The big Desert Trip Music Festival seemed like an obvious target for a Back Page column. Something smartass about a bunch of geezers—Dylan, McCartney, the Stones, the Who, Neil Young, Roger Waters—out in the California desert, kind of a Burned-Out Man Festival.
As it turned out, though, the whole thing actually led me to think about something else entirely. Or, rather, it shed a flickering light on something else that I had already been thinking about.
Which is: The Kinks have a great song called “20th Century Man.” It was on their Muswell Hillbillies album, which was recorded and released back in 1971. At that moment in time, Kinks songwriter Ray Davies was only 27 years old. And at that moment, the 20th century still had 29 years left in it. So I don’t think Ray was thinking about how dated “20th Century Man” might sound to the average rock ’n’ roll fan in 2016. Shit, I doubt Ray or anyone else thought there would be any such thing as rock ’n’ roll by 1980, let alone 2016. (And frankly, they would have been right. That’s probably another whole topic, but really, who the hell makes “rock ’n’ roll music” at this late date?)
I was only eight years old when Muswell Hillbillies came out. Even by the time I actually bought the record, about eight or nine years later, I can say with certainty that the 21st century was not on anybody’s radar. Shit, we read Orwell’s 1984 in high school not five years before the date in question. It did not feel like we were living in Winston Smith’s dystopian society.
That didn’t happen until the Bush administration.
The thing is, I still feel like I’m a 20th century man. I was only aware for the last one-third of it, but we all spent a lot of our educations on making sense of the first two-thirds: World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the ‘50s, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing. We spent a lot more time thinking about our own century than the one that was waiting just a few years ahead of us.
Now we’re 16 years into it, and it feels like we’re still waiting for something to define the century. Terrorism, from September 11 to ISIS, is probably the closest thing we have. Social media is right there, too. But my guess is that by 2070, there will have been some massive events that will define the 21st century: Trump’s nuclear attack on China or the arrival of spacemen who look exactly like fucking E.T., something like that.
The 21st century is just taking shape, in other words. As it does, it will become common to think of cultural events as 20th-century events. Until now, we’ve kind of broken shit up by decades: ‘50s music is very different from ’60s or ’70s music, for example. The ’80s amounted to five good albums and an enormous pile of shit.
But as we march into the future (OK, we’re going to be on all fours for much of it, but marching sounds so much more positive), we’re eventually going to reduce the whole 20th century to one category. And that show in the California desert is pretty close to how we’re going to remember it.
Look, there will be a class at the average university called A Survey of 20th Century American Culture. It will cover Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Bogart and Nicholson, the invention of television and advent of cable. And then it will devote a week or two to 20th century music: jazz, country, blues, musical theater and then rock ’n’ roll, disco and hip hop.
Rock ’n’ roll will mean Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and maybe a short section on punk and alternative stuff. There might be mentions of the Who and Pink Floyd. But details tend to get filtered out when you’re trying to define or describe an era.
Take my earlier mention of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Those two pretty much cover American literature for the first half of the 20th century. But if you were living in the 1930s, you might be a bigger fan of John Dos Passos or Upton Sinclair or John Steinbeck or William Faulkner.
That’s where the Kinks and Cream and Led Zeppelin will end up, in the Dos Passos/Steinbeck bin.
The point of all this, if there is one, is in the difference between studying an era and living through that era. As a kid who came to cultural awareness in the 1970s, the music and movies and books of the 1960s seemed unbelievably important and special. I felt compelled to understand it all—how it happened, who did what and when, the way one thing led to the next. It all seemed so urgent when I was 15 or 20 or 25. But now, with a little perspective from my perch in the 21st century, I can see that it all doesn’t amount to much.
Play some teenager in 2038 “Satisfaction” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “My Generation” and you’ll get your point across. Understanding how Brian Wilson influenced the Beatles probably won’t mean a goddamn thing.
I guess the thing is, I’m realizing that much of what I devoted an awful lot of my attention to isn’t going to mean a goddamn thing. Maybe it doesn’t already. There’s a whole generation that thinks Wilco is Dad Rock. That means they don’t think about the Beatles or Stones or Kinks or Who at all.
“I’m a 20th century man, but I don’t want to die here.”
So sang Ray Davies in 1971. And you know what, Ray? You didn’t die there. Me neither. We made it to the 21st century. It’s just that we left an awful lot behind us.