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What Happened to Rock and Roll?

October 14, 2015

I was watching the Keith Richards documentary on Netflix (which is really great by the way … the best insight in Richards I’ve seen) and I couldn’t help but think about how much the world of Rock music has changed since the 70’s.  I know that sounds really obvious, but the changes are about more than the passage of time and changing of the guard.

First off, the people playing music in the 70s look like adults.  They look like adults who have been around the block a few times … even adults that have been dragged around the block a few times.  Rock music at that time was not about the future.  It wasn’t even about making it to tomorrow.  It was about having a good time right now.  As you might have noticed, that meant that a certain number of the heroes of the time didn’t make it to tomorrow, but it sure did make the rebellious, reckless, possibly unwise, lifestyle of these folks … authentic. The music was gritty, dirty, lewd, and in your face. While this might all sound like some kind of revisionist history of music or nostalgia for my youth, I think this was real.  If you decided to hang around with any of the rock stars of the day, you were taking a pretty big risk.  Any number of people who took up with these folks wound up worn out, left by the side of the road, in jail, or in rehab. The outlaw lifestyle definitely had some real-ness to it.

I was thinking about who is like this now in music, and it was a little hard to come up with anyone (under 40 anyway).  The last really big band who was also out of control rebellious that I could think of was Nirvana.  They were gritty, dirty, and unpredictable, and sneered at the big business that was trying to maximize the degree to which they could cash in. I suppose that maybe it’s that lack of responsibility and complete refusal to engage with the “adult world” that is missing now.  That “fuck you, I’m just going to have fun” mentality. Needless to say, the music business has probably been pretty happy not have to deal with these people for the last 20 years or so. When you’re trying to sell musicians to 14 year olds, it’s going to be a little dicey if those musicians are forever doing things that parents hate. 14 year olds love that, but then a guy like Jerry Lee Lewis marries his 13 year old cousin, and your business model is shot to hell.   Now that I mention him, Jerry Lee Lewis was way more threatening than current rock stars, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings would trash hotel rooms and wind up in jail,  Little Richard would totally freak people out: those folks were rock and roll. For them, clinging to your career was nowhere near as important as whatever you were up to that night, and what you were up to might just ruin everything.

When I went to the Warped Tour the one thing that bands had in common was how well behaved they were.  Nobody was wasted, nobody was trying to pick up their fans. Everyone was lining up to sign autographs, shake hands and whisper nice supportive things to their teenage fans.  The BANDS spent time at their really nice merch table. Bands of the past wouldn’t even know where their merch table was, and might not be able to find it if they tried. The current model might actually be better and since I’m a parent myself now, I thought it was great.  My 17 year old self, though, would have been disgusted.

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