December 28, 2004

I suspect that my feelings of cultural displacement and overall cultural detachment are a direct result of Johnny Carson. More specifically, Carson leaving the Tonight Show and causing a shift in the cultural landscape that is only now becoming significant.

Let me back up a moment and discuss the generalized sense I have always had of being able to span at least three generations of pop culture while simultaneously failing to deeply attach to any one generation. As a child of the early 60s (ok, 1963 if you must know — though the gift of good skin allows me to get away with still being “30-something”), I was at a cultural swing point — the last official generation of the baby boom, yet with almost nothing in common with boomers or the generation to follow.

Growing up, I truly liked and appreciated the music and showmanship of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and did so in a completely non-ironic fashion (irony was not even in fashion then). Carson was the touchpoint every night wherein the stars of the past generation as well as some of the stars of the next generation would appear. Fortunately, my parents quickly realized that I was not likely to fall asleep, so they just let me watch late-night TV from an early age.

Liking Frank and Dean, as well as their contempories among movie stars and stand-up comics, was not a stretch for me at all. It seemed perfectly natural and in clear alignment with what Johnny liked as well as what my parents liked. My foothold in that generation seemed secure.

Over time, however, as my cohort and I grew up, new tastes began to emerge. Some of it seems strangely detached from the reality of the time when I look back. But, that is the burden of hindsight in the culturally obsessed.

By the time I was 8 years old it was the 1970s and the cultural landscape was undergoing some very dramatic shifts. Carson still ruled the airwaves, but he was wearing suits with big lapels and fat ties — a visual that never really worked in my mind. The music scene was in the throes of the sensitive singer-songwriter battling it out with hard rock and roll. The Beatles would end, the Stones would roll on, and little kids like me would search for an anchor.

In some ways, the anchor remained Frank and Dean and the ability to watch Carson and enjoy the gentle rhythms of a different time. In other ways, the young adult angst of a sensitive Jewish boy from New York City (specifically the Bronx) could only end up in the baritone grip of a singer-songwriter named Neil Diamond.

Now, to many of the current generation (I suspect), the distance between Frank Sinatra and Neil Diamond is a very short one. My choosing to complete ignore the Stones and Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan was merely a function of not having been born earlier enough. They were of my time, but just a bit too early to be of my interest. Pop music, I believe, imprints itself best at only a few junctions in our life — early childhood, adolescence, first love, and depression. It was such that at adolescence I was imprinted with Mr. Diamond.

I certainly listened to many other things, and eventually transitioned during the 70s to such odd tastes as Styx, Rush, Billy Joel, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt. All of these, of course, subject to their own considerable scorn by subsequent (and even concurrent) generations of rock critics and rock snobs.

By the time the 80s came and I left high school and went to college, musical tastes were shifting dramatically. I only have to look at the music collection my wife brought into our marriage to see how culturally adrift I was during those periods. (Yes, my wife is a generation younger than me, which means anywhere from 2 to 10 years younger). 1981 brought the world Duran Duran and that shaped her musical tastes (she is free to disagree using the comments button below) for life. Eventually she went “dark” and was all about The Cure and Nine Inch Nails, but Duran Duran was her Neil Diamond.

Except, her Frank Sinatra was Neil Diamond. She liked Neil because her father liked Neil and it played in the car. This is not that far, in some sense, from my liking Frank. Given that I was able to tell her I love her while listening to Neil is a pretty strong statement of the generational intersections we share.

Eventually, by the late 80s and early 90s, I began to reassociate with music from my own missed years (Dylan, The Stones, The Who) but also with music from the current era. Grunge might not have been formative for me, but it played a part as a soundtrack for my life. Likewise had heavy metal and prog rock and disco.

Yet, through it all, I am not really the child of any period. My wife is clearly someone who came of age in the 80s. My brother as well (he was born in ’69), though their particular tastes vary widely. My brother was in a hair metal band and worshipped Kiss and Van Halen (and perhaps Ozzy, but that just scares me). I just drift from period to period, plucking what I like and leaving the rest behind.

If you ask me about my three favorite albums of the last 5 years, I will show my age and my tastes. Two of the albums are clearly in the singer-songwriter tradition I love: Sailing To Philadelphia by Mark Knofler and The Houston Kid by Rodney Crowell. The third, interestingly enough, is A Rush of Blood to the Head by Coldplay. I like Green Day as much as I like Marvin Gaye, and U2 became a favorite only after passing into cultural signficance (The Joshua Tree) and I love Everclear but never really liked Nirvana.

Underneath it all, however, lies in the influence of Johnny. First, I am very clear in the fact that I faintly detest Leno and all that he represents. I have never even made it all the way through a Leno episode of The Tonight Show. I can take or leave Letterman and find Conan mildly irritating. But, Leno I detest. Why? Because he has no cultural affliation and no cultural perspective.

You see, Carson was of the “Greatest Generation” and was clear in his love for Frank and Dean. He was also clear in his love for generation after generation of comics (amazingly, Leno included) that were given the chance to be on his show. Whether they were George Carlin or Richard Pryor or Steve Martin or Jerry Seinfeld, Carson gave people a shot because he had an opinion. Frank might have dismissed much of the younger generation (“Why the fuck can’t we get Shecky Green on this show?” he might have said.), Johnny embraced change.

Johnny’s cultural attachment and sheparding of the Zeitgeist (you knew I would use that word here, in both an ironic and non-ironic fashion) was a model for me. He had opinions, but was always open to changing them. New talent turned him on, and that model lives within me as well. I might be culturally adrift sometimes, but I am usually fairly sure of my true north. Johnny Carson instilled that in me.

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