Sunday, February 22, 2009

14 Hours in the Van With Nothing But CDs to Keep Us Company

I was out pretty much all of last week. It started with seven of us--six students, ages 18 to 25, and one faculty advisor, age 40--driving the seven hours in a cramped, rented Town and Country minivan to St. Louis so our student delegation could attend the Midwest Model United Nations Conference (the first such conference which Friends University has sent anyone to in several years); then, after three very busy days, it ended with an identical return trip. We all got home and collapsed late last night. I have to admit, I was nervous, as I'd never been responsible for a long student trip before. I wasn't particularly nervous about the conference itself, or how the students would conduct themselves--they're all good, smart kids, and besides, if there was some organizational mix-up I'm pretty good at seeking help from those more experienced than I and, if necessary, talking myself and others out of a jam. No, what I was mostly nervous about was the drive. 14 hours in a van, and me driving all the way; how will we pass the time?

Fortunately, I learned once again that music is the universal language. To wit, eight things I learned or was reminded of, as we all shared CDs, commented on our favorites, and occasionally sung along. (And no, in case you're wondering: no one had an MP3 player or Ipod. No individualists in our group; we act collectively at Friends.)

1) The power and glory of 70s and 80s MOR radio appears to be as popular as ever--I was concerned that I bring music that didn't render me as completely beyond the pale, but I may not have needed to worry; among the road-trip CDs produced by our merry gang, was a large concentration of songs by Huey Lewis and the News, Def Leppard, and yes, The Steve Miller Band. "Jungle Love" lives on!

2) U2 is the greatest rock and roll band of the past quarter century; this is simply an indisputable fact. The only band that may have given them a run for their money was perhaps The Police, but they just didn't have the staying power. I will happily grant the title of world's greatest rock and roll band of the previous twenty-five years to the Rolling Stones, but from the early 80s on, no band has consistently produced so much good rock and pop so well.

3) Even when everyone acknowledges his skill as a musician and songwriter, Robyn Hitchcock still really weirds people out.

4) The one song that every one of could sing at least snatches to, while the rest bobbed their heads along to the parts they didn't know? Barenaked Ladies's "One Week." (Voted best line, by popular acclaim: "Like Kurosawa I make mad films / okay I don't make films / But if I did they'd have a samurai.")

5) Apparently, the fact that I listen to and like Belle and Sebastian, but have never listened to any Death Cab for Cutie, strikes some people as strange and possibly perverse. I guess need to do some catching up.

6) There was one person from Texas in a group, someone who has presented himself as being something of a strong Texas partisan. I had some music along by Los Super Seven, Terry Allen, Joe Ely, and the Flatlanders, all of whom have been introduced to me over the years by my good friend Scott in Dallas. He hadn't heard of any of them, and didn't care for them either. Not even the Flatlanders? And this is a guy from Texas? I swear, there ought to be a law.

7) After more than 40 years of writing and singing folk, pop and rock and roll songs, you can't really blame Paul Simon for letting Brian Eno do some of the heavy lifting, and producing a record where on half the tracks he just talks while Eno's "sonic landscapes" make the music. But the real surprise is that Simon's ability to string together outight maudlin and intellectually opaque sentences into lyrics of astonishing and moving beauty remains unparalleled. Being the father of four girls, I annoyed everyone in the van by insisting on listening to "Father and Daughter" three times in a row.

8) When I told everyone to shut up while I listened to The Beatles sing "Let it Be," they did. So I guess there's still hope for the next generation after all.


Bob said...

Hi Russell

I suspect that #2 is the one that is going to kick off the arguments so I will get my two penn'orth in first and it will be a quick note as I am in the office supposedly working!

As a man of undoubted intelligence, you cannot baldly state that U2 are the greatest band of the last 25 years without providing some backup to the statement otherwise it's a C- grade.

A good band I agree but nothing that out of the ordinary when compared to Police, Fleetwood Mac, can we count the Eagles as a rock band? Do we stretch it to Springsteen and the E-street band?

Staying power alone does not discount the other bands otherwise you really to have to count the Stones.What about Status Quo or AC/DC?

You can see the problem!

So I think first off we should hear your reasons why you consider U2 and the criteria that constitutes a rock band.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Bob, I'm not thinking in real technical terms when I call U2 the "greatest" rock and roll band of the past quarter-century; I'm just thinking: who is the biggest? who is the mostest? The raw size of U2's impact, the quality of their recordings, the excellence of their material, the likelihood that you'll keep your hands off the dial when a song of their's comes on the radio (man, am I dating myself there) all adds up to something no other currently existing band can touch, so far as I can tell. I'm not arguing that the Edge is the greatest rock guitarist of the past 25 years, or whatever. I'm just saying that, all together, as a band, they are huger--and deservedly so--than all their competition.

(I should confess that I was one of many U2 fans that essentially forgot about them during the late 80s and the 90s, once Bono started wearing the goggles and they were engaged in all that Zooropa/ZooTV/Pop stuff. But I've had to repent of that attitude; their past two albums have just been too good to ignore.)

As for others, well, The Police were awesome, for the seven years or so that they lasted as a going concern. Fleetwood Mac? Really great stuff, but again, for however long they may have been together, their truly productive years were limited to about a decade from the early 70s to the early 80s. Ditto with the Eagles. I don't think the E-Street Band is a "band" in the sense U2 is; they are Springsteen's house band, in essence, and he's a rock and roll force with or without them.

Anonymous said...

#2 -- Van Halen and Metallica were both more consistent, listened to, and influential than U2. U2 scores points on Van Halen for longevity, perhaps. But what use is U2's longevity as they continue to appeal only to people who have been buying their records for two decades with the hope of getting one as good as those that preceded those two decades? Get off campus and talk to some real people and you'll get laughed at for suggesting U2 is greater than Metallica.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Anonymous, your "get off campus" crack has a point to it; I'm not a fan of metal or thrash, or really even most hard rock generally, so I'm not including them in my estimations, and perhaps I should. (Metallica, definitely, and perhaps--as Bob suggested earlier--AC/DC, but I seriously doubt Van Halen rates very highly in even these most subjective of evaluations; at the very least, their rotating lead-singer dramas has made them more into a traveling roadshow than a serious band.) But then again, are you really suggesting that Metallica has been picking up new and different fans as the years go by, and U2 hasn't been? There's a reason why rock and roll is such a huge, expansive, popular category; the genre is able to produce songs which border on and borrow from everything from hard rock to blues to pure pop, as U2 has; has any metal been able to do that, as consistently as band like U2 has (or as the Rolling Stones were able to, back in the day)? I stand ready to be proved wrong, but I'm doubtful.

Anonymous said...

Metallica were and are definitive for their genre and expanded it, without losing sight of their roots. Their records routinely debut at #1 on the Billboard charts. Even their earliest records went multiple platinum and continue to sell (while U2's early records, which represent their best work, sold poorly and still haven't made much of an impression beyond their early fans). If you haven't listened to Metallica's albums, you should give them a try. You might not like them, but perhaps you'd recognize how others (who do like them) would consider your claim of U2's "indisputable" superiority an overstatement. (You also might find that there's more skill, range, and subtlety in their music than you give them credit for.)

If you want a comparison with U2, look no farther than REM. Their earliest records are their best, but their weakest selling. Like U2, they stopped dancing with the one that brung them stylistically, and zipped this way and that trying to cling to relevance, with generally strong commercial success (though U2 has bested REM on that front), but more mixed critical reception (though both remain critical darlings). The only front on which U2 strongly beats out REM is commercial success. But if commercial success is decisive, then we can just look at the all time best selling artists list and be done.