There was a lot of contentious shouting in our apartment throughout my childhood, so much so that it could be heard the moment I stepped off the elevator—I’m talking thunderous, mean-spirited bickering. All of it—every word—was filtered through the tinny speaker of the AM/FM radio that sat atop our refrigerator.
My father listened daily to The Bob Grant Show—at top volume. He didn’t particularly agree with Grant’s conservative politics, but he loved a good argument. (I wonder if he’d feel the same today, in this era of ‘round-the-clock cable-TV squabbling masquerading as news?) When he wasn’t listening to Grant in the kitchen, he had it blasting from the radio in our Plymouth Duster. I didn’t understand much, if any, of what was being debated, but I laughed every time Grant hollered, “Get off my phone, you jerk!” (He did so often.)
The endless caterwauling from Dad’s favorite station prompted an antithetical reaction in my mother (whether intentional or unconscious I do not know): When she had control of the radio, we listened almost exclusively to 106.7 Lite FM. Up till the age of ten or so, “easy listening” was effectively the only genre of music, save classical, I was aware of. It was probably upon hearing Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” for the thousandth time (or maybe it was Journey’s “Open Arms”—like it even matters) that I finally asked out of both frustration and genuine curiosity, “Doesn’t anybody sing about anything besides love?”
My mother considered that for a moment. “Love is what makes the world go ‘round.”
It wasn’t a particularly satisfying answer, and perhaps on some subconscious level she herself recognized that, because the following Christmas—this was in ’86 or ’87, I think—she gave me a cassette copy of the Who’s 1978 album Who Are You (which I recently rediscovered while cleaning out my childhood closet).
I’d had no awareness of the Who before that; Who Are You was my crash course in progressive rock, a style that came to speak to my more philosophical and intellectual proclivities throughout high school, college, and beyond. I didn’t always understand what the songs meant—many of Pete Townshend’s lyrics, I suspect, are a mystery to all but (perhaps) himself—but that was exactly the point: The music of the Who is a Rorschach—a receptacle into which you can pour you own feelings and experiences, and from which take your own meaning and catharsis. The lyrics—and the narratives of the band’s operatic concept albums—are so specific to Townshend’s particular imagination, but the broader themes are universal. Take any given Who song, and I doubt it means the same thing to any two people.
Last week, I went to see the Who in concert for what I expect will be the final time: After over half a century, they are retiring from the road. Yes, they’ve said that before, but that had more to do with interpersonal disputes and mid-career restlessness. The Who Hits 50! was declared from the outset to be their final stadium tour, and I take them at their word on that.
Bidding farewell to a band that has meant so much to me over the past thirty years should be more traumatic—like the death of a parent, or at least an old friend. The music of the Who has been a comforting constant in my life for as long as I can remember—since I unwrapped that cassette all those Christmases ago. If nothing else, Daltrey and Townshend’s acknowledgment of their advancing years (not that you’d know from their energetic performances) should serve as a reminder of my own—and I’ve certainly given that due consideration this year—and yet I find myself oddly Zen about the whole thing.
Which is not to say I won’t miss them. I’ve simply come to accept, after a lifetime of resistance (you have no idea how recalcitrant I can be about such matters), that all good things come to their end. I not only yield to closure, in fact, but welcome it; lately, I find myself very much longing for it.
OUT ON THE ENDLESS WIRE
Finality, if you’ll permit my digression, is a hard thing to come by these days. Relationships that once ran their course—friendships disrupted by circumstance, severed professional and romantic associations—now exist in perpetuity on Facebook; we are aware of what the people in our social circles are up to long after they cease to be part of our day-to-day lives. They never really go away.
And it isn’t just relationships: We preserve every moment of our lives digitally now, be it posting our daily bread on Instagram, or recording moments on our phones for posterity instead of living in them as they happen. In a digital world, everything from the past is available for instantaneous recall.
And what of the future? Modern telecommunications technologies have rewired our very perception of space-time: We no longer look ahead to what’s yet to come; instead, our attentions are pulled in multiple directions at once—across multiple digital “dimensions”—by a constant influx of tweets, text messages, status updates, and e-mails. The iPhones we’ve come so reliably to depend upon have replaced our sense of linearity—of beginnings, middles, and ends—with an interminable state of what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls “presentism”: What’s happening in front of us—the movie we’re watching; the dinner date we’re sitting across from—is but one reality we need to be aware of at any given moment; the demanding little device pinging in our pocket never fails, even for an instant, to divert our attentions elsewhere. In an always-on, ever-connected world, nothing comes to an end; everything is merely a hyperlink to something else.
PEOPLE TRY TO PUT US DOWN
To be fair, my g-g-generation hasn’t had an easy transition. We are the last in the history of humanity—consider this for a moment—that will retain any memory of that bygone analog world in which photos were sparse, and one could actually run down to the grocery store and be out of reach for twenty minutes without setting off a family-wide panic. Hell, we’re already being put out to pasture by the Millennials: I can’t tell you how many experienced, accomplished forty-year-old professionals I know in various industries who’ve recently found themselves reporting to bosses ten years their junior. Remember that movie In Good Company, where ad exec Dennis Quaid is assigned a supervisor half his age? A bitter pill? Sure. But, at least Quaid was fifty-one. When, exactly, did forty become the new sixty?
Whereas Millennials thrive in a nonlinear, digital environment—they came of age in it, after all—Gen X longs for the linear stability of the lost analog world. Need proof? We’re a generation asphyxiating on our own addiction to nostalgia. Our movies now function almost exclusively as paeans to our childhood idols, be it the Skywalkers or the Transformers or the superheroes of DC and Marvel comics. The X-Men films have gone a step further: The newest installment, Apocalypse, is set in 1983, because co-opting comic-book crimefighters from their intended adolescent audience wasn’t sufficiently malapropos—now we’re dragging our costumed icons back to the very erstwhile era we so desperately yearn for.
And if you’re looking for televisional entertainment situated in the halcyon Gen X years of the eighties, we’ve got, for starters, The Americans, The Goldbergs, and Fresh Off the Boat (the last of which is set in 1995, though, anachronistically and inexplicably, most of its pop-cultural references, from Castle Grayskull to Garbage Pail Kids to Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, are vintage eighties). We’ve got series that capitalize on the entire spectrum of Gen X nostalgia, from Vinyl to the (recently canceled) Muppet Show to Fuller House to the X-Files revival, to say nothing of all the comic-book adaptations (which comprise nearly half the CW’s next-season lineup). There’s television set in the fantastical “past,” such as Game of Thrones and Once Upon a Time, and an abruptly back-to-basics present, like the postapocalyptic Walking Dead and Last Man on Earth. It’s only the here and now, it would seem, that doesn’t figure into our fictions.
Even our music is reflective of a sentimental pining for times gone by: Eighties-themed cruises featuring the likes of Belinda Carlisle, Debbie Gibson, and Survivor are now an annual thing. Can you imagine being “original MTV VJs” Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, and Alan Hunter—perennially trapped in a 1980s time warp with no hope of escape? But it seems to my mind there’s a generation of us that actually envy them—that would gladly live forever in Reagan’s pre–Digital Age America.
I’VE HAD ENOUGH
Is it any wonder, then, the Millennials have pushed us aside to take the cultural wheel? They look at us and think (not necessarily consciously, mind you), “That’s a group that’s always looking backward. Nobody’s got their eye on the future, their finger on the pulse of the present. All they long for is what they had—what’s never coming back.” So, when you examine present-day Hollywood, for instance, in that context, it becomes evident that it was a confluence of complex economic and sociocultural circumstances that ruined the movie business: On the one hand, we had studios following a corporate mandate to produce franchises in pursuit of unsustainable growth (they more or less stopped buying original material after the 2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike, when they realized they had enough IPs in their vaults to keep them in business through the end of time), while on the other we had an entire generation of emotionally traumatized filmmakers only too willing to indulge Hollywood’s nostalgic agenda: Gen X directors like J. J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow, Gareth Edwards, and Bryan Singer—to name but a few—all established reputations for themselves by producing well-received, original genre fare, like their heroes Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, before dedicating their careers to recycling the bedtime stories of their youth over forging new culturally defining entertainment for a correspondingly new millennium, unlike Spielberg and Lucas, who took the fantasies of their Boomer upbringings—e.g., Flash Gordon—recast them in their own image, and made them relevant and sufficient to their times—namely, Star Wars.
There was a satisfaction—a joy, even—in seeing Star Wars reach its conclusion in 1983 (I recall seeing it in theaters), one that will never be repeated: Because of our refusal to cede the cultural stage to the next set of ideas, the next set of heroes, none of us will ever actually live to see the final Star Wars movie. There’s an irony in that I don’t imagine Gen X fully appreciates: We were yanked unknowingly into the Digital Age, and in our disorientation from that upheaval, we’ve devoted our limited time on this earth to retarding the culture by tethering it to the comforting fictions of a previous century. Meet the new Star Wars—same as the old Star Wars. (And that applies to Ghostbusters and Batman v Superman and pretty much anything playing at your local multiplex as you read this.) Imagine it: We’ve been selected by history to rise to unprecedented existential challenges (for which storytellers, to be certain, will play an important part), and in response we’ve gone and busied ourselves with the telling—and consuming—of moldy fairy tales that speak to the ethos of an archaic age, albeit one still within living memory.
That’s us—that’s Generation X. We had a chance to explore new fictive worlds, and we opted instead to revisit the old ones ad infinitum. As I mentioned above, we’ve already found ourselves being prematurely superannuated by the Millennials that outnumber us, and we are certainly hastening our own irrelevance by always looking to the past instead of forging pathways into the future. We’ll be the ones to blame, really, for our own imminent obsolescence. All of which reminds me of something Pete Townshend once said—with his one-of-a-kind capacity to express both contrition and arrogance in a single statement—when discussing the Who’s 1971 hit “Baba O’Riley”:
“For me, you know, that notion of ‘teenage wasteland’—it is about waste. It’s not about getting wasted, it’s about waste. It’s about wasted life, wasted opportunity, wasted years—and I take full responsibility for the fact that my generation complained about the state of the planet and did nothing to change it.”
I for one don’t want to complain—to blame our diminishing sociocultural prominence on the admittedly imperfect world we’ve inherited from the Boomers before us, or the Millennials we accuse of entitlement for taking on the challenges, whether they’re ready for them or not, that we’ve abdicated. I don’t want to lay fault for our cultural woes on franchise-addicted movie studios, or on the seismic changes brought about by the Information Age. Like I said: It isn’t an easy hand we’ve been dealt—to be caught between eras. Believe me, I know: I’m an Xer, too. But none of the aforementioned circumstances make us irrelevant; we make ourselves that way by digging in our heels and failing to face a hard truth: We are traumatized by finality—who wouldn’t be given the epochal shift we’ve experienced in our relatively short lives?—and nostalgia has become our drug of choice. We have consigned ourselves to the teenage wasteland of a bygone culture—one we’re now visiting upon the next generation, as well. And that is something for which I’d like to see us find closure—the sooner the better, so we might belatedly and properly get on with leading the way into the twenty-first century.
THE SONG IS OVER
Last Wednesday’s concert at the STAPLES Center was exactly the goodbye I’d hoped for—triumphant and not the least bit maudlin. The Who played only their greatest hits—nearly two dozen of them—and Pete and Roger were far more chatty between songs than they’d been on the last tour in 2013, Quadrophenia and More, in which I barely recall them saying a word to the crowd besides “Thank you and goodnight.” They were more focused on delivering a sequential live presentation of their ambitious 1973 concept album on that tour than they were with providing the standard concert-going experience, complete with anecdotal asides; this was the show for those kinds of whimsical indulgences. It felt less like a final farewell than a recapitulation—in the best possible way—of everything I’ve loved about the band for the past thirty years. What better way to say goodbye than to sing along, one last time, to “The Seeker,” “Join Together,” “You Better You Bet,” “Pinball Wizard,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”? There’s nothing wrong with the occasional nostalgic diversion, when practiced in moderation.
It is impossible to overstate the influence the Who had on many, if not most, of the bands I grew up with, including Rush (who recently announced their own retirement from touring), Van Halen, Pearl Jam, and Extreme—all of whom took inspiration from the Who yet developed their own unique voices and repertoires (unlike the aforementioned filmmakers), and all of whom in turn influenced me and my artistic voice. I don’t imagine I’ll ever be able to sufficiently quantify the direct (and indirect) impact they’ve had on my worldview, save to say it is quantum. For me, the Who will live on not in live performances, because those are in all likelihood over, or even in the music they’ve left behind, which I will continue to enjoy from time to time, so much as they will make their mark on my own work in ways too subconscious, too mystical, to be subjected to self-analysis. My fictions, it’s fair to say, are every bit the reflection of my own particular psyche as Townshend’s are of his. Whether they’ll have even a modicum of the alchemical resonance the Who’s have inspired… well, that’s a story yet to be written. Stay tuned.
I have no wish to die before I get old—I’ve got too much left to do still!—but I don’t imagine I’d choose to live forever, either; I can accept that that isn’t nature’s way. Like the Who, I hope to have a good run with a body of work I can be proud of, and a chance to leave the stage gracefully at a time of my own choosing. There’s nothing somber about that. On the contrary, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that some things, even in this age of digital preservation—of online immortality—simply run their course the way nature intended. Finality isn’t something we should fear; it’s a gift we should embrace. It’s part of the truth of our existence. Songs end; albums end; careers end; lives end. There can be solace in that, especially when done on one’s own terms. After over half a century, the Who’s tremendous contributions to our culture are complete; now, as it should be, it’s someone else’s turn.