Alan Light: The Changing Youth Culture of Music


Alan Light, veteran music journalist and host of “In The Light” on SiriusXM, talks to Rob Johnson about the social and political role of music and its relationship to youth culture over time. Light and Rob discuss how the silo-ization of music subcultures has faded in the streaming era, and how social media influencers are challenging musicians for the central place in youth culture.

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with Alan Light, music journalist, author, and the host of Debatable in the afternoons, I think five days a week on SiriusXM. Welcome, Alan.

Alan Light:

Thank you, Rob. Happy to join you.

Rob Johnson:

What time Eastern time your show is? Is it 3:00 to 7:00? Is that the right window?

Alan Light:

It is almost right, 4:00 to 7:00 East Coast time, weekdays on the Volume Channel, SiriusXM 106. That’s where he can find us.

Rob Johnson:

Well, that’s good. Well, just for the sake of our audience, actually, our economic and political people, Alan’s been one of my closest friends. Most people know I’ve worked a little bit in film, a lot music. I think I met you originally when you were at Vibe Magazine. Wasn’t that right through Mark Satlof?

Alan Light:

Well, it was through Mark Satlof. I think we think we met when I was, probably when I was still in the process of leaving Spin Magazine-

Rob Johnson:

Oh, Spin, right.

Alan Light:

… and was working on launching, yeah, was working on launching a magazine of my own.

Rob Johnson:

Tracks.

Alan Light:

Tracks, that Mark Satlof, a mutual friend in the music business, thought you would be interested in, and we published that magazine for about a year and a half before the perils of independent investments, once I lost my lead investor on that. That was not around for a longer haul, but I’d worked in magazines for probably a dozen years before that starting at Rolling Stone, where I interned and joined their staff.

I left Rolling Stone to go and work on the launch of Vibe Magazine, which I edited for about four years. We grew sufficiently there that we were able to acquire Spin Magazine, which I edited for three or four years. Then my last magazine venture was trying to get that magazine of my own, Out of the Blocks. Since then, since closing that up, it’s really been more about watching the magazine industry decay, and so moving into writing books, working on different projects, working on some films, and launching this show over on Sirius.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. You had a two-part film, I believe, on HBO about Elvis Presley that you worked as a part of a tomb in creating a … Wasn’t that a year or so ago? I saw it advertised. It’s one of the free things on HBO that they’re giving to everybody, even people who don’t have a membership for the next couple of weeks.

Alan Light:

Yeah, just about exactly a year ago. It was last spring that a film called The Searcher, two parts documentary about Elvis that I was the writer on that project. That went up, and yes, I’ve seen it. People have told me it’s being made available again. So, hopefully, people can chase that down as well. It was a tremendously fun, tremendously ambitious project to try to do the Elvis Presley story, but I think we got to some of the things that we wanted to in that film.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, no, and a number of my listeners know that I worked closely with the independent creator Alan Elliott on the making of Amazing Grace or the remaking, I guess, reputting together and marketing. It was you, another Alan, who put me together with Alan Elliott. I had met him years ago over the issue of Robert Randolph signing with me or signing with Warner, but we got together through your connection and I got very immersed in that project. Tell me … Go ahead.

Alan Light:

No. I said, well, part of this is just hanging around long enough to try to keep a hand in the right kinds of projects and, yes, through a mutual … I mean, Alan Elliott and I had met as well, but we’re connected through a mutual friend through my son’s best friend, one of his parents who’s close to Alan Elliott. Alan was trying to solve certain things around getting the Amazing Grace film figured out, and when he was telling me about which issues he was running up against, I thought that you might be the guy who could help him navigate through that, which a certain amount of blood, sweat, and tears later, fortunately, proved to be the case. We’ve got the movie out there.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, they sent me back to my hometown of Detroit to iron out things with the Franklin family. I’ve developed very good friendship with Sabrina Owens, who was the niece and who was close and the executor to the will for Aretha Franklin, but I thank you for setting me off on that adventure.

I like to go back and look at your formative years. When I went up to the rooms and I thought of Amazing Grace was when I went up and sat on a panel with Daphne Brooks and some others at Yale University. Everybody talked about you. You had gone to Yale as an undergraduate. When I go through the archives, I found a Rolling Stone article about Bob Dylan at Toad’s Place, and they made a very famous bootleg of his concert there and the variety of musics that were playing. I think it was over a couple of different days or a week.

Anyway, I remembered having, before I met you, read all about Toad’s Place. I had that bootleg. I was working with Meg Griffin on a show for WFUV about Bob Dylan’s bootleg career. Paul Williams who had started Crawdaddy and I were friends, and he had taught me a great deal there. Tell me a little bit about you at Yale and connecting to becoming the music journalist.

Alan Light:

Yeah. Well, I guess just to, I’ll do the quick from starting before that. I have to start that story really with my family. My mother was a former dancer who became a dance critic and a dance historian, and was the dance critic at the Cincinnati Enquirer in Cincinnati where I grew up. So, the idea of criticism, the idea of exploring the history of an art form, that was dinner talk in my house, the idea that you would go see a performance and try to process what you thought of it, what sense you could make of it, how you could communicate that to people, and convey an aesthetic experience through your writing, through your words. That was what we grew up talking about day in, day out in my household.

For whatever reason, music was always the thing that spoke to me the most, the only thing that I really believed in in that way. So, from a young age, I remember writing a fifth grade book report about some Elton John biography that I had read or whatever it was, wrote about music for my high school newspaper. Any chance to write different papers or different readings or whatever it was that could focus around the study of music, that was what I was looking for.

I went to Yale and was fortunate enough to stumble across the American Studies Department at Yale, and start to think about the idea of cultural studies and looking at creative products, and what they said about the culture that generated them, starting to bring American history and American music together in a way that … I had read Greil Marcus’ book, Mystery Train. You and I have talked extensively about that as this early effort at bringing these strains of American history and American folk tradition and American popular music together.

It was when I found that department and some of the overview classes at Yale that I’ve started to get a sense of that was a thing that you could do, that you could explore music not just critically or not just biographically, but with a sense of what the music was saying about the world that it came from.

So, I created a … In the American Studies Department, you would have a concentration and most people were American history or American literature. That was usually the way you did it, but a friend of mine developed an American religion concentration, which was fascinating in which I was jealous of. I worked with the department to construct an American popular music concentration within the American Studies major. That really kind of set me off to thinking about these things this way and writing about them this way.

I wrote for the Yale Daily News when I was at school, and parlayed that into an internship at Rolling Stone between my junior and senior year at college, came back to work at Rolling Stone initially in the fact checking department, but starting to write a little bit here and there, primarily writing about hip hop. This is now 1988, 1989, 1990, to me, the greatest years for what hip hop … I said it must’ve been like writing about jazz in the ’40s or rock and roll in the ’60s.

I’m able to immerse myself in that world and that universe, and then literally stumbled across this Bob Dylan show that he was playing at Toad’s Place in New Haven, a block from where I had lived when I was in school there.

Long story short, talked my way into a show that he, day of show, canceled all press from attending. He did this crazy four-hour long four set. He was taking requests. He was playing things he hadn’t played for years. It was an open rehearsal show. I ended up being the only press in the room writing about that show for Rolling Stone. That was the moment that Jann Wenner said, “Hey, how did we get this? Sign that kid up. Give him some more stuff to do,” and that was my break at the magazine that led to my writing career there.

Rob Johnson:

Well, Jann Wenner had good taste in that moment in my opinion.

Alan Light:

Bring up the good call for all of us.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I know now frequently you write things for the New York Times. I often had worked with artists as you know, like Dr. John, and Ike Turner, and PR people like Mark Satlof, and I’ll say, Alan, that almost everybody I know, Jeff Rosen, Bob Dylan’s manager who I know very well, they all somehow were guarded about working with journalists and we’re very happy to what you win and explore with you because they thought you were brilliant and decent and illuminating, and that’s why your name is Light, I suppose, because you’re so illuminating.

How would I say? You have a tremendous gift. I mean, I loved your book on the song Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, and you’ve written on Prince. There’s so many different dimensions to, how I say, the luster that you’ve created, and it’s nice now you have a daily radio show, so you can be a little bit like those 40 jazz musicians and while you’ve got your principles, you’ve got to improvise around what comes flowing across the deck. How are you enjoying that challenge? Is that an interesting-

Alan Light:

Yeah, I think the radio shows has been really great. It’s obviously not news that the magazine business has collapsed, the print industry has collapsed, and that to want to continue to tell stories in this universe has required a certain amount of shape-shifting, being open, being open to different ideas, being open to different kinds of books, different kinds of things to pursue.

When I got a call about three and a half years ago, we launched this channel that’s called Volume, that’s a talk channel about music. So, it’s like a sports talk channel or a politics channel, but it’s all music stuff. When I was approached with the idea of doing this and eventually co-hosting this show, I hadn’t done radio since I was in high school, but I think that what we’ve learned is people, there are still music fans who really are looking for that community that music magazines used to provide, that local radio used to provide. If this is something that can fill that void in a different kind of a way, it’s been really gratifying.

The thing that’s always … It is so easy to get so jaded, so cynical day in, day out, working in the music business and feel like, “Ugh! It’s not like it used to be. It doesn’t mean what it used to mean to people. It’s not as important.” When you actually go out and talk to people, when I was writing the, you mentioned the Hallelujah book, to go out and just talk to regular people about what that song means to them, how it figured into their lives, how at moments, funerals, and weddings and new babies, this was a song that they turn to because it meant something so profound to them.

That hasn’t gone away. That doesn’t go away. We hear it all the time on the radio show that it is still that important. It fits in a different way into the matrix of what’s out there in media, what’s out there in culture, but there’s still something that music does, something that you and I have talked about endlessly that it still means to people that if this is a way to plug into that, that’s still an important thing.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I hear a lot of this as an interface between music and economics. I hear a lot of people complaining now about what we might call secular religion of markets and economics or they call it neoliberalism, and the idea that everything has been commodified and that the music content is subordinated to what I’ll call crass commercial strategies, and that the art form has suffered.

I know a wonderful scholar at Berkeley, Wendy Brown, wrote a book called Undoing the Demos, about how politics and art in many aspects of life were being devastated. Just as I would argue, when science triumphed over religion, the religion drifted towards the worshiping of the economy because of what you might call attraction or need to have things to give you hope. The language of poetry and the language of art and particularly the language of music convey some of those we might call transmission of feelings so much more powerfully than logical debate. So, I think there’s almost like a ghost that you can see that other people don’t see and you keep bringing it to life through the many works that you’ve done.

Alan Light:

Well, listen, I think that music, it’s so hard to know what the proper expectations are to bring around music. Popular music went through, it’s hard to say an unprecedented explosion, but what happened with rock and roll in the ’60s in terms of this confluence of demographics, politics, technology, everything that went into that moment of that greatest generation, Beatles, and Dylan, and Stones, and Motown, and the way that music became the absolute center of youth culture or the way that it communicated was an incredibly explosive thing, and not a thing that you can replicate.

So, we’re still so much under the shadow of that’s what popular music is and can be that it’s hard to calibrate what’s a realistic expectation, what’s a reasonable thing. We keep turning to it to say, “Well, music should be the thing that’s leading protest right now. Music should be the … Isn’t that the thing?”

Well, maybe right now it doesn’t sit at the center of culture. It doesn’t sit at the center of youth culture in that same way. Maybe it performs a different role right now than what that role was, but that looms so large in our imagination that it’s hard to get underneath that and look at, “Well, what is it that it does now and what is it that we would hope for it to do right now?”

They’re complicated questions. It doesn’t necessarily translate the same way past really two generations down. It’s a very different game. So, it’s endlessly fascinating to continue to dig into that and look at what is it that it does, what is it that it can do, what are the ways that that surfaces, and to try to be as clear eyed as you can when you look and talk about that.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I know I’m a little bit older than you are, but a little bit younger than the heyday of the ‘60. I was 10 years old in 1967, but I remember my era was that window of Elton John, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Jethro Tull, and so forth. You could go to a party, you could meet someone, and you could decide by, if you will, talking about their record collection. If you guys were going to hit it off or if you and a young lady wanted to date would connect based … I mean, music was almost like fingerprints in those days, and it does all that it-

Alan Light:

One thing that’s really interesting right now, I think, in promising and I think there’s a lot of good that can come from this is I do think that we grew up at a time where there was something that was really tribal about your music affiliation, what you’re saying. If you were a fan of this band or this genre, that meant you were part of a certain group. There were certain things you could assume about those people. I’m a fan of this stuff. I don’t like that stuff.

You’re a heavy metal fan. You’re not interested in singer/songwriters or you’re a punk fan. You don’t want to know about pop music. Those were very strong identifiers and they built these really strong subcultures. It clearly doesn’t work. I mean, the more that we moved to a streaming universe, the more that we moved to kids who listen by playlist, the less and less meaning those genre distinctions hold.

I think that right now a lot of kids, they listen to hip hop next to pop music, next to certain country songs that all show up on the same playlist, and that’s all part of the music that they make. Musically, I think there’s a lot that could be really exciting about that because I think a lot of those rules of we do it this way, not that way are clearly going away. That’s clearly not the way that young people coming up making music are thinking about this stuff.

Now, because music is competing against social media, against gaming, against all of these other things that people, especially young people do to fill their time, it’s like the identifier is you’re somebody who cares about music.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. It’s the compartment now.

Alan Light:

That’s the compartment. That’s the silo, not metal or punk or hip hop or whatever it is, but just, is music a thing that is important and central to you or is it just part of the landscape and you don’t pay that much attention? That seems to be the divider.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Yeah. I was actually reading a book this morning by Steve Turner called Hungry for Heaven: Rock ‘N’ Roll & the Search for Redemption. There’s a chapter in there about U2, where he talked about how confusing it was to have three or four members of U2, everybody but Adam Clayton were devout Christians and rock and rollers. It was like, “What’s this guy Bono doing sounding like The Clash or The Sex Pistols and then essentially preaching at the same time when young people were, what you might say were bailing against the authoritarian and paternalistic nature of the church?”

The deck was being scrambled at that point. I don’t know. I was a little older than the pop, the center of the U2, REM world. I was moving into my professional life and out of my formative years. So, I’ve been going back to that because as we’ll talk about in the next few minutes, there was, I don’t know what I’ll call, a pressure or a feeling like the music did not embody the crisis that we’re in. I’ve been going fishing to listen for things that resonate with the pressure, pain, and anxiety or uncertainty that we’re all surrounded by at the moment.

Alan Light:

Well, I’ve been, I mean, and I think you and I have talked about it. I’ve certainly been thinking about U2 as well. I was fortunate enough to … I wrote a big … It was a cover story for Spin with U2, where I was with them for the first shows that they played after September 11th, and traveled with them through a handful of shows that they were playing right in the immediate aftermath about three or four weeks after September 11th.

Rob Johnson:

Was it where they had the scrolls of the people who had passed away or was that before that even?

Alan Light:

No. Well, it was before that. The first time that they did that was when they came and played at Madison Square Garden in late October.

Rob Johnson:

Exactly. I was there.

Alan Light:

Yeah. So, I was with them before that. They hadn’t yet added that. They hadn’t done name scrolling down yet. It was so extraordinary to be with them and watch them working through every second of what do people need from us now, what do they want from us now, what are they showing up at these shows looking for. It was really watching them break down every gesture, every way that that show was constructed. I’ve never seen anything like that. Literally, being with them, watching them from the side of the stage, I think the first show that I met up with them in Toronto, they were based out of Toronto, but the first show that I went was in Montreal. So, flying with them to the Montreal date, watching from the side of the stage, show ends, we run into the cars, do the police security, escort back to their plane, get on the plane, sitting on the plane, Bono runs on. He sits down next to me, and the first thing he says is like, “Okay. What didn’t work? What do we need to fix?”

Rob Johnson:

Wow.

Alan Light:

That was how attuned to it. I remember I said, “Listen. These shows are amazing. What do you want me to tell you?”

He’s like, “No. Is there anything that you feel like?”

I said, “Listen. I love …” I remember this. I said, “I loved the song Mysterious Ways, but it’s kind of in a funny place in the momentum. There’s a thing that you’re building there for the bigger community songs and then you break to this dark love song and then go someplace else. I loved the song, but maybe that could be someplace else.”

He thought about that and he’s like, “Okay. Yeah. I can see that.” By the next show, that song was out. He was so-

Rob Johnson:

He listened.

Alan Light:

They were through. So, by the time they got here for Madison Square Garden shows, everything was firing. I mean, you remember those. I’ve never felt the emotion of a rock show quite like that. Then they added the names, which then everybody saw when they played the Super Bowl a couple months later and ran the names of all of the victims. That’s the hypersensitivity of that was just unbelievable.

Thinking about, “Well, can there be someone who responds to or signifies the moment that we’re in now in the way that those guys were able to do it at that time?” I don’t know because that was about reacting to something that was, “Okay. This event happened. We’re going to respond to it. We can read what people are feeling and try to navigate around that.”

I don’t know that we’re going to have that moment where we can put a pin in this and say, “Okay. Here’s what it is that we need to speak to. Here’s what it is that we need to address,” when it’s something that we’re just all swimming in together for this protracted period.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, they hadn’t put out an album by 9/11. I think their previous album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a little bit over a year old and it wasn’t until 2004 that How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb came out. So, it wasn’t like they were rushing a product. Go ahead.

Alan Light:

No, not at all, and yet, there was something about All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Some of those songs, Walk On, even Beautiful Day, there was something that did resonate in that moment that did feel appropriate, something about their project, whatever it was, the communal experience of their audience that it did, even if it was stuff that had been out for, as you said, six to eight months before it felt like what people were looking for.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. It’s almost a premonition, but I think that’s in part because the what I’ll call spiritual tone of their music coming to the current circumstance. I’ve been reading a lot of books in recent weeks about the fear of death. Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, 1974, won the Pulitzer Prize. His later book, Escape from Evil, which was all about when powerful people fear death or want their life to be revered long after their body has gone, they do all kinds of things that can be very intense and very cool.

I’ve been going through all these books that resonate with that and I always felt, I guess like without doing a deep dive that U2 had this kind of open-ended, still haven’t found what I’m looking for kind of spiritual quest about them. That resonated with the startled audience after 9/11, which I remember being in New York and being very frightened. I was driving down the West Side Highway when those planes went into the World Trade Center and turned around at about 43rd Street and got outta there.

Alan Light:

This is different in trying to make sense of how has music responded or how has popular culture more broadly responded. We can look at things that are precedents in terms of being national tragedies. You can look at the depression. You can look at the various Wars. You can look at September 11th. Again, all of those was about how did we react and this feels very different in that it isn’t or isn’t yet or I don’t know when it will feel like it’s a finite thing or a moment that you can make art that speaks to it.

I mean, we just don’t know how we’re going to come out of this feeling right now when we’re in the center of it. There are so many different ways. There’s so many different … We all have our hopes. There’s the positive side of will this increase a sense of connectivity, will this lead to people being able to look across class and across rates and realize that things like a pandemic don’t care about that stuff.

Those are things that could come out in our art in a very productive way or not or does this increase the tribalism, selfishness, just the survival of the fittest aspect and what would be the music that would either express that or have to respond to that? I can’t even imagine it right now.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, we’re in a place, they always say it’s darkest before dawn. This shock of this pandemic and the disorientation that exists all over the world feels pretty dark. If people resort to what you might call clustering around their fear and authoritarian rule takes place, it could get a lot darker before the dawn. We can go back.

I liked what you were saying about perhaps shaking off our unconscious set of values and priorities that have prevailed over the last 40 years with the reawakening of what really matters, and people, and community, and protection of your children, and health are things that are much closer to the humanistic fabric than money, and productivity, and stock prices.

I think markets play a very useful role as a tool. I don’t think markets are very good as a deity. I don’t think they are sacred. Right now, there’s just a lot of things that are being shaken up, and we don’t know how it’s all gonna settle down. We don’t know we have a return to order. How does an artist reflect that uncertainty?

Alan Light:

Yeah. The last book that I wrote, the last book that I had come out was a book about Johnny Cash. I worked with the estate wanted to do a book and with a lot of photos from his archives and his memorabilia, his guitars, and things that he had. So, I wrote an overview biography of Johnny Cash that went around that.

The thing that was so incredibly striking thinking about that guy and the work that he did was the ability to speak. I mean, this was somebody who really, literally, would get up at a rally with Billy Graham, and then would go record with Bob Dylan at a moment where these were communities that wanted nothing to do with each other, somebody who could speak to the traditional religions community in this country, and could be embraced by … He could play at the Newport Folk Festival and play with the folk music counterculture and was respected by all the rock and rollers.

It feels like it’s going to require those kinds of figures to try to lead us out of this because, obviously, the thing that we’re going through right now is really does affect everybody. There’s something that can convey that. There’s something that can reach across and connect communities, connect audiences in that way that somebody like a Johnny Cash was able to do or are we simply so stratified, so fragmented that making those giant leaps like that, it’s so difficult to think about what are the kind of things, what are the kind of artists, who are the kind of figures who would be able to do that now?

Rob Johnson:

Well, I think this notion of what an artist is, we’ve talked about this before, but that Netflix film, Tricky Dick and the Man in Black, where it looked like the Nixon White House was going to bring him in and he’d get a pat on the head from the president of the United States and some visibility, et cetera. He walked in there and he did not play the role that they wanted him to play. He put it to them.

In my opinion, he’s already in the Pantheon, but he took himself even higher. It’s that kind of integrity that draws to people to artists if they can exhibit it in these very, very difficult and treacherous times. Boy, Johnny Cash, that’s a good example.

Alan Light:

Absolutely. The bravery of talking about somebody who was so purely himself, somebody who was unafraid to show his flaw, he felt it was important to show his flaws and his weaknesses because he felt that was important for his faith that he not pretend to be a grander than he was, somebody who wouldn’t condescend to his audience or in any way do the things that would be expected of him in a moment like that where you mentioned where he’s invited to the Nixon White House, but they want him to play Okie from Muskogee, and they want him to play this song that had been a country hit about welfare queens and the stereotype of people ripping off the welfare system.

He’s like, “I’ll come, but I didn’t write those songs. I’m going to play the songs that are the things that I want to do.”

He was able to do that and walk away still commanding respect from both sides of the aisle that way, an astonishing thing, and something that he did over and over again. Again, it feels like in this world right now where everybody is only listening to the news sources that give their perspective, only listening to the artists who say the things that they want to hear them say, not be willing to be challenged by anything that butts up against their worldview.

It feels like it’s going to require artists like that who truly are brave enough and confident enough to be themselves most truly and make the music and make the art that they believe they need to make not for any kind of market reasons or commercial reasons or even just expectations from their own following and their own audience. It’s going to take, I think, that sort of a thing to try and lead us out of this abyss that we are likely looking at for awhile.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, you had mentioned to me recently or I should say to the audience and it won’t surprise anybody that listens to you that you have a very, very vital, vibrant, and curious son, Adam, who’s finishing high school I believe this year and on his way to University of Chicago, which I think is fabulous. He was studying in recent weeks or in recent days, Neil Young is what you said. I always think of Neil as one … Neil stands out as another person at times who really rises to the occasion.

Alan Light:

Yeah, I mean, certainly. So, I think that, again, what’s remarkable going back through that career and, yes, Adam’s been in a deep dive through the full Neil Young catalog and the full Neil John catalog takes you to some very high highs and some pretty low lows, the great ones, the Neil Youngs, and the Bob Dylans, and Prince, who I have an obsession with, wrote a book about, did a lot of work with.

What stands out is the fearlessness. Those are guys who are not afraid to fall on their face doing something that they feel they need to explore or they need to investigate and may make a record for whatever reason that doesn’t work at all, but was something that they felt necessary to go through to maybe get them to the next thing or to learn something, takes them someplace else. That’s what you see in those careers over and over again. Again, it’s such a high wire act where they are just not afraid of what happens if they fall. They can get back up. They know that they could get back up.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I remember watching that long Amazon Prime CSNY 40 years documentary, and watching the ups and downs and undulations of all of them, but seeing Neil Young standing on a stage, I guess it was in the early 2000, maybe 2005 or 2006 about let’s impeach the president and moving with war, and all of these songs that were like protest songs from a bygone era where this saga was during George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but it’s just uncanny to see those kinds of spirits, and you see it in visual media. We saw it.

What was the guy who wrote the rap hip hop song about America? Childish Gambino. I remember seeing that video of that and I thought, “Holy moly does this guy got it!” I mean, that just just took me off my feet, and I probably watched it 20 times.

Alan Light:

Again, certainly, it’s what was so exciting. When I was starting out and when I was immersed covering the hip hop world that was exploding in the late ’80s, in the early ’90s was a sense that that was where the things that I loved, and still continued to write it. I did a Neil Young cover story for Rolling Stone. I got to write about Dylan. I mean, I’ve done those things, but the things that were so important to me about those records that came out of that time in a place where you had that kind of vitality, that kind of intensity, that kind of ambition was what the rappers were doing at that time was what Public Enemy was doing, what Ice-T was doing, and the fact that I had to … I was able to spend time and work with and had the chance to write about those kinds of figures in that moment.

That was where that kind of protest lived. Everybody said that it went away. Everybody said, “Oh, there’s not protest music anymore.” There was plenty of protest music anymore. It just looked and sounded very different than the folk singer with the guitar protest music that had defined the generation before that. Certainly, figures like Champ, Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, those guys now are where that flame does continue to burn but in a different place, in a different place in the culture than where those rock and rollers had been holding it.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I remember when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the message in New York, New York, I just thought those things … and then I was levitated then just by the intensity that they brought to bear. In the current circumstance, I worry that intensity can be frightening. Like you said, we’re in this ethereal place that people don’t know where we’re going. One of the bands that I’ve been recalling from earlier attraction to their thoughts and sounds is Enigma, and their album Cross of Changes, their Return to Innocence is one of my favorite songs, The Eyes of Truth. These are more mystical tracks, again, and it’s not like in my spirit I feel like I know where I want to go and darn it, we’re just not getting there. It’s wide open right now. It’s an open system.

Alan Light:

I think that’s right, and I think that it may be that solace and introspection. We’re all stuck at home alone, alone or just with our loved ones for the foreseeable future. Stuff that gets us focused, music that enables us to drill down on some of our thinking and our priorities. that may be what’s more important right now than music that’s a call to action.

As you said, I don’t know what a call to action exactly looks like right now. Maybe as we’re moving closer to election season, there’ll be some clarity to that. Maybe once we’re able to emerge from our households and gather, that’ll be possible, but everything that we’re talking about, certainly, everything that we’re talking about just within the music industry, within the practicalities of what happens in the music world, even when we’re able to leave our houses again, we just have no idea what is a touring musician’s life going to look like in the fall.

Everybody’s saying, “Oh, we’ll delay our tour to the fall. By then, we should be able to go out again.” Well, which venues are going to be able to survive having their doors closed for months? Which nightclubs are going to be able to actually reopen? What are you rescheduling your tour into? We don’t know the answer to that.

In the meantime, again, this could be an exciting development if people get more used to watching all these livestreams, watching all of these concerts from home, watching through your screen all of the things that people are trying to do to keep performing right now. Well, that technology has been out there for a while and there’s been this simmering sense of concerts have gotten so expensive. People can only go hear live music for very special occasions a couple of times a year because it’s $200 to buy a ticket, to go see a big rock band at a hockey rink.

Maybe we’re going to see a shift where much more live music is something that we’re going to stay home and watch people beam out to us instead of us going out to see. That may mean more access to a lot more stuff, but engaged in a very different way. We’ve seen a lot of people-

Rob Johnson:

Well, it’s called Netflix and Hulu versus the movie theater.

Alan Light:

Well, it’s that, but it’s also people have been experimenting a lot more with live music through virtual reality. Maybe there are going to be more ways for us to go see shows together, but not be in the same place together, but our friends are all there and we’re still able to hang out. Those kinds of models, there’s a lot of different things that are being worked on. These aren’t futuristic five years down the road. These are things that exist that people were playing around with that really may affect what our experience of live music looks like moving forward.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, I don’t really know what is coming and I don’t know what is even the right music right now, but I will recommend to our listeners. I do have a favorite book for this time and it’s called When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. It’s by a Buddhist nun named Pema Chödrön. It’s really about how to keep your heart open, how to keep exploring, how not to which we might call harden yourself with fear.

I am told by a friend of mine who is a Benedictine monk named Lawrence Freeman that Confucius once said that for a supple and a deep mind, one most listen to four hours of music every day as a way of keeping that heart open. I think Pema Chödrön is the thing that’s, how would I say? Her work, When Things Fall Apart, has caught fire with me. I’ve listened to it on an audible book and read it both, but there’s so many, how do I say? I don’t know. There’s so many angles. I think lots of poetry. I’ve heard people reciting The Second Coming, Yeats poem, so many times recently that it’s obviously resonating with the center cannot hold a thing, but-

Alan Light:

You and I, I mean, going back into speaking of monks and speaking of poetry, you and I talked about going back to Leonard Cohen and some of his songs that have a whole lot to say about what’s going on in our universe. There’s seemingly bottomless riches to go back and listen to the stuff that that guy was writing.

Rob Johnson:

Oh, yeah. Well, I watched the bailout bill passed, and I had to listen to Everybody Knows. “Everybody knows the dice are loaded. Everybody knows-“

Alan Light:

“The good guys lost.”

Rob Johnson:

“… the good guys lost.” Anyway, I think he had a rather intense song called The Future that you turned me on to as well, which was a chaotic and anxious set of thoughts.

Alan Light:

Written partly as a response to the L.A. riots, which he could see from his house when they happened, but, obviously, partly in response to everything that led up to the riots in the early ’90s. The ways that society was riven at that time are things that continue to land right now. As you say, so do some of the more ethereal, some of the more spiritual things that he was writing.

I have to keep track. I make a point of almost every day trying to just track, is there some new way, something that somebody did with Hallelujah that day somewhere in the world because I wrote this book about the journey of that song and the way that it become this modern standard, this global anthem, and in all of these different ways and as a song of mourning, as a song of triumph, as a song of celebration, and as a song of perseverance, and all of the different things that people turn to Hallelujah and are able to find?

Literally, almost every day, if I put it in my newsfeed, something comes up of people singing it from the balconies in Italy, somebody who cut footage of the healthcare workers I think in Toronto. Some of the first responder emergency workers cutting footage of them around Leonard’s recording of Hallelujah. It’s really almost every day still a thing that somebody somewhere is using to fill that need and fill that space and say something that they’re trying to say.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I’m very curious right now. We talked about your son Adam a little bit earlier. Another Rolling Stone writer, another person who I believe like yourself grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, was my friend the late William Greider. Bill was near the end of his life. He was creating a website, and the first posting on the website was where he said that he trusted in the vision of young people, and increasingly, through his life, he relied more on young people.

He said in the post, “I believe that is because young people see what is needed, and they haven’t yet been conditioned by what is feasible, that they be once feasible under current social relations institutions and practices may have to change, and sometimes they can see what is unsustainable and what must be repaired.”

I’m very curious. Your son, when I’ve talked to him in recent months, seems very engaged in American politics, very acutely attuned. I’m just curious how you’re seeing and learning through his eyes at this point.

Alan Light:

Yeah. I mean, all the time is the answer. It’s certainly impressive how much he remains dialed in. Certainly, the upside of there’s many things we can complain about a post-internet world and a social media world and everything else, but the ability to have all of this information and all of these resources this easily at hand, there are benefits to that.

Yeah. Certainly, I think that, I mean, broad strokes, not specifically to his case, but when you see all these stories that say how much more, well, more what it is say that this idea of socialism means to young people in this country. It’s really interesting to hear him and to hear his friends engaging with those concepts and not bringing the baggage that’s around ideas like that and looking at what should be the priorities of a society, and as you said, not being beaten down by cynicism yet.

Certainly, he is so dialed into history that I think there is probably more pragmatism in his case than a lot of others just because he’s studying and learning the lessons, but certainly, an openness and a curiosity and a hope even in the face of you would think you would look at the universe right now and just take hopelessness from that, but for these kids trying to look beyond that, trying to envision something beyond that.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I’m curious. Did he listen to Bob Dylan’s recent offering, Murder Most Foul?

Alan Light:

We have talked about it. He has not yet, but he has promised me that he will. I need them to do it. I’ve, of course, been obsessed, but, yeah, he’s going to need the history lesson on that one.

Rob Johnson:

So, I guess if you were a dad sending him off to a desert island for five years and you could pick 10 artists to send him with, who would make the list?

Alan Light:

Oh, my God. Throughout history?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Yeah.

Alan Light:

Well, I mean, for him, he’s been listening to all of these not in any kind of order, but what do you say you say? The Beatles and Dylan. You say John Coltrane and Miles Davis. You say a Prince and Neil Young. You say, let’s see. I have to think about what kind of hip hop answer you give to that. If it’s somebody maybe new, if it’s maybe a Kendrick Lamar to represent where things are right now. Then some of the ones that I’ve been fortunate enough to write about. It’s Johnny Cash. Could be Leonard Cohen. Could be Nina Simone. Could be Aretha Franklin. I think I said Ray Charles. Something like that is probably about what my list looks like.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. That’s pretty good. I might throw in a little Mozart and Beethoven and Bach just to-

Alan Light:

Well, pretty sure.

Rob Johnson:

… to ground us earlier, but how do I say? We picked up the line and then I guess I might throw a little Howard Wolf, Robert Johnson, and Mike Waters at you, too. There’s a tremendous amount of, and you’ve alluded to this earlier, there’s a tremendous amount of interaction between history and society and the music that results and then it feeds back in the other way. The way in which music propels people gives them spirit, gives them courage, and helps to redirect society.

I know a James Cone, the late theologian, who I encountered quite frequently when I made a record with Ike Turner, it was called Here and Now because he wrote a book called Spirituals and the Blues. In that book, it said, “The spirituals are when you’re in chains and you’re thinking about the afterlife, but the blues are when you’re allegedly free in the Jim Crow era, but you are not free, and you defy in code in the here and now.”

Rob Johnson:

This interaction between music and society where each is a reflection of the other, where huge events occur and they are almost like clashing tectonic plates or clashing weather systems that produce lightning bolts. It’s fascinating. I got on this riff because as I was thinking about Dylan and your son, I think in addition to listening to that song, he should read Chronicles Volume One with his interest in history and how Bob describes the language in the newspapers during the civil war. It’s just fascinating.

Alan Light:

Civil war, right.

Rob Johnson:

It’s just a fascinating thing.

Alan Light:

Well, obviously, we know it’s an obsession for Dylan, and we know how that’s especially in, I mean, really in all the work, but especially in the recent work come out. It’s funny, I literally just picked up The Spirituals and the Blues, James Cone’s book, about two days ago looking for something. So, I know exactly what it is that you’re dialing in to.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Alan Light:

Again, we’ll see. I don’t, I mean, certainly, there’s always a role, there’s always a place. Again, music, whatever it is, art comes out of the culture of the universe, the society that it is generated in whether that is in ways that are explicit, whether it is in ways that literally laid down things that are coming from that moment or whether it’s just what the spirit, the, the ideas, the feelings in the era are at that time.

As I said earlier, when we talk about the Dylans, when we talk about the role that define this protest music, this social criticism in music, that was at a time where for a lot of different reasons music sat at a cultural center in our world. Right now, in youth culture, that music isn’t that thing.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right.

Alan Light:

Social media is that thing, some version of the internet. If somebody is going to lead that kind of movement, that I don’t think is something that’s going to come from musicians. I don’t think that they hold that place right now. I think it’s somebody at some, this sounds ridiculous, but the influencers, the YouTube stars, whatever it is, the people who have the imagination of, the primary imagination of young people, wherever it is that that lives, that’s where that is going to come from.

Music sits in a different place in the world and that’s okay. Things march on. The technology always determines the way that these things get disseminated. That isn’t a bad thing or a degradation. It’s an evolution. So, we need to be looking at how do these things sit next to each other and then how do they set within the broader canvas.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. Well, I’ll add. I haven’t put my 10 books together to go with your 10 pieces of music, but there are a couple that I would emphasize. One, going back to James Cone, is called The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It is my favorite book on social science. I know it’s number one on my list whatever follows.

I also like Jamie Howison’s book, God’s Mind in That Music, which is about the music of John Coltrane, who I think is an extraordinary person to study. I had mentioned Chronicles, but I guess, it’s funny running something INET. At the end of the day, I’m crossing these boundaries from film and music back and forth, and challenging the orthodoxy, but I’m always tempted, and I once was surprised because I saw Johnny Mitchell looking at me from the audience when I was reading the slide.

It was the song, again, by Leonard Cohen called Anthem. At the refrain, it says, “Ring the bell that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Well, this pandemic is more than a crack, but it is an impetus to change, and it was an impetus to bringing you Alan onto this podcast today. So, I guess that’s how the light gets in. Thanks for being with me.

Alan Light:

Absolutely. Always, always a pleasure, but especially a pleasure in this context. I hope I see you soon.

Rob Johnson:

Well, this will be the first of many chapters on this podcast. I’ll bring you back again and again because you always convey so much insight and give my best to your family as well.

Alan Light:

Absolutely. Be well.

Rob Johnson:

Thanks. You, too.

Alan Light:

More to come. Okay.

Rob Johnson:

Gladly.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guest

ALAN LIGHT has been covering the music industry for more than 25 years. Currently, he is the co-host of the daily music talk show “Debatable” and the monthly interview series “In the Light” on SiriusXM. He is also the director of programming for the PBS concert series “Live from the Artists Den.”

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