Silicon Insider: The Everly Brothers Meet Alienware

This is what comes from reading my kid's computer gamer magazine while flying across the Atlantic.

Flying home to San Francisco from southern Africa — and God, how I loved that 22-hour, three-airplane trip — I found myself at 2 a.m. Namibian time, wide awake, and somewhere over the Atlantic.

If the Vicodin I was taking for a torn knee ligament (a boat crash on the Okavango River … it's a long story) wasn't putting me to sleep, nothing would.

I couldn't bear another aisle tour and I'd seen all the movies on the in-flight. So I put on the headphones and, while I channel-surfed the audio, also pulled my sleeping 12 year-old's PC gamer 'zine out of the pocket in front of him. The channel I finally settled upon was the best of the Everly Brothers. Thirty tracks of perfect harmonies and Boudleaux and Felice Bryant songs.

I'd spent much of the summer listening to new stuff — the Strokes, Hives and the White Stripes — some of it good, some lousy, but all of it derivative. Rock is in its decadent phase, and I don't think there's a John Fogerty or Johnny Rotten or Kurt Cobain around to save it this time.

So it was nice to listen again to the pure, first-generation stuff, when rock 'n' roll wasn't the dominant cultural establishment and all you needed was three chords and a girl to impress.

Rock critic Joel Selvin once wrote that Don Everly had the most soulful voice God ever gave a white man. I'm not sure that goes far enough.

During their famous reunion tour 15 years I ago, I watched several thousand people visibly melt during their performance of "Let It Be Me." Not only did the pair hit harmonies so pure they throbbed, but then came that amazing bridge by Don — the one that goes "Each night when we meet love/I find complete love/Without your sweet love/What would life be?" — that may be the most beautiful in pop music history.

Music Appreciation, the Vertical Way

So I sat there for more than an hour in the darkened airplane, listening to 25 years of the Everly Bros., from the impossibly young voices of "Bye-Bye Love" and "Bird Dog," through the dark years before the break-up and then the triumphant reunion at Albert Hall and the McCartney-penned "On the Wings of a Nightingale", one of the great pop songs of the 1970s.

As I listened, I was struck by the fact that this kind of vertical exploration of single artist was nearly impossible just 25 years ago. Unless you were rich and had a vast collection of LPs, you really couldn't listen to the entire trajectory of a career. Sure there were Greatest Hits collections, but they inevitably missed the great, but obscure stuff.

And that was just the artists. What if you wanted to listen to all the recordings of Bryant's songs, not just by the Everlys, but by Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell and (God forbid) Richard Chamberlain? Or how about all the recordings played on by the great Motown bassist James Jamerson?

Impossible? Not anymore, thanks to digital recordings and Web downloads. How many people avail themselves of this amazing opportunity? More than we know, especially kids.

I've watched my 12-year-old over the last couple years as, using Napster (when he could), CD-Rs from his buddies and Amazon when he could talk me into it, to burrow through the history of the Beatles, the Who, Metallica and Nirvana.

It's not only interesting to watch (and there's worse things than having your son ask you to turn up "Live at Leeds" in the car) but it also suggests a new approach to music — even a new way of approaching the world — being developed by this generation.

In another year or two, all music will be available all the time. Imagine following digital trails back and forth through time, tracing the history of a particular song or singer, or instrument (say, the Fender Rhodes guitar). Or going sideways across a genre, or tracking the development of a vocal style, or theme (U2's Joshua Tree back to Gram Parsons back to the Byrds back to Greenwich Village folk back to the Weavers back to Leadbelly) — and all of it downloadable in seconds.

All history becomes contemporaneous and accessible — an extraordinary thing.

An Accelerated Moore’s Law

While I was musing on all of this, I also started thumbing through the gamer magazine.

I'm not a computer game player myself. For one thing, it strikes me that there are really only about four different game types — none of which are especially compelling.

Second, life is hard enough without wasting thousands of hours on an activity that doesn't have enough real-life reward. And finally, virtual killing doesn't do much for me. I've been around enough guns and dead things to respect both in ways I've never seen in a computer game.

Needless to say, both my boys completely disagree with everything in the preceding paragraph. They are hard-core gamers on everything from Gameboys to Playstations to personal computers.

As such, they also subscribe to what might be called the Accelerated Moore's Law of Computer Games. This law holds that every six months the computer or box you are currently using becomes, in your eyes at least, hopelessly obsolete.

The same machine might still easily run the entire accounting system for a small corporation, but for your purposes — playing the newest games — it might as well be an abacus.

Souped-Up Hot Rod Computers

Lately, both boys have been making the usual noises about how their current PC, with only 1 gHz processing speed, is just a pokey piece of crap, utterly incapable of playing the latest version of Morrowmind, or whatever.

In the past, they would have begged to go down to the computer store to check out the newest mainstream boxes. Not anymore. This time my oldest, who like every other six-grader in America, seems to effortlessly tap into the Zeitgeist through some invisible wavelength, began talking about Alienware and Falcon and Quakecon.

Huh? Now, I've been watching the personal computing industry as long as anyone alive — it helps to have grown up down the street from Woz and Jobs — and I'd never heard of these companies.

But here they were in the magazine, offering souped-up hot rods of computers, specifically designed for the superfast processing speeds and ultra-high graphic displays of the latest computer games.

Expensive, too. But very cool — some even have aluminum cases with custom automotive paint jobs.

Triumph of the Slackers in the Auto Shop

No one, except Steve Jobs, remembers that personal computers started out looking cool. Some of the very first machines even had wooden cases and looked like stereo systems.

But that ended with the Apple II, and PCs have been butt-ugly beige boxes ever since. Jobs has made amends with the iMac and its descendents, but to my mind they've always been a little too precious and smug for my taste.

But these new game computers are a different story. Think skateboards, surfboards, and maybe most of all, think of those guys back in high school bolting big Holley four-barrels into their GTOs and Trans Ams. Just big, raw, stupid, great horsepower. Hooker headers, Edelbrock manifolds and Detroit iron.

That's what America's all about. And that's what these game machines are, too.

You've just got to love it. Who would have thought that the triumph of the nerds wouldn't come from the poetry club or the electronics lab, but from the hoods and slackers down in auto shop?

This too, as with music, suggests a new approach by young people toward the use of technology to achieve larger cultural ends.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if this generation does to to the computer industry what the Boomers did to the auto industry in the mid-1960s. Somewhere out there is a John DeLorean of PCs or a Lee Iacocca of game boxes, who is going to build the first great, Earthshaking digital Mustang. And that day can't come soon enough.

Then again, maybe that was just jet lag talking. I played "Crying in the Rain" one more time, then fell asleep during the final approach into Atlanta.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” is editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised. For more, go to And you can talk back to Silicon Insider via e-mail.