On the other hand, if you do feel like a dose of declinism there are many ways to get it. Quickest is to watch public television during membership drives, when they bring out Peter and Paul to sing their Childe ballads about the marijuana dragon and peace in our time. The pans over the audience look like bingo night in the assisted-living facility. Is this the senescent republic that guarantees the world’s liberty? Second quickest is to attend a concert of white bluesmen.
The jazz branch of the great culture center has a concert hall at one of the prime intersections of the city. The view is spectacular. Six stories up you look out a two-storey-high window on the monuments to Christopher Columbus and the USS Maine; on the southwest corner of the great green carpet of the park; on the broad double band of a crosstown street, white headlights coming at you, red taillights speeding away, both blazing after what we persist in calling nightfall (in midtown night is only a set-off for electricity). It’s a long way from the Delta up there.
It is also, unfortunately, a long way from good acoustics. The surfaces are all sharp and resonant, yet the space is vast, so you get a double hit: Everything pings, then rumbles around. Run the music through a sound system, and it becomes painful. I know I am an outlier: I can’t stand the trailers for the average blockbuster; symphonies and operas strike me as yelling for morons; a bar scene on a Saturday night is the morons themselves. In my house in the country, I can hear the barred owls asking Who cooks for you? through my walls; I run out onto the deck or the stoop; always the same question, always the same no-answer, always the same thrill. Back in the city, huddled under some sonic Niagara, I wonder, Have I permanently damaged my treetop frequencies for the sake of Michael Bay or Wagner?
Back to the bluesmen. The second half of the program the night I went out was devoted to a genial English chap. You know his bio, sight unseen. Grew up listening to shellac 78s. Played with everybody from Jimi Hendrix to Fleetwood Mac. The devotion of foreigners to our popular music does us honor. Centuries after America has been obliterated, what will we have left the world to remember us by? The Declaration of Independence, the Model T, and some good tracks. He started off with an ancient blues lament, accompanying himself on the harmonica.
Then a band came out — a guitarist from Texas, a drummer from Chicago, and a bassist from sophomore year, by the look of him. The mix was suddenly unsettling. The bandleader, splendid in his long white ponytail, now looked old enough to be the father of his guitarist and drummer, old enough to be the grandfather of his bassist. I have written already of the death grip of baby boomers and their taste on popular culture. What about the death grip of their own first loves on the taste of baby boomers? We are old enough to retire, old enough to be older than the guy in the White House, and yet we still play and groove to what stirred us when we were druggie horndogs (or more likely, pimply sober celibates). Doesn’t anyone ever grow up around here? The first song the band did was by a black bluesman, b. 1935. The second song was by a rock group, b. 1965 (it still marches on, Wikipedia tells me, with changed personnel, just like the College of Cardinals).
No one had changed clothes since afternoons in the knotty-pine rec room either. The performers wore sneakers and had never heard of belts. Their music was equally casual. They were professionals in the best, and the not-so-good, senses of the word. They all had their licks down, but the gig was another day, another dollar.
Then in a moment of unhappy distraction I looked at the audience, before and below me (we sat halfway down the bowl of the hall). White heads (mine among them) — that I expected, for I had seen us all filing in. But nodding heads, nodding to the beat. No no no, my brothers and sisters — you don’t have to enjoy this, or if you do, you can enjoy it in the dark. I would not be a good demonstrator — but I would also not be a good church member, or Boy Scout, or anything. Is there no alternative to the run of the mill, and constantly fretting at the run of the mill?
There is at least one alternative. We had experienced it in the first half of the program, which was devoted to a soloist. His father was a record producer, the discoverer of everybody and his brother. The son had made his own pilgrimage through the blues. Forty years ago he looked like the Apollo of the Belvedere; now he looks more like the buffalo nickel, but still handsome.
He wore flannel and jeans, but beneath them he wore cowboy boots. This was a good sign — he had dressed for the occasion. The second good sign was his instruments — an acoustic guitar and a dobro, miked but not electrified. His voice was good, his playing was spectacular. His stage presence combined a little Glenn Gould and a little Asperger’s — a private affair. He would play the same way in Yankee Stadium, or all alone.
To play for others, you must play for yourself. And to play for yourself, you must play for your masters. You start off copying their every mannerism, but when you have developed your own manner you keep talking to them, long after they are dead. The first set was as wonderful as barred owls; we left early in the second. Back home, the magic of YouTube let me watch both musicians, on grainy TV shows, years ago.