Monday, May 26, 2008

Take What You Have Gathered from Coincidence

In most lists of the world's greatest songwriters of the 20th Century, John Lennon and Paul McCartney crack the top 10, if not the top five or the top two. Despite the fact that their best known compositions are credited jointly, they are usually listed separately on such lists, as they for the most part wrote separately. However, it would seem to be way too much of a coincidence that two of the world's greatest songwriters just happened to grow up about seven miles from each other, meet as teen-agers, and form a band. Add in the fact that on the Abbey Road album these two songwriting geniuses were upstaged by their little buddy George, who happened to write the two best tracks on that record, and you have to think that however much you'd consider Lennon and McCartney to be "gifted" or "natural geniuses," environment had to play a major factor in their success.

I've thought about the Lennon/McCartney "coincidence" for years, but this weekend I was confronted with a "coincidence" along the same lines. I consider Bob Dylan to be the greatest songwriter of the 20th Century, and probably the greatest artist of his generation, period. Since I didn't have any pressing commitments this weekend, and since his hometown is about seven hours away from me, and since his hometown commemmorates his birthday weekend every year with a "Dylan Days" celebration, I decided to take a trip to the "North Country" of Hibbing, Minnesota.

I signed up for a bus tour of Hibbing that would spotlight the places that were a formative influence on young Bob Zimmerman. We drove by the hotel where he was Bar Mitzvahed, the building where his dad and uncle sold applicances, and the railroad tracks where the impatient teen-ager almost "bit the dust" racing a train with his Harley. We stopped into his boyhood home, which the current owner was nice enough to open up for strangers to walk through. We went to a theater building where Bob's band The Golden Chords took third place in a contest. The Golden Chords drummer was actually on the bus trip as well and told us stories about Bob and his family.

We stopped at the home of Bob's high school girlfriend Echo Helstrom, who most Dylan scholars consider the likely influence for "Girl of the North Country." Echo left town long ago, but her sister still lives there, and chatted with folks as they came off the bus. Echo came from the "other side of the tracks," and even now the home is on the outskirts of town, consisting of a large wooded area, complete with falling down buildings and rusting cars. The area directly around the home has become commercialized, with a Wal-Mart across the street. We were told that Target wants to buy up their property, but the Helstrom family is holding out.

But the central locations on our tour were "North Hibbing" and Hibbing High School. "North Hibbing" is the location where the town used to be, before iron was discovered. When the mining of iron ore began to take off, the entire town literally moved 14 miles to the south, ceding the territory to miners. And the miners took full advantage, making the world's largest man-made hole in the ground. As we gazed into the pit, our tour guide told us that this gaping hole helped enable us to win two world wars.

I wonder if it also indirectly enabled the formation of one of the world's greatest artists. What it directly enabled was the construction of one of the world's greatest public high schools. The mayor of Hibbing at the time of the mine's genesis came up with a plan to allow the city to maximize their tax revenue. Rather than tax what came out of the ground, the city assessed the property on the basis of the massive amounds of iron in the ground. Consequently, Hibbing became one of the richest cities in the country, with a tax base bigger than the entire state of New Mexico. And all that money was poured into public buildings, including the high school.

One of our guides was a retired Hibbing High teacher, who told us that the insurers couldn't even put a value on the school today. It cost $4 million in the early 1920s, which is $46 million in today's dollars. But that doesn't account for the current value of the original artwork that adorns the building --all over the school are paintings, murals, and frescoes, many of them commisioned from prominent European artists. There are marble columns. The auditoriums' crystal chandaliers alone are worth millions in today's dollars (to say nothing of the pipe organ or velvet seats). Our guide, who also graduated from Hibbing High, told us that we can make our own conclusions about the influence this school might have had on Bob Dylan, or on other notable people who came from a town that now has a population of around 17,000.

But to me it seems to be too much of a coincidence that America's greatest songwriter just happened to come from America's greatest school.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Take Me to Your Leader

Time for another post dealing with my theory that we are in the Archival Era. Another sign that we are in such an era is the mere existence of the Voyager Golden Record. Indeed, the concept of the "time capsule" in itself is evidence of a new kind of societal self-awareness (or self-indulgence depending on one's perspective), but the idea of a "space time capsule" takes things to a whole new level.

I like Wikipedia's description of the utility of the Golden Record:

As the probes are extremely small compared to the vastness of interstellar space, it is extraordinarily unlikely that they will ever be intercepted. If they are ever found by an alien species, it will be far in the future, and thus the record is best seen as a time capsule or a symbolic statement rather than a serious attempt to communicate with aliens.
That last part is a little vague as to whom the "symbolic statement" was intended for. If Carl Sagan and company were not trying to seriously communicate with aliens, what were they trying to do? I think subconsciously they were taking advantage of an opportunity to work through an archival project not for aliens, but for us. The compiling of the vast diversity of audio productions representative of Earth's cultures can be conceived of as a sort of ultimate Top 10 list (or Top 27 as the case may be). In many respects, what the Golden Record committee did was no different than what the editors of Blender magazine do on a monthly basis.

And for further proof that we are in an Archival Era, I would ask what would be different about the Golden Record if it were compiled today? Obviously, the physical artifact itself would be different--no way that today's scientists would use a phonograph to encode the sounds. But I don't think the actual recordings would need to be updated, despite a passage of over 30 years. Maybe EMI would finally give the rights to a Beatles song, and you could make a case for Elvis instead of Chuck Berry, or Robert Johnson instead of Blind Willie Johnson (or Blind Willie McTell instead of Blind Willie Johnson, I suppose), but they pretty much covered the bases in 1977. This serves to uphold David Gates's theory that while technology may change, the content that technology houses has reached a dead end.

But the content of the Golden Record is really secondary to the idea behind its production. Although Jimmy Carter hilariously informs the record's recipients that we hope to one day join their "community of Galactic Civilizations," he also says that it represents "our hope and our determination." Rather than a "determination" to join the "Galactic community," I read the act of sending the record as a determination to make a cultural export to the Final Frontier, not so much as an act of imperialism, but as a validation of the development of culture on the old frontiers. I see this as an ongoing project of the Archival Era--in addition to sorting and making sense of what we have done throughout our history, we will continually, nervously, attempt to validate it. And we will seek out other frontiers to do so. And in doing so, we might actually have a slight opening to make further innovations before this window too slams shut.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Influence and Imitation

"The idea that a guy can blatantly cheat and be allowed to get away with it because of who he is disgusts me. What are we teaching the kids about sportsmanship?"

The above quote is from former New York Met Rusty Staub, talking about former Houston Astro pitcher Mike Scott. I ran across it while reading a book about the notorious 1986 New York Mets. But while that Mets team was referred to by one of their own as a "vile" group of individuals, there was nobody on that team who could cheat the way that Mike Scott could cheat. And he got away with it. Even after the Mets collected dozens of baseballs with scuff marks all in the same location, he continued to scuff away with impunity.

But did Staub really need to bring "the kids" into the discussion? Isn't that a cheap emotional ploy? I thought so when I first ran across the quotation, and I kept reading without giving it much thought. But after reading a few more pages about Scott's duplicitous dealings, I suddenly stopped and thought about Staub's words again. I had a flashback to playing kickball in third grade, and rubbing the ball into the ground when I thought no one was looking. Now, never mind that scuffing a rubber kickball is likely an impossible task. The fact of the matter is that as an "innocent" nine-year-old, I had a mini-obsession with scuffing balls. I watched and listened to baseball whenever I could, and I heard announcers talking about the likes of Scott, Joe Niekro (busted with an Emory board in a hilarious moment in '87), Don Sutton, and Gaylord Perry--all guys infamous for their ability to get away with doctoring baseballs. Even though I never played organized baseball, I would rub dirt and grass on tennis balls when I played with friends in the back yard (despite the fact that I would have to hit the same balls).

I then thought about 1994. Albert Belle was busted for using a corked bat. Bob Uecker described on a broadcast the theory behind a corked bat, noting that the cork was simply used to cover up a drilled hole, which was supplied the actual advantage. Days later, my middle school aged brother had successfully drilled a hole into an old wooden bat. I then thought about 2003, when Sammy Sosa was busted for using a corked bat. A few weeks later the amateur league Madison Mallards had a promotion where kids could learn how to cork a bat.

Scuffed balls and corked bats are one thing, but the use of performance enhancing drugs is quite another. One of the justifications that Congress used for investigating Major League Baseball's drug policy was that impressionable young people might be more at risk for using steroids because professional baseball players do it. Remembering my own kickball misdeeds, I am less apt to dismiss this argument.

On the other hand, I think about May 11, 2008. Ryan Braun, using a pink bat to raise awareness for breast cancer research, hits two home runs. I wonder if any kids in Wisconsin plan to paint one of their bats pink.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Good Old Days

Gas prices, climate change, the housing market, and Iraq. I assume that few Americans would rate 2008 as one of the better years to be alive. But before pining for the good old days, one needs to ascertain when the good old days were, exactly. Obviously, most people measure such a question by the vicissitudes of personal fortune. September 2001 was not a great time for our country, but if someone got married or gave birth around that time, they can't help but regard that period with positive associations (assuming they haven't got divorced since then, I suppose). But although certain individuals can flourish in the worst of times or whither in the best, and although I think there is truth in Dickens's famous paradox about The French Revolution, I think it is part of a historian's job to determine what were the "good old days". And if such a historian would insist that such a question is too broad in scope, that the idea of "good old days" is illusory, I would still insist that allowing for relativity, such an answer is possible. Not all years are created equal, and though there never was a perfect year to be alive, some have been preferable to others, and I have to think that one was preferable to all others. So with apologies to VH1, what was the best year ever?

Unfortunately, I have yet to run across a historical essay that answers this question. I am not a historian, and I am not qualified to write such an essay, but since this is a blog, who cares about qualifications? However, in the interest of fairness, I will limit myself to years I have been alive.

First, I will eliminate the late 1970s because A) I don't remember them and B) They couldn't have been too great if the incumbent president carried six states

Second, I will eliminate the entire 1980s. "The Decade of Greed," The Cold War, mullets. I dare anyone to read the Wikipedia page on the 1980s and not get depressed.

On to the 90s:

1990-eliminated. Still reeling from the 80s. MC Hammer and New Kids on the Block.
1991-eliminated. Gulf War.
1992-eliminated. Almost 20 million people voted for Ross Perot for president (and unbelievably, he was leading the polls in June). The year couldn't have been that great.
1993- eliminated. Somalia. Clinton's first year in general.
1994- eliminated. The World Series was cancelled for crying out loud! Also, O.J.
1995- eliminated. Domestic Terrorism, including Oklahoma City and the Unabomber.
1996- Hmmm. Can't find too much wrong with 1996. We'll have to save that one.
1997- eliminated. The Spice Girls prefigure the collapse of popular music, signifying a stultification of culture in general.
1998- eliminated. The then-WWF dominates cable ratings with the "attitude era," signifying a stultification of culture in general.
1999-eliminated. Woodstock '99, signifying a stultification of culture in general.

And this decade:
2000- eliminated. The presidential election.
2001 to present- eliminated. The War on Terror.

So by literal process of elimination, the good old days were 1996. But a Packer fan could have told you that to begin with. As the Pack goes, so goes the nation. And how's this for a scary thought: given Brett Favre's retirement, we might just come to regard the past few years as the good old days.