Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Still the Same

Since moving to the farm a little over a year-and-a-half ago, Vera Valmore and I have finally gotten ourselves settled (more or less), having established various routines to help maintain everything while constantly dealing with new challenges, most having to do with repairs to the barn and/or frequently used equipment. I’ve never in my life spent so much time with hammers, wrenches, pliers, and screwdrivers.

It is no longer the case that everything is new to us. The routines are becoming more and more familiar, and while repetition can induce tedium, there is also a kind of pleasure that can come from it, too.

One practice we established early on was to keep a radio playing in the barn day and night. Don’t know if the horses care one way or the other about the music, but after dealing with a skunk who tried to take up residence in there we read that the noise helps keep them away. We still see skunks about now and then -- in fact, about a month ago we saw a troupe of five of them slinking across the back yard, closely bunched as though they formed a single, frightening-looking mega-skunk. But we’ve seen no Pepé le Pews in the barn, thankfully.

We started out playing a classical station, then at some point early on switched it over to the local classic rock one -- you know, the one that plays a rotation of a few hundred songs we’ve all been hearing for years and years. Some tunes I like, some I don’t, and quite a few I’m ambivalent about even if they manage to enliven in a dim way that nostalgic part of the brain that makes things that are familiar seem pleasurable.

I mean, I own exactly zero Bob Seger LPs. I feel like once I might have had a cassette of Against the Wind, but that was very long ago. If we were to apply the “VP$IP” stat from poker to him and his oeuvre, I voluntarily play Bob Seger -- my current VPBS -- exactly 0.0% of the time. Yet I know every note and lyric of at least a dozen of his songs, thanks to their inclusion on that endless loop of tunes I heard in my childhood and have continued to hear over the decades since.

If you ever listen to the “classic rock” station where you live -- probably in the car, I’d imagine, which for many of us the only place we are exposed to FM radio anymore -- you’ve probably heard some of the same drops my station includes in between songs touting their playlist as “timeless” and “the best music ever made.”

I suppose just by the evidence of playing music first written and recorded 40 years ago or more, the “timeless” claim is being aggressively proven by the mere fact of these stations’ existence. However, the argument about it being “the best music ever made” is obviously one with which many people -- especially those outside of the (now aging) target demographic -- would take issue.

(Speaking of, search online about “classic rock” and you soon learn the term “demographic cliff,” used in concert with the idea that the first audience for such music is dying out. As Mick Jagger -- who turned 72 over the weekend -- once sang, what a drag it is getting old.)

Something occurred to me this morning while feeding the horses to the accompaniment of Leon Russell’s “Tight Rope” and Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” though -- something that might help explain from where this “best ever” claim might be coming. Those of us who grew up listening to just a few radio stations or watching three television networks or going to the same few movies that played for weeks at a time in the local theater shared a lot of the same cultural experiences, with these various artifacts helping provide odd little touchstones that significantly shaped the way we learned how to relate to others, for better or worse.

Meanwhile now people experience popular culture much differently, in more fragmented ways that among other things can involve a lot more consumer direction (if the consumer desires such freedom of choice, that is). The phenomenon is more complicated than that, of course, but it starts to explain at least one difference between the present and the past, and also the source for that insistence by some that what came before represented the “best” cultural products “ever made.”

I guess the Seger song that best emblematizes the mass psychological experiment of “classic rock” is about has to be “Still the Same.” You know it, the one addressed to a gambler -- a poker player, presumably -- who “always won every time you placed a bet.” Of the gambler, Seger sings “you always said the cards would never do you wrong.” And like the old card player in “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers, Seger’s understands the importance of knowing when to walk away: “The trick, you said, was never play the game too long.”

But while he never plays a particular game too long, he’s more or less stuck in his role, not unlike a song being played over and over and over again. As the chorus explains, the gambler is a lot like those poker “lifers,” destined (doomed?) to keep “moving game to game.”

Because (the song concludes) -- like that playlist of “Dream On” and “More Than a Feeling” and “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Magic Man” and “The Joker” I can count on hearing every time I go back into the barn -- “some things never change.”

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