My nephew Ryan has been feeling his oats lately. And eating them also, as at 15-years-old he is six-feet-tall and weighs 185 pounds, all of it muscle. He wanted to know how much I could bench press so I changed the subject, baiting him about how shallow his 2015 youth culture is compared to mine, circa 1975. Seeing that I wasn’t going to take the bait about bench-pressing, he went back to texting his girlfriend. I tried again. Yes, I told him, your culture is insipid and vapid and unappealing, vulgar and base and lacking in any meaning, or even in any desire for meaning.
He yawned. Still, accustomed to blindly blundering ahead, especially when I could see no alternative, I continued to harangue him on how he was more concerned with buying $200 sneakers than Guantanamo Bay, implying that I had been concerned with Watergate (only when it interfered with prime time programming, I’m afraid to say) forty years ago, and that I was satisfied with the canvas Converse All Star high tops I purchased for $9.95 at a store called THE GREAT OUTDOORS on South Ocean Avenue in Patchogue (I wasn’t, but they were all I could afford).
He sat there texting, and I cringed to think of how base and crude his romancing of his young sweetheart might be, having role models like Fifty Cent and Justin Timberlake (or are they passé already, I wondered), and congratulated myself for never having texted, equating it as I do in my mind with other pointlessly absurd activities like playing hacky sack or Grand Theft Auto, and watching reality TV Shows about bitchy, catty housewives or women who turn into extraordinary shrews as their weddings approach.
I hoped for something trenchant to say that would regain his attention (there was a time when his attention would focus so intensely on his Uncle Mikey that it overjoyed and frightened me all at once). I pointed out that when my brother and I went on vacation with my parents to Vermont for a week of camping in the summertime, it was a twelve hour car ride, and we had no smart phones, or IPADs or lap tops to watch movies on. We might read a book (I always got car sick when I tried, and I don’t know why it never occurred to anyone to give me Dramamine), or we might have to talk to each other. It was torture, twelve hours of hell, and this did command his attention for a second.
But then his girl must have texted something really sweet or funny (or provocative) and I lost him again. I went on about how music today has no lyrics, and all the movies are silly action hero adventures or computer animated dreck that the studios put out so they won’t have to pay any real actors to actually act. Then I started in on how SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE really sucks now, and segued into how “suck” used to be a verboten word, and finally started in on books. In the 70s, you still had some crappy books, sure, but you might also find Philip Roth or Saul Bellow or Kurt Vonnegut or John Irving on the best seller list. Now you get pap like THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN, or tame porn for the masses like 50 SHADES OF GREY, or right wing conservative propaganda like Bill O’Reilly’s KILLING JESUS, wherein he reveals that Jesus was a libertarian tax rebel who was dead set against redistributing wealth to the poor. Jesus said the meek shall inherit the earth, but apparently it is actually being left to rabble rousing idiots who manage to appeal to rabble, who nowadays seem to be easily roused. He yawned, and I told him I was going to write about all this in a blog I appeared in called “The Crime Writer’s Chronicle.”
“But it’s not about crime,” he said.
“I know,” I told him, “but my stuff about crime books and movies is getting pretty stale anyway.”
“Do you get paid?” he said, now genuinely interested.
“No.” Lost him again.
Still, I thought, it is a topic that interests me. The word nostalgia was coined in the 17th century by a scholar writing about a yearning for home so intense it could be thought of as pathological. He felt it was suffered by the Swiss particularly badly (who the hell knows why). It is a rendering of the German heimweh (home woe) and is a joining of the Greek algos (pain, grief, distress) and nostos (homecoming).
A lot of people experience grief at never being able to go home again. Of course, for others, the most painful thing is going home. Thomas Wolfe said you can never go home again, and I think he was right, in a way. I can go to the house I grew up in, but I will never be young and growing up in it again, doing for the first thrilling time all those things that have gotten stale to me now, getting hair on my face instead of on my back, looking forward to all the women I was going to meet instead of wondering if I was ever going to meet one again. And there is something golden about youth, even if that is a cliché. You can’t ever be 16 again, Ryan, so don’t waste a day of it (by listening to Justin Timberlake and Beyonce, I wanted to say, but I kept my mouth shut, knowing that I didn’t listen to anybody over 30 then, and he wasn’t going to listen to me now).
Of course, just as with childbirth, or monster truck pulls, you can forget the pain of the past, and imagine it was better than it was. I remember Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd, and have conveniently forgotten Leo Sayer and The Captain and Tenille. So is it only my silly nostalgia that makes me think my teenaged years occurred at a much more interesting and important time than the era Ryan’s are occurring in now? How could I make such a judgment? I decided I would attempt to objectively explore the question by addressing some of the most popular books, movies, music and other examples of pop culture of the two eras. No fool worse than an old fool, as they say, and I didn’t want to remount my attack without some powerful arguments in my arsenal. Then I would show the callow youth something for sure.
I just don’t want to be a silly and irrelevant old fart! I imagine that when my Dad was fifteen in 1951 and Alan Freed coined the term “rock and roll,” there were old farts going on about how Rudy Vallee had these silly teenagers beat seven ways from Sunday. And I can remember how my Dad would kid about how when he was a teen they didn’t slap each other five, but gave each other “some skin.” I thought the notion of giving somebody some skin was terribly quaint and a little silly, kind of like being a beatnik or getting your kicks on Route 66. Kids today, youth is wasted on the young, all those old bromides—and then there is the bromide about how every generation is wrong to think that the one coming along after it has got it all wrong.
I can’t shake the feeling that things are presently really going to hell in a handbasket, and fast, or even that we have already gotten to hell and no one has made the announcement yet (only those of us not busy texting have noticed). My Dad thought that my favorite movie of that long ago era, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, was a poor excuse for entertainment. Not that he minded satire, parody, and lampooning old movie forms (he loved Monty Python and the Holy Grail), but he was disturbed by what he saw as ROCKY HORROR’S shallowness, its banal attempt to lampoon the banality of sci-fi flicks and conventional morality, sexual and otherwise.
I begged to differ. I thought it was pretty sophisticated stuff, in its way, and was funny, (easily as good as KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE and THE GROOVE TUBE), which was just as important. But he just went on about SHOWBOAT and Ava Gardner, and I couldn’t make him see my point. And when I pointed out that THE DEER HUNTER was an important movie, a serious and important movie, like NETWORK and NASHVILLE, he just scoffed, even though he had seen neither one. He did give credit to Jack Nicholson for his performance in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. Still, he insisted my culture was vapid, banal and insipid, certainly more so than his, even though the 50’s had Ike and THE BLOB (not to be confused with one another).
He also thought that Rocky Marciano would have cleaned Muhammad Ali’s clock, calling Ali a sideshow, a man that was more style than substance, and not even an original, but a poor imitation of the wrestler known as Gorgeous George. This seemed to be a surrendering of reason to emotion on his part, but I didn’t know how to counter his arguments, and I realized that it’s very hard to argue about preferences, or things that can never be tested. How do you defend chocolate against vanilla, or resolve those knotty hypotheticals?
But it is still my strong feeling that 2015 is a much shallower and less interesting and important time than 1975. And I am going to prove it, even if it doesn’t get my nephew’s attention (score one for me—if my uncle had crapped on 1975 I would have come to its defense, even if my girlfriend was on the phone). Next week—popular entertainment Now and Then, and why Ryan’s Now sucks in comparison to my Then, or any Then, for that matter.
© 2015 Mike Welch