Posts Tagged ‘Times Have Changed’

My niece turns 21 this week. Hard to believe. A few years back, I wrote about how times had changed since her birth. In the three years since, change continues unabated – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, Spotify and Apple Music, among other services, are upending the long-accepted order of how we listen to and enjoy TV, movies and music. Think about it: Where once we had to own the DVDs to binge on a show, now one just has to sign into the service that has what we’re in the mood to absorb. And for music – is there even a need, anymore, for CDs? Everyone seems to use a streaming service of some kind. Even me. I’m listening to the Bangles’ classic Different Light via Apple Music as I type.

Well, I certainly hope that CDs are still in demand; I still buy them, at any rate, and hopefully one newly minted 21 year old still listens to them. The titles I sent her include yesteryear classics that have influenced just about every generation since their long-ago releases; and a few newer albums by relatively new artists that are, to my ears, modern-day classics.

Today’s Top 5: Classic Trax, however, isn’t drawn from the CDs I picked for her. They’re more of an addendum – tracks that hail from classic albums that, if there was justice in this universe, would be in everyone’s collection or playlist.

1) Rickie Lee Jones – “We Belong Together.” Rickie Lee Jones’ 1979 self-titled debut was a stone-cold classic. Pirates, her 1981 follow-up, actually improved upon it – a hard feat. This song, the lead track, is a riveting, romantic street opera.

2) Gladys Knight & the Pips – “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” Imagination, released in the fall of ’73, is a five-star set that features such songs as “Midnight Train to Georgia” and this one, which hit No. 3 on the singles chart in April ’74.

3) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Down by the River.” This song hails from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), one of my Top 5 Albums of All Time – a list that, now that I think about it, I need to put together and share. One of my joys in 2015: taking my nephew, who was 19 at the time, to see Neil & Promise of the Real in concert. (He was already a fan, I should mention.) It was, as I wrote here, an incredible show; and this epic performance blew us both away.

4) Lone Justice – “Shelter.” The title track to the second Lone Justice album, released in 1986, is one of those songs – as I used to write (too often) on my old website, “it takes you there, wherever there is.”

5) The Bangles – “September Gurls.” Different Light, the Bangles’ 1986 album, is as perfect a pop record ever released, I think. It featured two Top 5 singles (“Manic Monday,” which hit No. 2, and “Walk Like an Egyptian,” which hit No. 1) and a wealth of classic songs, including this cover of the Big Star tune. (This performance, by the way, is from the World Cafe Live in 2014, which I wrote about here.)

IMG_2501I came to The Wonder Years a little late, having missed the first two seasons for reasons I won’t bother with here. It was at Diane’s urging, not long after we moved in together in late 1990, that I tuned in; and I’ve been thankful ever since, as it fast became (and remains) one of my favorite TV series. Not every episode was great, mind you, but when it hit on all cylinders few shows could match it – in my opinion, at any rate. Seven years later, at the behest of my boss at the time, I tuned in Homicide: Life on the Street at the start of its sixth season. It became yet another must-watch show in our household.

Catching up and keeping up with both proved to be a chore, however – Wonder Years didn’t hit syndication until the fall of 1992; and Lifetime ran Homicide repeats at 1am during the week. Those were the years, too, when we were out and about more often than now, especially on Friday nights when the first-run Homicide aired. A VCR was a necessity.

Of late, I’ve been reminded of the work, and space, once required of TV fans. For the past two weeks I’ve been sorting through hundreds of VHS tapes, some of which date to the early 1980s, transferring bits here and there to my computer and tossing the rest. The tapes took up more than shelf space: an entire corner of our bedroom was devoted to them (notice the past tense there!). My closet holds even more. In any event, it’s a time-consuming project made possible by a simple gadget that connects the VCR to my computer; recording is in real time. The goal isn’t to save episodes of Wonder YearsHomicide or any of the many programs or movies we taped, however, as most of those are available elsewhere, but appearances of our favorite musical acts on Late Night With David LettermanThe Tonight ShowArsenio Hall, TNN, VH1 and MTV, among other shows and channels.

One thing I’ve learned: while commercials were as annoying then as now, at least then there weren’t as many per hour. Another: the local news hypes the weather a little less these days, and is more accurate. During one run of Oprah Winfrey shows (my wife used to record them) in December 1997, for instance, the teaser for the 5 o’clock news warned of an approaching winter storm. Doomsday was nigh! Until the actual day it arrived, that is, when lo’ and behold the snow turned out to be a dusting that only impacted parts of the region. And yet another: we once recorded an episode of Falcon Crest. I likely set the VCR to the wrong channel that night.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned, however, is what a mess the analog world could be. For every tape filled with just Homicide episodes, there are five packed with a mishmash of our interests: The Wonder YearsThe Simpsons and NYPD Blue share space with 10,000 Maniacs on Letterman.

To watch a marathon of a specific show back then required forethought and effort, in other words. We once threw a “My So-Called Party” in honor of My So-Called Life; friends/fellow fans came over and we screened four episodes that were on three different cassettes. That meant swapping them out, fast-forwarding through squealing yards of tape to find the episodes we wanted and then fast-forwarding again through the commercial breaks.

Like others, no doubt, we became infatuated with DVDs once they hit the stores and rental markets. But though we still purchase DVDs on occasion, we’ve come to prefer the no-space-required world that is OnDemand, Netflix and Amazon Prime. There’s no rewinding, fast-forwarding or guesstimating the length of a movie just to get to what the tape’s label claims follows.

In fact, these days our “My So-Called Party” would simply require us to navigate to Streampix on Comcast OnDemand, and then click on the episodes we wanted. No muss, no fuss, just fun!

Except for those nights when you can’t find anything to watch. That, in fact, is my main gripe: quality content, or lack thereof. Every program should be available at the push of the button – a video Spotify, if you will – not just some. But that’s a post for another day.

Did you know that my hometown of Hatboro, Pa.,  was serviced by two phone companies in 1908? Bell Telephone oversaw everything east of York Road while the Keystone Telephone and Telegraph handled everything to the west. And interoperability between the services was non-existent – for folks with Bell to call folks with Keystone they needed a Keystone phone (and vice versa). As a result, many businesses kept phones from both companies on the premises.

That’s one of many neat factoids I discovered in the Images of America book Hatboro, a terrific stroll down history lane that I received for Christmas.

The times have changed, and are ever-changing: This week my niece Paige turns 18. If my math is right, that means she was born in 1995, the same year that ordinary folks began logging onto the Internet en masse. Prior to that, proprietary services like AOLCompuServe and Prodigy existed and, similar to 1908 Hatboro, to send an e-mail to a pal meant that he or she needed to be on the same service. There could be limits on top of that, too. In 1991, for example, Prodigy began charging users 25 cents an e-mail after 30 missives a month.

Granted, my history of the Internet is nowhere near complete – see this Wikipedia entry for something more thorough. But the growth and use of the ‘Net was the first thing I thought of when contemplating how day-to-day life has changed since Paige’s birth. This past week I was felled by a virulent flu, for instance, but was still able to go to work – as I’ve done on other occasions, I telecommuted into the office. For me, that means sitting at my computer in my den beside a window that overlooks a squirrel-populated tree. On Friday I noticed two squirrels grooming each other – something I’d never seen before. Curious if it was a new phenomenon, I performed a quick Internet search that led to a rather voluminous page on all things gray squirrel. The little critters do indeed groom one another, it turns out, especially during winter. In mere minutes I confirmed something that 18 years ago would have entailed a library trip.

Here’s another change: when I left for Happy Valley in 1985 to complete my college education, I brought along a small boombox and maybe 10 percent of my music collection – a few dozen pre-recorded and homemade cassettes. The cream of the crop, if you will, of a collection that I painstakingly curated through trips to the Hatboro Music Shop, Memory Lane Records in Horsham and Third Street Jazz in Philadelphia. Contrast that to today, when I’d be able to cart all of the 4,441 albums that make up my and Diane’s current collection on an external hard drive (I encoded everything we had a few years back, and now routinely rip everything we buy) – or simply rely on Spotify. Anyone can amass an instantly incredible and deep music collection, these days, without leaving one’s home or spending much money. (As Irv Homer used to say, it boggles the mind.)

Cell phones were around in 1995, of course. Mulder on The X-Files had one. But all they were good for were making and receiving calls. How quaint, huh? Now, they’re used for everything but calls – texting came into vogue in the late ‘90s, and the advent of 3G a few years later made surfing the ‘net while on the go commonplace. Hand-in-hand with that: Facebook. I access it more often than not on my desktop computer, but now our friends and family know about our weekend getaways to B&N, concerts and dinners out due to the “check-in” feature.

rumer_live

It used to be straightforward, this thing called music-obsessive syndrome. When I developed the condition in the late 1970s, you listened to the radio – WIFI, WMMR, WYSP, WIOQ, etc. – and if you heard a song you liked you trucked down to the Hatboro Music Store or up to Sam Goody in the Village Mall to buy the corresponding 45 or LP.

In time you’d dig deeper into the scene via recommendations from friends, Creem and Rolling Stone magazines, maybe invest in a book – the red or blue music guides from Rolling Stone, for instance – to learn about historical recordings, and saved cash by heading to Memory Lane Records in Horsham, where the sheer mass of used vinyl was as overwhelming as it was joyful. Everything was new regardless of age – in 1978 when I was 13, for instance, the Beatles and Stones were as new to me as Dire Straits and Van Halen.

Now? Most terrestrial music stations are accented by ultra-tight playlists, with those that highlight the new primarily doling out sound-alike hits and those that trade in nostalgia reducing the oeuvres of veteran acts to a handful of songs. A few exceptions exist, of course. WXPN, the best of the bunch in the Delaware Valley, features a rich mix of Americana, folk, blues and rock, but everytime I tune in they’re as likely to be playing the old (Steely Dan) as the new (Jessica Mayfield). Satellite radio, which I’m told is home to expansive playlists, requires a subscription and specialized equipment. Online radio and streaming sources abound as well, each with their own pluses and minuses.

But how do you find what you don’t know you’re looking for?

In my case, it’s actually not all that dissimilar to when I was a kid. While I rarely listen to the radio due to the depth of my collection, I still browse for hours in stores, though in lieu of Hatboro Music it’s now Amazon or iTunes. I listen to song samples, click on recommendations and, often, jump outside of their ecosystems to look up the act’s own website as well as concert clips on YouTube. I read Rolling Stone and the British music magazines Mojo and Uncut, and deep-dive back catalogs at Allmusic.com (the go-to site for such things).

Mojo led me to one of my favorite artists of the past few years, in fact. In late 2010 I opened the magazine to find a glowing review of Seasons of My Soul, the debut album by a singer-songwriter called Rumer (real name: Sarah Joyce). It sounded like something up my alley, so I hopped online to do further research and discovered that the CD was only available in the States as a pricey import. Song samples weren’t available on Amazon, either, though links on her Web site led me to the official video for the song “Aretha” on YouTube. It blew me away. I ordered the album that same day.

And, since the album wasn’t released in the States until last month, I’m glad I took the plunge. Seasons of My Soul is an atmospheric song cycle that’s teeming with soulful, knowing lyrics and melodies that wrap themselves around the heart, to say nothing of Rumer’s emotive, pitch-perfect vocals. It echoes the classic pop of Burt Bacharach and the Carpenters, yet moves past those inspirations by tackling themes not always associated with pop music. “On My Way Home,” for example, is about the grieving process, and several other songs echo loss of one sort or another. “Come to Me High,” on the other hand, is a lush, romantic ode, as is “Slow.” The intoxicating “Take Me As I Am” is – as she says in the clip – about pushing people away when you need them the most. Add in the aforementioned “Aretha” and such songs as “Thankful” and “Blackbird” and, to my mind, the album is a must for everyone’s collection.

As some of the above clips illustrate, Rumer is also a wonderful live artist. Due to budget constraints, she toured the States these past few months with a stripped-down band – first playing before a sparse audience at the World Café Live Upstairs in October (four months before Seasons of My Soul was released here) and at the World Cafe Live Downstairs last month, before what looked to be a near sell-out. She has a knack for tackling cool covers in concert, too – Laura Nyro (one of her inspirations), Gil-Scott Heron and, this last time, two of Philly’s favorite sons, Hall & Oates.

Anyway, in the weeks and months ahead, I hope to spotlight similar finds in this space. Some will be new, others not, but all will share this similarity with Rumer and Seasons of My Soul: they’re designed for the long haul.