When Nostalgia Was Pure

There’s a spectacular sub-genre of pop hit lamenting change, specifically the loss of nature. Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” strikes me as archetypal. 

“They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot” says it all, yet the aching metaphor of her father leaving, and the recurring refrain tells the real story: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?”  The only way to notice change from an original state is for that original state to leave. 

“Tis far better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.”

“Says who?” asks the Indigo Girls, in “Fare Thee Well”

And now I think of having loved and having lost
But never know what it feels like to never love
Who can say what’s better when my heart’s become the cost

Detecting better or worse requires change.  Nostalgia for loss requires change. There is no stasis… only adaptation to change.

The sentiment, nostalgic regret over nature’s destruction, set to music, goes back in my catalogue at least as far as John Prine’s “Paradise”

Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County,
Down By the green river, where paradise lay.
Well I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in asking,
Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.

And they dug for the coal, til the land was forsaken
And they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

Ah… here we have it: motive.  Progress.  The ironic search for greener (or more profitable) grass.

I first heard that song sung by John Denver, who’s no slouch when it comes to lamenting man’s inhumanity to nature.  In Rocky Mountain High, side by side with soaring visions of the perfect night around a campfire, Denver conjures the image of what ruins heaven for him:

Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear
Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend
Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land

John, pay attention.  John Prine told you what to comprehend.  Some people see progress waiting to happen, a place inviting change, where you see heaven.  Was it a Beatitude?  “Blessed are the developers, who see heaven in every new strip mall? For they shall never go hungry joyful scenes.”

I hesitate to impute too much purity to Denver’s testimony, as he was notoriously caught hoarding gasoline during the 1979 shortages.  Also, many Denver love songs are about regretting his own infidelity, publicly gaslighting the women who apparently called him out for it in private.  Perhaps his cries to preserve nature as he builds up “Starwood in Aspen” might also deserve a skeptical glance? John Denver as prime NIMBY?Isn’t that nostalgia in a nutshell?  “Not in my backyard.  I like what I already know and have personally made.”

And then, is regret too late? Wasted? Wasteful? Why does no one listen to cautionary tales and prevent their repeat BEFORE the next rapacious thing happens? Action in the face of risk, opposition, and potential failure is so much harder than wistful nostalgia as one washes the shit off the fan.

David Byrne and the Talking Heads sang a tongue in cheek antidote to nostalgia, in 1988’s “Nothing But Flowers” envisioning the human world reverting to a state of nature.  

Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis
You’ve got it, you’ve got it
This was a Pizza Hut
Now it’s all covered with daisies
You got it, you got it
Deceptively cloaked in punchy Afro-Cuban rhythms, and lyrical reversion to Eden, the video places on screen a series of contrapuntal, oppositional statements about humans and their systems destroying nature. Even David Byrne could be nostalgic, but he did it with style.

Wesley Stace updated the genre with… defeatism?  “There’s a Starbucks Where The Starbucks used to be.” 

There’s a stadium where we used to drink at Freddie’s
For a team that no one likes or wants or needs
Said they’d revitalize the place
There’s a million parking spaces
Maybe bedrooms for the homeless refugees
There’s a chain store where mom and pop once prospered
They’re divorced now and they live in penury
Kids grown up and moved away
I hear that happens anyway
There’s a Starbucks where they live, I guarantee

Harding explicitly calls out the hollow hypocrisies of those proposing “progress,” cognizant that benefit flows only to the investors.  The mavens of new stadiums are all about public funding “for the common good” when it builds them a profit-driving sports facility, but they recoil in horror when someone proposes global education, public spaces, and benefits with less obvious bottom line potential.

Where is brave effort in the NOW, toward progress of a different sort, competitive with the “progress” proposed by those who would make every space private, offering access only to those who can pay for the privilege?  Maybe nostalgia motivates future action?

In 2018 Ben Gibbard and Death Cab For Cutie went full un-ironic in “Gold Rush,” lamenting the destruction of existing buildings for new buildings.  Not even a hint of concern for nature.  Only concerns for one’s personal mythology.  The passage of time steals what we’re familiar with.

I remember a winter’s night
(Gold rush) we kissed beneath the street lamp light
(Gold rush) outside our bar near the record store
(Gold rush) that have been condos for a year and more
(Gold rush) now that our haunts have taken flight
(Gold rush) and been replaced with construction sites
(Gold rush) oh, how I feel like a stranger here
(Gold rush) searching for something that’s disappeared
digging for gold in my neighborhood
(Gold rush) for what they say is the greater good
(Gold rush) but all I see is a long goodbye
(Gold rush) a requiem for a skyline
(Gold rush) it seems I never stopped losing you
(Gold rush) as every dive becomes something new
(Gold rush) and all our ghosts get swept away
(Gold rush) it didn’t used to be this way

Still, touching. Intoxicating. Nostalgia plucks the very strings of identity.  Raw first experiences gone forever. Out of our control to preserve, as is every past experience.  Do we have to become advocates of “progress?”

Damn it.  I started optimistic, and thought nostalgia felt good.  But it’s a manipulative, wicked waste of time. It is energy deployed against progress already made, change already happened.

It didn’t used to be this way. I remember when nostalgia was pure, and useful.


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