In 1979, a fella with a guitar proclaimed, hey hey, my my, rock’n’roll can never die, and for all he knew, it probably held water, or at least a few feet of snow, as he was Canadian, or Canadien, as it might be in the froggier areas of the provinces. Neil Young may have been on it back then, but one wonders if he’d renew that statement today, or if he’d amend his lyrics to say something more along the lines of hey hey, my my, rock and roll can become so self-conscious and solipsistic that it can never be what it once was. Doesn’t have quite the same ring, but I’m no lyricist.
Two events recently unfolded on opposite ends of the rock’n’roll spectrum that delineate the passing of the era when rock represented something other than itself. Keith Richards released a tell-all autobiography, and the autochthonous Captain Beafheart died. Follow me here for a sec…
All the clichés are present in the Richards autobiography. The origins of the legendary iconoclasts were meager: penniless east Londoners, sleeping on the floor, opting for guitar strings over fish’n’chips, studying the Blues instead of dating. Emulating the greats America had not yet learned to appreciate seems to be a past time in England. Why we need the Brits and the French to tell us our music is amazing is a mystery that still needs solving.
But gigs began to pick up for the stones that rolled, as did the pay, and as the money flowed, so did the drugs and women. It also led to wild bouts of spontaneous, all night creativity, fervid infighting, fruitful collaborations and broken alliances.
Then came the truly profligate indulgences we expect from our idols. Arena tours on acid, defiled hotel rooms, romantic betrayals on a Homeric scale, Bentley’s custom made to hide illegal substances while driving across international borders, liaisons with outlaw hashish dealers in Morocco for deeper, more spiritual drug experiences, Hindi guru’s, managerial shysters and hangers on, sex with David Bowie, and in the case of Bryan Jones, spousal abuse and rumors of murder.
One can’t help but feel how cliché for rock stars, until it hits that The Rolling Stones, along with a handful of other British bands, were the veritable progenitors of this mythical behavior. They were the source material for every future carbon copy rock star wannabe. But their rebellion was authentic; a response to a centuries old class system that was intractably stifling, and as is often the case with artists, utterly inspiring.
The first time Keith Moon smashed his drum set to smithereens it was from a frustration about its functionality during a gig. But the founder of a movement is never a part of the movement. And years later, when fellow Britons Malcolm McLaren and The Sex Pistols came along and made rebellion a commodity, a new era began, and an old one ended. Being cool was not longer a bi-product of the music. It was an end in itself.
This leads to the second event in rock, the death of Don Van Vilet, otherwise know as Captain Beefheart. There was no class structure to rebel against in the U.S. so a handful of artists, lead by Vilet, rebelled against artistic structure instead.
For Vilet, it was about avoiding the prescribed. “You wanna be a different fish, you gotta jump outta the school.” He did just that, bailing on kindergarten after a half day. It was all the schooling he had. “I stayed too long.”
Vilet’s avante guardianism was as misunderstood as Ornette Coleman’s. Non-traditional chord progressions, choruses that refuse to refrain, and a dearth of rage against the system lyrics, other than the vandalism he did to grammar itself. It was a musical Situationism, a risky proposition at a time when record labels were cementing sales formulas. Maybe that’s why Frank Zappa came on board to produce Trout Mask Replica, Beefhearts slow burning debut record.
Beefheart was also pioneering the music video. His first, “Lick My Decals Off, Baby”, wasn’t just a promotion for the band, but an attempt to think outside the 16:9. The video lived in The Museum of Modern Art for so long because it was a work of art in itself. Videos are mandatory for all bands now, and product placement is as legitimate a consideration for the directors of those videos as fashion statements are for the bands who fund them. The song gets reduced to a soundtrack.
The judgement that Vilet’s music was ground-breaking but took decades to “get” is thoroughly unworthy of the artist. As is the hackneyed commentary about how underrated he was. It begs the questions, underrated by whom? The masses that were listing to am radio in 1969?
The statement is anachronism today. With the internet, we can now hear everything every so-called band does, and comment on it. Is it viable to say anything is underrated anymore? The desperation today’s artists face is evident in band names like Starfucker, and Holy Fuck, and Fuck You. How about fucking off? Type any vulgarity into Myspace and you’ll most likely get a hit. It’s gotten that narcissistic and recursive. In the words of David Foster Wallace, we are breathing the toxic air of an “…insatiable hunger for the appearance of novelty: ‘What can I do that hasn’t been done yet?’”
Bands are now bending over forwards and spreading ‘em to include the consumer in the making of their art. Recently, the jam band, Umphrey’s McGee,played a live show where they took requests from fans via Twitter. The messages were projected on a screen in view of the band and audience, wherein the band incorporated the suggestions into their set. No joke, check it out.
Can there be any worse idea ever than audience-affection determining art’s value?
Different as they are, The Rolling Stones and Captain Beefheart earned a place in the cannon of rock for a reason: they pioneered instead of pandered. The players on stage were living idols. They lead the charge, not the other way around.
Can you imagine Led Zepplin taking requests via Twitter and Facebutt? Can you imagine how much less mesmerizing that experience would be because instead of having your soul rocked to its core, you were pissed the band wasn’t taking your suggestions? How much less inspiring would it be to watch The Who through an iPhone instead being present for the live experience?
We’re there, my friends.
It’s a scary time to be performing live art because less and less of it is being consumed live. I recently overheard a woman argue how much better Wilco was live than in the studio. She had seen their latest concert at the Coney Island ballpark, and raved at what they did to instrumentations on songs like “Spiders” and “Pot Kettle Black”. Only later, like it was incidental, did she reveal that she not actually been at the concert, but only viewed it on YouTube. She saw a live show, through an interface, and did not think it necessary to state that condition?Really?
It was at a Jeff Tweedy solo show in December, where young fans were shouting out requests a mere two songs into the show. Jeff calmly said, I’m not sure if you’ve seen me before, but when I play solo, the show is basically ALL requests. I ask what you want to hear via our website, and play those songs. Can I ask you, are you having fun? The crowd cheered. Tweedy then said, well, how about letting me steer the ship for a while?
So here’s a crazy idea… let’s all defer to the experts. What do you say? These are the artists who we claim inspire us. Isn’t that because we don’t know exactly what to expect? Or even better, that they deliver something beyond our own personal imaginations? What a novel idea… If only it catches on soon. I really hope it does. Because right now, it’s suddenly a shaky statement to say rock’n’roll can never die. Neil Young will though, for sure. And that will be a serious day of mourning.