Gregg Allman, R.I.P.
Long Live Sgt. Pepper
Gregg Allman passed away Saturday. He would have been 70 years old on December 8th and it led me to reflect on growing up with rock and roll, particularly during its most original, creative and fertile period. Dotting that exclamation point, this Friday marks the U.S. release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 --- it was 50 years ago that day. That album, of course, changed the direction of rock as an art form --- forever. The confluence of these two events struck me as an opportune time to write about an aspect of those years that is both common and unique to rock music as an art form. What is common to all genres of “rock” (rap/r-and-b/soul/metal/grunge/alt/etc) is that the artists and their audience are (approximately) contemporaries, sharing a cultural history and making the music’s artist/audience connection that of natives in a country sharing a vernacular. What makes Gregg Allman and Sgt. Pepper unique is that they, those rock progenitors, and their contemporaries --- all those Baby Boomers --- grew up together. It’s why most Baby Boomers have a distinct soundtrack running in their mind, dating from the late 1960’s. (I have absolutely NO scientific evidence for this, of course, but a pretty good store of anecdotal “proof”).
If you watch television an evening can’t pass by without hearing at least one song created in the Sixties (a period I generally define as covering JFK’s assassination to Nixon’s resignation --- so, 1963 to 1974, essentially). Recently, I keep hearing Geico commercials playing “Going Up the Country” quite a bit. We’ve heard Iggy Pop (“Lust for Life”), Creedence Clearwater (“Fortunate Son”) and the Ramones (“Blitzkrieg Pop”) also selling various products. Remember those Bernie Sanders “America” ads with Simon and Garfunkel crooning in the background? Even Trump, rather ironically, keeps playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (against the wishes of the Rolling Stones). In 2017 the music of the Sixties is still pervasive and, while there are some remarkable young artists out there today (as there always have been since “The Sixties”), I’m not sure it’s possible to create rock music as original as what was generated during that time --- by people like Greg Allman and those Beatles. The emergence of hip-hop/rap in the late 80’s and early 90’s certainly moved popular music in new directions, but it is a distant cousin to rock (just as jazz is). But I want to get back to the artists of that time and their connection with their audience at the time and continuing over the years.
Since the inception of radio (and probably earlier) people in the U.S. have identified landmarks in their lives with popular songs (think of every wedding you’ve been to --- “They’re playing ‘our’ song”). Many of us identify particular moments in our personal history with certain songs or artists. What distinguished the seismic shift in popular music in the Sixties is that it was written and performed by the artists. Unlike Sinatra or Elvis, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, et al were not only creating the music they were performing and also reflecting the turbulent world we were living in! While there was no shortage of romantic love songs, etc. there were also a vast number of songs ranging from immediate political commentary (from Dylan’s “Time’s They are a Changing” to Neil Young’s “Ohio”) to the philosophical, searching, and poetic (Young’s “Old Man,” Carole King’s “So Far Away”, and almost everything Joni Mitchell wrote) and certainly not “silly little love songs.”
The combination of innovative music (The Allman Bros., Hendrix, Sgt Pepper, Sympathy for theDevil, and so on) with wildly creative and probing lyrics were ubiquitous if you happened to be on a college campus between 1967 to 1971, for example. The significance of these energetic and wildly creative musicians (David Bowie, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, James Taylor, Paul Simon, etc. etc.) emerging in one place at one time (the popular culture world of the Sixties) strikes me as similar to the confluence in the newly created U.S. of A. in the late 1700s --- where a Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, et al, miraculously were in the same place at the same time. While the creation of an entirely new nation, using a model not tried before (republican democracy) may be a greater accomplishment, revolutionizing cultural history to the degree we saw in the Sixties is pretty significant in its own right.
For those of us who were right there at the time, the beneficiaries of all those geniuses, it was an exhilarating and magical time (yes, often drug-fueled and manic, too). Looking back, it’s hard for me not to sound like the cranky old man decrying how much better things were “in the old days.” There’s music out there right now that I like (Twenty One Pilots, Sia, and Marian Hill spring to mind) but there’s nothing that I hear (like “Pet Sounds” or “Sgt. Pepper”) where I feel like, “Whoa --- what the fuck is that?” I’m happy I was old enough to appreciate what was going on at the time (OMG, I didn’t even mention Frank Zappa or James Brown!) and a bit sad that I’m now outliving so many “heroes” who sustained us during that “long strange trip” we took, lo, those many years ago.