In this month’s guest post, Geoff Moore continues his analysis on the cultural impact of rock ‘n’ roll. Is rock music still a buffer against the madness of our times? Is it a mass, subcultural delusion? Is it both? Is it possible to ‘get it right the next time’? Read on, good people ...
Is there a more bittersweet and stubborn affirmation in rock ‘n’ roll than the last lines of Bob Seger’s ‘Roll Me Away?’ “Next time, next time we’ll get it right!”
It could be humanity’s universal epitaph, both micro and macro. It’s the royal we inside your head as you file the divorce decree amongst your personal papers. Eddie Van Halen musing about lead singers. The vow of Pentagon generals following two Gulf wars. The studied, rueful voices of Wall Street and Detroit’s Big Three in Washington with caps in hand even as Maple Leaf Foods plant managers seem to have Def Leppard’s Listeria (sic) album stuck on repeat.
In the “Lord love us and saints preserve us” category of this new age, a National Post story last month reported that the American Academy of Pediatricians has called for the hot dog’s shape to be reconfigured as to reduce the risk of toddlers choking on their ineptly prepared lunches; the absurdity of the nanny state mentality goes from worse to offal. And what more can provincial health officials doing a forensic on their temporary H1N1 vaccine clinics tell us? A back-pedaling green demagogue: Did we say global warming? We meant climate change.
Hey! You try cooking incomplete and inaccurate data!
It’s a world gone wrong, a ball of confusion and everything is broken. Next time, we’ll get it right, hockey stick computer models and frankfurters not withstanding. When rock ‘n’ roll grew out of its imitation Elvis, teen idol years it seemed like the expanding soundtrack to a legitimate, alternative, more democratic and inclusive way for the West to mind and operate itself and interact with the rest of the world. Salvation was as near as side one, track two, at least in the eyes of the first generation of university educated American rock critics, who of course comprised a club almost as exclusive as the artists they covered. Fortunate sons would be lined up against the figurative wall.
In reality it was a matter of months from the birth of Eden to the fall, from the muddy idyll of Woodstock to the violent chaos of Altamont. Consider the breadth of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land’ for a moment, each festival was mounted in a coastal state, on the eastern and western fringes of America. Perhaps this is the explanation for rock ‘n’ roll’s failed promise, the musical geography pretty much jibes with the United States’ traditional red and blue political topography. Next time, we’ll get it right.
The Kinks’ Ray Davies came clean in the late 70s: “It’s only music, only jukebox music.” If you’re of a certain age (oh, say, um, 50), you’ve watched the Rolling Stones transform from a perceived threat to the establishment into a corporation, one that operates more efficiently than many present and former Fortune 500 companies at that. You have grown up listening to Bruce Springsteen grow up, slow dancing with your cat even while the scruffy and poetic romantic suites shrivelled into bitter Raymond Carver vignettes.
The Clash imploded attempting to fuse the dichotomy of revolution rock, that unstable alchemy of politics and pop. Meanwhile, Bob Dylan, once the unwilling voice of a generation, has recast himself, and wonderfully so, as the curator of American music, immersing himself these past 10 years in the blues, roots, country and murder ballads.
And so what is the legacy of this once grand sub-genre of current popular music aside from interactive vidiot games? Well, Stephen Harper is not our parents’ Prime Minister: apparently, he likes AC/DC. Imagining ‘Mistress for Christmas’ rattling the leaden windows of 24 Sussex Drive, while a jarring audio-visual non sequitur, is very likely still a little too staid an image for the tricky 18-24 voter demographic. John Mellencamp and Dylan played the White House recently, but they’re not making policy, which, when you come right down to it, might be a good thing.
Happily, the music marketplace is awash with burnished relics as the canon is being slowly and lovingly re-mastered and repackaged with fussy care. This is definitely a case of getting it right the next time (and we’ll not question the record industry’s integrity nor motivation in following the Elvis Presley Enterprises model of selling the same product two or three times over under the guise of new and improved).
The basic, universal theme of rock ‘n’ roll, once it has been stripped down to the bone and all of the excess meat, marrow and sinew has been boiled away, is, simply, freedom – in all its abstract complexity. And freedom is a risky thing as it multiplies the opportunities for, as Neil Young so eloquently put it, ‘F*!#in’ Up.’ But even in its lamest and most commercial incarnations, rock ‘n’ roll remains the finest baffle and the finest buffer against the full throttle madness raging outside your front door. Out there it seems everyone and everything is f*!#in’ up.
Maybe they’ll get it right next time.
Geoff Moore is a writer from Calgary. He’s just turned 50. Happy Birthday, Geoff!