To Thine Own Self Be Hip

Nostalgia for my bygone days as CBGB and Max's Kansas City plankton definitely isn't my thing. Some people just don't do youth very well, and it turns out I'm much better suited to mimicking Polonius—"to thine own self be hip," more or less, which is wiser advice than it sounds like—for the benefit of bohemian ragamuffins half my age in the Marigny quarter of New Orleans, where my wife and I now live.

But what the hell. The weather was fine, the show was free and a 20-minute walk from our house, so why not? Despite having been a passionate fan in the '80s (she was the perfect age for it), my wife had somehow never seen Blondie live before. I hadn't seen them since, oh, 1978, shortly before the multiplatinum-selling Parallel Lines turned them from a likable semi-spoof that nose-in-the-air scenesters didn't take seriously (Talking Heads, man—now, that was art, and David Byrne wasn't about to let you forget it) into the hottest band in the world for a while.

Reviewing that shimmering classic, one especially obtuse reviewer in The Boston Phoenix accused them of going, ahem, commercial—which just goes to show what a jackass I could be in those days. They'd always been pop, and turning a fairly specialized sensibility into something with mass appeal is the royal flush in that game; just ask Madonna. Unlike her, though, they couldn't make it last, partly for the usual depressing reasons—band acrimony, financial messes, increasingly flimsy inspiration—and partly thanks to the potentially fatal illness that put band majordomo Chris Stein out of commission for several years. Since he and singer Debbie Harry were still a couple at the time, nursing him put her out of commission, too.

Even though the band reunited in 1998—Stein, Harry and drummer Clem Burke are the only original members still in the current lineup—I was paying so little attention that I didn't particularly register they were still around until I happened on a YouTube clip of Blondie 2.0 performing "We Three Kings" a couple of Christmases ago. Smitten by an attitude I could only describe as gallant—which made sense, since attitude had always been their specialty-- I posted it on Facebook. Then New Year's rolled around and I promptly forgot about them again.

Last Saturday's show sandwiched the onetime Hottest Band in the World between the Funky Meters and the Black Keys outdoors at NOLA's Woldenberg Park, part of the ancillary entertainment razzmatazz of the NCAA's Final Four weekend. Once upon a time, I suspect, the punk prig in me would have been dismayed to learn that Debbie Harry and company would end up like this. Instead, I was both touched and tickled by her and their—not to mention my—unlikely longevity.

***

Harry is two years older than Hillary Clinton, and at times it did seem as if our current Secretary of State was fronting a band. Her gauche stage moves weren't symptoms of age, though. As I found myself cheerfully reminiscing to my wife, she was always a klutz. Only her stoic refusal to pretend wasn't long enough in the tooth to be half the crowd's grandmother gave her klutziness a certain belated dignity, even as her amped-up rap on "Rapture" reminded me that Madonna wouldn't exist without her. And without Madonna, well, life as we know it would be very different for you, me, a whole bunch of academics and Lady Gaga, along with millions of others.

Performed in unflattering sunlight, heat stinking of beer and a certain pre-Black Keys apathy—aside from us and a scattering of other couples, Blondie devotees in the crowd looked to be as sparse as Commies in Utah—the show was kind of sloppy, which was good. With oldies acts, what you don't want is perfunctory. They did the hits, of course, and never mind that the kids didn't recognize most of 'em as far as I could tell. Blondie's hits are time-capsule stuff, unlike the way, say, the Beach Boys' songbook is familiar by osmosis to people who weren't even gleams in their parents' eye at the time.

Even "Heart of Glass," the inevitable set-closer, didn't rate any discernible yowls when its apparently no-longer-indelible tickytock intro kicked in. My wife's squeal when a fluke of Mississippi River acoustics wafted a raggedy fragment of "Dreaming" our way as we left the house had been louder. But even so, undeterred, the band was, as we used to say, putting out—tossing a chunk of the Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right to Party" into one tune, updating "One Way or Another" with Facebook jokes. And Clem Burke's advancing years haven't exactly made him ease up on pounding the skins like he's playing for the Redskins.

Not that I could seriously claim you missed much except just another Saturday afternoon in NOLA. One reason I like it here is that I honestly don't see much point in being discriminating about music anymore. From scruffy jug bands on the street to the French Quarter Festival, I just take whatever comes my way in the mix without fretting whether liking it makes me cool. That may not sound like much of an epiphany to you, but considering where I started from, it's practically a religious conversion.

The laissez-faire side of New Orleans culture—its utter indifference to whether something is novel or passé, so long as it's pleasurable—has been known to drive one eminent music critic of my acquaintance right up the wall. But it can accommodate a lot, including Blondie. Anyhow, in my case, "To thine own self be hip" has mostly involved a blissful recognition that I think hipness is a crock. It doesn't hold a candle to just watching the river flow.

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