’s music featured big bands with trumpets and trombones, while young people’s music was made by a group of four or five with guitars and saxes.

I hadn’t known it at the time, but my first real encounter with Dolly Levi was in 1964 when I heard Louis Armstrong sing “Hello Dolly!” but I didn’t recognize what the song was about then. I loved Armstrong’s voice, and he was a cool old black guy, which in some ways made him more acceptable to my twelve-year-old self. My parents hated my music, rock ‘n’ roll, so I hated their music, even though it didn’t have a name. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee were all oldster crooners to me from way back when. Somewhere from being young to growing old, I learn to love their music too.

I’ve been listening to as many versions of “Hello Dolly” I can find on Spotify. I’ve reached an age where I love to hear how music is interpreted by different arrangements. When I was growing up peer-pressure convinced me to shun music that wasn’t written and composed by the performer. Back in the sixties, at the beginning of the singer-songwriter era, we felt it was inauthentic for an artist to sing other people’s songs. That was silly. All the great rock ‘n’ roll I loved in the 1950s and early 1960s was usually written by lyricists working with composers and performed by solo artists and groups. Even The Beatles and The Rolling Stones started out doing covers.

One of the best features of Spotify is to search on song titles to find all the cover versions of a song. A great song can have over a hundred different recordings. I’ve had two versions of “Hello Dolly” in my “Top 1000” playlist for years – the one by Louis Armstrong and the other by Bobby Darin. For some reason this weekend I played over a dozen versions of “Hello Dolly!” I never got tired of it and was constantly delighted by the different arrangements, instruments, and singers.  Thinking about why I enjoyed this song so much was very revealing in so many ways, both about the song and it’s many arrangements, and about myself. The whole listening experience was enlightening about growing older. And, as I listened to the lyrics over and over Dolly Levi came to life.

Dolly Levi existed before the song, Broadway musical and Hollywood movie. Thornton Wilder created Dolly Gallagher Levi for The Merchant of Yonkers in 1938, but it was inspired by earlier plays. Wilder revised the play and retitled it The Matchmaker which premiered in London in 1954 and New York in 1955. Ruth Gordon played Dolly first on Broadway before Shirley Booth played her on film in 1958.

Then on January 16, 1964, a Broadway musical, Hello Dolly! was created from the play with Carol Channing as the original singing Dolly Levi. This is where the songs I keep playing originated. However, there are two original versions, one sung by Dolly in the play with a chorus of waiters. It runs for about six minutes. In late 1963 at the producers request Louis Armstrong recorded a different version of the stage “Hello Dolly!” from the male point of view as if one of the waiters got a solo. Armstrong’s version was released on January 1964 and eventually breaking The Beatles three-song streak of holding the #1 position of Billboard Hot 100. This was his most successful hit song, and it stayed at the top of the charts for nine weeks.

After Carol Channing, many famous singers and actresses have played Dolly Levi. There’s a long thread on Broadway World about Dolly Levi’s age. The Barbra Streisand fans rationalize Dolly should be in her twenties because Streisand was 26 when she played Dolly, but they seem to naively miss the point of the play and lyrics. Dolly is a woman of a certain age, one who wants to hear her favorite songs from way back when, one who went away into her personal haze, one who has come back hoping tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days. The role was written for Ethel Merman, who would have been 56 in 1964. She turned it down but accepted it when she was 62. It turns out Bette Midler is the oldest Dolly Levi, at 71. Carol Channing was 43 when she began the role, but 74 the last time she played it.

I think Dolly Levi’s story is supposed to be about being older and looking back, and that’s how I feel about why I like the song so much. I supposed for realism sake, Dolly should be in her forties, maybe fifties, an age I’m well past, but like Dolly, I love to hear old songs from way back when. I still want tomorrow to be brighter than today. In other words, I’ve finally reached an age where the song’s meaning is at it’s most significant perspective.

But it’s not just the words that make me contemplate the perspectives of age. The various Broadway recordings of the play and its revivals have one kind of sound. A 1960s Broadway orchestra sound that took me a lifetime to appreciate. I first got into jazz in the early 1970s, which took me back through the decades until I could enjoy ragtime. Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello Dolly!” has a banjo and a ragtime/Dixieland feel, also reminding me of Armstrong’s best music of the 1930s. Many versions have the arrangement of Las Vegas acts from the 1950s and 1960s, like those by Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. There’s a version by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, a version with strings for the Lawrence Welk state of mind, and there’s even a version sung in French by Petula Clark. Harry Connick Jr. even brings a modern interpretation.

I’ve made a playlist of “Hello Dolly!” covers. I hope you have Spotify to hear it. (You can sign up for the free account if you don’t.) Crank up the volume. The music sounds best played loud over large surround-sound speakers. It still sounds wonderful on headphones but I prefer the aural soundstage created by speakers. The song evokes happiness and is upbeat which explains its enduring popularity. Most of the musical arrangements are for big bands or orchestras, although it works well with small combos. The various arrangements and Broadway recordings show how a good melody and lyrics can be creatively interpreted in endless ways.

The longer versions are how the song is performed by lead actresses on stage with a chorus of waiters. The shorter versions are usually male solo singers, although some female vocalists sing the short version. It also helps to see how the song was choreographed.

I chose this Bette Midler clip because of the quality of the film clip and how well it shows the staging of the song. I wished I could have found a film clip of Carol Channing from 1964.

Most people listen to music as a background filler. I listen to music like I’m intently watching a movie. Most people can’t get into a crazily obsessed state of mind like I can. It takes patience, practice, and concentration. I kid my friends that they have ants in their pants because they can’t just sit and listen to music. I’ve written this essay for them, to try and explain why I can sit absolutely still for an hour mesmerized by one song played twelve times. When you get deep into a song, time slows down and there is so much to discover.

JWH

Echo in the Canyon – Nostalgia Denied

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 6, 2019

I went to Echo in the Canyon expecting it to be a documentary about 1960s musicians who lived in Laurel Canyon. Instead, I got Jakob Dylan Sings the Oldies. Now there is nothing wrong with that, except I never got that impression when I saw the trailer at the theater last week.

Evidently, Jakob Dylan and friends Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Powers, Norah Jones, and Regina Spektor decided to put on a concert singing old songs that came from the artists living in Laurel Canyon back when and then turned it into a film project. We see them discussing the songs over a coffee table of old albums, rehearsing the songs in the studio and then playing them live. In between this, we see Jakob Dylan driving around L.A. talking to all the old musicians that are still living and giving us some clips from the past. And for some strange reason, they kept showing clips from a 1969 film called Model Shop. Echo in the Canyon is a bit about the past, but mostly it’s about the present looking back.

Now, this is cool. Younger generations of musicians often love to pay tribute to the past by creating albums of oldies. Bob Dylan recently produced Shadows in the Night where he sings Frank Sinatra songs. Or when Natalie Cole did Unforgettable… with Love, singing her dad’s songs. Or when John Lennon did Rock ‘n’ Roll singing his favorites hits from the 1950s. I actually like covers. I loved when Bruce Springsteen would sing covers at the end of his concerts in the 1970s. And I really enjoy picking a favorite song and listening to all the covers of it on Spotify. I’ve heard about a hundred versions of “All Along the Watchtower” that way.

The trouble is, the covers for Echo in the Canyon are bland and over-produced. The whole time while watching this film I ached to hear the originals. Now that might just be me, the film is highly rated on Rotten Tomatoes and two of my younger friends have seen it and loved it.

I admire cover tunes that take an old song and redo it in a very original way, such as when Jimi Hendrix sang “All Along the Watchtower” or when Lili Haydn redid “Maggot Brains.” Jakob Dyan and friends did fairly straight covers. These are very talented artists but they don’t shine on these old songs. Part of the problem is the original songs were more delicately produced with fewer instruments, and these modern versions have too many musicians playing on them. They have a modern Americana big group sound, which I think distracts from the lyrics.

For the most part, Echo in the Canyon doesn’t cover the biggest hits but picks album cuts instead. I thought that was an excellent approach but it means they also picked songs fewer people liked. I loved all of these songs back in the day. However, many of these songs were originally idiosyncratically produced, giving them highly distinctive performances. Jakob Dylan and friends reproduce them all in the same kind of jangling-guitar stereotype of folk-rock.

I’m not sure how much these younger musicians really liked these old songs. Watching them discuss the tunes while flipping through old LPs didn’t reveal much passion. Their body language didn’t quite show enthusiasm. What I read was, “OMG, school report” as if this project was something they had to endure. They give a respectful history report on our generation but I never believed they play these albums at home.

Echo in the Canyon is worth seeing, but if you’re a Baby Boomer, don’t expect a lot of reliving the past. It’s fun to see a younger generation examine our times, but it’s also kind of disappointing. I often see young people with T-shirts celebrating musicians from the 1960s, but 95% of the time it’s The Beatles. I loved that The Byrds got a lot of recognition in this film. They were my favorite group in the 1960s, and Buffalo Springfield was second. The Beatles only came in third with me.

Echo in the Canyon has even made an official Spotify playlist with songs from the movie and soundtrack mixed in with the originals. It’s a great way to compare the two. I hope you have Spotify and can play it. By the way, everyone should have Spotify, at least the free version. It’s becoming the Adobe Acrobat of playing music on the web.

Actually, I prefer all these artists doing their own original work. That’s where they are exceptional, and one day even younger artists will be covering their tunes. And probably fans growing up with their generation will grumble about those covers too.

JWH

Freak Out! – 51 Years Ahead of Its Time

Is there a word that means the opposite of nostalgia? Here’s a case of remembering something I didn’t like from the past. To further compound the problem, it’s a work of art that satirized what I did love back then.

I wish I could boast that I first discovered Freak Out! from The Mothers of Invention in June of 1966 when it was first released, but I didn’t buy it until 1968. And even then when I played it on my console stereo in my 11th-grade bedroom I kept saying to myself, “WTF?” Of course, back then we didn’t talk in acronyms. I didn’t hate it, but it was too weird-as-shit to like. I eventually got rid of that LP when I sold my record collection to pay for a travel adventure after my dad died in May 1970.

In 1973 and 1974 I went to see Frank Zappa perform live, I believe for the Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe(‘) tours. By then I liked his music because of all the jazz influences but still thought the songs were uncomfortably weird. To be honest, I mostly went to these two concerts because my friend John Williamson was a big Zappa fan.

Over the years I’ve bought a Zappa album here and there but seldom got into them. I do love “Watermelon in Easter Hay” which is on my Spotify all-time-favorite-songs playlist.

For some strange reason, I started playing Freak Out! a couple weeks ago and haven’t stopped. I guess the album was 51 years ahead of its time — at least for me. I mentioned this to a connoisseur of 1955-1975 music I know and he reacted rather badly. I replied, at least you have to admit this music is very creative. Randy said Zappa had no talent whatsoever. That shocked me. Sure in 1968 I might have accepted that criticism, but not in 2019.

This afternoon when I played Freak Out! while eating lunch my wife pleaded with her eyes for me to stop. (She tries very hard to let me have so sonic freedom around the house, but I stopped after I realized how much I was torturing her.)

In the summer of 1966, I was transitioning from the 9th grade to the 10th, and moving from Miami to Charleston, Mississippi. There’s a good reason for not discovering Frank Zappa in the rural deep south. But by 1968 I had returned to Miami and read about this legendary album. But like I said it was too weird for me. I didn’t understand then it was making fun of everything that made me happy. I was wanting to be a hippy when Frank was skewering the whole counter-culture movement along with the clean-cut youth culture. Somehow Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention saw through all the crap that I admired.

I didn’t know enough to dig their combination of creative music and absurdist lyrics. I didn’t know what the avant-garde was back then. And to be confessional again, I still don’t.  I just don’t care much for satire or humor in music. However, something has changed, and the gestalt of most of the songs have begun to work on me. I actually crave to hear them.

Why at 67 has this silly nonsense become something deeply real?

Freak Out - Inside

Like I said, it would be cool to brag that I’ve been into The Mothers of Invention since they premiered, but even though I only bought the album two years late, I’m over a half-a-century getting to like this album. The group did have an auspicious beginning, being the first group to have a double LP for their first album and to produce one of the first concept albums. Supposedly, even The Beatles paid musical tribute to it on their Sgt. Peppers album.

It’s very hard to understand how strange an album like Freak Out! was compared to the other albums of 1966. Playing it along with Revolver, Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, Sounds of Silence, Fresh Cream, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, Fifth Dimension, Buffalo Springfield, Blues Breakers, Sunshine Superman, or even The Monkees,  you can feel its both a part of a larger musical transformation and a reaction to it.

Everyone remembers “For What’s It’s Worth” by the Buffalo Springfield about the Sunset Strip curfew riots, just look at how often it’s been used on a soundtrack. It was recorded on December 5, 1966. But why don’t people remember Frank Zappa’s song “Trouble Every Day” written in 1965 about the Watts riots?

“Trouble Every Day” is far angrier but also captures the soundtrack of the mid-60s like “For What It’s Worth” but it’s never been used to accent a movie that I can tell. I love “For What It’s Worth” but it was a protest song about young hippies not getting to party while “Trouble Every Day” was about a major race riot. “Trouble Every Day” criticizes far more and with more exciting music. In comparison, the new folk-rock sound of “For What It’s Worth” feels kind of wimpy today.

“Freak Out!” had all types of songs that anticipated future trends. Just listen to “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder.” Doesn’t that sound like Sha Na Na, a group that didn’t form until 1969? Zappa was making fun of a nostalgic movement that hadn’t even begun. Listening to “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder” in 2019 seems even more relevant. On Facebook so many people my age post photos and music clips of Do-Wop nostalgia. One of my friends even said her retirement life was recreating her high school days.

I love “How Could I Be Such A Fool?” but it makes me wonder just how honest we all were about our teenage loves. The music of this tune presses some button in me and I often put it on repeat play. Why was Frank Zappa so cynical when so young?

And isn’t “I’m Not Satisfied” a great teenage angst anthem at least as good as “I Am A Rock” by Simon and Garfunkle?

Why wasn’t it a hit single in 1966? It certainly reminds me of my 15-year-old emotional life in Charleston, Mississippi in 1966.

Zappa rerecorded several of the Freak Out! songs in 1968 as Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, to parody in even more creative musicality the 1950s rock era. I get the feeling that Zappa both loved this music, but also realized it came from a shallow culture.

So what is the word that describes anti-nostalgia? Maybe the word needs to convey both wistful fondness while recognizing what we love so much was essentially childish and unenlightened. And maybe the word should also mean demystifying nostalgia.

The 1960s was a weird time. It was both exciting and frightening. It was creative and brutal. Online I find so much nostalgia for that era, but few people remember the viciousness only the unthinking carelessness that was so fun.

JWH

If You Love Collecting Anything, You’ll Love Bathtubs Over Broadway

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 19, 2019

Steve Young was a comedy writer for the David Letterman Show. One of Young’s extra duties was finding oddball records that Dave could make fun of on the show. Because of this Young discovered an extremely rare kind of LP – musicals produced for corporate sales conventions. At first, these songs were the butt of jokes on the Letterman show but soon Young fell in love with the songs, lyrics, performances, and eventually the performers. Young began to passionately collect these records for himself. The history of his collecting, and how it led him to discover the history of the industrial musical is told in the award-winning documentary, Bathtubs Over Broadway, currently playing on Netflix and for rent at Amazon. It has a 100% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Last night I had friends over to watch a movie. I tried to get them to see Bathtubs Over Broadway. I’ve tried for weeks to get any of my movie watching buddies to see it with me. My friend Linda saw it at a film festival in Denver and told me it was wonderful. We ended up watching The Bookshop instead, hoping it would be one of those feel-good indy English flicks, but it wasn’t. So after Mike and Betsy left, I stayed up late watching Bathtubs Over Broadway by myself.

I do admit the title sounds awful, but to all my friends who wouldn’t watch this movie with me – HA! You don’t know what you missed.

Of course, maybe it’s just me. I thought Bathtubs Over Broadway was a heartwarming documentary about becoming a pop culture collector. But then I have a slight collecting habit myself. I love tracking down old science fiction anthologies, so I know the excitement of finding a rare item.

Steve Young said before he started collecting the industrial musicals he had no friends in his life other than family at home at coworkers at work. Once he started sleuthing these LPs he befriended other collectors – weird guys like himself. I also know the importance of finding someone else who shares an obscure interest in a microscope aspect of reality.

What’s most inspiring about Bathtubs Over Broadway was the length Steve would go to find these rare LPs. The heyday of industrial musicals was in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and Young discovered some of the composers and performers were still alive. At first, he contacted them hoping they’d have more records he could collect, but ended up making wonderful friends and learning a unique aspect of American history.

Bathtubs Over Broadway might sound kitschy and camp, and it is, but it’s also uplifting, moving, inspiring, educational, and enlightening.

Don’t let the title mislead you into missing it.

p.s.

In case you want to know more, Steve Young and Sport Murphy wrote a whole book on industrial musicals – Everything Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals. Follow this link to hear songs, see videos, and read more history after watching Bathtubs Over Broadway.

Everythings Coming Up Profits

JWH

Why Can’t I Let Go of Technology I Don’t Need?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, April 7, 2019

If you live long enough you realize that things have a lifespan too. When I was growing up there were payphones everywhere. I don’t see them anymore. They still exist, but they are dying off. I do miss them. I can imagine situations when I’d even want to use one so I think AT&T should maintain payphones. Of course, we should let AT&T just pull the plug on this outdated technology.

In my lifetime I’ve bought over 2,000 LPs and 2,000 CDs. I have no LPs anymore, and I’m down to about 700 CDs. I hardly ever play them. I’d like to get rid of my CDs because I’d like to use their space to store more books I won’t read but want to buy.  However, I struggle to let the last CDs go.

It’s not being able to let go that intrigues me. Why am I so attached to something that’s not being used? I know people that own everything they’ve ever bought, including their childhood toys. I’m not like that. If I kept every computer I’d ever owned, I’d need another bedroom just to store them. I actually like letting go of clutter. But not these CDs. Maybe I fear streaming music will fail.

I had no trouble giving up my LPs — I’ve done it several times in my life. That’s one of my problems. I get nostalgic for things I once owned and buy them again. I’ve built up at least four record collections. However, I think (I’m pretty sure this time) that I’m over LPs for good, and I’m almost sure I’m over CDs too. But not quite.

This week I was tempted to get back into the world of CDs again when I read about the Brennan B2. Its 2GB model can hold 5,000 CDs. I could put all my CDs on it, and then pack them away, or donate them to the library. The Brennan B2 connects to computers, stereos, phones, tablets, and just about anything that plays music. I could use my iPhone to call up any song from my collection and play it on the phone, or through my stereo system or on my HDTV.

The Brenna B2 is the perfect way to access a CD collection. Of course, (I chid myself) that I ripped my CD collection over a decade ago before I gave most of them away, and they are all on Amazon for me to play on my iPhone, iPad, computer, stereo or TV. But I don’t. Well, hardly ever. I just checked, and Amazon is still holding 1,792 of my albums for me. I was able to instantly play 45th Parallel by Oregon, an album I’d completely forgotten I bought. I probably should rip all those CDs I bought since that ripping project, but it would be a pain in the ass. And by the way, the reason I forgot I owned the Oregon CD is that I don’t like it. The reason why I only have 700 CDs now is I got rid of all the CDs I didn’t care about anymore.

So why am I thinking about CDs again? It’s that damn Brennan B2! It’s the coolest piece of technology I’ve seen in years. And when I read it’s built on top of a Raspberry Pi computer I believed it even cooler. But that inspired, “Hey, I could build my own CD server and save $679!”

Last night I was playing Spotify after I went to bed. I love dreaming while listening to music. And in my half-awake state, I told myself that the Brennan B2 could never match the convenience of Spotify or the size of its music library. So why am I agonizing over buying a Brennan B2 still? It’s become I’m still addicted to getting tech toys even though I have a lifetime of experience knowing I won’t use them for long.

I know in my heart of hearts I’d buy the Brennan B2, spend a couple of weeks ripping CDs to FLAC, build playlists, and then play with it for an afternoon. After that, I’d forget all about it. I see now that what I’m really thinking about doing, is spending $679 to have a couple weeks of tech toy playtime. By the way, that’s why I write these blogs sometimes, to think things through. But even this psychoanalysis through writing isn’t curing me of the urge to buy the Brennan B2.

I’m trying to talk myself now into getting out my Raspberry Pi that’s been sitting around doing nothing and building my own CD server. I even have a 1TB USB drive doing nothing to store those CDs that aren’t being played. I wonder if I could create a system that’s even half as nice as the Brennan B2? Did they write their software from scratch, or is it open source? I like the idea of accessing the music database through an IP address in a browser.

Of course, the Brennan B2 would be an amazing out-of-the-box experience.

No, no, no. This is crazy. Spotify lets me access millions of albums and I want to build a system that lets me access 700? Why don’t I realize this an idiotic urge? Well, the library sells old CDs for cheap. I could beef up my library considerably without spending too much. (Am I conveying my insanity well enough?)

There’s a joke in an old Woody Allen movie that he tells about a kid being told that masturbation will make him go blind. The kid replies, “Can I do it until I need glasses?”

That about sums up my ability to let go of technology I don’t need. I’m never ready to completely give it up.

JWH

Why Is This Restaurant Playing The Big Bopper?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 31, 2019

Susan and I went out to breakfast this morning. She wanted to try this new place called Staks. One of those storefront restaurants where you order at the counter and sit down and wait for your food. (A trend I don’t like.) What surprised me was the music they played at 7:30am, oldies like “Rock Around the Clock,” “The Wanderer,” “Chantilly Lace,” “He’s So Fine,” and “Dawn” – all songs from when we were growing up.

We sat at a booth with high backs covered with green plastic. In the middle of the room were sterile white metal tables and chairs occupied by younger people, including three late twenty-something couples with babies in highchairs. I wanted to ask them what they thought about the music. I was grooving to oldies, but were they? Was it just Muzak to their ears? The staff was all teens and young twenty-somethings. Why were they being forced to listen to old people’s music all day? I assume some industrial designer imagined both the decor and music together believing old fashioned breakfasts went with old-fashioned music. There were no vegetarian or gluten-free options on the menu – that would remind people of now and break the illusion.

Just to check if I wasn’t the only one noticing this trend I found this at the Chicago Tribune, “Nostalgia has taken over food and pop culture because we can’t help but fall for it.” Google also gave me “4 Ways to Use Nostalgia to Grab Your Customers’ or Members’ Attention.” Of course, marketers have been selling us American Graffiti and Happy Days leftovers for decades.

I can understand a fondness for life between WWII and the Vietnam war because that’s when I grew up. Susan and I were the only music-age-appropriate customers in Staks. Susan still knows all the words to those songs. Why should our nostalgia be piped into younger generations? My parents hated rock ‘n’ roll. I have to work mighty hard to find songs from the 21st-century that I love. And the song I do find to love, tend to sound like songs from my past. My parents like music built around vocalists, horns, and woodwinds. I grew up with vocalists, guitars, bass, and drums. Modern music fans love processed vocals mixed with computer-generated tones and sampled clips.

My theory is every generation has a sound they are pop culturally programmed to resonate with during their teenage years. I assume in half-a-century the young people that were sitting in the middle of the room will be in booths listening to music from their generation wondering why another industrial designer brought it back.

By the way, here’s a 21st-century song I love. I’ve probably played it two dozens times today. It shows I shouldn’t think every generation is stuck in their own musical hole. It still doesn’t explain why I see young people wearing t-shirts with The Beatles, Jimi, or The Grateful Dead pictured on them. I never wore a shirt with Benny Goodman’s face and doubt I’ll wear a Rilo Kiley advertisement.

Finally, why is it easier for younger generations to embrace older generations of music than it is for older generations to keep up with the music coming from younger generations? There are plenty of places to eat and drink that feature contemporary music. I just don’t go in them anymore. Why? I’ve heard many in my generation say they feel invisible around younger people, and that made them feel old. I’ve got to admit I stopped paying attention to newer trends, so they are invisible to me. Maybe it’s mutual.

My guess is those under 30 kids in Staks never even noticed the music.

JWH

Remembering and Rating Pop Culture

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 11, 2018

I began keeping a reading log back in 1983 where I record every book I finish reading. I wished I had started this log in the third grade when my mother read me Treasure Island. That was 1960, I was eight, and the first book I remember. The first book I read myself, was Down Periscope, but in an abridged version for kids. That was probably 1961. I figured I finished over a thousand books that I don’t remember between 1961 and 1983.

As you might guess, I’m hung-up on memory. Just remember, this blog is called Auxiliary Memory. My memory has never been great, and now it’s in obvious decline. My reading log has proved valuable on countless occasions and in many ways. Over the years I’ve often regretted not maintaining a movie log.

Recently I began a Pop Culture Log, where I record the short stories, essays, albums, TV shows, movies that I finish each day. In the sixties we had a phrase, you are what you eat. Well, I believe we are the pop culture we consume.

I keep my new pop culture log on a Google spreadsheet online. I now wish I had logged every pop culture work I consumed in my lifetime. Recording all my brain food takes a bit of effort, but is revealing. More and more when I tell my friends about shows or stories I enjoyed I can’t recall their titles. That’s very frustrating.

Aging and struggling with memory reveal details about my identity in those logs. In Westworld season 2 they show different approaches to creating artificial immortality. One method involves teaching an android all the memories and habits of a person until the android can’t be distinguished from the real person. Who we are, often comes from our attitudes towards the pop culture we’ve experienced in our lifetime. On Facebook, I see more and more groups formed around pop culture memories with tens of thousands of baby boomers participating in each. My identity can be partially defined by those groups I joined. (That’s why Facebook is so powerful to advertisers and political pollsters.)

Here’s a snippet of the last couple days. If I tried to record them from memory the day after tomorrow all of them would have been forgotten except maybe The Admirable Crichton. That’s the work that’s given me the most pleasure this week, but it would only take another couple days and I’d forget it too.

Pop Culture Log

 

I’ve tried to devise the most useful columns. I added a link column, something I don’t have on my reading log of books. That gives me actual details about the work, and is very educational, often expanding my reaction to the work.  Just collecting the entries for the spreadsheet helps me remember more.

My friend Janis recently gave me a box of vinyl LPs she had stored away at her father’s house for decades, mostly from the 1970s and early 1980s. I’ve been playing a couple each day. As you can see, I’ve rated them all three stars. But I wonder what I would have rated them back when they were new. Most stuff from decades ago seems kind of mediocre and blah, but I bet some of those albums sparkled when they first appeared. I know I liked some of them much better then than I do now.  I’ve decided to rate my current reaction rather than trying to discern absolute artistic quality, it’s context in history or its lasting value. The links do that. It would have been enlightening to see how my ratings changed over time.

Rating Systems

There’s all kind of rating systems. The classic school grade (A+ through F). The test score (0 – 100). The 10 scale (0 – 10). Various 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star ratings. I liked what Rocket Stack Rank uses, a 5-star system that’s less judgmental and more practical. I’ve amended their system for my use:

  • 1-star (*) – Technical flaws that annoy. Can’t finish.
  • 2-star (**) – Storytelling flaws ruin the flow. Can’t finish.
  • 3-star (***) – Average. Good. Competent. Even well done. Once is enough.
  • 4-star (****) – Will recommend to friends. Would reread/rewatch. Hope to remember probably won’t.
  • 5-star (*****) – Should win awards, be remembered, and become a classic. Would buy to have permanently. Would want to study and remember.

This system avoids judging art by objective criteria. A graph counting all the ratings should show 80% falling into the 3-star rating, 18% for 2-star or 4-star, and 2% for 1-star and 5-star. Because I only record what I finish, I shouldn’t be listing 1-star and 2-star titles.

The Admirable Crichton - 1957

Of the works rated above only the English film The Admirable Crichton (Paradise Lagoon in the U.S.) based on the J. M. Barrie play (he also wrote Peter Pan) is rated 4-stars. I gave it 4-stars because it’s one I’d recommend to my friends. It was so much fun that I’ve ordered two other film editions of the story, one a silent, Male and Female (1919) that stars Gloria Swanson directed by Cecille B. DeMille, and 1934 pre-Code screwball comedy starring Bing Crosby, We’re Not Dressing.

Rating a work is hard. Janis, who is also my TV watching buddy, and I, both greatly enjoy Glow, a show about lady wrestlers in the 1980s. It gets good reviews, and I know other people who like it too. However, the quality of streaming TV is so great compared to the older broadcast TV that it’s hard to say when a show is worthy of 4-stars. I would definitely say Breaking Bad, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Crown, Downton Abbey are 5-star shows. And I would say Anne with an E, Humans, FargoWestworld, The Duece are 4-star shows. But really good shows like Glow and Killing Eve aren’t in their class. A 3-star rating includes a lot of very entertaining shows because there’s really a great number of entertaining well-made shows. 3-stars doesn’t mean something isn’t very good. Well-made entertainment is very common today.

My concern is more about memory than artistic judgment. I want just enough information in my logs to trigger hidden memories. I’ve never been sure if bad memory is due to lost memories or poor memory retrieval. If I had kept logs of all the artistic works I consumed in my lifetime it would help me remember, but also it would also describe who I was, something I’m still learning myself.

JWH