For Boomers, The Beat Goes On
August 25, 2015 | By Faith Gillman
Baby boomers. There are a lot us – 76 million, in fact, born during the so-called baby boom that took place between 1946 and 1964. Maine has the highest concentration of boomers among adults in the nation, with 390,446, and in the Biddeford-Portland metro area about 30 percent of the population falls into the category, according to a report by AARP. The sheer size of the boomer generation has had, and continues to have, an impact on society, overall. And they remain relevant, especially in the cultural landscape.
Rich Livingston, state president of AARP Maine, says boomers are very involved and active in the arts community throughout Maine.
“Walk around any sidewalk arts festival in Maine – and there are many – and look around. Look at the people manning the booths,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, those spaces are populated by boomers. We have met the generation and they are us. We don’t always notice us. There is not an element of the Maine economy or cultural scene that is not immeasurably impacted by boomers. In many cases boomers represent the majority.”
Charlie Wright, owner of the Wright Gallery in Cape Porpoise since 1985 and a boomer himself, said the world of art continually goes through generational changes.
“Certainly, the baby boomers introduced technology to both creating and marketing,” said Wright. “Art has been made accessible to the masses. Information on artists, availability and pricing on websites and social media has helped bolster the market. In fact, now there is an art market more akin to other commodities.”
For Wright, generational impact is always part of the artistic process.
“In visual arts we (our generation) are the mold,” he said. “But each new generation chips away at that mold in a way, creates from a different aspect.”
But for whatever impact boomers have on the art world, they do have a major impact on the state’s economy, according to Livingston.
“Recent numbers indicate that 52 percent of Maine’s economy is controlled by people over the age of 50; over half the economy in business formation, consumer spending and contributions to the labor force, both paid and unpaid.”
Livingston himself serves as president in a volunteer capacity.
“The leadership in nonprofit comes from the boomer cadre. I testified before the National Commission on Hunger when they stopped in Maine on a fact-finding tour recently. Most of the volunteer efforts at food banks are provided by boomers and seniors,” said Livingston, who is 70. “And that’s true of other nonprofits.”
Charles Grindle, 63, is a music director for several Unitarian Universalist churches in southern Maine. He believes boomers continue to be relevant by keeping an open mind.
“Ours is a dichotomous generation, revering the past and embracing the new,” said Grindle, who is also an Interfaith minister. “Computer-driven art is offering more people a chance to be creative, and the blending of that with cartooning and film, for example, can give a new dimension to that art form. Theater has grown technologically, but good music and story line are losing importance. Revivals often outnumber new creations on Broadway.
“As our world has shrunk, I think our generation has shown a greater acceptance of the new and different, keeping what is useful and pleasant. We understand better that fashion comes and goes, but style is timeless,” he said.
Livingston sees the boomer generation as anything but uniform.
“The only common characteristic is age. We sell ourselves short when we describe it as one cohort. They are people of all sides of all issues in the generation. Monolithic it is not,” he said.
But there is a thread that seems to run through the generation.
“We don’t have the same impetus to withdraw from the larger world as previous generations did. We face a longer and more robust retirement,” said Livingston. “More than half of AARP members, who are age 50-plus, work. They’re not retired. We don’t have to be in a hurry to start retirement. The biggest source of job creation in Maine is in new-business formation. People between the age of 50 and 64 dominate as a source. AARP does a lot of work in encore entrepreneurship and second careers. We’re moving past the traditional forms of retirement and into other vocations and avocations.”
The music scene for boomers is a good example. Maine has its fair share of bands, many of which consist of 50- and 60-somethings who have finally found the time to get together with other musicians, or have played together for years, and others who have semi-retired from a life in the music industry but still want to jam.
Bassist and songwriter John Kumnick has toured, performed and recorded with David Bowie, Chuck Berry and Cyndi Lauper among others. Kumnick grew up Connecticut and made his way to New York City to pursue a career in music. Now in Maine, he continues to play on a regular basis, often with The Windmills, a southern Maine-based group that plays a blend of blues, jazz and rock from the past and present.
“I started to play during the British invasion, hearing the new blues that were inspired by American blues,” said Kumnick, who is 61. “I got into it by listening to groups like Cream, and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, which inspired me to go, ‘Oh, here’s where that came from, the original blues guys.’”
Kumnick thinks the music he grew up with is significant.
“To our own generation, of course,” he said. “But I’m playing with people that are younger than me now, including my 25-year-old son. I’m surprised sometimes by the music that younger people like from that time period, like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and so many other bands.
“Jimi Hendrix still influences a lot of players. That’s not to say they’re going to play exactly like him, or dress like him, but his music informs and inspires and is still relevant,” he said.
Kumnick said he sees that influence in a new generation of musicians, such as Joss Stone, the 28-year-old English singer and songwriter whose soulful sound is reminiscent of Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield.
“But (the music) is defused in a way. Like oral traditional, songs are handed down,” said Kumnick. “The streams of music didn’t cut off. The next generation interprets and changes it, but it’s still there.”
That’s not to say younger artists have nothing to offer. Kumnick said that while he still loves the music he grew up with, he is always curious about new music.
“There are new, interesting things to listen to and I get inspired by new people,” he said. “But that’s the way it has been for the musicians I’ve worked with – always listening to new music. And the same is true for younger artists. My son is working on his own music now. His job is to figure it out. This generation will figure out what they need.”
Bill Carey is a martial arts instructor in Portland. He is also a musician who couldn’t believe his eyes.
There, in a late summer yard sale, alongside pots and pans and bric-a-brac, sat a vintage Cort electric guitar. Cort, a Korean company, has been manufacturing guitars for 50 years. The solid wood-body guitar Carey spied appeared to be in good shape.
Carey said the owner didn’t really want to sell it, but in the end he did.
“Cort made guitars in the style of other companies like Les Paul and Stratocaster, but then got into their own stuff. This is one of their own,” said Carey, holding his find out for inspection. “It’s totally gonna be great to play tunes on that.”
Carey, who plays guitar and sings for the Portland-based band, Lincoln Continental, and has been “rocking out” for 30 years, said he couldn’t wait to try it out.
“Maybe I’ll play it this Friday (at our gig). I’m thinking a little George Harrison, maybe some Bowie and then Pink,” said Carey, 58. “We play a bit of everything.”
Neil Howe, a baby boomer, historian and founder of Lifecourse Associates, a consulting group focused on generational transitions, believes boomers have changed the way generations interact. Again.
Howe writes, in an article called “What makes the boomers the boomers” for Governing Magazine:
“Thirty or 40 years ago, there were stark, clear differences in generational likes and dislikes. Youthful boomers invented the generation gap … and actively, purposefully chose to have nothing in common with their parents. Not so today. Pop culture now is much more universal. Boomers and their kids swap book recommendations … their iPod playlists overlap. The generation gap has been erased.”
Jon Dobrovich, 26, likes his parents’ music, as do many of his friends, but for him it’s more about accessibility than a total nod to the generation.
“Technology has changed how people listen,” said Dobrovich, who lives in Portland. “Music is so accessible. It’s so easy to listen, share and immortalize. It (the music) goes on to a second life.”
He grew up with a mom who often had the music cranked up.
“It’s going to be a rockin’ party if we all end up at a nursing home,” said Dobrovich’s mother, Judy Stark. “I’m still going to be wearing jeans and Converse (sneakers) and listening to all kinds of music.”
This issue of My Generation offers revealing question-and-answer profiles of several Maine-based artists of all types – all baby boomers.