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Gristmill: See How We Are

Thu, 07/20/2023 - 09:44
Exene Cervenka, singer of the band X, in a screen shot of a 1982 television interview.

I reneged on my own promise to myself. I swore I’d never push my musical tastes on my kids.

There were mitigating circumstances. Aren’t there always? It was the Fourth of July and the song was “4th of July” by the L.A. band X, authentic American rockers if ever there were. In situ, was the idea, in context.

It’s one of those songs that never leaves you. “She gives me a cheek, when I want her lips. / Oh but I don’t have the strength to go.”

John Doe goes on: “On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone. / Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below. / Hey, baby, it’s the Fourth of July.”

Okay, so, in retrospect maybe I shouldn’t have suggested a portrait of a disintegrating relationship to my 20-year-old daughter having a good time in her upstate college town. Still, what a great tune, that was the point, for a kid who has newly discovered her own roots-rock affinity.

Moreover, paired with “See How We Are,” both from side one of that 1987 album, you have an indelible snapshot of a country and a time in a style of mature, intelligent, unironic rock-and-roll that has largely disappeared. (“Now there are seven kinds of Coke, 500 kinds of cigarettes. / This freedom of choice in the U.S.A. drives everybody crazy.”)

I was 20 myself that year, doing what many guys that age do — kill time in dead-end jobs and go to shows. Boston, this was, and at least I had the wits to catch X at the Beacon Theatre. The band was still somewhat punk when live, and Billy Zoom was still with them when I saw them, white-blond in black leather, standing stock-still with his guitar and grinning at a singled-out audience member, then another. Good times.

But about my promise. One of the pleasures of adulthood has been seeing my now 17-year-old son become a fan of the music I used to listen to — without my saying a word about it. Jeff Lynne and Electric Light Orchestra, for one, so much so that we hit Madison Square Garden a few years ago for an absolutely flawless performance.

I’ve come to realize that his appreciation came through movies, mostly the Marvel movies that he’s since left behind. Because in them the creative decisions, like the use of E.L.O.’s “Mr. Blue Sky” in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” were made by guys my age, fellow former comic-book addicts who finally rose to positions of some influence.

The album I had on the heaviest rotation as a kid, however, by a wide margin, was the 1973 two-record-set soundtrack to George Lucas’s “American Graffiti.” Fifties stuff, but the best of it, and to this day it hasn’t gotten old.

It’s just a hard sell for today’s young. The closest I’ve come is to discreetly put WLIW’s “Sock Hop Saturday Night” on the car radio and hope for the best.

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