Tom Wolfe once said that it never pays to be more than five minutes ahead of your time. A hippie in the 50s, a disco dancer in the 60s, and an Eminem-style rapper in the 70s all would have faced social scorn and ridicule. The innovative streamlined 1934 Chrysler Airflow failed not just because of the Depression but because the public wasn’t ready for the look. In the 1970s, Xerox developed an operating system that was essentially Windows, but home computers powerful enough to run it didn’t yet exist. The first generation of plate-size video discs appeared too soon, and was leapfrogged by later consumer electronics technology. F. Paul Wilson: “The late mouse gets the cheese.”
If you are one of those people more than two steps ahead, folks someday, when they look back, may point you out as a pioneer or trailblazer, but that doesn’t help your present bank account or land you a spot on The Tonight Show.
What brings all this to mind is the CD I randomly plucked out of the center console this morning while driving to work. It was The Best of the Velvet Underground. The original alternative rock group, Velvet Underground is often called the “most influential rock band of all time.” Yet, in the 60s and 70s it was not a commercial success, despite (because of?) its association with Andy Warhol and The Factory. The dark moody lyrics didn’t fit the 60s Zeitgeist, which was a blend of rebellion and Love; besides, the sound didn’t rock and you couldn’t dance to it. The total effect of the music was just weird in a way that connected only with a relative handful of enthusiasts. Thanks to Warhol, almost everyone at the time who was moderately conscious of contemporary music knew the group existed, but hardly anyone could identify one of its songs. The band didn’t get airtime on the most popular radio channels. Not one of my friends in high school (1966-70) owned a Velvet Underground album, and, for all the prevalent music talk among them, I don’t recall any of my classmates so much as mentioning the band. Velvet Underground was more than five minutes ahead of its time, and suffered for it.
Other musicians and lyricists noticed, even if most of the general public did not, and adapted their sounds accordingly. The Zeitgeist eventually caught up, and dark, moody weirdness went mainstream – more mainstream, anyway. The group’s albums sell far better now than they did when they were recorded in the 1960s, and veteran Lou Reed is better known and respected than ever.
I didn’t give the group a serious listen until 1974, nearly a decade late. The (sometimes literally) offbeat sound appealed to me then and still does today.
Tom’s point remains valid with regard to commercial success and social acceptance, but, all the same, there is something to be said for striking out into new territory – at least for those of us further back on the trail.