Monday, January 22, 2007

This Is The End, Beautiful Friend.

To continue the themes of age and the apocolypse:

There's an unofficial radio war going on in my city. For the sake of argument and to protect the innocent, let's call these two radio stations Q and Hal. Q is the established player, the rock and roll station. Seasoned DJs, lots of contests, stars come and play in the studio every now and then. Hal is the upstart, a classic rock station with a young morning duo and another young lady that hosts the afternoon drive, but (perhaps notably, perhaps not) there are no other personalities for the rest of the day. One has a history and depth of experience, the other has programming largely digital but an on-air element (when it's there) of youth that adds a certain intangible,  indefinable crackle to the broadcasts.

I've been flipping between the two ever since I saw the billboard advertising the beginning of Hal. I'm a fan of the classic rock format and recalled my last several trips to the States where the rental car radio was pre-set to the local classic rock station and would stay there for the whole trip. I remember a particular drive in a rented Toyota to a golf course outlying the Houston area. On the radio, Frampton played from the Comes Alive Album, "Do You Feel Like We Do" and I was completely transported by the music 


for that particular play of the record. It was my affinity for the genre that initially got me curious about the new local station, Hal, and give 'er a test drive. I liked it at first and continue to warm to it. In addition to the good music, the three people you hear on the radio are getting more comfortable in their spots and it's coming across in their patter.

I like both stations and often select based on what's playing. You'll have me until there's a song  I'm not fond of.

But here's the thing. And, actually, it's a big thing, no less than a harbinger of the end of our civilization.

You think I'm exaggerating.

Q now differentiates its brand by calling it "Q Rock" which is "classic rock plus the best of today's new rock". They have elaborate promos for this brand and it's a slogan I find very ill-advised. The promos begin with snippets of the best classic rock songs you've ever heard and whet your aural appetite for them. Then they announce "also today's new rock" and follow these great snippets with a snippet from something new and current and they play the track from something new and current, a COMPLETE LET-DOWN, because you were hoping from when you heard it for the classic stuff. The promo might have seemed a good idea to someone, but it turns out to be an idea that's as stupid as a Will Ferrell movie. Dreadful new song after dreadful new song, when I'm listening to Q and that promo comes on, my reflex response is to punch up the button to Hal.

And so, because people are strange, especially me, I reflect on this. The implications are heavy, dude.

(And by the way, for every bit of evidence I'm about  present, you, whoever you are, you the viewing audience will be able to come up with counter-arguments - what about Sam Roberts? What about Borat? What about Spielberg? What about The Sopranos? What about The Simpsons? The proving of the general rule, I say.) 

It's one of two things. It might be I'm just getting to be old and out of touch. After Elvis Presley came along and gave birth to popular rock and roll, the senior generation just didn't get it. Ditto the Beatles. Led Zeppelin were Satanists (just listen to Stairway to Heaven backwards). As it was with the generation before mine, maybe now I'm the fuddy-duddy. Maybe I just don't get today's new music. 

But maybe not. "I may not know about art", says the Pope to Michelangelo in the Monty Python skit, "but I know what I like." I hear rock groups now that - frankly - sound like they've gone to the Britney Spears school of song writing. Pick a minor key, add a simplistic melody on a couple of notes, produce with technology. Remove musicianship. Denny Doherty died last Friday. All the radio stations were playing Mamas and the Papas. I said to my wife, "That's how you write a song in a minor key." A principal focus on the vocal talent and craft, beautiful melodies and even more beautiful harmonies, soaring movement into the major chord and wistful retreat back to the minor key. 


The song was California Dreaming.

(Could Mama Cass ever be a star today? Her voice is the best of Sheryl Crowe and Janis Joplin ... but she was fat and not very pretty. So I think, sadly, where people make music to be sold by video that the answer is no.)

I wonder if it's more than just the music. I wonder if all of western art is on the decline. Art, culture ... civilization. 

Athletes on steroids. 

I think of the giants of modern comedy. Will Ferrell is the king, making funny movies by playing stupid and loud and boorish. I think of classic comedy. Peter Sellers played stupid too; Inspector Clouseau was a stupid as they come. But there's that intangible earnestness, honour and nobility about Clouseau (not Sellers ... which reminds me that  to watch Will Ferrell is to see Will Ferrell playing a character (loudly) and to watch Peter Sellers was to watch Inspector Clouseau).

I think about modern horror, movies of blood and dismemberment. But I remember, once upon a time, feeling frightened watching movies like "The Exorcist", "The Omen", "The Shining" and "Poltergeist", movies of atmosphere where the object of the exercise was to build to a feeling of terror. Today it's mostly about the gross-out (refer to Stephen King's Danse Macabre for his description of the three levels of fright).

Have you read any good books lately? I remain puzzled how heavy-handed and unskilled authors such as Dan Brown hit the bestseller list when skilled writers (my favourite is Evan Hunter) toil in relative anonymity. (I asked Evan Hunter why he still wrote, producing two novels a year well into his seventies. He answered because he was a writer. His novels often included a darkly witty reference to some lawyer-turned-author. His point was that any joe could be an author, but to be a writer was to learn and to practice your craft.) 

I saw the news yesterday, (oh boy). About an artist guy who recorded faces of Canadian writers on DVD video and displayed them as moving portraits in boxy wooden frames. My wife turned to me and asked, "Do you think that's art?" and I thought of this recurring theme.

Mostly I can't watch the shows on TV, including especially the news, and especially not the network channels. Is the general quality of programming on the wane? Are there too many channels? There are a few shows of quality on The Movie Network and one on Space that I still find entertaining and hold my interest. But certainly there's no modern equivalent of I Love Lucy or Gunsmoke or even Seinfeld on TV today. It's mostly a parade of generally unfunny comedy shows for the lowest common denominator and copycat series having to do with investigations that stem from dead people.

It's all been dumbed down. Art has become base, lacking the hallmarks of craftmanship. I don't know why this is. You would think that people are generally driven to do work that they are proud of, right? But something's changed. It might be because of money. It might be proliferation. It might just be because I'm getting old.

So I listen to the classic rock station more than the "Q rock" station because the best new rock tends to be more of a minus than a plus.

And, extrapolating, I wonder if we are witnessing the beginning of the end of our own civilization.

"I wonder if the Emperor Honorius watching the Visigoths coming
over the Seventh Hill truly realized that the Roman Empire was about to fall."

- Captain Jean-Luc Picard, from "The Best of Both Worlds".

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