Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Rock Has One Foot in the Grave, and Four Toes of the Other

When I lived in Los Angeles earlier this decade, I played in a band for which I spent many hours a day trying to secure gigs, and not getting any. I was horrified that club bookers were still using the pay-to-play scam that scandalised the city in the late 1970s. I fled LA and returned to the UK, where I own a house and have a spouse, imagining that getting gigs couldn’t possibly be harder than in LA. It was. In two years, I got us booked twice into SW London’s sole surviving original music venue, the Half Moon in Putney, We earned £76 the first night, when Dame Zelda, who has many friends, was in the band, and not a penny the second night, after Dame Zelda had rededicated herself to karaoke. On a Tuesday night after a Monday bank holiday, we drew 21 people in a venue in which only those who draw 25 or more get a tiny portion of the gate. 

I came to understand that if you want to play for pay in SW London, you’d better be either a covers band or a tribute act. No one under 45 (except the first bass player’s daughters) was glimpsed at any of our few gigs. 

But it isn’t only that punters (that is, fans) seemed to have lost interest in anything they hadn’t liked back when they were 19. It was also that so few wanted to play original music. Back in LA in the 1970s, one would place an ad in the Musicians Wanted section of The Recycler and his phone would ring off the hook for days. In SW London late in the second decade of the century, I have placed ads and heard from no one (except the odd Bulgarian disco dolly who’ll be happy to audition if I’ll pay her airfare from Sofia) for literal weeks at a time. 

No one seems to want to be in a band anymore. Everyone wants either to be a famous DJ, or to win X Factor and instantly become rich ’n’ famous.

Why audiences are growing ever greyer — if they’ve any hair at all — is no great mystery. It’s the sacred responsibility of every new generation to pronounce the music of the generation that preceded it lame and embarrassing, although there will invariably be a snarky few who embrace older music for approximately the same reason hipsters drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. There are still a hundred bald-spot-and-grey-ponytail bands in SW London who believe what the world really needs is yet another version of "Hoochie Coochie Man" or "Smokestack Lightnin'". 

As in so many other things, it’s the Rolling Stones who are to blame for rock’s demise. When I first saw The Who, at the Fillmore in San Francisco, they had one — count him! — grizzled roadie, who  probably could have gotten their amplifiers, drums, guitars, and stage clothing into a single transit van, and it was the best show I’ve ever seen. But by the mid-70s, one felt cheated if, for the big finale, the headlining group's lead singer didn’t slide down the world’s largest phallus into a pool of writhing Lori Maddox lookalikes in fishnet body stockings. 

Big phalluses and writhing nymphets cost money, and concert tickets got ever more expensive. Even the groups who couldn’t be troubled to stage a spectacle noted that they were actually selling lots more records than the Rolling Stones, and hiked up their own prices. If you went to concerts, you didn’t have a lot of money left over to go see original local bands, even while other entertainment options were improving geometrically. Where there had once been nine television channels among which to choose, there were now channels beyond counting, and Netflix. How, for someone in his or her 40s or 50s or beyond, could going to some cramped beer-reeking club to hear an original band compare to reclining in one’s La-Z-Boy and watching the latest Netflix original in high-def?

There was also the problem of rock having branded itself as the music of youthful rebellion — specifically, of querulousness, petulance and narcissism,.Behold the Donald Trump of musical genres! For every palpably good-hearted, altruistic Bruce Springsteen, there seemed to be two Axl Roses, entitled little twerps with chips on their shoulders bigger than their feet (spot that Beatles reference!), or irredeemably…damaged Kurt Cobains. Heroin addiction was glamorised, and alcoholism. Ron Wood, Slash, and Keith Richards, with cigarettes dangling from their lips as they play their guitars, are presented as paragons of cool, rather than as flirting with emphysema. 

How many person-hours have been wasted over the years by audiences waiting for Mick Jagger to feel that his makeup is just right? Such narcissists as he introduced a whole new idea into popular entertainment — that the audience was there to make the entertainer feel good, and not vice versa. Has there been a more ghastly moment in recent popular music history than that at which Jagger discovered that not everyone at Altamont regarded him as God Jr., to use the late Bill Graham’s wonderful coinage, and gaped helplessly as the truly monstrous (as opposed to faux satanic) actually killed people?

At a party, someone who’s drunk too much too quickly and begun behaving outrageously will enjoy lots of attention until everyone begins to find him tiresome. Much the same happened with rock over the many decades that it ruled the pop music. And now, as it fades away, it has nothing but itself to blame, unless you count us, whom psychotherapists would call enablers.

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