a better, vanished time (?)

I will never, in my life, love anything the way I loved Rush in seventh grade.

To be clear, as an adult I love many things more deeply and more abidingly: my family, my work, my friends, my grown-up toys and obsessions. But when I remember how I felt about Rush (as I did earlier this week, with the celebration of “Rush Day” on 2.1.12), I am overcome by the purity and satisfaction of my first deep connection with something worth caring about.

Rush was my first band. They weren’t my only band: my Rush crush matured into an obsession with The Who in late middle school, then a Genesis devotion through most of high school. Those of my generation now have me completely pegged, by those associations: square, probably in marching band (yup), not straight enough to love pop but not weird enough to be into punk (thanks SAP), and sure as heck not brave enough to admit I liked Duran Duran. Making ourselves through differentiation and affiliation – of finding who we are by naming who we are not – is perhaps an inborn aspect of adolescence. The dance has not changed, though the dancers (and of course the tunes) have.

What’s most interesting to me now – and what, I think, merits comment about a proto-metal power trio from Toronto on a professional education blog – is what my connection to that music in 1982 did for me, and the conditions that gave flower to it. I wonder if it has anything to say about school, because that’s where most of it happened (or didn’t).

Let’s see.

Rush taught me the satisfactions of looking and listening hard.

Listening to this band was the first time I experienced the joy of discerning interactions between the components of an artistic work. To the degree that the cognitive work of experiencing art leads to aesthetic experience, it was my first time having one. Exploring the aesthetic piece further will have to wait for another day: I want to focus on the cognitive and social ones here.

Rush taught me the joy of wanting to know more.

Once I had a taste of what was going on, I wanted to know everything I could about how it had been done and, intentional fallacy notwithstanding, who had done it. Which in that era meant diving bins in record stores and poring over album covers and posters for every shred of information they had to offer, and above all saving the lawnmowing money to actually see the band on tour – which I have three times, each in a different decade of my life.

The difficulty of finding out more led to investigative energy and skill. But more important than that, I think, was learning that much of what I wanted to know lay in the thing itself. This is about the time I began wanting to play drums (a country away from the geeky clarinet section), and I realized that what I heard on the records was, in fact, exactly what was happening. Things were being hit in different orders; I could also hit things in corresponding order (say, books spread out on my bed), and approximate what I was hearing.

The rise of MTV really supported this. There were so few intentionally made music videos at first that early MTV spun plentiful live or close-to-live performance films too. This meant footage of actual drummers actually playing, and you could watch closely to try to get some sense of technique, or at least learn what went where. (This is why I, a left-handed human, play a drum set arranged in the traditional right-hand manner – bass on the right foot, toms descending from the left. Thank heavens for it, too: makes it much easier to share the kit at gigs.)

I think all that close listening and looking made me a pretty quick study, and it’s connected to why I still love to listen to music. I have an abiding fascination with snare drums: how that most workaday drum, the one no rock band can go a measure without playing, sounds different every time someone new plays it. I am no expert in drum construction or recording, but I continue to be a student of its legion of sounds. I care about things like exactly when Rush’s Neil Peart started using the workmanlike Slingerland Artist that he bought used for $60 and anchored his kit with as it swelled and receded over the years, and why it sounds like an overturned mop bucket live in 1978 when it was so bright in the studio. (And if you think I am obsessed, check out this guy.)

I think these are worthwhile perseverations. I think they are part of an ongoing, vital engagement with the world, with the actual warp and woof of experience as we actually have it. The challenge and importance of showing up for daily life – actually seeing it, rather than just labeling it as “threat-or-not” and responding prudently – has been thrashed out by better minds than mine. But that’s the core thing going on here, or one of them.

Rush belonged to me, and very few others: therefore, it gave me someone to talk and listen to, and someone to be.

This is the affiliation part: by digging something that not everyone dug, I got connected to some people and not others, people who by either intention or happy accident were like me (or I became like them). Put another way, others were listening hard too, and we found each other and became each other’s first critics. For a bunch of kids in denim tuxedos, we were pretty discerning. It was my friend down the street who showed me that a closeup of photo of Pete Townshend’s hand in concert revealed the first chords on “Pinball Wizard”: that’s “making looking broad and adventurous” all right. And the pre-school meetings around the tape deck in the band room with the older kids were my first symposia.

I hope I am not indulging too much in boomer-style navel-gazing when I wonder what advantages the weird limitations around falling in love with music in that era afforded us. In Patton Oswald’s much-discussed Wired piece, he asks himself the same thing. (Since he’s six months older than I, I think he knows what I’m talking about.)

First, he remembers that a subculture used to take work to join, and that its secrets were not easily divulged. That was part of the joy of knowing about it:

…there’s a chilly thrill in moving with the herd while quietly being tuned in to something dark, complicated, and unknown just beneath the topsoil of popularity. Something about which, while we moved with the herd, we could share a wink and a nod with two or three other similarly connected herdlings.

He notes that the Japanese have a word – otaku – to describe those obsessed with minute, obscure interests. But he also wonders if obscure undergrounds are becoming harder to find:

The topsoil has been scraped away, forever, in 2010. In fact, it’s been dug up, thrown into the air, and allowed to rain down and coat everyone in a thin gray-brown mist called the Internet. Everyone considers themselves otaku about something—whether it’s the mythology of Lost or the minor intrigues of Top ChefAmerican Idol inspires—if not in depth, at least in length and passion—the same number of conversations as does The Wire. There are no more hidden thought-palaces—they’re easily accessed websites, or Facebook pages with thousands of fans.

He wonders if the explosion of readily available information, coupled with the rise of the otaku (or “geek”) as cultural archetype and world-inheritor, has diminished the very aspect that imbued him with the cultural power to begin with: obscurity. And he fears that the easiness with which subcultures can be understood is dangerous to the life that made them happen in the first place:

The Onion’s A.V. Club—essential and transcendent in so many ways—has a weekly feature called Gateways to Geekery, in which an entire artistic subculture—say, anime, H. P. Lovecraft, or the Marx Brothers—is mapped out so you can become otaku on it but avoid its more tedious aspects.

Here’s the danger: That creates weak otakus. Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists—just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie? The Shining can be remade into a comedy trailer. Both movie versions of the Joker can be sent to battle each another. The Dude is in The Matrix.

That is, it’s not about how hard it is to be cool and obscure nowadays. It’s about how it not being hard to learn about obscure, cool things is draining our will to become creative ourselves, because we don’t develop the urgent desire and the massive chops in unearthing obscurity that we’ll need to create our own art.

Which is why this whole question ultimately leads us back to education (told you I’d get there eventually – it’s a long arc). Seems to me that the information explosion in and of itself does not make “weak otakus”: it just makes it possible for them to “pass” as the real thing behind a cloud of “dead language.” In fact, looking hard at a million things is exponentially more rewarding than looking hard at one thing, if and only if you manage to develop the discipline to do it.

Which leads the whole question back around to how we can best support our students in developing the dispositions of looking hard, searching, affiliating, making themselves in relation to the things they love. I am persuaded by the idea that the discipline of looking hard at something has not changed, however the world we are trying to look at has. As Annie Paul has it,

Members of the Internet generation aren’t some exotic new breed of human, in other words. They’re simply the young of the same species. And they won’t be young forever. The digital age has brought all of us new and exciting tools that will surely continue to alter the way we learn and work. But focusing one’s attention, gathering and synthesizing evidence, and constructing a coherent argument are skills as necessary as they were before…

And, I’d add, the ways that subcultures find and define each other have evolved as well. Our job as educators continues to be that of the paidagogos: the “child-leader” who was “to act as a protector, guardian, and trusted guide who accompanied the child to school, and made sure the child was educated, kept healthy in every way, and did not run with the wrong crowd.”

It’s up to us to help our students become aware of when their life gives them the chance to look or listen hard to one thing and discern how its pieces work together. To notice how infrequently life in 2012 makes doing that easy, and support them in doing it anyway – with the things we think they should care about (i.e., curriculum), but also with the things they and theirs care about.

Which for me, this week, meant playing some Rush for my students. Happy 2112, everyone. Now go and dig something! Hard.

I boosted the image from Wired: thanks.

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