I was five years old in February 1964. The Ed Sullivan Show was a 7 p.m. Sunday night ritual in our home, followed by Bonanza at eight o’clock. There I was, sitting cross legged in front of the black and white television, ready for the evening’s entertainment.
And then it happened.
The Beatles. The Beatles happened.
Jangly electric guitars. Ringo’s slap-dash on the drums. The matching suits, the Beatle boots, those innocent, devilish grins. And the faces melting off of every teenage girl in the audience. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was difficult to breathe.
A lot of things came to the surface in that moment, truths I’m still trying process after all these years. But the clearest truth of all was this—that rock ‘n’ roll was a community experience—it shattered who you were and dragged you dancing and twitching toward what you were becoming. And we were becoming together. It was tribal. What happened to that?
Last night I was watching the director’s cut of Michael Wadleigh’s ground-breaking 1970 documentary Woodstock and it all came back—that sixties ethos of music as communal experience. But even more evident was the unmistakable quality of abandon. On the Ed Sullivan Show the Beatles exhibited just enough recklessness to make the music seem dangerous and spontaneous, like they were discovering it right along with you. It was anything but canned. But five years later, at Woodstock, the undisciplined, frenzied side of rock ‘n’ roll was starting to unravel. The performances at Woodstock were notoriously uneven. There were moments of transcendent magic and, if I’m being honest, puddles of pure mediocrity. Those fields weren’t the only things getting muddy. Too much Dionysus and not enough Apollo. Too many drugs and not enough sleep. Trusting the muse to carry you through your performance is one thing. But it helps if you can at least tune your guitar.
But here’s what really struck me: no matter what was happening on stage, or not happening, the audience was into it 100%. No one had a cell phone—they hadn’t been invented yet. Everyone simply paid attention…to the bands and to each other. Over that three-day weekend on Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York a remarkable community sprung from the soil like mushrooms after a spring rain. A community of presence and immediacy. And it was all shockingly uneventful, non-violent, and loving. People took care of each other. Because it was the right thing to do. And because the music showed them how.
But back to the abandon—a quality that poured off of every frame of the film, both on stage and off. The frenzied surrender of the music, the limitless faith that no matter how bad I stumble, I will be held aloft by the gods of rock and this band of merry-makers around me. It was almost frightening how raw and authentic the music was. This sense of abandon is a quality that has been completely sanitized out of all contemporary music, at great loss. Everything is so aseptically perfect now. In 1969 there were no click tracks, no tuners (let alone Auto-Tune), and very few effects pedals. It was just raw, primitive amplification and raw, uncaged talent, skittering on the edge of disaster. Nobody does that anymore. Everyone’s so careful. Everything’s so planned. Sure, the results were mixed. Some of the music was a little too rough. That’s what happens when you take chances and play naked without a safety net.
In the planning stages, Creedence Clearwater Revival was the first big-name band that signed on. Then, all the other big bands followed. Because of the reigning chaos, CCR ended up playing at 3 a.m. Sunday morning. Who knows how it sounded. None of their music made it into the final edit of the film—notorious perfectionist John Fogerty wouldn’t allow it. Jefferson Airplane had no such qualms, however, and forgive me Airplane fans but it shows.
Fast forward to today. So much has changed. All of the old streams through which music flowed into our lives have run dry. We used to learn about new bands and new songs on the radio, but radio has abandoned that role. We used to line up at the record store to buy physical albums on the day they were released. Then we’d listen to them over and over in each other’s houses on giant stereos with huge speakers, dissecting every note, learning every lyric, and memorizing the liner notes. Then we’d argue about all of it all day at school. None of that happens anymore.
Radio has been replaced by digital streaming and subscription services like YouTube, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and the rest. You build your own private playlists. We all walk around with our ear buds in, lost in our own little world. Music used to bring us together. Now it isolates us.
Sure, people still go to concerts, but it feels different now. You’re either talking to the people around you, or videotaping the concert on your phone to show all of your social media friends that you’re at the concert without really being at the concert at all. How ironic.
Every time I go hiking I come across people blaring music out of the tiny speakers on their phones—speakers the size of pencil erasers—music so crushed by compression and so diminished in its dynamic range that I’m pretty sure Marconi himself had higher audio quality on the first radio ever invented. We’re going backwards.
Those of us who are recording artists are struggling to figure out how to position ourselves in this new reality. Why record albums anymore? No one buys them. People who listen to my music do so through streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. I get paid pennies for those streams. I hear Apple is doing alright. The CEO of Spotify has a jet.
It’s no one’s fault. Technology changes. We will always make music, we will always love music, and we will always need music. We’re just not sure how to connect all the dots anymore.
Digitization, software, and hardware have taken over everything. And we’ve accepted it. Now, people pay top dollar to go to a “concert” where pre-recorded tracks are played over the PA and five or six rappers amble around on stage performing their spoken-word pieces. When it’s good I actually love this stuff. But it’s hard to be spontaneous when you’re locked into a prerecorded track. Where’s the danger in that?
Rock ‘n’ roll needs to be dangerous. It needs to be bat-shit crazy. It needs to ooze sexuality. Even the practiced ribaldry of Cardi B seems tame—corporatized, commodified, and stripped clean of all its humanity, the essential element of all authentic sexual attraction. Say what you will about the sloppiness of the performances at Woodstock—you knew you were watching actual human beings doing amazing things in real time. You could feel it.
I don’t know where music’s headed next. It isn’t for me to say. But whatever it’s doing, and however it’s doing it, I’ll be listening.
Peter Bolland is a teacher, writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Meditate with him on the Insight Timer app and learn more at www.peterbolland.com