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Topic: Rock On, Geezer! Return to archive
08-29-01 12:57 PM
CS Rock On, Geezer!
In defense of 50-year-old pop stars.
By Mark Jenkins

Posted Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2001, at 4:00 p.m. PT



At 50, you can be a novelist
or a plumber, a painter or an
orthodontist. But you cannot
be a rock musician. This is the
verdict of John Strausbaugh,
whose new book, Rock 'Til
You Drop, offers Mick Jagger
and Paul McCartney only two
options: "dead or retired."

Note that Strausbaugh lists
"dead" first. It's clearly what
he prefers—for others.
Fiftyish himself, the writer
hasn't yet volunteered for oblivion, but he recommends it for
Sting, Springsteen, and the Stones. Rock 'Til You Drop deplores
rock's "decline from rebellion to nostalgia," yet one of its most
striking characteristics is its own nostalgia for '60s extremism.
Apparently Strausbaugh really had hoped his generation would
die before it got old.

Ironically, Strausbaugh
is essentially assailing
boomers for not
coming to accept the
ancient wisdom of their
parents: that rock is
just a passing fad. And
for someone who
attacks boomer rock
for getting musty,
Strausbaugh makes a
lot of timeworn
arguments. Rock is
"youth music," he
asserts, and rockers
who insist on emulating
their lithe '60s
selves—the Rolling
Stones are Exhibit
A—just look silly. Yet
Strausbaugh also
dismisses rock
musicians who have made a credible transition to adulthood, like
Lou Reed and Patti Smith—unless he knows them personally
(like David Johansen). And while he extols '60s bands that kept
their distance from the star-making machinery, notably the Fugs,
he disparages contemporary ones that have done much the same
thing, especially Fugazi.

The politics of Strausbaugh's critique are muddled. He attacks the
"ultra-left dogmatism" of Washington, D.C.'s punk scene (that
would be Fugazi again) and approvingly cites a Wall Street
Journal broadside against leftist rock critics (including me). Yet
he censures the early-'70s Stones for not really supporting The
Revolution (as if "Street Fighting Man" hadn't already announced
their ambivalence) and characterizes the Baader-Meinhof group
and the Symbionese Liberation Army as "authentic revolutionary
groups." (As a designated representative of leftist rock criticdom,
let me assure you that support for the SLA is not on our agenda.)
For Strausbaugh, apparently, youthful violence equals
authenticity. One of his few remarks about today's adolescent
rock audience is that it was "right to 'riot' " at Woodstock '99.

Even as he condemns his generation, Strausbaugh insists on its
distinctiveness. He supposes, for example, that boomer idols are
unique in trying to retain their sex appeal beyond its time. But as
Jagger shakes his over-50 hips, such pre-boomers as Woody
Allen and Robert Redford still insist on casting themselves against
actresses half their age. Nor are '60s rockers the first artists to
ever run short on inspiration. Faulkner and Hemingway were
reduced to self-parody in their later work, and even the creakiest
Rolling Stones album has more in common with the band's best
work than Francis Coppola's Jack has with Apocalypse Now.

Most residents of the industrialized world live past adolescence,
an actuarial fact that boomers accepted long ago. The punks who
once dismissed '60s rockers as dinosaurs are now in their 40s,
and many of them are still making music. Rock has become a
permanent feature of the pop-culture landscape, and if it has lost
some of its insurgent appeal, that's inevitable. Igor Stravinsky and
Jackson Pollock aren't as controversial as they used to be, either.

Rock has become a sort of classical music, sustained not only by
high-profile reissues like the Beatles' multi-platinum 1 but also by
the pop-scholarly compilations of such labels as Rhino, which
unearth obscure older rock that can still sound fresh. Rock's
shock of the new is largely gone, and rules like "don't trust anyone
over 30" have been suspended. That doesn't mean, however, that
rock's only remaining appeal is to nostalgia.

Anti-nostalgists assume that only boomers buy albums like 1, but
the evidence suggests otherwise. The music of '60s and '70s rock
stars appeals to listeners who weren't even born at the time it was
recorded: A Knight's Tale recently delighted under-25 audiences
by setting the Middle Ages to songs by Queen and Thin Lizzy.
Boomer rock also motivates twentysomething pop-rock bands
like Smartbomb, whose members cite The Beatles 1962-1966
and The Beatles 1967-1970 as major inspirations. The songs
remain the same, but new fans keep arriving.

It's impossible to entirely separate nostalgia from the musical
appeal of '60s rock, but surely one reason that today's Paul
McCartney fans would rather hear his earlier material is that it's
better than the later stuff. Many '60s and '70s rockers are guilty
of the misdemeanor of no longer writing good songs, and some of
them no longer write songs at all. This is in violation of the
principle—introduced by Bob Dylan and enshrined by the
Beatles—that vital young performers must write their own
material. But the boomers made their mark by breaking their
parents' rules, so why can't they break their own?

Some of the biggest concert draws of recent years are vintage
rockers who've essentially abandoned the recording studio. This
supposedly reduces them to the status of "nostalgia acts," yet for
musicians of any other genre, performing an established repertoire
is entirely respectable. If it's OK for Tony Bennett and Yo-Yo
Ma, why not for Bob Seger and Elton John? (After all, Keith
Richards has long complained that no one would criticize the
Stones' longevity if he and Jagger were black bluesmen from
Chicago.) I'm a longtime Springsteen non-fan, but when I saw
him in 1999, I was impressed. And while I haven't seen the
Stones in decades, a friend who caught them the last time they
came through town says they put on a good show.

Admittedly, my perspective is skewed. As someone who gets
paid to listen to new music—and who almost never goes to
stadium rock shows—I hear less boomer rock than many of my
fortysomething peers. When I saw the 2000 reissue of A Hard
Day's Night, I hadn't heard songs like "I Should Have Known
Better" and "Anytime at All" in years. (Hey, they're good!) But
aside from a few notorious tunes that have been reiterated into
banality by classic-rock radio, there's plenty of life in '60s rock.
That someone might accuse you of being nostalgic is no reason to
stop listening to it.

In fact, though, boomers don't just listen to the rock of their
adolescence. Many of them are still adventurous and are driving
the growth of world music, electronica, "neomystical"
contemporary compositions, and other categories that have little
to do with the Beatles and the Stones. According to the
Recording Industry Association of America's latest statistics, in
1999 over-45 consumers increased their share of the
recorded-music market from 18.1 percent to 24.7 percent. They
weren't all buying 1. While their detractors attack them for
wallowing in nostalgia, the boomers who still care strongly about
music have moved on.

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