Rock Is Obsolescent, But So Are You
It was sometime in the middle of 1968, a year or so after Sgt. Pepper, that the rock-is-dead movement began, and it has done nicely ever since, picking up adherents at a slightly slower rate than the music itself. The result is a virtual standoff that often discomforts those who regard their commitment to rock as binding, but it really represents a healthy balance. People who were turned on by rock early, which by today's lax standards means around the time of Rubber Soul, (often) weary of the music and move on to Webern or politics or astrology or teevee, but there are always others who gradually intensify their interest until they too reach a peak, turn off for a while in turn, and then (often) return to a more natural level. This has also been the publicity pattern. After the febrile coverage of 1967 the big media overreacted against that-youth-shit for a while, but now the music receives more or less the quantity (if not the quality) of attention it deserves. You could even say rock is better than ever. Record companies are once again signing new groups, although not, thank the powers, with the greedy enthusiasm of a few years ago. The LP charts are much heavier with Our Music than they were during the golden era. The concert business thrives despite exorbitant performance fees and seat prices. And a new phenomenon, the rock movie, is a sudden fad among nervous cinemoguls.
Yet it would be willful to insist that there hasn't been a lessening of anticipation and excitement, and many would claim the letdown is basically artistic. I agree only from my own peculiar perspective, because by "artistic" I do not mean "musical." The most unequivocal portents, after all, transcend music per se--Joplin and Hendrix dead, the festival disasters, and the breakup of the Beatles. Not that the music is all good; I don't like a lot of what is popular myself. I am uncomfortable with horn groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears, which fill me with nostalgia for the (retrospectively) unpretentious crudity of white blues. I am saddened by the humdrum success of CSNY, which never makes records as vibrant as its live performances; Steppenwolf, which grinds on long after having exhausted its originality; and Grand Funk Railroad, which charms me in theory and oppresses me in practice. I am no longer entirely sanguine about AM radio, which with a few brilliant and significant exceptions seems to have returned to the pre-Beatles level, enjoyable enough but less than thrilling. Meanwhile, black popular music, which ought to be getting us out of this mess, founders in self-conscious racial confusion, much as it did a decade ago.
The good, though, can be very good, and there is a lot of it. Stage Fright was a disappointment, even to a distant admirer like myself, but it is undeniable that The Band has powered a move toward disciplined music that provides deep and accessible pleasure even as it coagulates in its own conventions. Musicianship, so long just a shibboleth, has become a communicative reality--the list of innovative guitarists seems to lengthen with every round of concerts. Talented singer-songwriters continue to mature or arise fully grown from the head of Bob Dylan. The end result, at least as I calculate it: There has been no significant (downward) change in the number of satisfying rock albums released annually since 1966. If anything, the number has been going up.
Three factors contribute to the illusion that there has been a decrease. One is the tendency of superstars to stagnate and/or detour into temporary ruts. Two is the glut of rock albums and the consequent high shit ratio. But most important is three, the cycle of excitement and ennui I have described. What this means, even for me, is that it is harder to get off on good music than it used to be. That is why we tend to ignore the good music, and the reasons for our lowered response suggest the true shape of rock's artistic decline.
The aesthetic originality of rock never inhered in its strictly musical qualities. Even its stubborn simplicity--the stupid beat, the changeless changes--was anticipated in a more sophisticated way in the visual arts. But the visual artist, for all his multiples and college elements and found objects and stories in Harper's Bazaar, could barely approximate one effect that rock achieved fully and naturally. That effect was public presence. Because it was popular, rock implied broad new settings for creative force. Two of its most pervasive characteristics--its unrelenting eclecticism and the perceptual distortions endemic to the star system--also helped extend this contextualizing power, this ability to make new connections between things already known, to dignify the ephemeral and demean the profound. It was contextualizing power that provided the ground for rock's most appropriate aesthetic effect: shock. Rock gimcrackery is as old as "Sh-Boom," but as the music began to be taken seriously, its surprise became a serious pleasure. The reason rock has engendered such rhapsodic excitement--and still does, even after all the alarums, for casual listeners who suddenly dive in or for old (usually young) fans who are inspired to dig to new levels--is not merely that it offers so much, emotionally and intellectually and physically, but that it does not at first appear to do so. Yet as more and more of its audience becomes accustomed to this possibility, the excitement of discovery naturally diminishes. And so the artistic vitality of the music diminishes, too, because it is that sense of discovery, that startling perspective that can skew the whole world for a week or a year of instants, that renders rock truly important.
In the past, one aspect of rock discovery had to do with a sense of unity with listeners who were often quite different from oneself: ghetto kids, heads and hippies, bikers, prepubescents. Now that communion has been sundered into sects, often friendly but always in some sort of competition. Likewise, the ability of rock stars to make us care passionately about themselves was largely unprecedented; many of us (not in the big rock audience, but in the audience likely to be reading this) might have cared that way about real artists, but not with the same suspension of disbelief in the human reality of public image. Now, I think, the obviously destructive aspects of stardom (symbolized by the festival debacles on the one hand and the doom of Joplin and Hendrix on the other) disturb even the palmiest pop optimist. Even eclecticism is exhibiting its unattractive side, for what is all that Ellington-cum-Satie, Las-Vegas-lounge-rock, and psychedelic psoul if not eclectic?
Not that the related ideals of broad-based appeal and stardom and eclecticism have been abandoned. On the contrary, the last two years have seen the development of a new phenomenon, which I call semipopular music. Semipopular music is music that is appreciated--I use the term advisedly--for having all the earmarks of popular music except one: popularity. Just as semiclassical music is a systematic dilution of highbrow preferences, semipopular music is a cross-bred concentration of fashionable modes. I'm not putting it down, for this is the music I am always praising ecstatically--the r&b takeoffs of Van Morrison and Randy Newman and Nolan, the easy electronicism of Terry Riley, the Wayne-Newton-with-a-bite of Nilsson, the self-conscious hillbilly plainsong of Tracy Nelson Country and (a very convoluted case) the Everly Brothers' Roots. Indeed, since writers and musicians usually prefer semipopular music, some of it even becomes popular; The Band and the Grateful Dead and Rod Stewart could all be argued into the category. My favorite examples, however, are untarnished by such associations. First is the Flying Burrito Bros., who on their first album offered the most outrageous combinations of pedal-steel and wah-wah distortion, verbal obscurity and country soul, all through the medium of a lot of ex-Byrd not-quite-stars. But even better is the Stooges, whose sole purported attraction, Iggy, continues to possess every star quality except fame.
I suppose semipopular music is decadent. It wouldn't be the first time that decadence has been the source of acute aesthetic pleasure. And indeed, the way it is so often enjoyed--quietly, stoned perhaps, in the company of a few friends, on a sound system that can convey its technological nuance--is very insular. But because it originates in a certain fondness for what other people like--a kind of musical populism much more concrete than that of the folk music of the early sixties--I think it is basically salubrious, a source of private strength that doesn't recoil from public connection.
We really were very unrealistic, for some part of us expected music always to suffuse our world, and not only that but reshape it as well. That it could seem to do so for even a few years was something of a miracle. Now the time has come to regroup. I am no proponent of the politics of change-your-head, but I do believe public action must be balanced with personal resilience. Maybe the Beatles, each retreating into the personal for a while, are still our vanguard. Oh, I know, not really. But it's a kick to look at it that way for a time, isn't it?
Village Voice, Nov. 1970