Category Archives: Times Have Changed

Today’s Top 5: Classic Trax

My niece turns 21 this week. Hard to believe. A few years back, I wrote about how times had changed since her birth. In the three years since, change continues unabated – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, Spotify and Apple Music, among other services, are upending the long-accepted order of how we listen to and enjoy TV, movies and music. Think about it: Where once we had to own the DVDs to binge on a show, now one just has to sign into the service that has what we’re in the mood to absorb. And for music – is there even a need, anymore, for CDs? Everyone seems to use a streaming service of some kind. Even me. I’m listening to the Bangles’ classic Different Light via Apple Music as I type.

Well, I certainly hope that CDs are still in demand; I still buy them, at any rate, and hopefully one newly minted 21 year old still listens to them. The titles I sent her include yesteryear classics that have influenced just about every generation since their long-ago releases; and a few newer albums by relatively new artists that are, to my ears, modern-day classics.

Today’s Top 5: Classic Trax, however, isn’t drawn from the CDs I picked for her. They’re more of an addendum – tracks that hail from classic albums that, if there was justice in this universe, would be in everyone’s collection or playlist.

1) Rickie Lee Jones – “We Belong Together.” Rickie Lee Jones’ 1979 self-titled debut was a stone-cold classic. Pirates, her 1981 follow-up, actually improved upon it – a hard feat. This song, the lead track, is a riveting, romantic street opera.

2) Gladys Knight & the Pips – “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” Imagination, released in the fall of ’73, is a five-star set that features such songs as “Midnight Train to Georgia” and this one, which hit No. 3 on the singles chart in April ’74.

3) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Down by the River.” This song hails from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), one of my Top 5 Albums of All Time – a list that, now that I think about it, I need to put together and share. One of my joys in 2015: taking my nephew, who was 19 at the time, to see Neil & Promise of the Real in concert. (He was already a fan, I should mention.) It was, as I wrote here, an incredible show; and this epic performance blew us both away.

4) Lone Justice – “Shelter.” The title track to the second Lone Justice album, released in 1986, is one of those songs – as I used to write (too often) on my old website, “it takes you there, wherever there is.”

5) The Bangles – “September Gurls.” Different Light, the Bangles’ 1986 album, is as perfect a pop record ever released, I think. It featured two Top 5 singles (“Manic Monday,” which hit No. 2, and “Walk Like an Egyptian,” which hit No. 1) and a wealth of classic songs, including this cover of the Big Star tune. (This performance, by the way, is from the World Cafe Live in 2014, which I wrote about here.)

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A Stroll Down VHS Lane

IMG_2501I came to The Wonder Years a little late, having missed the first two seasons for reasons I won’t bother with here. It was at Diane’s urging, not long after we moved in together in late 1990, that I tuned in; and I’ve been thankful ever since, as it fast became (and remains) one of my favorite TV series. Not every episode was great, mind you, but when it hit on all cylinders few shows could match it – in my opinion, at any rate. Seven years later, at the behest of my boss at the time, I tuned in Homicide: Life on the Street at the start of its sixth season. It became yet another must-watch show in our household.

Catching up and keeping up with both proved to be a chore, however – Wonder Years didn’t hit syndication until the fall of 1992; and Lifetime ran Homicide repeats at 1am during the week. Those were the years, too, when we were out and about more often than now, especially on Friday nights when the first-run Homicide aired. A VCR was a necessity.

Of late, I’ve been reminded of the work, and space, once required of TV fans. For the past two weeks I’ve been sorting through hundreds of VHS tapes, some of which date to the early 1980s, transferring bits here and there to my computer and tossing the rest. The tapes took up more than shelf space: an entire corner of our bedroom was devoted to them (notice the past tense there!). My closet holds even more. In any event, it’s a time-consuming project made possible by a simple gadget that connects the VCR to my computer; recording is in real time. The goal isn’t to save episodes of Wonder YearsHomicide or any of the many programs or movies we taped, however, as most of those are available elsewhere, but appearances of our favorite musical acts on Late Night With David LettermanThe Tonight ShowArsenio Hall, TNN, VH1 and MTV, among other shows and channels.

One thing I’ve learned: while commercials were as annoying then as now, at least then there weren’t as many per hour. Another: the local news hypes the weather a little less these days, and is more accurate. During one run of Oprah Winfrey shows (my wife used to record them) in December 1997, for instance, the teaser for the 5 o’clock news warned of an approaching winter storm. Doomsday was nigh! Until the actual day it arrived, that is, when lo’ and behold the snow turned out to be a dusting that only impacted parts of the region. And yet another: we once recorded an episode of Falcon Crest. I likely set the VCR to the wrong channel that night.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned, however, is what a mess the analog world could be. For every tape filled with just Homicide episodes, there are five packed with a mishmash of our interests: The Wonder YearsThe Simpsons and NYPD Blue share space with 10,000 Maniacs on Letterman.

To watch a marathon of a specific show back then required forethought and effort, in other words. We once threw a “My So-Called Party” in honor of My So-Called Life; friends/fellow fans came over and we screened four episodes that were on three different cassettes. That meant swapping them out, fast-forwarding through squealing yards of tape to find the episodes we wanted and then fast-forwarding again through the commercial breaks.

Like others, no doubt, we became infatuated with DVDs once they hit the stores and rental markets. But though we still purchase DVDs on occasion, we’ve come to prefer the no-space-required world that is OnDemand, Netflix and Amazon Prime. There’s no rewinding, fast-forwarding or guesstimating the length of a movie just to get to what the tape’s label claims follows.

In fact, these days our “My So-Called Party” would simply require us to navigate to Streampix on Comcast OnDemand, and then click on the episodes we wanted. No muss, no fuss, just fun!

Except for those nights when you can’t find anything to watch. That, in fact, is my main gripe: quality content, or lack thereof. Every program should be available at the push of the button – a video Spotify, if you will – not just some. But that’s a post for another day.

Old School

Most of our weekends involve a visit to what Diane and I jokingly call “our home away from home” – Barnes & Noble in Willow Grove. We look for books and magazines that interest us, take a table in the cafe and spend an hour or more deciding what, if anything, to purchase. I sip on a large peppermint mocha (never complete without an extra shot of espresso and whipped cream). Diane drinks water, tea or (when it’s in season) hot apple cider. We split a bagel.

We go so frequently, in fact, that several of the baristas know us. One doesn’t just recognize us, but remembers our order. I arrive at the register and within seconds two-thirds of it is rung up (Diane’s drink is always the wild card), small talk is exchanged and – well, it’s nice. Yesterday, for example, the young woman at the register noted that she hadn’t seen me lately (likely due to her schedule). Or last weekend, when we arrived after a filling lunch at Pasta Fazool, the memory maven was taken aback when I subtracted the bagel from our order and then explained why. “You’re cheating on us,” she teased. Then, apropos of nothing, she added, “I like your hat. It’s so old school!”

Old school, of course, is slang for old-fashioned. Which, when it comes to fashion, fits me to the proverbial T.

In 20 years time, though, I fear the same will be said of the B&Ns of the world. The company’s CEO told the Wall Street Journal recently that he foresees the chain closing about 20 stores a year over the next decade, to bring its total number down to 450 to 500. The reality is likely more dire. One need look at the music business (or Borders) to see the future: well-stocked chain music stores slipped into oblivion years ago; and the independents dotting the landscape continue to dwindle in number. Sure, Best Buy and Wal-Mart carry the hits and high-profile new releases, but to purchase an archival release – which I do quite often – generally means heading online to Amazon or iTunes.

The increasing popularity of tablets and e-readers insures the decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores. That’s not to say paper books will go away; but, as with music (where CDs still outsell downloads), the retailers that stock a deep selection will be limited to online.

Pluses and minuses exist for every paradigm shift, and the transition to a digital marketplace is no exception. One plus when it comes to music: the ability to preview an album prior to buying it. One minus: there’s no more stumbling across unexpected treasures. I remember where and when I bought a slew of specific albums due to my utter delight and surprise at finding them. Now? The magic and mystery of discovery has been replaced by algorithms; and all purchases are from one spot: here at my computer.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m still delighted by what I buy. And those algorithms have led to many a cool find, such as jazz-pop singer Melody Gardot, whose name popped onto my Amazon recommended list while I was browsing Peggy Lee CDs one day in 2009.

Of course, the listening experience itself has remained fairly static: whether headphones or speakers, or iPod, stereo or computer, music is ethereal. We may feel it, but we can’t touch it; it may touch us, but it can’t feel us. The same’s true of the reading experience. It’s an intellectual and emotional exercise in which words on a page are translated into imagery in our brain. Whether one’s reading a paper product or a digital simulation, that much won’t change.

But everything else? The meandering through the aisles, scanning of titles and previewing of books, the sipping of high-octane caffeine drinks in a cafe populated by a convivial staff? That’s a ritual that will be missed.