Sunday, April 17, 2005

first person

I grew up in a time when you could actually hear good music on both AM and FM radio. FM stations played entire albums, and after school my friends and I would walk to the corner newsstand/bookstore/cigarette shop to get a fresh-off-the-truck copy of Rolling Stone. The old guy who ran the place never ordered more than three copies, so you had to get there within hours of the delivery. At that time, Rolling Stone was printed in tabloid format, with no slick ads, and a single reading would leave your hands black with ink. Over the next several days, we would pass the quickly fading copy around, poring over every word, discussing the articles.

There was only one movie theater in our little desert town, and it was mostly for hanging out, making out, and yelling insults at the actors on the screen. The noisiest moment I ever witnessed was during A Man Called Horse, when Richard Harris was dangled by his nipples.

If you wanted to really watch a movie, you drove to Roswell. Because this was also a period of time when good movies were being made. Movies like Midnight Cowboy, Mash, Easy Rider, and Rosemary’s Baby. Few of those movies played in Artesia, and if they did you wouldn’t be able to see or hear very well.

So we read a lot. Mainly science fiction, but also books people were talking about at the time like Trout Fishing in America and Stranger in a Strange Land. Soon we were groking everything.

“Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because we are from Earth) as color means to a blind man.” Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land. I read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot about then. It wasn’t a big hit with my friends, but I quite liked the passages about epilepsy.

Back before I was born, my grandmother played guitar accompaniment to silent movies at the Capital Theater in Burlington, Iowa. I used to imagine her strumming out the soundtrack to silent horror films. She would have been about sixteen, and I always pictured her propped on a stool in front of red velvet drapes, wearing thick black stockings and a black cotton dress with a big bow on one hip.

Music and books and movies have always been a part of my life. Even a part of my life before my life.
Now you rarely hear a good song on the radio. Music and movies, and gasp – even books -- seem to be imitations of imitations, of imitations. Labels and studios and houses have to know that the new idea will sell. The only way to do that is to be able to point at a previous idea that has done well. And so the watering down continues and continues, until the market bottoms out and somebody takes a chance simply because there is no other way to turn.

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