Yesterday I watched the amazing concert film "The Last Waltz", directed by Martin Scorsese. It featured the last live performance of the iconic 60s and 70s rock group The Band, and featured Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, and other titans of 60s and 70s rock. The film moved me on a few levels. First, the music is simply amazing. But the film's real power is its elegaic tone. It really feels like the end of something, and not just The Band.
It was filmed in the late 70s (78, I think), and that was an important transitional time in music. The kind of music The Band and friends represented was music that was soulful and meaningful. It blended blues, country, jazz, and folk into something that was, for lack of a better word...art. It was music that was about things--about social change, protest, culture, etc. And it reached a wide audience.
With the advent of the 80s, all that was about to change. In my opinion, the 80s were a pretty dismal decade for pop music. Just listen to Paul McCartney's II. That album pretty much captures the tragedy of 80s music--it had lost its soul. Bob Dylan went though his terrible "born again" phase. Everybody went solo, and the bright light of meaningful pop music went pretty dark.
I'm not exactly sure who is to blame for this. Ronald Reagan? MTV? The corporatization of the music industry? All of the above. But what happened is this..the titans of 60s music either sold out or went crazy or just got old and lost touch. And good, meaningful music went underground. The late 70s, early 80s saw the rise of punk music--The Dead Kennedys, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads. These bands carried the torch of meaningful music forward; however, the only way this music could exist was if it was inherently non-corporate, hence abrasive, angry, loud, etc.
I'm not saying that good, meaningful music is gone. I'm simply saying it went underground, and has stayed there. The corporate pop music front has reached the point of comic absurdity--Britney Spears, American Idol, Lady Gaga, etc.
And so, when I watched an aging Bob Dylan, and The Band, and Van Morrison, and the others sing "I Shall Be Released" it moved me almost to tears. Something has been lost in the American soul, and this film, this song, captures the elegaic tragedy of that loss.