Monday, August 27, 2012

Genghis Khan and Tony Stark?

Who, or what, is a hero? How do we define heroism? We give out medals, adore them, even take them on as our role models, but do we pause and ask what exactly is it that we are adoring. Is it the person? If so then what kind of person would we typecast as a hero? For that matter, is there any such thing as a ‘typical hero’? Is there any checklist, physical or mental, that has to be crossed off before a person qualifies as a hero? The most common quality that we usually attribute to a ‘hero’ is bravery. Soldiers dying on the battlefield, people protesting a repressive regime, they are all heroes, that is the burden that society has bestowed them with. But is that all? Many young infantrymen displayed exceptional bravery while fighting for Nazi Germany. Tales of their heroisms, and courage resound even today, but while we unflinchingly use the word ‘heroism’, not one would ever accord them the status of ‘Heroes’. Brad Pitt pretty much summed up how we remember them 60 years later, when he called them “the foot-soldiers of a Jew-hating mass-murdering maniac”. So do we take it that to be a hero, you not only have to be brave, you also have to fight for the right side? And it’s the winner who writes the history books, so what does that tell us? What if the Nazis had gone on to win the war? Say they went ahead and conquered all of Europe and Africa, and say Hitler died the very next day. And to the helm came a ruler who not only established full human rights, and peace, he did that across his global empire. Would there have been a Balkans, or a Desert Storm? Africa for one would have been definitely better off, pretty much anything is better off compared to how they have spent the last half-century. So in this Utopia, would we remember the American and British troops who stormed Normandy as heroes? Or the foot-soldiers of a corrupt and violent way of life? Memory is short-lived. Alexander of Macedonia, indisputably a hero. Tell that to the villages that smoldered in his wake. Genghis Khan, revered as a god in Mongolia even today, how would the people he raped and killed in his wild rampage feel if they heard that?
But bravery in the battlefield is only one of many kinds. Courage comes in many forms and so do heroes. M.K. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., random Egyptian on the streets a year back, brave people who went up against a whole system. What they lacked in skills they made up in moral strength, going up defenseless against a powerful foe who only needed to say the word and they would have been dead the next instance. Humans, a species as obsessed with worship, as with optimism, thus fused the two together, valor with moral strength, fighting skills with incorruptible good intentions to create the concept of God, or their modern day pop culture counterparts, comic book superheroes. Who as child did not believe, or at least wish, that Superman or Phantom were real? What really is the difference between a college student who studies nothing and goes to the temple before the exams, firmly believing, or hoping, that ‘God will save him’, and the 3 yr-old who jumps from his balcony with full faith that Superman will catch him before he hits the ground?
But till gods and superheroes come back again (or out of disguise, we know you are there!), ordinary mortals will have to do. And thus the whole weight is for the chosen few to carry. A soldier wins the Param Vir Chakra, and the country goes gaga about him. How did he not feel scared, they ask. How would it be to run straight into machine gun fire, without feeling the slightest tinge of fear, they wonder. A recurring theme in every war hero's testimony is that they never ever felt like heroes. They would call the people they served with heroes, but never themselves. They would say they felt fear stronger than anything else they had ever felt. They would say every action they did, was for their own survival and for the man next to them, that thoughts about country and strategies and armies were not even in their minds. But we choose to ignore that. In our movies they cry out the country’s name before dying, keep the national flag in their pockets. Because they are our mules. Theirs is to carry this burden that they have earned. Because a hero is more than a person. A hero is a belief. A belief that our world can be saved. A belief that our world is worth saving. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Get Back!

I once read an article in the newspaper that rued that the previous decade, the 00’s, had nothing of significance to contribute to the world of music; that the best way to remember the ten years would be to forget it. That was back in 2007, and Coldplay had only recently come out with Viva La Vida, which was being hailed worldwide as their coming-of-age album. The article went on to argue that bands like Coldplay had all but become a rarity, and despite that, there was no one band which had risen above the others and given the decade a musical identity. The author argued that with three years left to go, there seemed to be no one on the horizon to take up that mantle. According to him, the music industry had hit rock-bottom. If only I could read his thoughts now.

“You tell me that its evolution, well, you know…..”

Led Zeppelin live
I am old-school. And as such I am not really aware of the contemporary music scene. What little I know, I actively despise. I have seen thumbnails of music videos by a group which call themselves LMFAO, have had to sit through so-called “Trance” music, the bastard son of the original Psychedelia, during joint parties, and encrypted alien warning messages that they call Dubstep. I have still not been able to tell one rap song from another and I am growing tired of the over-produced, over-sampled and over-auto-tuned voices of ladies asking me not to “funk” with their hearts. And lets not even go to the whole YouTube scene. The last remaining true rock stars are all depressingly aged; people like Paul McCartney, James Hetfield and Steve Tyler, they are still the only ones kicking ass, long years after they first started, and their replacements are nowhere in sight.

“Talk and song from tongues of lilting grace, whose sounds caress my ear…..”

The Beatles at their famous Rooftop Concert
Its hard admitting to the fact that Rock has now become just one among many different genres of music. For better or for worse, it monopolized the music scene for the greater part of the past 50 years. The last time, such a situation had existed it was the 1950’s. The 60’s fixed that. There never was or has been a more important decade in the history of music. People like Elvis, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly had already laid the foundation. The only thing needed was one band that would transcend them all; a band that would grab the musical world by its throat and shake it till it never saw things the same way again. And right on cue, there they were, The Beatles. Coming in at a time when Rock n Roll was beginning to attract large crowds and was generating a heavy lot of enthusiasm and interest among the youth, they drove audiences mad with their shockingly good looks, cheeky irreverence and their music. The Beatlemania that followed catapulted the four to levels of stardom and fan-following the world had never seen. There would be packed ball-courts, mass-stampedes and water-cannons to suppress the crowds wherever they went. But above it all, it was their music, which set the tone for the times to come. The Beatles rocked every performance they ever gave. And boy, did they rock! Veins pumping with adrenalin, spiked on dope, the four shrieked, and riffed, and thrashed their way across the world, setting stages and crowds ablaze wherever they went. Riots broke out when people were denied tickets; girls fainted in the dozens necessitating the setting up of First-Aid outposts at the venues. For most bands with members in the early 20’s this would have been the end of all musical creativity; but not for John, Paul, George and Ringo. They brought out a total of 12 albums in a span of 7 years, and many excluded singles. With every new album they pushed the boundaries of music and explored and added new territory. Their early albums were out-and-out rockers with the occasional ballad put in, which they could perform live. When at their zenith, they decided to stop touring to be able to concentrate better on making songs in the studio. Experimentation in the studio took on a whole new dimension with The Beatles literally inventing the feedback (I Feel Fine), back-masking (Rain) and bringing in string quartets and entire orchestras to perform on their songs. Still staying away from the stage and seeing the world saturated with over-produced and experimental music (which they started), they went “back to the basics” in their final 3 albums before starting off on wildly successful solo careers (well, mostly). Theirs was the greatest musical adventure of the century and things would never be the same again.
Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock

“Well, I stand up next to a mountain…..”

But the 60’s were not just about The Beatles. While the Fab Four did break down most walls and bring artistic legitimacy to Rock n Roll, there were pioneers aplenty in that decade. The greatest poet-cum-singer to have ever lived, Bob Dylan, did his best work in that decade and made the leap from Folk to Rock n Roll. Throaty-voiced and Jack Daniels-drinking Janis Joplin redefined the concept of a female rocker while, bands like The Who and The Rolling Stones pulled music inexorably towards a more heavy sound. This was the decade of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, two members of the hallowed yet heartbreaking 27’s Club. The one band which, in the annals of music, is considered worthy to hold a torch to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, had its seed sown in this decade with the formation of The Yardbirds, the band which also has the distinction of launching the careers of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Pink Floyd, the original and true masters of psychedelia, got together, while bands like The Animals and The Byrds kept making chart-toppers from time to time.

“To be a rock and not to roll…..”

The 70’s would go on to see many other greats take center-stage.  It would be the decade of Led Zeppelin and Queen, of Pink Floyd and AC/DC, and of Ted Nugent and Steven Tyler. Paul McCartney would play to packed stadiums with his post-Beatles band, Wings, while John Lennon would become Saint John, the perfect archetype to young and hungry rock n rollers everywhere. Eric Clapton would come into his own, while Bob Dylan would lose his way. People like David Bowie and KISS would shock and challenge the limits of audience acceptance. Out of the wilderness would rise a band named Black Sabbath which would singlehandedly invent Metal, later to be perfected by Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth.
Kurt Cobain goes into a solo at the Roxy, Aug 15 1991
And so would it continue through the 80’s and into the 90’s till the fateful moment when a 27 year old Kurt Cobain would take a shotgun to his mouth. With the last rocker blowing his brains out under a bridge, so would the demise of Rock start. Steve Jobs would come in and strip songs from their albums; no longer would the album be an entity to itself. Try imagining a Sgt. Pepper’s in today’s world. Songs would be made for nothing more than money, with studios hiring pretty boys and skanky girls while factories churned out tracks for them to sing on.

“The times they are a-changing …..”

AC/DC's Angus breaks into his antics
As the last of its proponents still maintain their fan bases, the tilt of the young generation is unmistakably away from Rock. Rock n Roll is all but dead and Metal has radicalized to an extent that its performers and followers have become a genre onto themselves. As bands like The Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Radiohead and Greenday do their best to keep the flag up, what is truly needed is a return from the clutches of over-commercialization, and above all, a band with the impact and caliber of The Beatles, a true game-changer. As AC/DC put it-

 “It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock n roll.”