Thursday night, I had shown up to the Dinosaur, Jr show at the Beachland Ballrom on Cleveland’s east side, some two-and-a-half hours before J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph would even think of taking the stage. Facebook said the show would be close to a sell-out. I didn’t want to miss out.
I strode to Music Saves, my favorite record store on the street and ran into a friend of mine, Tim, who was also unnecessarily prompt. After a chat with our friends behind the counter we headed to the Beachland Tavern for food and drinks. While our conversation began with politics, it’s that time of the year, it eventually got back to music.
It was at this point, I turned to him and said, “I’m worried. I haven’t seen a band not from the ’90s in months. I’ve seen Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, The Afghan Whigs and now Dinosaur, Jr. All of them are reunion acts.” Continuing, “I never wanted to be that guy, too old and too uncool, rocking out at the Steppenwolf, Mountain, and Iron Butterfly show at the rib cook-off. Maybe, I should, you know, see something new.”
Tim’s a smart guy, smarter than me. He replied, “I used to worry about that too. Then, one of the best shows I had ever seen was the Who doing Quadrophenia in ’96 with three Whos. You have too many rules.”
Dude’s got a point and now I’m re-thinking exactly how we measure greatness in music and why my worries hardly matter.
To begin, charts are irrelevant. For every star on the list, there’s the next 199 on the top 200 who will be forgotten.
I would add album reviews and lists of top albums hardly matter, either, when it comes to judging lasting quality. A review, even a year-end round up, is nothing more than a snapshot of a specific time. They’re all guesses really, a critic’s bet that should you listen to this song or that album, it will stay with you for years to come. Plus, it goes without saying, one critic’s “it” list, is another critic’s shit list. Even if your tastes measure favorably to a critic or a website, there’s no guarantee they’ll always deliver what you want to hear.
Moving on, twitter followers, likes and youtubes, while the most popular metrics of modern times, have the same problem as reviews. They can only measure the now, and fail horribly are judging merit in the future. Myspace used to measure popularity, too. Do you remember Tila Tequila? Wikipedia says she was the most popular artist on Myspace in 2006. If I said, I have two tickets to her show tonight, would you go?
No, the truest measure of a musician’s artistic impact is memory. Five, ten, or twenty years later, will anyone remember to come to your reunion show? Will someone digging through the used record bin stumble across your album and exclaim, “I need this!”
To further illustrate my point, let’s go back again to the middle of the past decade. All of these bands received the coveted Best New Music tag from Pitchfork.
2007: The Tough Alliance , Black Kids, The Clientele, Patrick Wolf, I’m From Barcelona
2006: The Pipettes, Tapes N Tapes, Islands
2005: Love is All, Devandra Banhart, Wilderness, Architecture in Helsinki
If a giant 12 band bill was staged today, could these bands even pack a 500 person room in the Midwest? I wouldn’t want to be the promoter with my own money on the line.
We could play the same game with best of decade lists, best since we started our website lists and best ever lists. Lists, to paraphrase someone important to me, are just like your opinion, man. They have no relevance to how a musician is viewed in the real world, or, in terms of our current discussion, if anyone will remember you once the list fades from the front page. If you made a connection with your fans on a personal level, they will come back, regardless if you ever made a single list — Billboard Hot 200, Pitchfork Best New Music, most viral videos, or Buzzfeed, in general. To be remembered and to be paid, trumps them all.
Turns out, that summer day in ’95 when I saw Steppenwolf, Mountain, and Iron Butterfly, I wasn’t witnessing a sad sack bunch of mid-level classic rockers and a sad sack bunch of fans with dirty fingers, beer guts in bulging leather, and long gray hair, but the power of memory, and maybe, I’m reluctant to say, greatness. Hey, other people really dug the day’s entertainment. They enjoyed it so much that they were ready to man up with their biker buds and bash the heads of some impolite youngsters.
Oh, I’ll still take Dinosaur, Jr over Foreigner, Guided by Voices over 38 Special, and The Afghan Whigs over Blue Oyster Cult, but now I have a little more respect for not only the band who can still pull them in years past their prime, but the fans who show up, too. Besides, I would hate to think there was a 20-something snickering at my long hair, Doc Martins, and cardigan sweater as I left that Afghan Whigs show. I have too many mental issues as it is. I need the type of protection that only a reasonably sounded out defense of reunion rock can provide. This is it.