Lately I have been reading a bit about the Grateful Dead final Fare Thee Well performances this summer in the Bay area and Chicago’s Soldier Field. Rather than continue to fade away, they are ending with the remaining four members and help from some great friends.
I remember the first time I truly listened to their music and finally became a fan. It was the fall of 1977, my freshman year at college, and I was partying with another guy down the hall and he played side four of their Skulls and Roses (informal name) album. Warf Rat is first, which I thought was pretty cool, but then comes the Not Fade Away/Going Down The Road combo with the jam in the middle. I was blown away. I had never before heard such intricate guitar interplay and call and response work between Garcia and Weir, and this converted me from a casual to a real fan of their music.
Thinking back to my high school and college days, it was easy to find other music geeks like myself just by keeping your ears open. The size of your record (or tape) collection did matter in those days. When you went into someone’s dorm room or apartment, you would immediately know if they were like you or not based on the number of albums they had. You could search through someone’s collection and talk about different groups, liner notes, band evolutions, etc, because it was easy to find a common ground of communication. And, instead of doing five other things at once, we actually sat down together and LISTENED to music without doing anything else.
Enter the digital age, and now everyone has a better music collection than the one I carefully and painstakingly cultivated and built over 40 years of listening to all kinds of amazing (and sometimes horrible) music. The playing field is level now. My music collection is no longer a badge of honor. The good news is that you can find pretty much any selection of music ever made with a few clicks of a mouse or a few swipes on a phone. The bad news is that we have lost a way of identifying ourselves by the music we listen to, and separating the music lovers from the casual listeners. We have no way of recognizing one another because we all share the same generic easy to find music collection. We cannot flip through a collection and instantly bond with the guy who lives down the hall from us.
The good news is that it is easy to find and discover new music. The bad news is we have taken people out of the equation. Sure, we can all write online reviews, and we can click to find “if you liked band x, check out band y” recommendations. But who doesn’t remember the joy of telling a new friend “hey, check this out” while you put another record on the turntable or a tape in the player, and the two of you immediately bonded over the thrill of a musical introduction.
I am not sure which time of music collection and listening was better. Sure, it is easy now, and connecting with others is still possible, but I think it is more sterile. It is online, through screen names and user names, etc, and rarely do we ever meet in real life, and when we do those meetings are awkwardly uncomfortable as some people want to retreat back behind the safety of their keyboards and put their earbuds back on. Consuming music has always been a central part of my being, and helped shape me to who I am today. I very much enjoy the ability to quickly find music to listen to, and the portability of it is beyond the wildest dreams of anyone from 20 or 30 years ago, but I miss the old social aspect and personal touch of listening to and finding new music. It may be easier to find and listen to music today, and easier to socially connect, but are these connections real or are they an illusion. Time will tell.
In the meantime, love live rock.