2007June17Sunday 8:36 AM The Boys in the Band are in AARP

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

There is a story running in the NYTimes today, entitled “The Boys in the Band are in AARP,” about how middle-aged band members, reaching back to their younger years, and still playing in their suburban garages the same raucous music that stereotypically drove their parents crazy have now entered the age of retirement. To allude to another stereotype, I must suppose that the sub-text, the ironic sub-text, is that they are supposed to be grabbing shuffle boards, or perhaps tennis rackets, not their “axes.”

The story is here on the Times site: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/fashion/17dadbands.html?em&ex=1182225600&en=d6146faca9a61581&ei=5087%0A [may require registration to be read]

I guess if we had all taken up Mozart on period instruments in our teens, we’d all now be playing chamber music in the garage, and that would still be newsworthy, but not ironic… So the irony is the news, not the revivalism. What’s wrong with people continuing to play the music they played their entire lives? Why is it news? There was a story also about "tattoo regret" in the Times today. Maybe it would be news if former rockers had gone from the Monkees to Mendelssohn on period instruments.

Not that it would have made any difference to me. All of my parents’ entreaties to take up an instrument, meaning anything from the violin to the clarinet (I did toy with the idea of the oboe—I don’t know why the oboe, but there it is, though the Mozart oboe concerto is one great piece of music) had a resounding response from me, of “NO!” Most of my friends, from the age of ten on, had among their daily dose of chores music practice, and their weekly lessons. Some of them became quite proficient. Most not, and I never hear music played but rarely by my peers, I mean what has always been called classical music. There are no jazz players, alas, but one, and only a distant acquaintance, who is a famous blues and jazz pianist whom I met through another friend, and they knew one another, anomalously, because they all lived in the suburbs (now there’s a story, “Bebop Cats have moved to Belmont”).

When I was growing up, the only music to be taken seriously was classical music, and its study was as de rigeur as soccer team play now is in the affluent suburbs of most American cities, Boston included. Jazz was played by blacks, period, who smoked something called “reefer” that made you “high,” and it was all kind of arcane and forbidden, but not in a bad way so much as it was a mystery both not to be fathomed or explored.

The nature of musical preoccupations and the playing of it, even on a voluntary basis, with enthusiasm, began to change when I entered college in the early 60s, when rock ‘n roll began to enter the mainstream with the full effect on popular culture of the wild popularity of the Beatles, and the instantly legendary stories of their start in lower-class British “skifflle bands.” It was the music almost anyone could afford to play, and anyone could learn, it was so simple, at least at the start. And for boys, there was the cachet of being in a band, and more importantly the apparent allure to women (or girls, should I say, as we were all still gawky children, fondling and groping one another experimentally even as so many boys groped and fondled their instruments in the struggle to become proficient to the point of having something called “chops”).

For me, there was still no attraction, if anything greater repulsion, to the idea of learning to play even a guitar, with the aim of plunking away at folk or rock favorites. Perhaps if the prospect of playing Scarlatti keyboard sonatas with some grace and feeling were as easy as I was told it was to learn, say, the three basic universal chords of blues, I would have rushed out with the same avidity as my friends, and bought, well what? A used Steinway baby grand? They cost a great deal more than a Harmony Stratotone, and my budget didn’t allow that, not without a severe crimp in my vinyl record spending ability. And it was a lot easier to listen to records of great musicians, and took up a lot less timedoing so than trying to attain the same proficiency, less time than it would have taken first to begin and then to dedicate myself to learning, which I knew would have required years. Also I knew, that it was almost a hopeless case for anyone more than 10 years old, even those with the magical qualities called “prodigy,” to begin to learn with the expectation of being able to play anything seriously once you were well past that age. Some do it, but they do indeed have prodigious talent, and the attainment of their skills has taken what seems to me to be super-human concentration and dedication.

Of course, most of the people I knew, and the hordes I didn’t know, but only knew of, had neither the chops nor the zeal, nor the dedication to take their show on the road and try to make in the world of professional music, for even rock and blues and folk were serious and professional once making a living at it figured into one’s intentions. Indeed I have met far more classical musicians who took that road, meeting them later in their lives. Such individuals would not have been visible in my youth, being sequestered for hours of practice and further segregated into schools or among faculties far outside the ken of ordinary youths like myself.

One did hear about those garage bands however. And it never stopped. It has fallen out that, among my male friends today, at least, there are a number of former rock musicians—not professionals mind you, but many amateurs, and even a few who, in their past, reached a crossroads and chose the more mundane path of electrical engineering, let us say, than donning a motorcycle jacket, and greasing their hair (either with pomade or by the simple expedient of never washing it and never cutting it), and playing those immortal few chords on their six- or 12-string "axes" every night at “gigs,” fending off the “chicks“ (or it was the drums, or the bass, whatever, there was an enduring quality to the sense of kinship with the music and their instruments). Now that we are all thinking about the prospect becoming old and tattered, paltry things not so very long from now, it is not surprising to see stories, especially not surprising to see ironic ones, about how the music goes on.

Nevertheless, it is not such an unusual thing that people would cling to their music. Yet I wonder, aside from what I said, that is, it’s obvious that the playing into one’s seniority is not the news—classical musicians are notable for playing continually until they keel over, into their 80s and 90s; Vladimir Horowitz, the legendary Russian pianist, who played and lived into his 80s, said the playing kept him young—why it’s news. In fact it’s common.

From the headline to this story, the allusion to ”The Boys in the Band,“ I was sure the narrative, and the point, would be about closet gays, now in late middle age, being mainstream, utterly out of the closet. The play and movie with that name dates from the same garage band era, the late 60s and early 70s, that the news story about greying amateur garage musicians still rocking on alludes to. But it is not the story, of course, but should have been. Now that would have been news.

In my youth, everyone admitted to a love of rock, and, those who could, would broadcast their involvement with the playing of it. But no one admitted to being gay. That was a true forbidden zone. It’s not news that something so ordinary and quotidian — playing music, however raggedly or with finesse — has remained so for an entire generation. It is news, however, when the verboten has become so mainstream as no longer to be noticeable. The phenomenon itself, the transformation of the extraordinary and the banished to the ordinary, if not the mundane, gives eternal hope to the prospect that what is always so hard to accept today for the mainstream will become not only acceptable, but alluring.

This Times story reaches back not quite far enough, for the true bad boy days of rockers goes back to the 50s, when the few musicians who played the evil music called rock ‘n roll, the ones who originated the greaser image and the clothing emulated by those poor British boys who made such dress common and desirable, were themselves in their 20s and even 30s way back then (when we were merely children, or none even born yet, as some AARP members can attest), which means they are well into their dotage — not into their garages — if they are not already dead. And the death of old people, who used to do things that were outrageous in their day, but are commonplace now, especially among middle class respectable people with bulging waist lines and dust bunnies on their Stratocasters, isn’t front page. Not to me. It’s not even back of the book.

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One thought on “2007June17Sunday 8:36 AM The Boys in the Band are in AARP

  1. It’s not news to me. These woods are full of aging rockers and bluesmen! My own near-antique harp player has a gig this Sunday at Glenn’s Restaurant and Cool Bar on Merrrimack Street in Newburyport. The band is 2120 South Michigan Avenue, or 2120 for short. They have a great time! Usually their audiences do, too.
    Howard, I love your blog! It’s so YOU! I am really enjoying it. The photos are gorgeous — no — delicious! I hope you are both back to good health. Cherie

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