Friday, June 11, 2010

same place, same time, different worlds

It's rare that one spends two consecutive evenings riveted to the same sports arena, especially when the first night features forty twenty-something athletes and the second two sixty-something pop singers. By sheer coincidence, I had precisely that experience this week, and it says a lot about my own life and the generation I am a part of.

On Wednesday night, as many readers will know, the Philadelphia Flyers were eliminated from the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs in a 4-3 overtime loss at the Wachovia Center in South Philly. (I didn't attend, although I attended two previous playoff games, at my kids' behest and my own expense, and followed this one closely on TV.) The loss was anticlimactic as well as disappointing: Chicago's winning goal slipped almost unnoticed through the goalkeeper's pads, and most in the stadium did not appear to realize at first that it was scored. Still, when they did find out, most of the fans responded in chivalrous fashion, politely applauding the victors as the Cup was presented and thinking ahead to next year. The overall feeling was sad, proud, and very old-fashioned: not terribly different, except for the high-tech arena, than similar scenes thirty or forty years ago.

Same place, same time, Thursday night found me back at the Wachovia Center--this time in person--for the "Troubador Reunion" concert featuring Carole King and James Taylor, who will require no introduction if you were in circulationin the early 1970s. As fate would have it, I sat in almost precisely the same (cheap) seats we normally have at Flyers' games, albeit this time with my wife and no kids (more on this later).

The time and place were the same; but everything else was different. Instead of a hockey rink there were chairs and a rotating stage for the performers to appear on. The boards that surround the rink, and which there hadn't been sufficient time to remove, provided the only continuity. Instead of a youngish crowd in orange Flyers shirts there was a parade of aging hippies in T-shirts and bermuda shorts, sipping beers and munching popcorn, many of whom looked like they had come straight from the beach (the weather had turned significantly warmer in the intervening 24 hours). Instead of the tension of a playoff game there was an intense desire to turn the clock back and avoid the cares of the everyday world: an almost palpable passion to relax.

And of course there was the music: Taylor even gaunter than he was as a kid, King with her pixieish smile and seemingly unchanged hair (she's 68), plucking the guitar and banging away on the keyboard as if nothing had changed since their original concert in LA forty years ago. Of course everything has changed: for one thing, you can actually hear concerts now, owing to the vast improvement in technology over the past four decades; encores are requested by holding up cellphones rather than matches; and many in the crowd probably have grandchildren close to the age the performers were at the original. Yet when the lights went out it was possible to ignore these differences and pretend it was 1970 all over again. The overall feeling was relaxed, happy, and just a bit raffish: like the hockey game, a bit of a throwback, but less to a real world than to the idealism of a generation that hadn't quite achieved its goals but had never quite surrendered them either.

On the simplest level, the two evenings provided a glaring cultural contrast: the competitive, supermale and almost entirely white world of hockey versus the sixties and seventies dream of a nirvana in which race, gender, and power all but disappeared. (One of King and Taylor's proudest boasts is that they didn't sleep together, which probably makes them one of the few such couples who didn't.) What is interesting is that the old-fashioned, conservative world of professional sports seems to hold more fascination for today's kids than the forward-looking, idealistic world represented by the would-be revolutionaries. My kids begged me to spend whatever it costs to go to more playoff games; when they heard about the concert, they noted politely that other parents were going, too.

Does this mean that the Sixties failed? I think it's more a matter of the difference between ideals and reality. Things like sports are timeless: they're pretty much the same in each generation. By contrast hopes and dreams, like that represented by the Sixties, are almost entirely a product of their own time and place. Without the emotions that they generated and fed off, the songs of Carole King and James Taylor become more or less meaningless. Like us our kids will get beyond sports and schoolboy crushes, dreaming their own dreams and living out their own hopes and disappointments. They'll just be different from ours: and that's what makes it at once so happy and so sad.


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