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Jack Smith

The generation that gave us noisy rock 'n' roll may yet save our ears from their din of iniquity

February 19, 1985|JACK SMITH

One of the most upbeat stories of 1985 appeared on Page 1 of The Times on New Year's Day under the headline:

Quiet This Time

Baby Boom

Rocks Music

Scene Again.

The story, by Times Staff Writer William Knoedelseder Jr., noted that "a quiet brand of music" with a sort of folk-blues-jazz-classical-flavored guitar sound was actually making inroads on the monopolistic rock recording industry, selling millions of records and tapes.

"In fact," he wrote, "some experts see the dramatic sales increases of . . . small labels specializing in so-called alternative music as part of a growing grass-roots movement away from teen-oriented music and the expensive marketing methods of the major record companies."

This news couldn't have come at a better time, giving some hope that in 1985 we might find surcease from the constant din of rock, heavy metal and whatever else you call it.

In fact, it came on the very day that radio station KPRZ abandoned the sentimental and sophisticated music of the Duke and Cole and the exhilarating beat of Benny Goodman and the lush big band sound of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw to blast out an uninterrupted torrent of rock, in one stroke cutting off my generation from one of its few remaining connections with its own culture.

But there is a groundswell, we were told, toward a quieter music, toward a variety of tastes, toward less sheer noise for noise's sake.

And who are we to thank for this beneficence? The Baby Boom generation--those roughly 60 million Americans (31% of the population) born between 1946 and 1964; mostly 25 to 35 years old, upper-middle-class professionals, college-educated.

"These people are appalled by the conformity of radio programming," one recording executive said. "They are not spoken to eloquently by heavy metal or new wave music. Nothing is being made for them. (The quieter music) is aural relief from the onslaught of rock 'n' roll. It's what people are playing when they have friends over for dinner or a game of Trivial Pursuit."

Hallelujah!

I have never resented rock, in its place. But finally it had no place. It was everywhere. On the radio. In the street. In the movies. It was as if we of an older generation were imprisoned in it, and couldn't get out, like being in a foreign country where we couldn't speak the language.

What I mostly resented was when people of my own generation went over. When they gave a charity party and hired a combo that showed up with a ton of amplifiers and blasted everybody until their ears went lame and their bones ached, and their employers didn't have the guts to tell them to turn down the power.

Conversation in America died with the Beatles.

I keep hearing about the meaningful lyrics to be found in rock, but, except for some of the poignant anti-war songs of Bob Dylan and a few others, I have never been able to make any sense out of them. For one thing, they are delivered in an angry primal scream, and I never have the slightest idea what anyone is saying.

The only words I know are Cyndi Lauper's "She-Bop," and a few of Randy Newman's words about L.A., which, when you look at them, are incredibly banal:

\o7 I love L.A.

I love L.A.

Look at that mountain

Look at those trees,

Look at that bum over there, man

He's down on his knees

Look at these women

There ain't nothing' like 'em nowhere\f7 . . . .

Honestly, Cole Porter could write better lyrics than that with a terrible hangover in his bathtub in the morning with a lipstick on a piece of tissue paper.

I don't know of any mass form of culture in the world that has been so imitative. Ever since the Beatles put us on with those faces of mock sullenness and rebellion, every rock group that has had its picture taken has tried to outdo its predecessors in looking psychopathic. Punk is the apotheosis of the style, a natural development. There is nowhere to go beyond it, unless they actually start committing murders and rapes to give their personas the stamp of reality.

I don't care if rock goes on. They can have most of the air time, as far as I'm concerned. They can play at your wedding. Or your funeral, if that would please you.

I just ask to be allowed my own alternatives. I'd like to walk into a bar sometime and hear someone like Hoagy Carmichael singing something like "Blue Skies," very low key; or maybe a combo playing "Sentimental Journey," without an amplifier, so that it just sort of drifts in from the walls, and provides a background for the sweet nothings you utter to your inamorata; I'd like to go to a ball where, at least between dance numbers, the orchestra falls silent, so you can get the name of the person you're dancing with.

Do you remember how sweet music used to sound when you heard it at a distance? Before amplification? Say a band playing in a park on a summer day, the sound floating in and out with the breeze; or a string trio playing at a garden party. It might be hardly louder than the wind in the trees; but so romantic.

If only we get through this period of fascination with electronic technology, and go back to the sound of pure instrumentation, unadulterated by amplifiers.

If the present Baby Boomers bring it off, they might just reach old age with their hearing.

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