When I was in my 11th or 12th year of undergrad school, P.J. O’Rourke came to campus to give us a talk. After establishing himself as a recklessly irreverent writer for the National Lampoon, he was in his second professional life as a writer on politics and international affairs for Rolling Stone, specializing at the time in visiting the world’s primo hellholes and being the token conservative at the magazine. After the speech I finagled an interview and drinks with him (the latter on his RS American Express card, and belated thanks, Pat) and I asked him if he was listening to any new music.
“Nah,” he said. “Once you turn 30 your taste and record collection kind of calcify.”
I was horrified. Was that in store for me? The long, inevitable march toward becoming my dad? I hoped I’d die before I got old.
The proverbial sands of time are worth pondering. We just had Stevie Wonder and Neil Diamond at the Erwin Center and in a matter of days we’ll be visited by the Who, ZZ Top and Jeff Beck — the latter two together on one rapidly aging bill at Cedar Park Center — and the Doobie Brothers, to name a few that come immediately to mind. It’s presumed that anybody interested in going to a show like this is a greyhair but if you’re of a certain vintage you know that you’ll see people off all ages at these gigs. There were three generations of fans who turned out to see Kiss at Austin360 Amphitheater last year on my, uh, 50th birthday. Or it might have been my 60th. My memory isn’t what it used to be. None of us are getting any younger.
That said, my younger son basically inherited my musical taste wholesale, except for Kiss, and I’ll allow straight away that they are probably not the best exhibit to haul out for the Because the Music was Just Better Back Then, That’s Why argument. Much of it plainly and painfully wasn’t. Some of it was of the moment. He totally gets the Allman Brothers, the only jam band who should have been, and dismisses the others — most emphatically and correctly the Dead. That’s my boy.
It’s great that older music fans try to keep their ears open to new things, but as we careen toward AARP membership and having our driver’s licenses taken away by TXDOT and our children trying to get us to accept assisted living on the next stop on our life’s journey, it’s important to keep in mind that nothing we hear now will please us as much as what we loved and still love back before we had kids and mortgages and herniated discs. The cheap, simple and reductive explanation used to be nothing more than simple nostalgia: Remember this song? We were so young. This was our first dance at our wedding. Whoops, that was my first wedding.
Of course there’s something to that. Music makes and reinforces communities and hearing that music galvanizes those memories, including awful ones. I remember the time the other guitar player in my high school band threw up on my back at Styx during the “Paradise Theater” tour — then denied the vomit was his — with terrific fondness. I tell that story whenever I have the opportunity. Wanna hear it? You have heard it? Want to hear it again?
It also turns out there’s something neurochemically that tickles the pleasure centers in our brains the more we listen to a song we particularly enjoy. (Check out this fairly mind-blowing story: http://soundcheck.wnyc.org/story/why-we-love-listen-over-and-over/) We like it more and more on hearing it again and again. Will anyone ever get tired of “A Change if Gonna Come”? The two rather obvious exceptions to this rule are “Stairway To Heaven” and “Free Bird,” especially if you are a classic rock DJ and would rather shoot yourself in the face than cue up those one more time.
So in a sense we are prisoners of our own biology as well as our mortality. Old dogs can learn new tricks up to a certain point, but the ones they learned as puppies are easier to recall and more pleasurable to perform than the new ones, I’m sure. So if you fondly recall dropping coins in that diner jukebox to hear “China Grove” and are planning to see the Doobs, knock yourself out. For me, I’m planning on taking the boy to ZZ Top/Beck, the Who/Joan Jett and then the Rolling Stones in Arlington in June.
I also like new bands, including the Alabama Shakes. At least they sound old.