Wednesday, December 12, 2012

RIP Ravi Shankar (and get thee hence, '60's nostalgia!)

Growing up in the 1980's meant experiencing 60's nostalgia. At the time, I thought this was because the 1960's were a very special time period in American history, and I obligingly tried to take in as much 60's culture as I could. While not busy being a punk, I burned incense, wore the odd tie-dye t-shirt, and eventually watched Woodstock (or spun the soundtrack) enough times that I discovered I'd memorized the lyrics to Country Joe and the Fish's "Fixin' to Die Rag" (it helped that the words appeared on screen, complete with bouncing ball). I read Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary and Alan Watts and Richard Farina and Ken Kesey and Robert Stone (I found Kerouac kind of tedious and self-involved, truth be known - never could get into him, but I felt obliged to try, on several occasions). I owned Jerry Rubin's Do It!, Abbie Hoffman's Revolution for the Hell of It, and Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, though I can't really say I read any of them. I learned about the Vietnam war and Kent State and the riot at the Chicago Democratic convention and Charles Manson. And I listened to a lot of music that had been popular then, because it had been popular then: I spun records by the Who, the Beatles, the Stones, the Dead, CCR, Pink Floyd, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. I might even have briefly owned a Joni Mitchell record or two; I certainly had a couple of Crosby, Stills and Nashes, including ones without Neil Young. I watched The Big Chill more than once, attentively trying to understand what was going on, and comparing it to the attitudes in, say, The Return of the Secaucus Seven. There was a genuine sense in me that, whatever the failings of hippiedom, the culture of the 1960's was somehow a special, sainted, necessary experience - that it was essential for me to explore and understand it, if I was to be a culturally aware, well-rounded, "with-it" kind of guy.

Little did I realize that come the 21st century there'd be a wave of nostalgia for the 1980's - that a sort of 20 year cultural lag is built into the marketplace, so that whatever was cool for broke teenagers in a given time period suddenly becomes a hot commodity around the time their purchasing power and cultural influence maximizes, two decades later. Whatever was actually special about the 1960's, I feel like I was fooled, a bit, as a younger man: I bought into the romantic image of the time, thinking it was somehow important, when really, I was just surfing the crest of a trend in the market, identifying myself with an older generation who were getting swept up in their excitement for their own youth, believing with them that it mattered more than it did. There are still things that interest me about the 1960's - I'm kind of pleased, for no real rational reason, to have been born in so momentous a year as 1968 - but nowadays I'm just as likely to strike a defensive, skeptical posture when exposed to something supposedly great from that time as I am to rush to explore it, and I'm rather relieved that, when exposed to music on the radio or in the public sphere these days, you're more likely to hear about rockin' the Casbah than getting back to the garden. I'm basically full of the 1960's, at this point, and am more interested - as befits the 20 year pattern mentioned above - in going back and catching up on music I missed from when I was young, or seeing what the heroes of my own youth are up to lately. If I'm going to get caught up in marketplace narcissism, I might as well be narcissistic about my own demographic!

Fittingly, nowadays, I don't care what Pete Townshend or Keith Richards or so forth are up to, but I'm eagerly awaiting news of the new Tad Doyle record. I had no interest whatsoever in seeing Sir Paul McCartney's show in Vancouver, but I'm kind of curious to note that Michigan's Negative Approach are going to open for Off! in February. Boomers, if anything, have come to irritate me a bit, seem to carry with them a sense of privilege and self-importance that sets me on edge; when I find myself inadvertently in rooms full of them - as when I went to see Terry Riley and Michael McClure at the Chan Centre some years ago - I generally find their behaviour annoying, and explain it to myself as being somehow typical of their generation. I remember, that night, hearing people chatting, as Riley played his rather meditative music. When I looked around angrily to try to glare the culprits into silence, I expected the talkers to be among the young and unwashed - people who might, in fact, be excused for not knowing how to behave - but they were well-to-do types in their 50's. I've had enough similar experiences that I have come to associate boomers with such behaviours, and there are certain cultural experiences I will now actively seek to avoid because it means being in the presence of a bunch of them, since (I believe) they will doubtlessly irritate me all to hell with the visible markers of their feelings of entitlement.

And to make a long story short, that's one of the big reasons I missed the one opportunity I had, some years ago, to see Ravi Shankar when he played in Vancouver. The other was that I only ever really explored his music as an extension of my interest in the tastes of the 1960's; I knew that hippies thought sitar music was cool, so I obligingly bought any Indian music I happened across at thrift stores, and tried to get into it, as if by so doing I was somehow increasing my sophistication or proving something about myself or bettering myself or so forth. I did *enjoy* a lot of the music I heard thus, but the truth is, I probably couldn't tell a great raga from a mediocre one, am not so interested as to want to learn how to tell the difference, and I never really was. A big part of my interest back then seems to have been based in something suspect and silly. I do still have a couple of Indian thrift store records - including one by Ravi Shankar - but I actually feel self-conscious about ever spinning them, like by listening to them I'm participating in the cliched exoticization of the East by the spiritual and aesthetic wannabes of generations gone by. It says nothing against the music of Ravi Shankar, but since he was the superstar figure of that exoticization, his music, more than others, has kind of been tainted, for me. And really, I'd be more inclined to check out Indian disco than ANY sort of Indian classical music, these days; at least listening to it doesn't seem pretentious, and doesn't smack of a '60's cliche.

Truth is, I don't really have a lot to say about Ravi Shankar. I might go see if I *do* have one of his records, and spin it, for old time's sake, to demonstrate that whatever hard feelings I have about being taken in by '60's nostalgia, they don't actually have much to do with him or his music. RIP, Ravi. I never really understood your music, but I felt cool about myself for listening to it, once upon a time...

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