I think maybe this starts at a Who concert in 1976:
I went to the concert with two musician friends of mine and some women who, for reasons obvious to me at least, shall remain nameless. Toots and the Maytals, one of the great reggae bands, opened the show. In retrospect, they played a nice opening set – what there was of it. We booed them off the stage early.
I always rationalize to myself that it was because they covered John Denver’s execrable “Country Roads” – I mean, who in hell can tolerate “Almost Heaven/West Jamaica” as a lyric? But that wasn’t the real reason we booed them off, pissed off Pete Townshend, and had to wait an extra half-hour for The Who to come out and play an amazing show.
What we wanted was the spectacle. We wanted The Who – rock stars who’d give us a show worthy of our grubbily lofty expectations. It was 1976, after all. No one would want to see authentic musicians like The Maytals playing their music – we wanted the Big Bang.
And The Who delivered – a laser lit , ear ringing spectacle that I have long told anyone who’d listen was the best concert I ever saw….
In Art Into Pop, British scholar and critic Simon Frith speaks of the “recuperation” of Pete Townshend into a “pop star” (the Brits use the term pop almost interchangeably with rock and certainly have a much less pejorative connotation about it than Americans do, so relax) as explanation of how Townshend “lost control of [him]self” as an artist. By that, Frith means that the rock star lives in a “dual” culture that both rewards artistic risk and commodifies the artist/person taking that risk. Think of the sensation of Hendrix when his talent exploded onto the American consciousness at Monterrey – and of the pathetic circumstances surrounding his death and the fight over his estate.
I don’t think it’s by chance that in The Rolling Stone History of Rock the image for the chapter on The Beatles IS NOT a picture of The Fabs – it’s a picture of a British Bobby holding the limp body of a teeny bopper who has fainted from the sheer ecstasy of being near (physically and temporally) her heroes. More than any other media outlet Rolling Stone promotes the ideal of the rock star culture: a culture that Simon Frith describes this way: “the rock experience ‘the magic that can set you free’ is never described but endlessly referred back to as some mythical adolescent moment against which all subsequent rock moments can be judged.” He goes on to point out this about Rolling Stone: “What they value in music is its ability to infuse hedonism with a sense of community….” As David Sanjek notes, “It is an essentially conservative, even mystical approach to music….”
And it’s Rolling Stone who decided who were rock stars – “Wenner identified rock’s authenticity with a limited set of figures who formed the publication’s icons of the rock canon: these include Dylan, the Stones, and the Beatles” (Sanjek, Pleasure and Principles). Of course, Rolling Stone also gave proper obeisance to the great progenitors and contemporaries of the “anointed ones” – folks like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, Hank Williams and Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, and James Brown and George Jones were lauded for “authenticity.” (Remember that cliche from the 60’s “keeping it real”?) But those rock stars – The Beatles/Stones/Dylan triumvirate – dominated and defined rock stardom – and its attendant cultural myth-making.
Now David Shumway offers us an overview of his forthcoming book from NYU Press, on rock stars as cultural icons. In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education called, interestingly enough, “Where Have All the Rock Stars Gone?” he explores what a recent WBUR (Boston NPR) On Point program called the “The Death of the Rock Star.”
Shumway argues what I’ve heard argued before – that the reasons for the fading of the rock star from relevancy are the following: the splintering of the mass audience that post WWII icons from Elvis to Kurt Cobain could draw to them; the evolution of technology which changed listening habits from mass media communalized (everyone tuned to rock radio) to idiosyncratically individualized (each one to his/her iPod); the mutability of the powerful cultural forces (the rise of Baby Boomers to adolescence and young adulthood; the Civil Rights movement; the Vietnam War) over time from central, uniting issues to “the dustbin of history.”
Shumway’s right, I believe (and I suspect those of you educated in postmodernist, cultural studies analysis would agree) but there’s something in his Jameson/Baudrillard/Hall “academized” approach that leaves me with a sense of being unfulfilled. And I think I’ve figured out what it is.
Let’s use an analogy – a metaphor, if you prefer – and the more persnickety of you may insist that this comparison is metaphorical – so….
What I may have been experiencing at that concert in 1976 was, in rock experience terms, my “peak oil” moment.
I’d been listening to rock since I was 6 or 7 (I had an aunt less than a decade older than I who let me play her old 45’s – that’s how I discovered Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and other primeval greats). I was on the cusp of adolescence when Beatlemania hit – I got my first guitar the following Christmas, setting me on a path that led to professional work as a rock musician for a number of years. By the time of that Who concert in 1976, I’d seen almost everybody who mattered (to me, anyway) except Elvis and The Beatles (and I’d see The King some 5 months later, only a few months before his sad demise that came apparently while he was on the throne – life is full of irony). Having worked in the business (and I would work in it part-time off and on for another 18 years), I knew a lot about what was behind the music. The filth and the fury, one might say….
But there were still bands I had held in awe – that I needed to see for my life to be complete. The Who, of course, was one of those bands. And, as I noted, they delivered shock and awe suitable to my lofty opinion of them.
But a year later much would be different – I’d be listening religiously to Elvis Costello, The Ramones, and The Sex Pistols. And my feeling for those musicians would be considerably different than the reverence in which I held the groups who formed for me rock’s holy trinity, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who. And while I admired the intensity and serieuxment of The Clash and the talent and artistry of Graham Parker, Joe Jackson and the plethora of New Wave artists who came in the wake of the sea change that occurred in rock with the dying of the “dancing days” of rock’s arena gods, something was over, I knew.
And then that goddam madman shot John and the dream was really over.
Rock became, despite my sincere efforts (and those of dear friends who push good new music at me constantly) less than everybody’s everything….
There have been golden moments since – seeing a group in a local club that turned out to be a big deal (Dave Matthews Band); the sloppy, raucous joy of The Black Crowes and Georgia Satellites; hearing Nirvana for the first time and knowing that a transcendent band could still simply appear. But those golden moments have been tempered by the loss of spirit guides and bright lights – Kurt’s suicide, George’s cancer….
And more and more the business trumps the music. The rule used to be that one could determine a band’s greatness by its third album. Many bands had an initial good album. And one usually forgave the sophomore slump. But if a band (or artist) was worth a damn long term, the third album demonstrated it. A few examples to prove my point: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Damn the Torpedoes; Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run; U2, War; REM, Fables of the Reconstruction; Nirvana – oh, that’s right (sigh)…..
Think. How many bands can you name since Nirvana’s passing that have had careers that even mattered for three albums?
Now we are infected and afflicted with manufactured music by manufactured artists. Tell me – do you consider Justin Timberlake a “rock star”? Timbaland? Fergie? Don’t rock stars play instruments? When did dancing around like a stripper to pre-recorded soundtracks begin to qualify as rock performance? Ashley Simpson, anyone? Anyone?
Maybe you’ll dismiss these as old geezer complaints. If so, you’re missing the point – or maybe I haven’t made it. Let me try again….
Once there were these people who played instruments and wrote songs that made us want to change the world. We hailed them as heroes.
After all, where does one hear this kind of stuff now?
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.
They were called rock stars. They belong to the ages now. We may never see their like again….