Saturday, February 6, 2010

Too Old To Rock and Roll: Too Young to Die

A rambling post based on incomplete thoughts on the recipes of time, age, and music with a minimum of editing.

"The old Rocker wore his hair too long,
wore his trouser cuffs too tight.
Unfashionable to the end --- drank his ale too light.
Death's head belt buckle --- yesterday's dreams ---
the transport caf' prophet of doom.
Ringing no change in his double-sewn seams
in his post-war-babe gloom.

Now he's too old to Rock'n'Roll but he's too young to die."

I wonder how long the static radio format and genre known as "classic rock" will last. No era of music has ever been cryogenicized on the radio for so long. It's a hoary old oeuvre on permanent repeat-play. I don't deny the importance or quality of much of this rock, but its implicit attitude toward musical evolution is "try as they might, they'll never top these 300 songs."

"They've thrown away their blue suede shoes."

Classic Rock is comfort food and functionally no different than the canned "big bands and ballads of the '40s and '50s" format that I used to run off four reel-to-reel machines at WTTT-AM in Amherst in the 1980s. It's the same 40 odd year difference between Sinatra's prime and WTTT circa 1985 that it is between Zeppelin's heyday and today's classic rock format. But where this used to frustrate me on behalf of new generations that might think Classic Rock starts and ends with those 300 songs, the true depth of rock music's library is re-awakened in the interet-age. Now that commercial radio is not the all-powerful monopolizer of most musical discovery for the public, the gold mining has begun in earnest for music lovers.The gates are open if the voracious are ready for the cornucopial musical orgie to commence. Have some Skip Spence with your Bon Iver? Don't mind if I do.
So where does one find this vast archive of great rock music that the narrow-casters of rock radio have always cast off like the dough left around a cookie cutter? Talk to the gang at the record store Turn It Up! and they'll tell you as much about the Shangri Las as they will Arcade Fire. On the air, WRSI 93.9 The River is a rare gem as well, programming from their ears and hearts with just the right amount of oversight and a savvy integration of advertising that keeps the commerce palatable and relevant to the listener. (Plus they gave me a three hour radio show to explore music even beyond their already generous margins. The only thing as fulfilling as listening to a song that moves me is turning someone else onto it.) WMUA at UMass is all over the map but it's my old home and is never a dull trip. Online, KCRW Santa Monica's Eclectic 24 stream is another brilliant source for music discovery. In print, the seemingly bottomless, Mojo Magazine is a terrific lens for viewing rock music without the meddlesome tethers of time. Their ethos is also my model. All music exists all the time. The Zombies will always be ripe for discovery and nestle comfortably side by side with the Decemberists on any iPod.

Parents these days have an easier time of it turning their younger kids onto Hendrix and the Beatles than parents of the 60s and 70s did trying to hip the youngsters to Bobby Goldsboro or even Elvis Presley. Elvis seemed like an old fart when I was 11. In fact Elvis was just 38 when I was 11. But whew, that was a beefy 38.

Jimmy Page told Cameron Crowe in 1975, "I just felt that I wouldn't reach 30. That's all there was to it. It was something in me, something inbred. I'm over 30 now, but I didn't expect to be here." After being a generally hazy figure, Page is now an increasingly public and coherent guy whose enthusiasm for music remains, as is clear in the film "It Might Get Loud" and a recent Mojo Magazine article about his personal "jukebox." It makes me feel better to be 46 seeing Page make sense of 66.

I've noticed that it does start to get a little silly for straight ahead rock bands to keep going through the motions ala the Stones, U2, or this Sunday's guaranteed painful spectacle of The Who at the Super Bowl. Artists like Loudon Wainwright and Springsteen are better suited to bringing their music along for the whole ride. Most would cite Dylan. I've loved getting older with Loudon and his records and shows. So what if these guys need two pee breaks during their sets these days. They've earned it.

"Now that I am dead, my agent finally said, he wanted to have lunch with me.

Now that I've deceased, my record sales increased, I'm making lots of royalties.

I'm the composer, decomposing, I'm in the Rocker's Hall of Fame.

My songs the critics they are praising, yes they've even learned to spell my name!"

--Richard Thompson "Now That I Am Dead" (Bill French)

We've lost some of the greats of 60s and 70s rock, but there hasn't been the huge generational die-off of artists and original fans that will eventually occur, many of us among them. Will classic rock ever be retired, even when its creators and followers are long gone? Maybe the answer is a question. Who cares? The music itself is immortal. When you're listening to an old Nick Drake album, you're actually listening to a young Nick Drake album.

"And he was too old to Rock'n'Roll but he was too young to die. No, you're never too old to Rock'n'Roll if you're too young to die."

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