When my mother used to get teary over Bing Crosby or Perry Como songs, I didn’t get it. Why get so emotional? My friends and I didn’t do that when we listened to the music we liked.
Well, guess what? Fast forward about 45 years, to the recent 2010 Kennedy Center Awards show. The honorees included Paul McCartney, and as James Taylor and Mavis Staples belted out “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be” in tribute, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, among those there in person or those watching from home. We baby boomers softened like Play Doh in a child’s hands.
The same emotions showed last year in the James Taylor-Carole King Troubadour Reunion Tour. The 58 concerts stretched across the U.S. and to Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Everywhere, huge crowds couldn’t contain their gratitude. And the artists seemed to feel the same, bowing again and again, smiling at the audience, the band (their original musicians) and each other. (The bald James Taylor acknowledged the evening’s nostalgia when he bowed on stage and gestured as though tossing back his long hippie hair.) At the end of the evening, as the two sat onstage alone, singing “Close Your Eyes” and leaning on each other, the words “I still love you” summed up the sentiment in the hushed arena.
I was fortunate to attend the last performance in the tour, in Southern California, where I watched graying and balding fans, many in t-shirts stretched over muffin-top middles, dance from the stands, sing along and wipe their eyes. After two and a half hours and two curtain calls, they still stood there, not wanting to leave.
Nothing else binds people of an era like the music of their youth, the anthems that transported them to adulthood and forever evoke a time when anything seemed possible. The songs never stop recalling the optimism that has dimmed with the unstoppable passage of time. For Baby Boomers, the realizations are especially stark, because we weren’t going to get old.
We felt special, privileged by our numbers and the rosy view from our prosperous childhoods. We grew up in a time of plenty, riding in our parents’ gas-greedy sedans, but also a time of fear, a time of fallout shelters and practice drills for nuclear attack. I still have the metal “dog tag” that my classmates and I wore around the clock in the year of the Cuban missile crisis. We vowed to make the world more peaceful, safer and less cruel. We would put our faith not in what money could buy, but in the goodness of human nature. Anything was possible.
When the brokenhearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.
When the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me, shine on until tomorrow, let it be.
We protested war and corporate greed. We planted organic gardens and opposed mass production. We believed in the strength of the individual and the power of numbers.
Yet, today, the country is engaged in not one war but two, and the gulf between the have’s and have not’s has never been wider. Over the years, we’ve seen our share of James Taylor’s “fire and rain”: terrorism, recession, assassination, hatred and bigotry. Many of our hopes and aspirations are badly tarnished, some abandoned, others scaled way back.
But we have elected our first African-American president. The cold war is over, the Berlin Wall down, and we haven’t tested a nuclear weapon in almost 20 years. Progress has been made in harnessing alternative power and in developing fuel-efficient cars. Social media has confirmed our belief in the power of numbers.
Although we haven’t created the world we envisioned, we have made a difference, which is all any generation can do. It turns out that we weren’t unlike our fellow human beings of any age. We won some and lost some.
Leaving the Anaheim arena that night last summer, what I read in the watery eyes around me was the realization that indeed “the sun is surely sinking down and the moon is slowly rising.” The words hit home now in a way they couldn’t when we were young. The lyrics didn’t lie to us back then; we just heard them differently. And the songs never let us forget that we once felt invincible and we once meant to do more.