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Monday, May 20, 2013

Do Musicians' Deaths Truly Bring the End of an Era?

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[Certainly, our thoughts are with the people in central Oklahoma, in the zone of tornado devastation. We, in California, live in earthquake country, and feel genuine kinship with others recovering from natural disasters. As always, we extend all honors to the First Responders and those who will be digging for some time to come. The following feature was written before the tornado struck on Monday.]
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Each time an icon of roots Americana passes, we hear that an era is over. But is that true? We may miss the presence and humor and shared life experiences of an Earl Scruggs, but plenty of survivors -- including some very youthful ones -- remain with us, devoted to the esoteric licks and styles and catalog of tunes and songs of every famous lost icon.
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There's far more reason to worry about something else more subtle than an individual death, but more threatening in terms of our musical culture and legacy and whether it really might be vanishing.
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We should note that roots music has never been a big commercial force, so the hundreds of kids picking banjo at the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival really don't care that some insipid TV show like "American Idol" won't come calling. We don't concede that it couldn't be economically important, if Big Music hadn't become the exclusive domain of a very narrow genre.
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The real worry is the loss of artistry and diversity within what once was -- for one brief, shining moment -- a broad spectrum of all that was considered the purview of popular music, and the accessibility of that lost world of popular music to creative inclusion.
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We take up this topic because THE DOORS' keyboardist RAY MANZAREK died Monday of cancer. And that got us thinking that his passing is yet another loss that includes both the musician and the fact that what he achieved in a previous time is not open to anyone today.
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Manzarek's signature riffs characterized the music of the Doors in such songs as "Light My Fire," "Break on Through to the Other Side," L.A. Woman," and many more that shared late '60s and early '70s airwaves with Bob Dylan, the Beatles, The Mamas & the Papas, the Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkle, Crosby Stills & Nash, Ravi Shankar, and more.
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No time had been like that era of music radio, and none has, since. Music was open, there were no genre police, and no one set himself up to play stifling gate-keeper.
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Now, even "classic rock" radio stations do not use playlists of that era. You're lucky to hear 20% of what enriched the airwaves of the time they claim to celebrate.
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It's significant that much of the music of that era has been belatedly embraced as Folk-Rock and even Folk-Americana, though that was unthinkable at the time: Billy Joel's "Piano Man;" Jim Croce's "I've Got a Name;" Gram Parsons' entire catalog; Eric Clapton's reintroduction of American blues to America (and to some extent, the same thing by the Rolling Stones).
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All the artists we have named so far could routinely share a single afternoon of broadcast time, circa 1972 or '73 -- on the same mainstream radio station -- with Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," Elton John's "Rocket Man," Don McLean's "American Pie," John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High," James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," Arlo Guthrie singing Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans," and bands like Bread, Jefferson Airplane, and Kenny Rogers & the First Edition -- and the Eagles, and Chicago, and Blood Sweat & Tears, and the Allman Brothers Band, and America -- and with a rich offering from wonderful women artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Olivia Newton-John, Minnie Ripperton, Maria Muldaur, Nicollete Larson, Emmylou Harris, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, and oh so very many more, including those we already mentioned in this piece.
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And yes, we will belabor the point that ALL these bands and artists could be heard on the same mainstream radio stations on the same deejays' air shifts, and that was just a typical take-it-for-granted broadcast day.
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Where is the like of it today -- male or female artists, or bands, or collaborative ensembles? There's no shortage of Berklee or Julliard or Musicians Institute grads, and we just saw the dedication and devotion of some very young players competing on traditonal instruments at the annual contest on Sunday. Are we considering all the factors? Creativity is hopefully not a diminishing commodity.
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Now, you can invest the time and do the work to find talented musicians on YouTube, where their efforts are amassing a few thousand views each -- with hopes of somehow going viral with the cat that does summersaults, the numbnuts who crashes crotch-first onto a sawhorse, and the goober who accidentally shoots a hole in his pickup truck (again).
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But you can't effortlessly discover good new music where we used to, on the radio. The rich musical diversity (that once was ubiquitous) sure as hell isn't on any big label -- a label that would have gotten it on mainstream radio -- radio that would have exposed it to a mass audience and given it a chance to find mass appeal -- popular acceptance that would have brought commercial success and encouraged others to ignore the perceived limits -- because that was in another time, in a brief, shining moment, when anything was possible, when music was boundless, and radio was fun.
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So, with the death of a key creative music-making talent  whose influence was strongly felt -- this time in the form of the unique human known as Ray Manzarek -- it's time to think about more than one artist and the music he helped craft in a long-lost band.
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Any end can point to a new beginning. We all experience it in our shared trips around the sun, in the cycles of the seasons. And when change seems out of whack, it leads us to a recognition, a remembrance that there once was a time before formulaic, cookie-cutter boy bands, and before diva-tantrum behavior and warbly and incongruous vocal gymnastics (that have nothing to do with lyrical content) became requirements for girl pop singers.
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There once was a spacious time when exploring and pursuing artistic freedom meant not worrying that "your" original rock didn't sound like the Beatles' original rock (and for the Beatles, that their original rock didn't sound like doo-wop or surf rock).
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It's a big point that we risk minimizing with too-small examples. There actually was a time when pursuing one's creativity, without worrying about self-imposing constraints or about "your genre," could bring you appreciative listeners and commercial success -- among the same fans who liked Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix and Neil Diamond and Janis Joplin and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and Joan Baez and Eric Clapton and the Byrds and the Doors and Led Zep and Julio Eglesias, and who gave them all space on their record shelves -- in utter defiance of our imposed contemporary sensibilities about genres.
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And so it's time to look back meaningfully, to wonder what the hell happened to the rich openness and diversity of that time.
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Could a Garth Brooks "make it" in Nashville today, without the Country Music Establishment's requirement for developing an affected, generic, fahke-tee-whang way of tall-keen? He's cited as a key figure in turning country to pop, but today's "country," with its fixation on dysfunctional relationships and its easy-to-pigeonhole character as red-state-trailer-park-rock? There's no room at the country inn for a honkytonk roadhouse, not even a Garth Brooks version.
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Similarly, why is modern "rock" fixated on atonal droning? That's not its legacy. Why is today's "pop" pounded into the ground with sh-thump-thud / thud-thud-thud / pish-th-thud talentless (or automated soulless electronic) drummers loudly on top of all other instruments? Is the product so insubstantial that they don't want us to hear its lack of everything but the mindless pounding?
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Just as important, why do they keep paying-off radio stations to replace everything in their vaults with new remixes of the old classics, with LOUD added drum tracks that were not in the original releases? Are they soooo afraid we will find those original classics too much better than what they purvey now? (We have news for 'em: Americana music fans already do!)
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Sure, we, at the Acoustic Americana Music Guide are the home of acoustic guitars and banjos and harmonicas and mandolins (and accordions, and dulcimers, and a family of orchestral and traditional instruments). But that doesn't mean we don't appreciate great melody lines crafted and played with musicality and finesse on electric instruments.
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We like hot licks as much as anybody. We love catching ourselves humming a tune we heard last night for the first time. But we have never been tempted to replicate those indigestion noises that seem to accompany the mindless thudding of TV commercial soundtracks, or the surly attitude of urban banterings, or robotic alterations of voices (or whatever that annoyance is) or any of what is less-than-it-sounds-like-is-here that comprises the pencil-line narrowness of variety of indistinguishably generic "pop" radio fare.
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So, when we lose a blues harmonica virtuosoHERBIE like HERBIE KATZ, as we did recently, we grieve that we lost a talent and, moreover, a friend. And can think about Herbie, aka "Dr. Fun," the man, because we know other musicians will devote themselves to the versatile little instrument, as he did.
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But when we lose ALAN O'DAY, as we did Saturday, or RAY MANZAREK, as we did Monday, whether we actually knew them or not, the green of our artistic landscape seems dry and shriveled. The way Big Music works now, it deprives itself -- and all of us -- of an environment that rewards musicians' innovations and, by their examples, encourages others to explore. That, and the end of arts and music education in public schools more than a decade ago, and we are not likely to hear innovative musicality and original tuneful diversity on the radio again,  anytime soon.
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RAY MANZAREK lost his long battle with bile duct cancer in Germany on Monday, May 20. He was in that country for medical treatments. He was 74.
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Manzarek's family asks that donations by his fans be made to www.Standup2Cancer.org instead of sending flowers.
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MUCH MORE is available in the Guide's LIVE MUSIC EVENTS, published May 18. (Same site, separate click.)
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Entire contents copyright (c) 2013,
Lawrence Wines and Tied to the Tracks.
All rights reserved.
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Fresh FULL edition coming soon. Meantime, check the May 18 edition for LIVE MUSIC events waaaay into the future.
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7 comments:

Vikas Gupta said...

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Anonymous said...

I admit I had not looked at this this way. Like most of us, I guess I like what I like and I figure the rest of what's happened to (pop) music is just beyond hope. But you really make a good point that pop music once brought great diversity and was closer to sonerhing for everybody. I too would like to see radio be like that again!!! If it was I for one would sure listen to it!!!

Anonymous said...

So what SCREAMS at me after reading this: why doesn't somebody do retro radio with exactly the same music it had when it was good? I mean THE SAME EXACT PLAY LISTS, AND ALL OF IT!!! Classic rock is such a tired format because they play the same old songs over and over. But why not play EVERYTHING that was played back in the day???

Anonymous said...

It took me awhile to see what you meant, then boom, it hit me full on. So yeah, why don't we have any radio stations that play today's music and risk including everything people are recording like they did in 1973? I guess KCRW thinks they do that, but they're off on planet weird.

Anonymous said...

Always thot payola ruled radio in the olden days. But if it did maybe we need 2 go back 2 that. Looks like things wuz way better.

Anonymous said...

I m 2 young 2 know 1/2 these people but I do c u had lots of variety then. I only find something diffrnt if I search it out. U got it found 4 u by radio. An dude, u have youtube nailed!

Anonymous said...

Pounding thud-thud absolutely typifies pop non-music. At least it used to be nearly all music of one kind or another but still it was recognizible as music. Not so for a long time.