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September 21, 2011 - Rick Chatenever
When I was young people spoke of immortality,
Being part of the small but appreciative audience at the Yardbirds’ concert last Friday in Castle Theater, I kept having flashbacks. But these happy little trips back to the ’60s came with the nagging question: What’s wrong with this picture?
While the Yardbirds are now little more than a footnote to the chapters in the musical history books devoted to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, they traveled the same path: English schoolboys infatuated with the sounds of the American blues and the dawning of rock ’n’ roll. Their return to the colonies in the mid-1960s would be dubbed the British invasion.
Two of the original ’birds —drummer Jim McCarty and rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja — are still with the band; the rest could be their sons’ age … or their grandsons’. Accompanied by that signature snake-charmer guitar (played by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in ancient incarnations of the group) and McCarty’s rolling drumbeat, the lyrics of “Shape of Things” had an eerie echo: “Come tomorrow, will I be older?/ Come tomorrow, may be a soldier/Come tomorrow, may I be bolder than today?”
The refrain was a reminder that in the ’60s, the Yardbirds were the go-to soundtrack band for movies exploring a newly discovered realm called “the generation gap.” With their driving beat fueling the sophomoric angst of their lyrics, the songs accompanied montages of mop-haired young men and young women without bras leading society into a sensual, hedonistic haze of … what? Its sociology was hard to describe – no one had seen anything like it before.
In fact, the band shares a composer credit with Herbie Hancock for one of the landmark films of that era —Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic “Blowup.”
The suspensions of the Castle Theater seats were severely tested Friday night by the rocking-out-while-remaining-seated choreography that’s on the rise as more folks enter their boomer sunset years. Younger audience members danced for real, keeping the ushers busy trying to corral them to the side walls of the theater.
But they were dancing to the beat — not the songs. For those who could make out the lyrics, and remember the first time we heard them all those decades ago, came the realization that the “tomorrow” the Yardbirds sang of was long gone. Now we were on the other side of it.
In spite of ourselves, we had become the establishment we once railed against. Despite the determination to remain forever young, we had become responsible adults. Resistance, it turned out, had been futile. We had grown up.
Which made trying to embrace the Yardbirds’ music now seem just the tiniest bit ridiculous. (Not to mention how much more appealing it looks when 20-somethings are the ones doing the embracing.)
The old joke that the people who were really there in the ’60s can’t remember being there has gained new poignancy as our generation has its challenges trying to remember much of anything.
When the band finally lit into its trademark “For Your Love,” it dawned on me what was wrong. The music had gotten unstuck in time. The songs had been full of angry, exciting, danger when they were written —they were a mirror of that time of social upheaval, a cautionary tale about things to come.
Now they’re not really about anything.
We don’t have stories anymore; now we have brands. The Yardbird brand is a slim packet of memories that we hope will transport us to another time, but instead shows how tiny that time has gotten in the rearview mirror.
In “Blowup,” the protagonist is a photographer who accidentally shoots an event, then keeps blowing up the image to try to figure out what’s going on in it.
He spends a lot of time in the darkroom. In those days photographers still used film … things had yet to become digital. Life had yet to become something lived on a succession of screens, from ones big enough to fill a living room wall to small enough to fit in your pocket.
Those screens have the power to reduce books and movies, not to mention our communication with each other, to a sort of brain oatmeal known as “content.” But they haven’t made it any easier to sort out what’s going on. Just the opposite, actually, in a tomorrow that the young Yardbirds at their most paranoid could never have imagined.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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