Why Are We in Such a Hurry?

Some day, when history has another chance to sit down, catch a breath and take stock, a smart guy is gonna point out that one of the bigger troubles with the 20th century -- the American century, as Americans like to call it -- is how much fine, fine stuff was pushed aside like bad clams as we perpetually busied ourselves coming up with the next thing. The new wave. The hottest rage. The bee's knees.Case in point: When and where else but 20th-century America would a sensible population have stood by and let a creation as complete and incomparable as the '52 Chevy Deluxe be tail-fin-ized and hatch-back-ized and bucket-seat-ized until a mere two decades later it ends up a '72 Maverick? With the divine '52 Deluxe, humanity had very nearly the perfect car. It looked right, it ran right, and it was easy to fix. It would have been all we needed in wheels for another two, three hundred years. Nowhere does our profligate, impatient modern nature show up more sharply than in the way we've tossed musical styles out with the fish heads every time another kid gets together with a guitar and a recording device. It happens in "legitimate" music circles, too, but my concern here is the way we ramblin' Americans have rambled through pop music fashions without taking proper time to relish each experience.I don't mean to lay this entirely at rock 'n' roll's scruffy feet. The big bands bulldozed New Orleans jazz off-stage much too soon, just as big bands themselves were shoved off later before their time. In another, more appreciative and reflective age, Louie Armstrong alone would have satisfied the world's lust for musical energy for several generations. But we went through Satchmo in a measly 40 years. We went through Charlie Parker in 10, the Beatles in eight, and if you sneezed at the wrong time, you might have missed the whole Hootenanny folk thing altogether.What was the rush? The sun won't implode for another four or five billion years, so we had plenty of time to sort through the sounds slowly, at our leisure. Had rock 'n' roll waited until the fourth millennium to raise its duck's ass head, we would have had more than enough music to keep our ears busy. And Gershwin. The 24-carat Golden Oldie.Sit down with nothing else to worry about and listen to "Someone to Watch Over Me." No offense to brother Ira, but the words don't matter. Whether a wonderful voice sings it or it's buzzed out on a bent kazoo, if you have the sensitivity God gave alfalfa sprouts, you'll realize that you could have survived musically well into your retirement on this one song alone.You'll realize that all the songwriters since George could have gone out and gotten themselves decent jobs because we didn't need 'em. You'll realize that had Hitler listened to George Gershwin instead of Wagner, it would have been a whole different century.And that's just one two-minute tune. The "Bess You Is My Woman Now" duet in Porgy and Bess can make a grown rock cry, and when archeologists a jillion years from now try to figure out what made us Yanks tick 'twixt Industrial Age and Information Age, all they need do is listen carefully to An American In Paris. It's all there, from the blare of modern civilization to the blues it caused.As you probably know, Gershwin's bones -- if not Gershwin himself -- turned 100 a couple of weeks back, and the music community gave him a national birthday bash. The event was catered primarily by National Public Radio and public teevee, but city orchestras performed entire Gershwin concerts, new Gershwin recorded collections were issued, and Gershwin's oh-so-short life was re-examined in the print media. (And I thought it was awfully nice of the National Weather Service to throw a hurricane in his honor to coincide with the celebration, don't you?)So, does all this attention to George Gershwin 60 years after his death belie what I'm saying -- that he was forgotten much too soon and shunted into a dusty corner to make room for hotter property? Yes, because obviously he wasn't forgotten, but no. There's a huge difference between being a vital part of the cultural stream and a museum piece they drag out for centennials.And I, for one, miss Gershwin -- and artists like him (Cole Porter comes to mind) -- being included as a vital part of that cultural stream we call our life. Those people who choose for us what is hot and what is not have left stuff like "I've Got Rhythm" joy, "It Ain't Necessarily So" humor, and "Someone To Watch Over Me" beauty out of the mix, and I miss it. I think the world misses it. After all, if this was indeed "the American Century," George Gershwin had a much to do with it as any politician or economic policy.In fact, come midnight, December 31, 1999, I can think of nothing more appropriate than "Someone To Watch Over Me" played by Louie Armstrong over the radio of a '52 Chev Deluxe.


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