Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Rock and roll is dead? A rebuttal.

I read Dominic Green's "The Year The Music Died" in The Critic, a tough go as it was hard to focus with my eyes rolling toward the ceiling so often. Green's argument: "To anyone with ears, it’s clear that rock completed its natural development decades ago and has been fading away ever since. Popular music retained by right the cultural centrality it had assumed in Western societies in the nineteenth century, a right prolonged by the ubiquity and wealth of the twentieth-century entertainment business. But the music, like most of its successful practitioners, was a haggard and stupefied ghost, mechanically repeating its youthful glories."
Even the fans admit that Rock was rotten in the Eighties. Naturally they blame the adults: for not producing enough little rockers as the baby boom ran out, for the deindustrialisation that dissolved the class systems of Detroit and Liverpool, for the geopolitical bungling that pushed up the price of oil and vinyl singles, or even for inventing the compact disc. The material explanation is true, but incomplete. Rock died because it had played out its natural span—not three minutes, but the three-step dance of all Western art forms: classical, romantic, modern.
Green cites the Clash's London Calling and Bruce Springsteen's The River as albums that bookend the brief period when rock and roll perished. London Calling and The River are "magnificently vital and varied" still, Green observes, as both albums "set rock’s classical virtues, the economies of songwriting form and the small-group sound, in the romantic and programmatic format of the double album. Modernism in its expansive mood, these records are monumental summaries. They are stylistically retrospective, immersed in their history as surely as the national historians of the nineteenth century were in theirs. Yet they are optimistic that immersion in the past will allow them to recover the pagan energy that will, as Ezra Pound said, 'make it new'."

Yet Green goes on to argues that, though both London Calling and The River distilled and updated rock and roll's best qualities into epochal works, as a result both the Clash and Springsteen discovered that they had little left to express that might trade on the gains made on those albums. As Green puts it: "To their credit, both Springsteen and The Clash sensed that in successfully reviving the spirits, they had killed themselves off. Both acts quickly tried to revive themselves."
In the space of a year, The Clash went from producing one of rock’s best albums to one of its very worst. Two days after [John] Lennon’s killing, they released Sandinista!, an addled and pretentious triple-album whose main significance lies in anticipating three of the worst trends in Eighties music: white rap, paper-thin production, and attempted revivals of rock’s cooling corpse with shots of what would shortly be sold as “world music”. Their last album, Combat Rock (1982) was an agreeably absurd Vietnam costume drama with lashings of rockabilly and a cameo from Alan Ginsburg.
As for The Boss, Green feels that Springsteen's legendary Nebraska, which he dismisses as "a set of generally miserable acoustic demos," indicated that Springsteen was "apparently having second thoughts about becoming a stadium parody of his earlier self," adding, "He then surrendered to his management and became a wealthy and futile stadium clown."

Sandanista! one of rock and roll's "very worst" records? Springsteen post-The River is a "futile stadium clown"? (Even as a self-described fameist, I grant that Springsteen's exhaustive and spirited stadium shows are hardly futile.) I won't engage Green on the absurdity of those two claims, but I'll push back on his claim that rock and roll died in 1980. He's baiting me and other readers here, and he found his hook, but he suffers from the tyranny of taxonomy and his definition of rock and roll is too narrow. Anyway, I won't waste time listing the many brilliant, challenging, "making it new" bands and artists who have created and played urgent and culturally valuable rock and roll in the last four decades. My problem with Green has to do with his academic insistence that unless rock and roll albums and songs somehow engage with "the great Western youth revolt which began with Romantic poets and revolutionaries, ruined European civilisation as its children rallied to fascism and communism, and then played out its final stage as radical entertainment in America," those albums and songs lack value. Yet consider the bands and artists who were explicitly or implicitly inspired by the Clash —from Fugazi, Hüsker Dü, and the Mekons to Sleater-Kinney, Public Enemy and Green Day—and by Springtseen—Steve Earle, Dave Alvin, the Hold Steady, Silver Jews—and you can virtually see the linkages from the urgencies of London Calling and Ihe River to the urgencies in so much music that came after. And, like you, I hear and experience rock and roll in small clubs every year, where bands of kids get up on stages and bash out their dilemmas and problems and revolts in the form of radical entertainment for audiences of hundreds or of dozens, on weekends and weeknights. 

Rock and roll may have disappeared from the national conversation, Billboard, and awards shows, but that doesn't mean it's not being discovered, rediscovered, detonated, and moving men and women now—mattering deeply to them now—in clubs and at basement shows, and in bedrooms and apartments. I'd like to ask Green if, as he cites, both the Clash and Springsteen were inspired and emboldened by the music they loved and that preceded them, why can't that occur with those artists inspired by Strummer and Bruce and, down the line, generation to generation? Can't rock and roll matter on daily basis still? Is Green's bar too high? Mine too low? If innovation and synthesis must be the highest attributes of rock and roll, then a lot of fun and emotional experience will be left behind.


Here's the great Lester Bangs, who, though he wasn't strictly a rockist, knew a thing or two about the genre, writing in the same era that Green cites as rock and roll's official time of death: "What is more American than the garage band? Call up a bunch of your buddies, get some six-packs or some weed, plus a guitar or two, a bass or drum kit, and you’ve got instant fantasies about instant stardom."
Of course, at certain times and places, fantasy and reality have intersected, and that is part of what rock is all about. Given that the greatest garage bands could barely play, we may assume not only that virtuosity has nothing to do with the form, but also that the utopian dream of everyman an artist can come true right here, in our suburban land of opportunity—the ultimate proof that rock & roll is the most democratic and all-American of art forms.
Characteristically, Bangs nails something eternal: in this case, the unquenched call to make music, to make rock and roll, whenever and wherever the impulse. That urge—faced right now in basements with guitars and in living rooms with GarageBand and on busses with music-making apps and in clubs via openers and headliners alike—that urge is rock and roll, and that urge is what matters, whether the music is making headlines or not, whether it's reshaping the past in startling ways or bringing tears to the eyes of fans of a cover band somewhere on a Thursday night. 

Photo of CBGB stage via Flickr; photo of Lester Bangs via San Diego Reader.

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