I was standing in line at the coffee shop. The music was turned down so low that I couldn't hear the words. But the voice was unmistakable, Cat Stevens.
Instantly I was transported back 20 years in time. I was riding some western road in a Chevy van with sickly green and yellow carpet on the ceiling and walls, my three kids warring on bean bags in the back, while we listened to "Peace Train" on the eight-track cassette in front.
It was a Proustian moment. It reminded me of Yeats, alone in a crowded London coffee shop, when a sudden blaze of happiness made him feel "That I was blessed and could bless" although I'm sure that Yeats had loftier matters than Cat Stevens on his mind.
I strained to hear the words of the next song, "Oh Very Young," in which Stevens makes an emblem of a faded pair of blue jeans: "Although you want them to last forever, you know they never will." It's a perfect, narcissistic teen-age conceit for the transitory nature of all worldly things: "And the patches make the good-bye harder still."
It's a variation of the "Ubi Sunt" theme - "Where have all the flowers gone?" and so on, to which we must add, "Where have all the blue jeans gone ... Long time passing."
It seems a little silly now. It didn't seem so silly then. And I confess I had a little trouble getting my order for a double espresso out when my turn came. I went straight to the record shop and bought Cat Stevens' greatest hits and played it for my wife when I got home.
"We were young once," I said.
"It seems like a long time ago," said she.
Most popular music is as transitory as Cat Stevens' blue jeans. Most of the songs of my youth seem dated or foolish now. I remember an infantile refrain that went, "ting, tang, walla-walla, bing-bang." And a song in which Doris Day confided her "secret love" to the golden daffodils. They don't make songs like that any more, and I suppose it's a good thing too.
Another ditty sticks with me: "Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage ... Dad was told by mother, you can't have one without the other."
How would you explain that song to a kid today? Once upon a time, before birth controll pills, men and women put sex off until marriage... Once boys and girls went on dates with chaperones... Boys once opened doors for girls and brought them corsages just to get a kiss.
It was a naive, even quaint world, and it's changed. Today, Eminem raps with homicidal rage against gays and nurses fantasies about slitting his wife's throat. Courtship has hardened into date rape. I won't bemoan the changes. I'm beginning to bore myself when I lapse into my "good old days" mode.
I simply find myself in the position of every member of every older generation: I don't understand. I don't understand how anyone can find this tuneless, brutal music redeeming or entertaining. Maybe, as Mark Twain said of Wagner's music, "It's not as bad as it sounds."
In the case of rap, it's not a generation gap but a generation chasm we're talking about. Yes, there's a time for rage and protest, a time to break down barriers, a time to shock. But there's also a time for love and joy. Rap, it seems, isn't a medium well-suited for such emotions.
I can't help feeling as if young people today are impoverished by the tuneless, spirit-numbing songs of their time. But each generation has its own music. It burrows deep into the memory and when it returns, it can make the knees weak and the past alive.
In the convenience store where I pay for my gas, the attendant listens to rap music that sounds like a machine in need of oil. Almost every line seems to include the overused expletive for Oedipal sexual relations. This is his background music.
I wonder if some day 30 years hence, standing in a coffee shop, he'll hear one of his cop-killing, "ho" bashing oldies and it will move him, remind him of his youth and cause a few tears to come to his eyes. Will he and his wife look fondly at one another and say, "They're playing our song?"
Well, as Cat Stevens said, we're only dancing on this earth for a short while. My question is the same as the one he posed: "Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?"
George Gurley is a Lawrence resident who writes a regular column for the Journal-World.