Thursday, August 6, 2009


As a teenager growing up in Montana in the 1990s there wasn't much exposure to alternative or underground arts and culture. There wasn't even much exposure to mainstream U.S. culture. There was MTV, but they didn't show music videos any more, even though at that time it was still astute to comment on that fact. Local music involved aging cover bands, either hippie or redneck rocker. Local art meant mostly ceramics by hippies, half of whom had become moneyed professionals. The radio seemed, to me and my friends, like the best possible recourse (though still not good), because there was a classic rock radio station, and in the grim years between grunge and indie we turned to the music of earlier generations.

The music of my parents' generation, in fact. Once, after my dad spied a CD I had left on the dining room table, he mentioned a music festival he'd attended in Amsterdam circa 1970 featuring canonical rock groups like Pink Floyd and Santana. A sixteen-year-old enamored with the stuff, I could scarcely believe his nonchalance about the memory and his subsequent indifference to the music.

What could I expect, though? He was a born-and-bred Montanan, like me. My mom, on the other hand, was a Bay Area native, born in San Francisco and schooled in San Jose. Yet for her taste for parties, dancing, and social interaction—tastes that were, in my family, unique to her—she didn't have much interest in discussions of bygone music. The only clear recollection I have is her telling me the swell of pride her and her friends would feel when they heard the Beach Boys' "California Girls," as though Brian Wilson was writing specifically of them.

Making the story more peculiar was that these baby boomers (b. 1947 and b. 1948) met in San Francisco, epicenter of the counterculture, having each succumbed to the post-college gravity of large cities. My dad's relocation was the less probable and the less remunerative. He had a friend there, he got odd jobs, he ended up going back to school to get a professional degree. My mom was working her way up the ladder at a bank since engulfed by a larger bank many mergers ago. Her father helped her get the initial job.

As I get older it's easier to understand who my parents were in the 1970s in San Francisco. Somewhat detached, prone to irony and staying at home, not quite qualified to do the things they had recently decided they wanted to do, and not quite prepared to make the sacrifices to do those things, especially since no payoff was assured. Sympathetic to the grand social and political currents of the times, but not full-blown adherents of the hippie movement. Perhaps they arrived a little late, and had too much dignity to embark on a personal transformation so as to join the tail end of a vibrant culture. Or maybe they weren't these things at all, but it helps me to see them this way. It makes them like me, and it means they might understand the choices I face and make.

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