One of the terrible things about us boomers is that we won't shut up. We won't go away, and we don't ever stop talking about the wonders of our youth. It's embarrassing for me to join this relentless chorus of those-were-the-day-ers, so I'll try to be brief with this quick memory bit. It was occasioned by reading this neat piece by Zadie Smith in the current New Yorker, which is unfortunately paywall-blocked, but if you're a lifelong lover of Joni Mitchell such as I am (which for most boomers is like saying: we've been breathing oxygen for many years now), you'll want to seek out the full article.
In it, Smith does a great job of describing what it's like to actively hate an unfamiliar sound (in this case, the distinctive warbling of Mitchell's voice), and it's a peculiarly enjoyable experience, somewhat akin to what a liberal experiences while watching Fox News. The piece is about Zadie Smith's epiphanic conversion from Joni-hate to Joni-love, and what came after, and it's centered on the not even arguably most-loved masterpiece in the Mitchell canon, the album Blue.
It got me reminiscing about how I came upon that album, and what I want to relate is a simple, small observation about a key difference between living then and living now.
In those days (1971), the long-player vinyl album was the universal medium for music. My friend Matthew and I used to sneak home from school and steal handfuls of quarters from a big jar kept beneath his parents' bed and bicycle to the Sam Goody's store and buy everything British that had been released that week. I was a fan of other stuff, too, the prominent American bands and singer-songwriters, and scanning the shelves on this particular day in June, I caught sight of that dark blue cover amidst the sea of LPs on display, and picked it up.
I had worn through the first two Joni Mitchell albums, so I was excited to discover a new one. I rushed home to hear it immediately, and thus entered the stream of musical history with gazillions of listeners then and since. If you've been there, you know what it's like - the dawning awareness that what you're hearing is not merely good, but something far greater than that. And given the album form, with its ten-track paradigm, it's a bit like being present at an epic no-hitter that's going into the baseball history books: there are no bad songs on this album, you realize, and many of these songs are ones you already know you're going to want to hear again and again and again.
Within weeks of that first awestruck listening, I comprehended that I wasn't alone in my assessment. Of course these days, Blue is on most short-lists of the definitive musical achievements of its epoch, et cetera, and you know the rest, but here's my point.
Today's young listeners have been robbed, denied a primal pleasure they may not even know was once theirs to claim, and that is the random nature of such encounters. I didn't purchase my copy of Blue because I already knew its hit single (there was none), because I'd seen it advertised (it hadn't been yet, or at least, so minimally by today's standards that it might as well not have been), or because I knew its release date, as heavily promoted on every medium known to man and perhaps extraterrestrials. I had heard no word-of-mouth. I came unto the experience like a virgin. I had not been hyped.
"Random" has taken on a pejorative subtext, but I recall such randomness with what feels like legitimately earned nostalgia. Can you even imagine Red, Taylor Swift's current blockbuster, being approached by a prospective listener with anything like such a clean-slate consciousness? Inconceivable, as Vizzini used to say. In 2012, such random discoveries are rare anomalies; we may come to a work that's already immensely popular with no direct experience of it, but hardly ever without even knowing it exists. And most of the time, we have to consciously work against the siege of extant opinion, or even block such knowledge (spoilers!) if we want to have an experience that truly is unfiltered and our own.
A small thing, a small loss. But once upon a time, greatness occasionally just sat there, hiding in plain sight, like a scepter of solid gold placed on a shelf of trinkets and gimcracks, waiting for you to find it. I suppose I'm old enough to finally say this, damn me: Those were the days.