Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rock 'n' Roll Will Never Die!

There I was looking for my beloved Pesto Genovese in my nearest Trader Joe’s, in Danbury, Connecticut, and just as I figured out they’d moved it to a lower shelf since my last visit too many months ago, the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul” started playing on the store’s sound system. Someone behind me started humming along with Jeff Beck’s guitar line, and wasn’t it jolly to know I was in the presence of another immersed in rock culture? Then I turned, looking for wide, flat rice noodles of the sort I’d like to use in my Thai-style dish, and saw that the hummer was hairless except for a few sad gray wisps, saggy, prolifically creased, and around a million years old (that is, around my own age). And once again it occurred to me that rock and roll is now officially the music of geriatrics.

A recent report reveals that more convalescent hospital patients in 2009 listed Huey Lewis & The News as their favorite recording act than any other, and my understanding is that Eric Burdon has just signed to appear in a series of infomercials for a particular brand of walking frame. One of the two living ex-Beatles just turned 70. Even brash upstarts like Def Leppard, leaders of the great British Metal Revival of the early 80s, are in their fifties now.

Through the miracle of the Internet, I have been corresponding recently with a young band in, of all places, Liverpool. Back when I was writing for Creem in the early 80s, I thought it my principal mission to try to shame acts like Motley Crue into retirement. I found deeply nauseating their combination of brazen derivativeness — their bass player, one of a type of would-be rock star you regularly see swaggering around in Hollywood, exuding entitledness because he dares to look ridiculous, had stolen even his stage name — and misogynistic narcissism.
But my young friend in Liverpool thinks Motley Crue the greatest group ever, and has no inkling of their being an imitation of an imitation (Aerosmith’s) of an imitation (the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds, approximately to pop/metal what Dick Clark’s Frankiebobbies were in 1959 to Elvis — a laughably fraudulent proxy.

It’s cute in its way, how attentive to detail his band is, in the way the English often are when they get nostalgic about American pop culture. With no inkling as to how corny it all is in its own way, they lovingly reproduce every detail of their chosen genre, down to the cowboy boots and sneers and Jack Daniels.

During my brief, unhappy sojourn in Wisconsin, I became friendly with the terrific guitarist in mostly terrific group called Blueheels, who absolutely couldn’t be talked out of going on stage looking as though they’d driven all night across the prairie in the clothes they’d worn to their jobs as school custodians. All things being equal, I will confess that I prefer a musical act brazenly appropriating someone else’s visual style to asking the audience to see their stylelessness as proof of their singleminded devotion to their music. Comparably, while we’re here, I refuse in retrospect to see grunge as somehow more noble than the awful hair metal that preceded it. Both had their strictures and conventions. Both produced a few terrific tracks and a great, great deal of crap. I believe that the absolute entertainment value of a group dressed up as the sort of girl they hope to meet backstage is inherently greater than one dressed to sleep under freeway overpasses or on park benches.

My young friend’s aping of Motley Crue ought to make me feel younger, since it makes it possible for me to have a dialogue with a 20-year-old, but it only makes me despair. If my cohorts had, in the same way, faithfully reproduced the music of the years of their births, we’d have gotten a lot of second-hand big band swing in the 60s, instead of, well, having our minds blown. It feels as though rock and roll ran out of ideas 25 years ago.

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