Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Leader of the Band Has Died —
A Tribute to Dan Fogelberg (Part 1 of 2)

Long Way Home
I have lost someone very important to me. He was neither a family member nor even an acquaintance, but was nevertheless a man to whom I felt very close; someone who had a tremendous effect on my life during my early twenties.

This post was at first a spur-of-the-moment project, as the information regarding the subject matter was something I had learned only a few minutes before I launched into writing it Sunday night. I felt that I had to sit down and immediately begin writing in order to keep from going into a complete funk over what I myself and many others have considered a tragic occasion.

However in throwing myself into what was intended to be a short, yet heartfelt tribute, much in the same vein as one I wrote for Johnny Carson, immediately upon hearing of his death in January 2005, I found that as my thoughts began forming actual sentences, they fell far short of anything cohesive or meaningful — certainly less so than I had intended or needed for them to be.

I realized that all I had were impressions with very little substance behind them; far less information than necessary to form a fitting structure upon which to build an account of all this man and his music meant to me and the millions of other fans he touched over a thirty-plus year career. So I decided to take a bit more time to consider the life, career and spirit of one of my heroes, Dan Fogelberg, to appropriately say goodbye to him today.

Dan Fogelberg, circa 1977 and 2001
Dan Fogelberg, as I remember him best, circa 1977 (left) and of more recent vintage, in 2001 (right).
Dan passed away early Sunday morning, following a three-and-a-half year battle with prostate cancer. He was only fifty-six years old, but his music, in my opinion, was timeless.

I learned that he was sick through my good friend Bee, of whom I’ve written about a couple times before, back in 2005 while in Southern California for my 30th High school reunion.

While back in my old stompin’ grounds, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Bee and another other of my oldest and dearest friends, Cindy. Dan and his illness was a high topic of our conversation that afternoon.

Bee absolutely worshiped Fogelberg, and is the person who originally introduced me to his music back in the mid-70s. At the time I spoke with him two summers ago, he was excitedly extolling Dan’s latest, and first original material release in over three years, Full Circle. However my friend’s excitement was tempered with the additional news that Dan had canceled his tour to promote the new album, as a result of the discovery of his illness a little more than a year earlier, in May of 2004.

Nonetheless there was encouraging news. Fogelberg had just issued a statement announcing the apparent success of his doctor’s hormonal therapy efforts to treat the cancer, which had subsequently spread from his prostate to his bones. He was at that time in partial remission and the outlook for a full recovery was good, although he was still far from being ‘out of the woods’ completely. And even though he announced that he was officially curtailing his active career as a performing musician to concentrate on getting well, he said that he wouldn’t rule out returning to it again at a later, healthier time further on down the road.

That road unfortunately would grow narrower and come to a premature end two and a half years later.

The Reach
So here I am now, trying to pay my last respects without making the same seemingly obligatory gesture of loss, like the lip service I’ve read in several news media reports over the past 24 hours. The vast majority of these all but insist that Fogelberg was the Godfather of ‘soft-rock;’ that the weightiest contributions he made to the pantheon of popular music were songs like Same Old Lang Syne and Leader of the Band, both of which became huge hits in the wake of his career finally reaching a critical saturation point with the public in the early 80s.

However to me, Fogelberg’s career wasn’t about what happened after he hit it big, but rather, beforehand. By my personal observation, the creative highpoint of his career’s impact was around its mid point during the 70s when he was defining the modern singer-songwriter genre like no one else in popular music. Then later, at what in retrospect seems to be the critical mass of his fame, changes in the music industry as well as his own creative decisions almost inexplicably forced Fogelberg’s career and creative significance into a slow but steady downturn following that high-water mark of success.

In the years soon following the 1981 release of Fogelberg’s most popular work ever, The Innocent Age, his particular style of music seemed to suddenly draw a different public perception in the light of the burgeoning age of Punk and New Wave Rock. The soulful, ballad-esque singer/songwriter variety of pop music was becoming viewed as somewhat staid as the new generation gap between Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers began to emerge. The more folk-influenced styles, along with the popular torchy R&B ballads of the 80s were pooled together into a new genre of pop music, targeting an older, more conservative, less cutting-edge audience. ‘Soft Rock’ was the new ‘elevator music’ being piped into offices and shopping malls across America; its glossy, middle-of-the-road tempo and romantic subject matter made it the perfect background music for the now-approaching-middle-aged ‘Baby Boomer’ generation, to whom its sensibilities were targeted to appeal.

Every radio market in America suddenly had some sort of ‘Lite-FM’ type of station, playing everything from Luther Vandross to — you guessed it — Dan Fogelberg.

For a self-proclaimed music hound like myself, this was hard to witness and even harder to accept. I didn’t want to blame Dan. I knew that pigeonholing his music in such a way was as wrong as it was inaccurate. I instead hated the commercial music establishment (and still do) for its unabashedly formulaic, cookie-cutter methodology, which seems to all but completely strip the true soul from any musical genre they get their money-grubbing hands on.

Fogelberg had been one of my all-time favorite artists since I began seriously listening to music. It’s kind of hard to quantify, but I can truly say that his music touched me in a way that no other’s had before or has since. And although I haven’t talked about him an awful lot, I’ve certainly considered it. However to be brutally honest, there’s a very real reason that I’ve chosen to skirt the subject.

These days, admitting that you’re a Dan Fogelberg fan is not exactly a safe thing for a guy to do, unless of course you don’t mind being consequently crushed by most other men for being a wimp.

‘Macho’ comedians like Dennis Leary have made Fogelberg’s music the butt of jokes about the emasculation of male society. And as vehemently as I call bullshit on such a notion, you can’t fight City Hall. Just as ‘Political Correctness’ swept an entire generation of society in the late 80s and early 90s to become the new law of the land, so the notion that ‘sensitivity’ is the opposite of masculinity has now become ingrained in our culture as well.

I have to admit my shame in saying that a large part of why I’ve rather distanced myself from Dan’s recent work — having not purchased any of his albums since the late 70s — has been in large part to avoid the stigma attached to that type of music in our culture.

And yes, I know that’s hypocritical — and stupid.

Michael Bolton, Kenny G., Hootie and the Blowfish — these were some extremely talented artists who made huge contributions to Pop Music in the 80s and early 90s, but in part due to that popularity, particularly in conjunction with their inclusion in the ‘soft rock’ genre, they have become cultural punching bags for the new macho bullshit reality: the unspoken rule in our New Millennium credo that says a guy who expresses emotions other than rage and indifference is weak and unmanly.

Sure. Go ahead. Throw the baby out with the bath water — whether it’s dirty or not.

And BTW, screw you and the dinosaur you rode in on, dude.

Outta Sync
I absolutely bristle at one of the new TeeVee commercials for Microsoft’s Sync voice-activated in-car audio interface now being offered in select Ford and Lincoln/Mercury vehicles.

In a recent spot, playing off of this same popular dynamic, equating Michael Bolton’s music with unmanliness, a large, macho-looking black man, riding shotgun in his skinny, wimpy-looking white friend’s new Sync-equipped vehicle tries to ‘out’ his buddy by asking the voice activated interface to first, “Play artist, ‘Tiffany’” in hopes of embarrassing his friend by discovering that he listens to an artist made famous by pre-teen girls.

Upon realizing there was no Tiffany in the music library, Macho man goes to plan B, calling out, “Play artist, ‘Michael Bolton,’” which, predictably, wimpy guy has in his playlist. As the car stereo belts out the chorus of Bolton’s How Am I Supposed to Live Without You, Wimpy Guy, mortified that his unmanly musical affinities have been discovered, quickly blurts out, “Play artist, ‘Korn,’” the heavy metal, ultra-macho band, whose thunderous beat then fills the air as the commercial cuts to slogan.

Although this is more than just a little bit farcical in its characterization of society’s musical attitudes involving men, it’s certainly true enough on the surface. And as shallow as it appears a man needs to be in order to allow this to truly affect his choices, I’d be willing to bet that upon first blush (pun intended), most men that I know would fall lock-step into this pattern.

And that’s what’s so silly about it all; it’s all about appearances — not real attitudes. I recently read one person’s take on the idea of men enjoying ‘unmanly’ music, describing it as a “guilty pleasure:” the type of thing you don’t mind doing with your wife or girlfriend, but something you’d never do with ‘the guys.’ And I think I’d have to agree with that assessment, except that I really hate myself when I realize I’m knuckling under to the pressure. It’s not always a conscious thing but rather much more, a conditioned response.

Personally, however, I know which men I can trust to judge me fairly, and I know those whom I cannot, so I rarely get embarrassed. Nonetheless I open myself up to that kind of criticism anyway; I admit to being a sensitive guy. I don’t necessarily attempt to hide my emotions in daily life no matter who I’m around; I allow myself to feel them all.

I suppose that’s the reason I enjoyed Fogelberg so much. I identified with his passion, his willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve without fear; that and the fact that he was just so very, very talented.

He will be missed.

Next: Since You’ve Asked
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