Lately I’ve been reading a lot about “Dunbar’s number,” which is based on research by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar who claims that the optimal size of communities, and even business organizations, is approximately 150 members. If you push the boundary on that, relationships among group members tend to break down.
This is why, for instance, manufacturer W.L. Gore—famous for its non-hierarchical, team-based management structure—builds a new branch every time one branch exceeds 150. Within this limit each member has the cognitive capacity—specifically the brain size—to process the complex data necessary to maintain stable relationships with everyone else.
January 24th marks the birthday of one of rock’s most gifted singer-songwriter-musicians. Regrettably, he left us nine years ago after a bout with lung cancer. (As he observed to David Letterman, "I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years.") But it’s a good reminder—whether we’re talking about individuals or organizations—that it’s not how long you stick around that matters, it’s the difference you make. (More on that in a moment.)
The difference this individual made as an artist is writing and recording some of the smartest (and most brilliantly satiric) songs in the canon of rock—including “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Werewolves of London,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” and “Tenderness on the Block” (all covered by famous artists from Linda Ronstadt to The Wallflowers). But the most moving of his compositions, to my ears, was the lyrical “Keep Me in Your Heart” which he started writing the day he was told his cancer was inoperable. Check out this clip—with pictures from the VH1 doc on the final recording session of the great Warren Zevon.
Every now and then a song comes along that savages the sterility and banality of modernity and its cookie cutter institutions.
Malvina Reynolds' classic “Little Boxes” did it in 1962, with its allusions to the “ticky tacky” conformity of residential tract housing and the sanitized roles that our social order tries to stuff us into. A half-century later the tune holds up all too well, as Walk Off The Earth brilliantly demonstrates.
This song identifies SO many easy targets: our barren, highway-glutted, carbon-wasting, soul-choking suburban sprawl (which is arguably the biggest contributor to climate destabilization); our assembly-line industrial-era educational factories that produce obedient citizen-workers who (too often) “come out all the same”; and our personality-crushing, spontaneity-killing, Dilbert-imitating corporations that strangle the creativity out of its boxed-in cubicle captives.
When Led Zeppelin was recently feted at the 35th Kennedy Center Honors by President Obama himself, I thought it was a fitting tribute to a mega-talented band. But I was surprised when actor Jack Black introduced them as “the greatest rock and roll band of all time, better than the Beatles.” Hmmm, I thought. By WHAT criteria?
If we start by comparing the musical, cultural, and commercial impact of Zeppelin and The Beatles, it’s nolo contendere. The Beatles reinvented the sound and look of rock & roll, ravaged the pop music hit parade, spearheaded the “British Invasion” of America in the mid-60s (that made the subsequent existence of bands like Led Zeppelin possible), upended fashion, and—even with poor financial management—became so fabulously wealthy overnight that they inspired thousands to consider rock & roll AS A CAREER!