Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I'm not a Baby Boomer, I'm not a Generation X'er, I'm not a Millennial, I am a Proud 'Tweener

I've always identified with the music of the Baby Boomer generation. But I'm not a Boomer. Not really. The infant explosion that took place after the end of World War II in 1945 lasted roughly until the mid-1950s. Anyone born before or after that ten-year span isn't really, technically, officially a Boomer. I know, all these generational definitions (Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, etc) are just the concoctions of pretentious sociology professors, annoyingly cerebral journalists, and perhaps Hallmark. But play along. I've got something important to tell you.

While I'm too young to be a card-carrying member of the Me Generation, I'm too old to be a member of Gen' X, the proceeding group that produced some rather pathetic clothing styles ("Pull up your damn baggy pants, kid, and get off my lawn!"). But Gen X did generate some great music artists, too, namely Kurt Cobain, who despite his sad and untimely death by suicide was a gifted songwriter. 

But no, I'm definitely not a Gen X'er. I am a 'Tweener. That's someone who was born between the Boom and the X -- more-or-less between 1955 and 1965. Most folks believe I am a Baby Boomer. I was born in 1960, which according to many puts me in that boom box.  

Many say Boomers are people born from 1945 to 1964. But that isn't accurate in terms of social experience. As a Tweener, my cultural references, influences and experiences differ from both the Boomers (except for the music), and from the proceeding Generation Xers.

I personally think true Boomers with the full Boomer experience were born from 1945 to 1955. We 'Tweeners didn't go to Woodstock. We didn't ban the bra or march on Selma or burn our draft cards. We didn't really change the world much. Why? Because, well, we
 came of age in the mid-70's, which was essentially an extended hangover from the 60's and, then, from Watergate. 

The Vietnam War had just ended. It was a vaguely fun but kitschy, ill-defined transitional era identified by disco, sensitive singer-songwriters, KISS, widening lapels and CB radios. I kinda loved it. But that's another story. As it turned out, the 70's were just a brief moment in time that followed the far more "consequential" 60's and preceded a curious new embrace of conformity called the 1980's the likes of which our nation hadn't seen since the 1950's.

We 'Tweeners have always been content to pitch our tent in a less controversial piece of land between the Boomer camp and the Gen X camp, for pretty obvious reasons. After all, unlike Boomers, we 'Tweeners didn't go from being long-haired hippies chanting "Kill the cops" to button-down yuppies vowing to "Make a killing." And unlike Gen X'ers, we certainly didn't wear our baseball caps backward in the 90s, embrace a largely dismal music genre called "grunge," and bitch and moan and growl and whine that reality bites.

All kidding aside, the Boomers did change the world. They fought injustice and won many of those battles. And they do sometimes get a bum rap. Boomers are undeniably spoiled and narcissistic. And they did turn divorce into the new national pastime. But they really aren't that different then preceding generations. 

Baby Boomers are the subject of a lot of jealousy. They were responsible in their youth for more positive change than most any other generation in this country's history. But wow did they change. Eventually everyone settles down, chills out and sells out to consumerism. And almost everyone gets a little more conservative and money-conscious when they have kids and a mortgage. It happens. But this group did a real 180.

So Why Do I like Baby Boomer Music?

So now that we got that all straight, I can tell you why I passionately identify with the Boomers' music and always will. It's simple: I started listening to "Boomer" music when I could barely walk and talk. I had older, music-loving siblings, who are Boomers. I had hip, music-loving parents. And I was a musician who started playing very young. I began pounding on the drums when I was barely out of diapers, then turned to guitar when I was 12. And I loved virtually all the music of the 60's, especially the stuff I heard my dad play. He was a top 40 radio deejay.

The songs I heard on my dad's radio station were happy, melodic, and free from pain or angst, for the most part. But the curious thing is, the 60's were one of the darkest decades of our nation's history, with palpable hatred spewing between frustrated fathers and rebellious sons, violent race riots on the streets, and, of course, the Vietnam War and all its accompanying madness. And I did kinda get that even as a very little kid. 

That seemingly irreconcilable juxtaposition of light and darkness is what has always fascinated me about the 60's. This played out in two iconic concerts in 1969. Woodstock, the legendary three-day music festival in upstate New York in August 1969, was what many thought and hoped would be the groovy and definitive grand finale' of the decade of peace and love and drugs and mud. But four months later, in the very last month of the decade, the free Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in California degenerated into violent mayhem and murder. It was the ultimate bummer, man.

Those two events demonstrated the yin and yang of the decade, which of course was dominated by the Boomers. 
On the "FM" side there was the edgy psychedelia of the Jefferson Airplane, the angry protest songs of Bob Dylan, the cosmic feedback of Jimi Hendrix, the hard rock/blues brilliance of Cream, and the hauntingly introspective and terrifyingly intense college/garage rock of the Doors.

On the "AM" side, there was the innocently trippy, joyously melodic pop-rock of the Cowsills (The Rain, The Park, and Other Things), the impossibly beautiful and singable songs of the Association (Windy), the humorous and catchy madness of the Turtles (Happy Together), the powerful, Motownish melodies of the Grass Roots (Temptation Eyes), and the sublime, brass-filled hooks of the Buckinghams (Don't You Care). 

As the war and protests against it intensified, the radio was curiously filling up with these and other songs that were the sweetest and catchiest tunes in pop music history. I guess for many, these tunes were a safe harbor in a stormy decade. But these were the songs I remember best from the 60's. It wasn't until I hit puberty and picked up a guitar in the early 70's that I delved into the darker FM netherworlds.

It comforts me to know that several of those amazing 60's radio hit-makers are still touring and performing these songs. In fact, every band I mentioned above is part of the so-called Happy Together tour, which each summer collects some of the best surviving bands from the 60's Top 40 record charts and takes the show on the road in what has become a big, happy whiff of nostalgia. 

The tour, which hits Humphrey's in San Diego on Wednesday night, is a total blast produced and hosted by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, two founding members of the Turtles who are also known as Flo & Eddie.

The Cowsills - Then
I've seen just about every Happy Together tour, and this year's group tops them all, at least for me. But the band I'm most excited to see this time is the Cowsills, the group of immensely talented siblings that were just kids and teens in the 60's but who were among the most underrated musicians, singers and songwriters of the rock era. This band, which was the real-life inspiration for The Partridge Family, had several other major hits including HairLove American Style, and Indian Lake

Composed of siblings Billy, Bob, Paul, Barry, John, and Susan, plus their mom Barbara, the Cowsills were managed by father William "Bud" Cowsill, a domineering ex-Navy officer who beat, bullied, and alienated his children and tragically tore the band apart. 

But with the Cowsills, the good always shines through. As I've said before, no song better captured the sunny, innocent side of the 1960's than the Cowsills' "The Rain, the Park and Other Things." Released in 1967, the song combined ethereal, organ-infused pop with stunning harmonies and an unapologetic sweetness. It's the definitive 60s radio song. I love it to this day.

And the ability of the band, which now features Bob, Paul and Susan Cowsill, to keep performing and living their lives with with such joy and purpose after the horrors their father put them through as children is a profile in courage and a testament to the healing powers of music. I promise you that at the Happy Together show tonight at Humphrey's in San Diego, the Cowsills, even among all these great bands, will stand out. These guys just have a way of connecting with audiences on a deep level. 

I spoke to a Genuine Baby Boomer....

Paul, Susan and Bob Cowsill - Now
In an interview this week, Bob Cowsill, who is now in his mid-60's and still going strong, told me that after all the things his family has been through, "It means more than ever to be playing together. None of us back in the day would have predicted we would still be performing these songs for anyone this late in our lives. With many of our family gone now it's even more special to perform together. Also it's great to be singing these songs still and sharing them with new audiences. They still hold up strong after all these decades."

Bob suggested that in the 60's, young people "all felt connected as a generation by the songs that were on the radio. We were all listening to the same stations, all watching the same TV stations and TV shows and we were brought together by these songs you will hear during the Happy Together show."

Bob added that the decade in general was a decade of "growth and awareness, "But the growth in music and in the groups who recorded and performed it was astronomical. We all became politically aware in the '60's also, many of us for the first time, and it was a time to reconcile and fix sins of the past -- prejudice, mostly."  

As for the tour, Bob said, "It has special people in it who shared something incredibly unique during one of the best decades in the history of the country. The songs performed were all incredibly important hit records from the day and every one of them was and is still a winner. The songs are so strong they carry us now and we're all real proud to be take ownership when our part of the show comes up. We're all a smaller part of a bigger whole now and the bigger whole is very powerful."

Bob noted that the tour is "going great with sell out crowds everywhere. It's all about the songs and how great this group of songs is. We're all hanging by a thread most of us and the songs are carrying us now. The audience today is there because they want to hear 'Windy,' 'Hair' and 'Happy Together,' not necessarily the Association, the Cowsills or the Turtles. The songs have become more important than the groups and that's why the show works."

Bob said that when he listens to the concert every night from backstage, he and his brother and sister and the other bandmates are all "just hypnotized" by the songs.  

"The audiences are like us: boomers with great memories triggered by songs that bonded all of us to each other," he said. "But then there are younger kids there because they know the history, they love these songs also which really gives testament to their greatness, and at a Happy Together concert they get to see and hear first hand how important and absolutely essential music and the bands who made it were to all of us.  We were all connected to each other by these songs when we were all younger and apparently we're going to stay connected forever."

Monday, July 13, 2015

Taylor Swift is a Monster, Be Very Afraid!

I've been reading some of the recent press coverage of the staggering popularity of Taylor Swift, including the Time cover story (left) and others. Just about every story now about Swift is just a variation on the same theme that Taylor is the new queen of pop music. That is not inaccurate. She has indeed conquered the music business, such as it is.

But what the giddy, breathless music journalists lack is even a remedial understanding of just who and what Taylor Swift really is, and who and what she has always been.

Now that Taylor, 25, has abandoned her slightly more substantive acoustic-country teen love songs for vacuous, throwaway, kitschy 80s-ish high-energy pop, she will fade even faster. Country audiences are relatively loyal. But the pop crowd? Like omigod, Taylor, you're gonna be a has-been who'll be reluctantly appearing in Where Are They Now articles in the tabloids in 10 years or maybe less. 

I'm generally not this cynical, and I'm almost never this mean. But it's impossible for me to sit idly by and let Taylor Swift "conquer" the music business without having my say. Because you see, folks, Taylor is a huge phony. She's way too "sincere" to be sincere. 

Taylor is the most calculating and manipulative music artist to hit the top of what's left of the pop charts in a long time. From the time she could walk and talk, she was teaching herself the tenets of by-the-numbers modern Nashville songwriting game and how to write a "hit" song.

As opposed to, you know, picking up an old six string and learning organically how to enjoy music for its own sake, form the heart. It was all part of Taylor's master plan. There never was an innocence for her to lose.

Nashville is the new Brill Building. Nashville songwriting has become an obsessive and very specific hit-machine craft. You, too, can find fame and fortune if you study the basics of Nashville songwriting. Art? That got lost somewhere along the way. It's all about the hook now, the clever song title/premise. It's all about the hit. 

This is a full-on craft now, and Taylor, to her credit and shame, taught herself to be among the best craftsmen in all of music. She embraced this mentality while still in grade school. She craved acceptance, fame and a record deal not long after she learned to tie her shoes. It was never about love for music, it was always about getting as famous as is humanly possible.

And she subsequently conned Tim McGraw and Faith Hill and so many others in the business into thinking she was a sweet little child who just happened to have a little musical talent. She was Shirley Temple meets Irving Azoff. A cute little blonde kid who had a scarily venomous side and would do pretty much anything to succeed.

Taylor's been playin' the players since she was tiny. There is nothing genuine about her. And now, also not surprisingly, she's bailed on Nashville and walked away from country music. It has nothing more to give her. She's moved on and is now a product of the plastic pop world. 

In reality, she doesn't belong to anyone or anything other than her own callow ambitions. Who are you really, Taylor? Do you even know?

Taylor Swift has become a brand, a corporation, a pop-culture phenomenon, a theme park (that's coming, trust me). But what's happened along the way is that this is now all that she is. Taylor has tragically lost anything similar to what a real, spontaneous human being possesses. That is simply not required when you reside in the rarefied but odorous air of hyper-fame. 

Taylor, who is utterly obsessed with "celebrity" and whose best "friends" are all required to be equally as famous, doesn't need to be anyone now in particular out of the limelight. She doesn't need to do any soul searching or self analysis. She can hire a yes-man psychotherapist and some clingy, college-educated personal assistants to do all that for her. 

Taylor's level of fame is the kind that destroys people. Invariably. Inevitably. And, yes, sadly. Taylor is lost. She would undoubtedly tell you that she has it all together, but no. She's gone. Taylor has left country and she has left the building. There isn't a person in there any more. She's created her own monster. I hope she's happy. But I'm really not certain she understands the destructiveness of this kind of fame or even the concept of true "happiness" any more.

Taylor has been an absolute failure in her relationships, as anyone who's ever listened to her songs or read the entertainment press knows. She's just way too ambitious to ever please someone else, or herself. She and DJ Calvin Harris, the insanely overpaid millionaire record spinner, have only been together for a few months but are reportedly moving in together and discussing marriage. Uh oh. Be afraid, Calvin, be very afraid. It won;t last. Mark my words.

We all know that Taylor has a habit of writing some rather nasty tell-all songs about ex-boyfriends. And anyway, she's married to her career. Good luck with that, kids. 

Fame and wealth do not make it easier to have happy, healthy, satisfying, trusting relationships. 
On the contrary. Fame is just about the most powerful and destructive drug on the planet. It devours everything in its path, leaving in its wake a "person" who, after achieving all she so desperately wanted, finds that she wants to return to the person she was before it all started. 

But, typically, that person is no longer available. You've traveled too far away from whoever you really are, Taylor. Or were. And now you find that you have become this "person" you don't even know, or like.

That is the tragedy of what you thought you wanted since you were a little girl. It happens all the time. Taylor is in for a very hard fall when her golden star begins to tarnish. In the meantime, Taylor, I hope you are happy. I hope you are able to find a little bit of yourself, a bit of that little girl, such as it was, amid all the idolatry and yes men and phony worship. 

And if you ever read this, Taylor, please know that I am not writing this to be mean, or because I hate you. I am writing this because I feel sorry for you. I feel sorry for everyone who only cares about making it to the top, and once the person makes it to the top, you find that if you weren't happy when you were at the bottom of the ladder, you won't be happy now. It's just one of those very basic facts of life that almost everyone who strives for fame and fortune does not learn until it's way too late. 

But I can guess what you're thinking right about now. Instead of being ticked off at me for writing such an audacious column, you're thinking:

"Hmm... Fame? Unhappiness? Tragedy? A manipulative little girl who made it big but is now lost and lonely? Now that would make for a killer pop song, wouldn't it? Call my record label, pronto! And get my agent in here!"