We are all middle children (October 23, 2001)

I have to admit that this group has influenced my thinking too, especially the posts of our intrepid moderator. I do have a different take, though, on the Women in Rock issue than the one Nancy propounds in her recent article (and this leads into the subject I’d postponed due to the events of Bad September).

For the longest time, I’d felt unlucky for having been born into this crowded, overlooked generation of ours. Now, though, I see it as a real blessing. As we’ve matured, we’ve come into our own and revealed real gifts of humor, perspective and spirituality. These aren’t throwaway items.

One of the highlights of my visit home, just before New York exploded and everything changed, was the Johnstown FolkFest in western Pennsylvania (part of the Real America, away from my usual New York/Boston axis). On a fine Labor Day weekend Saturday, the first day of September, I strolled a crowded midway in a historic district built by immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe (the surrounding landscape is not unlike Slovenia) and saw several performers, including one of my songwriting heroines, Christy McWilson, along with the likes of Barrence Whitfield, a great R&B showman – also probably around my age – whom I’d seen in the early days of his career in Boston. [A more extensive description is on my first website.]

On the long drive from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, I thought more about what could be the defining hallmarks of our generation: We have the best sense of humor. And perspective. Could it be that as the middle (sometimes neglected) generation between the early boomers and the Xs, Ys and Zs, we’ve subconsciously taken on the classic traits of middle children, namely adaptability, perspective, sociability? As with so many other things, this truth-as-I-see-it manifests itself to me mainly through the perspective of music, specifically, the language of singer-songwriters. The early boomers have Judy Collins, Baez and Joni Mitchell; our juniors, the likes of Fiona Apple (born 1977) and Ani DiFranco (born 1970). They have their merits, but nobody’s ever accused them of an overactive sense of humor. (I’d have to lump very late LateBoomer Tracy Chapman in with these overly serious types; she’s talented, sure, but oh, what she could be if she could only lighten up once in a while.) By contrast, I couldn’t pick a better true LB representative than Amy Rigby. Bearing some similarities to the late Kirsty MacColl (born 1959), another underappreciated original from England, Rigby, an ex-New Yorker now living in Nashville, churns out gems of varied style, though mostly countrified these days, and sings with an empathy-inducing catch in her voice; her album The Sugar Tree is one of the few records you can both laugh out loud to AND cry along with (in different songs, but still). Brits Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock, and Americans Barbara Manning, the Young Fresh Fellows, and Dave’s True Story also know how to blend the funny with the wise and occasionally heartbreaking; for a view from the fringe, listen to the postmodern cabaret of “Queen of Siam,” recorded circa 1981 by Lydia Lunch (born June 2, 1959). I’ve put some of these artists up on my website on a page titled “Music for the Real World (done by musicians who live in it along with the rest of us)”; as it happens, all but one or two of the dozen artists on my list are probably LateBoomers, and most are women.

Besides a welcome sense of the absurd and a willingness to see the humor in everyday situations and emotions, these artists also share a healthy sense of perspective. In other words, they’re not concerned solely with navel-gazing, but are aware of how they fit into the world as a small cog in a big machine. And, per this awareness, they don’t take themselves all that seriously (their art, yes; themselves, no). They can see the comedy in tragedy and vice versa, and have a sense that it’s all of a piece. Social relations, politics, inner development/spirituality, and common decency tend to also be present to a greater or lesser degree in the work of LateBoomer artists.

And befitting middle children, an awareness of the passage of time, and its inherent tragicomedy, is also part of the package. I’ve never been a particular fan of the Indigo Girls – if you pressed me for an opinion, you’d get an “Oh, they’re okay” with perhaps a dismissive wave – but the last line of the following excerpt from Emily Saliers’s “History of Us” has retained a permanent place in my medulla oblongata since seeing them live from the middle of the pack one fine summer evening at Great Woods in Mansfield, Massachusetts:

So we must love while these moments are still called today
Take part in the pain of this passion play
Stretching our youth as we must, until we are ashes to dust
Until time makes history of us.

In a similar vein is Christy McWilson’s more recent composition “Today Is Yesterday’s Tomorrow,” which precisely captures the typical LateBoomer’s attitude to aging – well, isn’t it everybody’s? At least I know it’s mine:

Today is yesterday’s tomorrow
It caught up with us after all
I don’t think we really knew
It could happen to us too
and I don’t think there’s any way to stall…

As others have noted, idealism and cynicism mix in LateBoomers in varying measure, along with, and more commonly as time goes on, late-blooming spirituality.

And one more thing: We know there’s nothing wrong with retaining our inner child – or (maybe even better) our inner teenager.

Does this pluck anyone’s chords?

Wes

(born, for what it’s worth, on the same day and year as Suzanne Vega – maybe that explains it, although I’ve never been quite motivated to buy one of her albums)

[Oddly enough, my wife and I were born on the same day, too — eight minutes and about 25 miles apart. And she’s equally indifferent to Suzanne Vega.]

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