Columns, Michael Leonberger

Past, Present, and Future | Michael Leonberger

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When I was a kid, I got into Rob Zombie at about the exact same time I got into Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper (and girls, for that matter…that was a huge summer). It was a stone’s skip from Alice Cooper to Frank Zappa: some snappy comments written by The Coop in Zombie’s Greatest Hits package referenced Zappa, and shortly thereafter, I was hooked.
Imagine me, a scrappy teenager in 2002, being hooked on Frank Zappa, an artist whose music is listened to predominantly by older men. The fact that his music exists at all is how I know those older men were once teenagers: there is no way older folks would get off on his stuff without the benefit of nostalgia (Zappa’s “Bobby Brown,” for example, could take about an hour on the Tower of Power and that’s not funny, I think, if you hear those words for the first time past a certain age…fourteen, however, is a great age to first hear it).

The ability to not only record language, but film and audio as well, has made us better. It helps us empathize with people who are older than us. We can recognize with HD clarity that their pasts are not entirely dissimilar from our own. Our youths are connected because we can appreciate the same things at the same age, even if we’re worlds apart when we first appreciate it.

It was of no concern to me that a young Alice Cooper was singing about turning eighteen alongside an older Alice Cooper singing about Jason Voorhees and an even older Alice Cooper performing a duet with Rob Zombie about the hands of death. Whatever. To me, it was all the same.

Frank Zappa is a musical gateway drug, by the way: once you’re into Zappa, you can get into anything. Go through the gateway, take a right, and there’s jazz. Take a left, and you’ve got rock. Keep going, and you’ll find blues and country, satirical songs, serious songs, and songs without any lyrics at all. He’s got it all, ya know?

Or I should say, he did.

Zappa’s dead (for anyone keeping score), and he’s been dead for a long time. We sort of tag-teamed in and out of the world: he shuffled off right around the time I was forming memories.

But him being dead didn’t matter at all when I was young. Nah, in my young, hormone-addled brain, all of those musical artists were emerging at the same time, like some quilted phoenix rising from the genetic swamp of musical history. Time paradoxes didn’t matter. Frank Zappa might have been dead, but he was still very much alive in my headphones, singing about Disco Boys and Valley Girls and noodling away at Watermelon’s in Easter Hay. It was of no concern to me that a young Alice Cooper was singing about turning eighteen alongside an older Alice Cooper singing about Jason Voorhees and an even older Alice Cooper performing a duet with Rob Zombie about the hands of death. Whatever. To me, it was all the same.

(It was of even less consequence to me that one of those Alice Coopers was completely wasted, and the other was a stone sober Christian golfer…they were somehow the same person at the same time, and that conflict maybe made the whole thing more exciting).

Music was (is?) living history, laid flat. It was all mine, all the time, all new, all born into my headphones without discrimination, copyrights be damned.

That’s the pleasure of being a millennial with an Internet connection and a vague sense of curiosity. The world from the dawn of recorded data to this very second is ours whenever we want it, and it’s not only true for us: it will be true for the generations that follow as well. What was once new to me will actually be new to them, too, along with the music of my parents, and my parents’ parents. It’ll be new every time it’s first heard, anywhere it’s first heard, and somehow time doesn’t seem so long.

Advances in technology and recording have allowed us to connect in these freakish, fabulous, Frankenstein ways, where all is new all the time.

If you’re young, that is.

Things only become old, I realize now, as we become older. The songs remain the same. We do not.

What’s the problem with millennials? It’s that we’re young. We’ll have problems with the youth we have to deal with, I imagine, just as older generations have problems with us. No wars will make us great, no economic comeback, no technological development. Looking back, people become fonder of themselves and their pasts: we’ll have that pleasure too, as we get older, as our past becomes something we cherish in intimate, inarticulate ways (even if the things we cherish weren’t necessarily ours to begin with). We can cherish our pasts in ways that previous generations could not have imagined with the ease of technology and the availability of YouTube. All we have to do is click a button and we’re instantly transported back in time, which is more powerful than any mere memory. Hopefully, the ease that allows us to remember our youth so clearly will force us to recognize the similarities between ourselves and the young folks that follow.

Hopefully, we’ll get along better.

We’ll have more empathy, the byproduct of all of this raw data. We’ll be bigger than anything that ever came before.

But we’ll also be getting older.

Welcome to My Nightmare isn’t from my generation. It came out in 1976, but that’s not why it seems old to me. It seems old because it came out in 2002, as far as I’m concerned, when I was a kid. The same year Hellbilly Deluxe came out, incidentally, and that CD has a copyright of 1998. Stuff only gets older because I’m older. It’s still new, strangely enough, if I’m listening to it at the right time, in the right mindset, like one of those strange secret passageways on the Clue game board. There are songs that are portals to the past, even as I recognize their age.

I recognize that some young talents are re-runs. This has nothing to do with new definitions of taste, or bolder perceptions of culture; it has to do with having heard more. It has to do with the fatigue of age.

(Or maybe it’s not their age that I’m recognizing at all, but my own…I hear Dragula and think about checking out lifeguards at the pool, and now those lifeguards seem like children to me and I hurt in places I didn’t even know existed back then).

Even brand spankin’ new songs become older as we get older. Culture fatigue kicks in. “I’ve heard it all before” takes what is actually fresh on the radio and instantly makes it stale. I can appreciate now how the pop singers of today borrow or downright ape what Madonna was doing in the eighties. It’s less cute to me now, less thrilling that these women are sisters of dance music. I recognize that some young talents are re-runs. This has nothing to do with new definitions of taste, or bolder perceptions of culture; it has to do with having heard more. It has to do with the fatigue of age.

This is a startling and uncomfortable realization because I am not used to time marching forward (can I speak for my entire generation?). I’m at such ease traveling backwards and then back to the present: VHS tapes, and CDs, and DVDS, and Blu-rays, and the Internet have flattened my world into a side-scrolling Mario game where I can repeat the same levels over and over. I can always start back at one. I can always re-set the game (and blow on the cartridge, if I need to). I can always go back. I don’t like lurching forward: I’m not accustomed to it. I feel as though our generation was not built for that, despite the advances in technology, despite humanity’s constant hurdles into a Jetsonian future.

Because of the mountains of recorded information we now possess at our fingertips, going backwards seems so much easier. Nostalgia is our ailment. Constant digital reminders make it more powerful for us than it was for previous generations. We have the evidence of our youth before our eyes in so many ways, compounded exponentially by the long memory of the Internet, that we never have to truly let go.

It’s as delightful as it is tumorous.

Hell, I could probably go back and re-live every day of the Bush presidency if I wanted to thanks to news videos preserved forever on YouTube. With that kind of an artificial memory, it’s hard to really comprehend moving forward. Every 9-11, we watch the towers fall again, and it always seem new, even if it’s now a distant memory. My memory doesn’t change the event, but the videos never fail to enhance my memory.

The fact that we have to go forward, that we have no choice but to proceed into the world with nary a clue about what awaits us despite our incredible connection to the past, is sobering.

This isn’t just true of national events and popular music and films. It’s true of the media connected to our personal lives as well.

It is impossible for me to imagine my grandparents as young people. The same is true of my parents. A couple of dusty, old, black and white photographs don’t make up the difference. I know they existed as children and teenagers, but I cannot for the life of me imagine that world with anything resembling depth or clarity. I know (again) that my parents and I got into certain albums at the same time: because of the marvels of technology, I got into Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon at about the same age my Dad did. We both have memories of youth tied into that album: long summers and early existential noodlings. Because of music and film, I feel, in some way, that our youth was connected.

But, once more, I cannot imagine him actually roaming around in the world as a child. This might be due to a stilted imagination, but I think it has more to do with the fact that the reality of his childhood, in 3D and in living color, is hard for me to pin down. I know the fantasy isn’t close. Those pictures are black and white, and my mind’s color must be off.

This will not be true for my children because so much of my youth was recorded. Somewhere, on some video tape, I am still a baby. On another tape, my voice just dropped, and I’ve got a horrible mustache, even though I’m in fifth grade. Someone took video footage of me just today on their cell phone. These things all exist at once, and not in an abstract sense: there are physical roots to these things. They exist inside of physical objects, and not just my brain. I have pictures and film of my life that date all the way back to my first day on this Earth. I’ve been recorded while being fully aware of the camera (something that everyone knows changes the way they behave) and without being aware of it. Should my children choose to sit through this vast complex of material, they will be as intimately aware of who I was as a kid as who I am now, and who I will be in the future.

What boggles my mind is the question of whether or not, in their heads, both versions of me will exist at the same time. If my life, too, will be a flattened scroll for them to know, just like the living histories of music and film.

I think my eventual death will be all the more startling for them because of that, and I know that’s sort of a Debbie Downer, but I think there’s truth to it. To exist both in the past and the present, and then only to exist in the past, seems like a huge rebuff. I wonder, too, if that will be even stranger if there is more recorded footage of me as a kid than there is of me as an adult. That way, the version that will live on is the version they never really knew at all. Do those artificial memories slowly replace the real ones?

Is all of this okay? Video has a better memory than I do, admittedly. Maybe that’s only true because I’ve been crutching on video for so long, self-medicating with photo galleries on the Internet.

Facebook is symptomatic of our generation: at once brilliant with life and thick with the dust of a mausoleum. Have you ever noticed how the Facebook profiles of your dead friends don’t get deleted? I suppose they shouldn’t be, for the same reasons I’m glad Frank Zappa’s music still exists.

Still, those summers of youth are sometimes painful to look back on. It doesn’t stop biting and I can’t stop looking. Some things just aren’t good for you, but you do ‘em anyway.

I guess what I’m saying is it’s never been easier to get left behind, in the dust and the day-glo of the past. I hope we don’t, as a generation, and I don’t think we will. I think we’ll just get fat with it all and roll on, like a Katamari ball. A super version of humanity that’s never existed before, as cursed as it is blessed. I think that’s our destiny.

To be so many places at the same time, to be in so many people’s pasts, presents, and futures at once. A digital manifest destiny, as we ooze out and become one. Our collective memory thick and rich and totally wired together…

That is, of course, unless the computer crashes.

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1 Comment

  1. disqus_wsviK4mtyn

    KCRW in Santa Monica aired a tribute to Frank Zappa which contained notes by Nicolas Slonimsky, Zappa music, and a re-broadcast of a 1989 program known as Castaway’s Choice, hosted by John McNally. The program included fascinating conversation between Zappa and McNally, interspersed with excerpts from Frank’s ten songs he’d take to a desert island, and his explanations why. Frank said:

    “Back in the days when I had recreational listening time these are the things I would actually listen to.”………http://frankzapppa.blogspot.com/2014/03/fz-choose-to-listen-this-ten-songs.html

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