[sixties-l] Unplug the oldies - for good

From: radtimes (resist@best.com)
Date: Sun Aug 26 2001 - 16:05:40 EDT

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    Sunday August 12, 2001
    The Observer

    Unplug the oldies - for good

    Mick, Keith, Bob, Patti... what is this colostomy rock? It's not about
    rebellion, let alone youth. It's the antithesis of rebellion: it's
    nostalgia. And nostalgia is the death of rock

    by John Strausbaugh

    It's the autumn of 1999. Mike Doughty and I are looking at a photo of his
    toiletries in the current issue of Teen People magazine. Doughty was the
    founder/ singer/songwriter of the 1990s band Soul Coughing, a hip-hoppy rock
    band that made some successful records and toured extensively between 1993
    and their break-up in the spring of 2000. That made Doughty a bona fide rock
    star. I knew him before he was famous, back when he was a young doorman at
    the Knitting Factory, the avant-garde music space in downtown Manhattan, and
    writing about music for the paper I edit, New York Press . He's young
    enough to be my son, a Nineties kind of guy to my grizzled Sixties

    Doughty and I were looking at this article together, and I was trying to
    explain to him that while I thought it was great for him to be a teenybopper
    sex object when he was still in his twenties, I really didn't want him up on
    stage in his fifties, in the 2020s, fronting a session band pretending to be
    Soul Coughing, wheezing his 1999 hit single, 'Circles' for the
    umpteen-thousandth time, for a nostalgic crowd of middle-aged lawyers and
    stockbrokers who've broken out their old baseball caps and worn them
    backward just for the occasion.

    Why? Because rock is youth music. It is best played by young people, for
    young people, in a setting that is specifically exclusionary of their
    parents and anyone their parents' age. It is the music of youthful energies,
    youthful rebellion, youthful anxieties and anger. 'Unlike every other great
    genre of American pop,' American rock historian James Miller concurs, 'rock
    is all about being young, or (if you are poor Mick Jagger) pretending to be
    Rock simply should not be played by 55 year-old men with triple chins
    wearing bad wighats, pretending still to be excited about playing songs they
    wrote 30 or 35 years ago and have played some thousands of times since. Its
    prime audience should not be middle-aged, balding, jelly-bellied dads who've
    brought along their wives and kids. It should not be trapped behind glass in
    a museum display and gawked at like remnants of a lost civilisation. That is
    not rock'n'roll. Rock'n'roll is not family entertainment. The Rolling Stones
    are only the most obvious, and perhaps depressing, example of a once-great
    rock band that kept playing years and years after they'd gotten too old, had
    gone from the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world to the greatest
    self-parody of a rock'n'roll band.

    The Rolling Stones didn't make rock anymore after the mid-Seventies; they
    made stadium events. By the 1990s, the Stones' brand of colostomy rock had
    become not an isolated freak show but a regular - and popular - feature of
    the summer concert season. Every year, ancient rock bands rise up from their
    graves and rule the nights again. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jethro Tull, Yes, the
    Allman Brothers: pale ghosts of their youthful selves, they have become
    their own nostalgia merchandise. There can be only one motivation: as the
    Rutles declared, 'All You Need Is Cash'.

    I find this terribly dispiriting. When Eddie Van Halen needs to be careful
    how he moves onstage because of his hip replacement surgery, Eddie should
    sit down and become strictly a studio musician. When bands calling
    themselves Little Feat or Jefferson Starship are made up almost entirely of
    ringers and replacements and include none of the talents that originally
    made those names so recognisable, they should stop calling themselves Little
    Feat or Jefferson anything. When Pete Townshend decides in his mid-fifties
    that he wants to record a six-CD rock opera (Lifehouse) made up entirely of
    songs he wrote 30 years ago, the best of which he and his band already
    played to death during the 1970s ('Baba O'Riley', 'Behind Blue Eyes', 'Won't
    Get Fooled Again'), and that he is now going to rerecord in wimpy old-man's
    versions, with insipid string orchestrations laid on top for a false air of
    gravity... someone should say, 'No, Pete, that's a bad idea' and lead him by
    the elbow back to the old folks' home - where Eddie, Mick, and the rest of
    the geezers might have a good laugh and remind him of the lyrics to a
    certain song he wrote decades earlier, famously addressing precisely this
    topic of ageing.

    But no. Instead, Pete 'reunites' one more time with what's left of The Who,
    sans Keith Moon - and really, what's The Who without Keith Moon? - and they
    go creaking off on another greybeards' tour of the States. Here comes the
    new one, not quite the same as the old one.

    Neil Young, Graham Nash, the grizzled and addled Stephen Stills, and the
    rotund and liver-transplanted David Crosby gathered for a CSNY reunion tour
    in 2000. Even Rolling Stone, which had functioned for years as a CSNY
    fanzine, was reduced to praising their ragged vocal performances and ghastly
    physical appearance in terms so hollow, so un-musical, that only the most
    naive reader could fail to scan the truth between the lines. (Rolling Stone
    put Crosby on its cover yet again that year, not for any musical achievement
    but for his Frankensteinian love-child arrangement with Melissa Etheridge,
    an affirmative-action rock mediocrity better known for her lesbianism
    than for any musical talent.) Didn't any of these people see Spinal Tap?

    In principle, no one can argue against the abundant evidence that
    middle-aged people make sad spectacles of themselves when they think they're
    'rocking out'. It's when you start listing specific rockers and bands that
    the fights break out, because everyone has a special favourite or two who
    they think are the exceptions. By 'everyone' I mean, of course, my fellow
    baby boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964 who grew up in 'the rock
    years'. If you're in that group I can almost guarantee I can push one of
    your personal-hero buttons with a very short list of washed-up has-beens who
    should have stopped performing long before they did. I am now going to
    say rude things about some performers the reader may hold dear.

    Were you, for instance, a Fleetwood Mac fan? I never quite got their massive
    appeal myself. To me, Fleetwood Mac - the mid-to-late-1970s edition of
    Fleetwood Mac, 'Rhiannon' and all that - was just Abba with a decent
    drummer. Be that as it may, if you were a fan of Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s,
    why on earth would you want to see them reunited as middle-aged has-beens in
    the late 1990s, performing a nostalgia stage act of 25-year-old hit songs?
    How could you look at the once-svelte Stevie Nicks and not cringe to see her
    overweight and stuffed like a sausage into some girdle or corset torture
    device so constricting she literally could not move in it, her pancake
    make-up thick and hard as china, her hair a straw fright wig, her once
    fetchingly crackled voice a scary croak?

    Or how about the middle-aged Eric Clapton? Were you still thinking Clapton
    was God by, say, 1980? How about after the easy-listening Miller Beer
    commercials? How about after his son died and he wrote that hideously
    mawkish song for him and then would not stop playing it everywhere he went,
    year after year?

    Peter Gabriel is a Seventies rocker I once idolised. To me, Phil Collins was
    never anything but the drummer in Peter Gabriel's band, and Genesis without
    Gabriel was as much an imponderable as the Who without Keith Moon, or the
    Pogues without Shane. Then I saw the fiftysomething Peter Gabriel singing
    the theme song to Babe: Pig in the City at the Academy Awards ceremonies
    that year. Grey and concentrically rounded as a Botero figure, he sang
    'That'll Do, Pig' and I wondered for a second if he was addressing himself
    at the dinner table.

    Patti Smith is another name angry boomers throw at me when I'm making the
    case for rock as youth music. My version: Patti Smith was one of the least
    talented posers in rock: everything bad and pretentious about the union of
    punk and poetry in one self-conscious package. Patti Smith was already, by
    my standards, a little long in the tooth to be making credible rock music by
    the time you and I first heard her. I was in my mid-twenties at that point
    and feeling a little too old even to be listening to punk rock, and she was
    a few years older than me. A 30-year-old 'punk rock poet-priestess'? It
    seemed a stretch to me then, and the longer she stuck around, the farther
    the stretch.

    When she disappeared from public view, you might have thought that at least
    she was showing the good grace to get out before she descended into complete
    self-parody. And then, years later, she made the inevitable rock-star
    'comeback' when approaching 50, an age at which rock stars should be, by
    man's or natural law, dead or retired. She looked haggard and wan after
    years of widowhood and housewifery, and she put out a series of records of
    descending listenability. Gung Ho, released in 2000, was a terrible record.
    It sounded like a Saturday Night Live parody of the kind of record a
    50-year-old Patti Smith might make. Her voice sounded flat and listless as
    damp laundry,a kind of vocal appliqu glued onto the surface of prerecorded
    tracks, which had given up sounding even remotely like rock, let alone punk
    rock, and were instead the kind of anonymous, adult-oriented global pop
    sound other aged former rockers, like Gabriel and Sting, had by then adopted
    as a pillowy cushion for their own increasingly de-energised vocals.

    I could go on...The freak-show fiftysomething versions of once-respectable
    bands like Little Feat creaking onto the stages of open-air summer concert
    venues around the globe; the cross-generational exercises in tedium that
    were Neil Young's collaboration with Pearl Jam and Jimmy Page's with the
    Black Crowes; the Blondie comeback (fat, frazzled, barely wheezing out her
    25-year-old hit singles); Chrissie Hynde stumping for Peta; the never-ending
    phenomenon of Bruce Springsteen; the return of the middle-aged Sex Pistols;
    the crotchety and droning Lou Reed; Bowie, Bono, Prince (almost as bizarrely
    eccentric and vain as Michael Jackson); the deathless and ever more
    inappropriately named Beach Boys; and, of course, Dylan. These are all
    examples my middle-aged friends have tossed at me to counter my argument
    that people their age have no business onstage. If you think any of them are
    holdouts from the has-beens brigade, I can only say you're not hearing them
    as they are now, you're hearing them as you want to remember them. Colostomy
    rock is not rebellion, it's the antithesis of rebellion: it's nostalgia. And
    nostalgia is the death of rock. We were supposed to die before we got old.
    Now look at us. Woo woo, Mick! Rock on, Bruce!

    But this is not just about getting old. No one has the right to tell Stevie
    Nicks or Deborah Harry she can't relax a little about her weight. No one can
    tell Gabriel he shouldn't grow grey and sleekly fat as Sebastian Cabot if he
    has a mind to. But you could certainly make the case that rock stars should
    not do those things. Obviously, rock grew old along with those who made it -
    and, more to the point, along with its biggest market, the baby boomers. Who
    doesn't get old, besides dead rock stars? My argument is not against ageing,
    it's for ageing gracefully. Plenty of people know how to do this, but rock
    stars, like movie stars, find it extremely difficult, and I suspect for the
    same reason: they have a pathological-professional need to continue to
    pretend they're young and sexy long after they've become neither. It's not
    about age so much as it is about the pretence of youth. Nobody says a word
    about old poets, jazz musicians, or tango dancers. If Mick Jagger wants to
    sit on a stool at the Blue Note and croak de blooz with Keith on an acoustic
    guitar, I wouldn't say a word. It's Mick butt-shaking and pretending to be
    really into 'Satisfaction' for the millionth time that's unseemly.

    Were we always so easily lied to by our rock stars? If so, what does this
    say about us as a generation? 'We won't get fooled again'? Hell, were we
    fooling ourselves all along?

    Of course, rock was a commercial enterprise from its start. But, as Ellen
    Willis, one of the first and best female rock critics in the Sixties, put it
    to me, back then rock was something some young people shared, intently, to
    the exclusion of everyone non-rock. It was 'like a generational language.
    You could play a song for somebody and they understood all sorts of things
    about you. And what we understood was that we were somehow different'. Rock
    was the soundtrack of change. We may not all have gone so far as John
    Sinclair, manager of the 'revolutionary' rock band the MC5 and founder of
    the White Panther Party, did when he wrote 'our music and our culture
    constitute a political force, the cultural revolution is inseparable from
    the political revolution, and the revolutionary potential of our culture
    cannot be fully realised as long as the capitalist social order continues to

    But if rock turned out not to be a very useful aesthetic weapon of the
    revolution, if listening to rock music alone did not trigger sweeping
    political change - though perhaps it did stimulate in some young people the
    urge, effervescent and inchoate, to cause sweeping political change - at the
    very least there were some sweeping changes in attitudes that rock helped to
    promote at the time, and they were attitudes regarding some fundamental
    aspects of society and culture.

    So of course the MC5 and Jefferson Airplane ended up selling out. Of course
    Mick Jagger was never a 'Street Fighting Man'. He went to an antiwar
    demonstration or two, same as everybody else, and it was the height of
    cynical, radical-chic appropriationism for him to pretend that he really
    thought the time was right for violent revolution. And yet maybe that song
    itself, having left Mick's hands and worked its way around the globe served
    some purpose as a rebellious anthem, some purpose beyond making Mick Jagger
    a richer man than he already was. At best one might argue that, through the
    Sixties, rock's impact as an indirect agent of change was not always
    hampered by its blatant commerciality; that, in fact, the mainstream
    entertainment industry, by mass-marketing rock through records, radio, TV,
    and live appearances, actually helped spread countercultural ideas and
    rebellious attitudes to receptive young people everywhere.

    Youth rebellion developed momentum and cultural clout in the Sixties and
    Seventies, when the tsunami of baby boomers flooded through the high schools
    and colleges. Whereas some Fifties teens might have felt alienated from
    their parents, many Sixties and Seventies teens were downright alien to
    them. It was in this period that sociologists began to identify 'youth
    culture' as a potentially subversive subculture, existing within but at odds
    with the larger culture. Indeed, between the long hair, the drugs, the rock,
    the free love, the pacifism, the no-work-ethic embrace of poverty, the
    flirtations with eastern mysticism, and the radical politics, a subset of
    young people in the Sixties came to be identified as inhabiting a completely
    separate culture from that of their parents and other, 'straight,' youth:
    the counterculture, the 'freek nation'. This was more than kids in black
    leather acting like hood lums on the streets; this was a generation, or
    part of a generation, in what seemed to be open revolt.

    Does every generation start out wanting to change the world and simply lose
    the energy and vision? Is it just a function of having responsibilities and
    rebellious children of your own? Or is there something particular about the
    failure of my generation to carry out the revolution it once promised
    itself? It can be argued that the movers and shakers of rock were always
    exemplars of hip capitalism, paying empty lip service to social change and
    'the revolution' but always far more focused on money and glamour and
    personal gratification. No amount of revolutionary signifying by Rage
    Against the Machine, no display of lumpen solidarity by Bruce Springsteen,
    no number of charity benefit performances by Sting and Jackson Browne can
    disguise how establishment rock became, decades ago. An industry that has
    made millionaires of its more savvy stars (Jagger, Bowie, Springsteen) and
    billionaires of its more ruthless businessmen (David Geffen) can hardly be
    expected to Fight the Power.

    Can something very similar be said for my generation at large? I think it
    can. The revolutionaries of 1968 grew up, grew fat, grew complacent,
    withdrew from the world, and beguiled themselves with their own trivia. We
    went from Be Here Now to Remember When. This is not the revolution we
    thought we were going to make.
    Extracted from John Strausbaugh's Rock Til You Drop, published by Verso on
    23 August (16). To order this book for the special price of 14, call
    Observer CultureShop on 0870 066 7989.

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