Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | baby boom
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Although I covered pop music at a time when punk, hardcore, "alternative" rock, rap and hip hop were the coolest sounds, I always had a soft spot for the sweet sugar of pure pop. I once wrote an essay comparing Michael Jackson to Prince, as if Jackson were the Beatles and Prince were the Rolling Stones. In my essay, MJ won out (but this was before MJ got weird). I was, it's true, a Beatles fan over the Stones. And a lot of the reason was the vocals, not just the pop brilliance of the Lennon-McCartney and Harrison songs. I loved the Beatles' harmony. When I listen to Beatles songs, I can hear their voices dancing and meshing with each other; sometimes trading melody for harmony, sometimes taking an aural upfront position, sometimes laying back. That's the same quality that turned me on to artists such as Simon & Garfunkel in spite of Paul Simon's brainy-nerdy lyrics (I was a brainy nerdy kid, after all, so I identified with him). Simon and Art Garfunkel's voices were a natural fit, and I still love to hear their duet vocals, especially on their earlier, unadorned music. Their solo recordings, even when they're great records, don't thrill me as much as the ones they made together. Peter, Paul and Mary were for me, the pinnacle of the melody/harmony interplay. Like the Beatles, they could sing high or low parts, and the sound was fuller than a duet to have all three filling in gaps. Yes, PP&M were an "artificial" group, the folk version of the Monkees, who were assembled as a hit-making enterprise by their manager to cash in on the urban folk boom of the times. Following the success of the Weavers, the Kingston Trio and others, Albert Grossman's formula for pop success was to bring together "a tall blonde, a funny guy, and a good looking guy" and watch the cash flow in. That it did. But they also rose above their commercial crassness and made some fine music for the ages. The trio, Noel Paul Stookey, Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers were earnest lefty-touchy-feely folksingers, a natural progression from the Woody Guthrie balladeer of the Depression era forged with the commercially viable groupthink of the '50s Weavers (where Pete Seeger made his original mark). They had a string of hits, including folk songs like "500 Miles," pop ballads like "Lemon Tree" and protest songs like "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." They popularized the emerging voices of the new generation's "protest singers" like Bob Dylan (the trio's take of "Blowin' in the Wind" is still my favroite of many cover versions and the original). They also sparked the public's imagination with the silly controversy over "Puff the Magic Dragon" (was it or was it not about smoking pot?), and closed out their hitmaking career with a pair of terrific sunset singles, John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and " the gospel-infused "Day Is Done." They caught the zeitgeist of their times -- a spirit of searching and questioning of values, the possibilities of youthful exhuberance, and a lust for life. They still perform to nostalgic crowds, but their golden era was inexorably and permanently affixed to the folk era's comet.

Betty James just passed away. Who's that, you say? She's the woman whose husband invented the Slinky, and the woman who headed the company that manufactured all the wacky variations of Slinky, from Slinky Dogs to Plastic Rainbow Slinkys, for decades. My friend Leland Rucker, with whom I co-authored "The Toy Book" in 1991, just posted his thoughts about the time we were lucky enough to meet her while researching the book. I vividly remember meeting Betty James. She was appreciative that a couple of aging boomers like us were interested in her company. She was a giant, but unknown to the zillions of kids who grew up with her toy. She gave us brass special edition Slinkys after meeting us. I still have mine on my desk…. The story of the Slinky, which I'll include below from "The Toy Book"'s first chapter, is pretty fascinating, because it was discovered by chance, and was a bellwether -- the first truly original toy for the nascent generation, because it was first sold in the fall of 1945 in the flush of the post-war holiday season. That's why it led off the book. But Betty James was a fascinating story herself. Richard James may have invented the Slinky but Betty made it a generational icon. Around 1960 Richard James left his wife and six children to join a religious cult in Bolivia. He died in 1974. Betty James took over as CEO of James Industries when he left, brought the company out of its debts (her husband had apparently "donated" a lot of profits to the religious group), and then started diversifying the Slinky product line and running the TV commercials that many Boomers can still sing along to. It's because of her efforts that to this day, if you say "Slinky" to almost anyone in in the US of almost any age, they'll hold out there hands, palms up, and wave them up and down to mimic playing with the spring.

"Time-shifting" is a new media term for the ability of technology to allow us to consume media -- whether it's video or music or text -- at any time. The most obvious example is people recording TV shows on the DVRs to watch later, at their leisure. You can hear a teleseminar via podcast any time after the fact (for instance, on a plane flight to SF, which is when I listened to a class on my iPod). And this morning, I've been both time- and PLACE-shifting, by listening to an archival re-broadcast of Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" radio show, which was originally broadcast on April 14, 1973. It's kind of spooky because it's very possible I was listening to Casey Kasem's affable voice that Sunday morning, and yet here I am, "tuned in" to hear the show all over again, in a San Francisco hotel room but hearing a stream from Denver oldies radio station KOOL105. All I need is the newscasts and commercials of the time, and I'm a 15-year-old kid all over again.

As a card-carrying baby boomer (I guess officially, with my AARP membership!), I was 10 when most of 1968 happened. It was a pivotal year, no doubt -- though in my consciousness, '69 left a deeper impact. AARP magazine does a fine job of using the Web as a story-telling device to revisit the year. This online special section kicks...

Interesting exercise in nostalgia with irony: KCUV-FM in Denver is celebrating the official kickoff of summer by recreating the sound of Denver's FM radio from 1967, complete with news items, radio commercials from back then, and typical playlsists, all presented by the airstaff of progressive radio from the time, including guys like Bill Clarke (who's on Channel 7 now but...

Pitchfork has published a rambling list of the "200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s," beginning with the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon" at 200 and ands with the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" at #1 (presumably -- the final 20 aren't numbered). It's an interesting list because it's in a British publication, and these songs were chosen (and reviewed very earnestly) by young rock critics, most if not all I bet who weren't even born when the '60s closed out with Altamont and a few months later, Kent State.

transistorradio.jpgI grew up – like all baby boomers – during an era of radio when the Top 40 format was perfected during the first two decade of rock and roll, and genres didn’t divide up into separate formats. An entire generation of pop music fans pretty much grew up listening to a wild mix of rock, soul, country – white and black – with a lot of novelty songs thrown in for good measure. This was true through the 1960s, certainly and also up through the mid-‘70s. But two things happened to radio between, say 1969 and 1974. First, the FM progressive or freeform format that had emerged in 1967 began attracting the older rock music fans, and for the first time, after 1969, there was a defined generation gap. If you were in college and protesting the Vietnam war, chances were the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” wasn’t as relevant to you as, say, Ten Years After’s “I’d Love to Change the World.” For me, being just 11 during the summer of 1969, bubblegum rock was a sweet and welcome part of my musical diet. There was a lot of crossover between FM and AM, especially during the early ‘70s. For instance songs like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” was a hit on AM as well as FM stations.

One of my ongoing passions is pondering the passing of pop culture references. Baby boomers have lived through decades of new hip phrases -- for instance, the hip word for "good" has evolved every few years, from "cool" to "groovy" to "far out" (thanks to John Denver for killing that one off by using it too much) to "excellent" to "bad" to "tight" to other words and phrases.Young people are constantly introducing new words and bringing new meanings to old words. That's a part of the evolution of culture and language.