How the Rock Audience Got Too Big for Its Own Good
It seems worth noting from the outset that at this moment in history I love rock and roll. I may not be as messianic (or as intolerant) as I once was, but my enthusiasm for the music shows no signs of abating. I'm not living off some edenic past, either. I see 100 or 150 sets, shows, and concerts each year, listen to thousands of new LPs, and get what I need from artists who are active today. Age always counts in rock and roll, so I'll add that some of these artists are barely out of their teens, like the average record buyer, and some of them are close to 35, my age. Since most of my cohorts in the Alan Freed generation have acceded to the perennial rumor that rock is dead, the old talent is no less encouraging than the young.
As a perennial scoffer at the perennial rumor, however, I must admit that loving rock and roll can be problematic; the music goes through, you know, changes, and right now confronts a dilemma. On the one hand, to cop a line I wrote six months ago, the logic of profit would seem to have created a market too large for the genre, but on the other hand there are those who believe that the very same market is about to shrink if not collapse. What makes this dilemma complex is that its horns would seem to be antithetical--inimical not only to those of us who must live with them but also to each other. If that's so, of course, they may produce a synthesis. We can't be sure whether such a synthesis would compound the dilemma or constitute a higher historical plane. But perhaps by exploring the alternatives I can explain why I don't anticipate the imminent passing of the music I love.
The first (post-Beatle) rock-is-dead rumors, which began about a year after Sgt. Pepper, in 1968, originated with faddists for whom the music had apparently been little more than another bandwagon. When they jumped off, the main concern of rock and roll partisans like myself was that not too many follow. I hardly noticed that the music itself was actually getting better as the doomsayers did their routines; because rock and roll still felt like a movement, what I craved was a sense that the numbers would remain with us. And indeed, over the next few years gigs moved from clubs to auditoriums and from auditoriums to arenas while recording sales, we were told, increased 50 per cent--ample compensation, it seemed, for the loss of a few journalists, politicos, and other trend addicts. But it didn't turn out quite the way I'd hoped.
Since I was (and am) some kind of socialist or communist, I never went so far as to confuse a mass market with a mass movement, but the parallels fascinated me. It was obvious enough that rock and roll could not have arisen in a collectivist society. Its embrace of upwardly mobile, self-reliant materialism was too passionate to be passed off as brainwashing; I considered it ineradicably American, the way brooding impassivity was Swedish. But if the combativeness, individualism, and hedonism of rock and roll were so American, and if some sort of collectivism would ultimately make more Americans happier, then perhaps paying attention to rock and roll would help me figure out how that individualism might evolve politically. Also, it would be fun.
Such reasoning was obviously stimulated by the communalism of the so-called rock culture. But the music did have a naturally collectivist tradition of its own: Its heroes gathered in groups and acted as if they had a right to society's riches despite their limited technical achievements, invoking the support of young people who were theoretically very much like themselves. Spreading the word (and the music) were the inevitable impresarios, agents of change who, as the English socialist Colin Maclnnes once observed, always seemed to get left out of "plans prepared by writers of the New Left for the diffusion of popular art in a socialist society." The way the left dismissed the real work performed by such men and women had always seemed shortsighted to me. If capitalists were mobilizing the alert and volatile rock audience, it would be more appropriate to learn from them.
Although I know that at the moment this kind of thinking sounds passÚ to undaunted radicals and chickenshit liberals alike, I still hold with much of it. But there was certainly a big problem with that last idea--namely, capitalism itself. In "Socialist Impresarios," the Maclnnes essay I quoted, a fascination with art promotion itself, rather than profit, is identified as "the prime motive of the inspired impresario temperament," and in a way this is true--it's what made Jerry Wexler, the Chess brothers, and even Colonel Tom Parker support rhythm and blues, Chuck Berry, and Elvis against an arrogant, ignorant establishment culture. It's even possible to imagine Jerry Wexler, a rather cerebral and enlightened businessman, functioning with considerable satisfaction in an enlightened socialist system. But what about the Chess brothers, who got into music via a junk route? Or Colonel Tom Parker, who won't even play the White House free? Clearly, profit counts as a motive too. And wherever there is profit you will find businessmen of a much more up-to-date and dangerous type than our promotion-obsessed rebels.
It's not that I don't think people in the music business like rock and roll. It's just that I also think people in the hardware business like nuts and bolts--and that if they run a modern hardware store they prefer blenders and copper cookware. Now we're talking classy merchandise: 14 speeds, rapid heat conduction, sturdy motor, burnished craftsmanship. But also--and this doesn't enter the pitch-profitability. Admittedly, there are still hardware dealers who are as ardent about machine screws as Jerry Wexler is about Muscle Shoals. But like the modern hardware entrepreneur, the modern record executive--that urbane and pointedly liberal cross between Leonard Chess and Harold Geneen typified by Warners's Mo Ostin or Arista's Clive Davis--has a taste for the classy merchandise. And that taste is conditioned by the executive's attraction to money, to profit and the rich life that goes with it.
An example of how this can work is the rock LP, which catapulted past the three-minute 45 a decade ago to become the staple of the industry. Supposedly, this development reflected rock's newfound artistic integrity, not unmentionable standards of profit per unit. Yet once the commercial viability of the item had been assured by its aesthetic ambitions, its aesthetic ambitions began to seem expendable. Art is messy, difficult, and unpredictable, involving risk, wasted time, and needless concentrations of product; good sound is easier to buy than good music, and song samplers, concert souvenirs, programming-plus-filler, and just plain kitsch are easier to sell. Sure enough, well-engineered, well-played albums--classy merchandise--soon became the rule, and audaciously conceived ones rarities. Today an artist of the caliber of Randy Newman, who only breaks even, has become a prestige property, like some publisher's poet, and the purism of Steely Dan, who refuse to release waste cuts. is regarded as newsworthy. So much for artistic integrity.
Initially, of course, the rock LP scared music-biz conservatives. They knew LPs were a great way to make money; they just weren't convinced rock LPs would sell without hits to suck the buyers in. Ostin, Davis, and others, after undergoing a conversion experience at Monterey, acted as inspired impresarios by taking their chances on the unprecedented studio costs and musical unkemptness of the new form. It was their enthusiasm, which quickly justified itself on the charts, that gave the album sales network of FM stations, concert promoters, and young, rock-savvy field personnel a chance to develop. And it was only with that system in place that the industry could be structured--as Marxists say, "rationalized"--at a higher level of profitability.
The new system attracted the performers it deserved, with careerism or, at best, devotion to craft replacing conviction and invention. After all, what Grace Slick and Jim Morrison shared with Duane Allman and Sly Stone wasn't the will to be rich-and-famous (a British specialty in the '60s), but rather their intuition that this apparently abject popular form was ripe with expressive possibilities. Their genius was conceptual; in a sense, they pursued rock and roll because they'd thought of it. One reason the conceptual substructure of rock today often seems so expedient is that their successors didn't have to make such a creative leap. Too often, they were imitators, required only to mold their music and lives to a professional pattern now understood to depend on brutal touring and/or exacting session work plus continual cooperation with the powerful. Q: How does a new group top off a rock concert? A: They kick ass--and then they kiss it.
In this setting, the conventional distinction between art and entertainment reasserts itself. Rock is entertainment. Even the rawest hard rock groups now identify themselves as showmen, nothing more, while the aesthetic aspirations of the classier singer-songwriter types are distinguished primarily by their politeness. Still, it is possible for canny survivors of undeniable talent--even, occasionally, new-comers--to function creatively within and around this system, and these lucky ones often get help from the industry itself, for the modern record executive does invest ego as well as money in his or her favorite artists. Unfortunately, the executives had no similar empathy with people they perceived first and foremost as numbers on sales sheets. No emotional outlay by the businessmen protected the integrity and creativity of the audience.
In 1968 or 1969, beguiled by the flowering of the youth subculture, rock and roll partisans assumed that the music's audience would be alert and volatile in perpetuity. We didn't buy the bullshit hyperboles of the John Sinclairs and Theodore Roszaks, but we did tell ourselves (and the world) that certain minimum standards of vivacity were built into rock itself--that its sexuality, cross-racial affinities, aura of altered consciousness, and generally rebellious mood nourished and were nourished by the best tastes and impulses of its fans. I don't wish to imply that the music business set about deliberately to undermine this symbiosis--which, like the counterculture itself, was destroyed by internal contradictions and the breakdown of the myth of the affluent society. But the industry did play a deleterious role, and all it had to do was act naturally--that , is, rationalize the profit mechanism.
It is customary to think of the rock and roll audience as comprising all Americans within a certain age range, but starting with racial and regional splits the exceptions have always abounded. Even among the paradigmatic 16-year-olds, many kids--more of them female than male--have been too genteel or too stodgy or too snobbish or too dull or too religious or too arty or too ornery or too busy or just too weird for rock and roll. Also, intensity of involvement varies enormously. The teenager who buys the Neil Sedaka single she hears on a friend's radio is only a marginal part of an audience that includes kids who own a Kinks LP before it even gets airplay.
In 1960, the year rock's first generation of crazies gave way to guardians of pubic safety like Dick dark, record sales dipped; they didn't pick up--not as much as was warranted by a baby boom then unleashing unprecedented hordes of 13- and 14-year-olds on the nation--until the Beatles picked up too (where Chuck and Jerry Lee had left off). The Beatles created what we think of as the rock audience. They pushed the age range in both directions, so that some people started buying records as kiddies and l hung on into college and after. They won back most of the arty, ornery, snobbish, weird dropouts from rock and roll many of whom were already buying LPs by Joan Baez and other folkies in patterns and quantities that presaged the rock album market. And they made enthusiasts out of mere consumers at a time when teenagers' spending cash was at an all-time high.
There aren't any hard figures--even today, the industry is surprisingly negligent about demographic research--but it seems likely that this audience kept getting better throughout the '60s. I don't mean bigger, although that was also nice--I mean that its mix was improving. It wasn't just a matter of more kids buying more records per kid further into young adulthood, but of more weird kids, and weird adults, getting into rock and roll. The result was another crucial symbiosis, this time between rock's natural core audience and all the fringe-type enthusiast who were tuning in. Granted, the mix was still too male, and although more whites than ever cared about black music--which for the most part was designed, unlike its white counterpart, to cross over--the racial split also endured. Inevitably, generational fragmentation--some of it activated as much by class or education as by age--marred the consensus as well; this usually took the form of a rather middlebrow I-can't-stand-that-kid-stuff line, directed by older teenagers at AM "bubblegum" and by young adults at the strident older-teenage music then known as white blues. But the amazing truth was that almost all of the best music could be appreciated by all but the youngest fans. Among artists who were both popular and of quality, those who didn't attract an across-the-board audience--soul singers, the odd AM hitmaker, Led Zeppelin perhaps--weren't too hard to understand, but rather too easy. The usual great names--Beatles-Stones-Who, Dylan-Hendrix-Joplin--pretty much offered something for everyone.
For the health of the audience didn't depend on what was ordinarily thought of as the music's message. Sure rock could be sexy, angry, fervent, idealistic; sure it could turn people on. That was why it was "youth culture." It made the young proud to be young, and kept senescent over-25s in touch with what was worth preserving about their past and passing selves (although to affirm that this was good is not to deny what is more obvious now, that even good rock could also be sexist, petulant, brutal, and self-pitying). But rock and roll wasn't just youth culture, it was popular culture; accessibility was its sweetest secret. Not only did it connect diverging generations, it also kept relatively worldly people in touch with their unsophisticated fellows and their own most elementary values and impulses--while at the same time suggesting to the not-yet-worldly that other truths lay beyond.
In other words, the best rock of the late '60s offered complication, irony, analysis, expressive detail, word-play/soundplay--aesthetic dimension--to those whose experience so inclined them, but in a context of simplicity, direct statement, celebration, irresistible kinetic force, and fun that satisfied those whose experience and/or inclination limited them to that. The aesthete part of the audience, which was of course much the smaller, sometimes got a special frisson off its craving for rock's more fundamental pleasures, as in: "The Supremes--what a trip." And this aesthetic kick was not unlike the extra convolution of satisfaction to be found in discovering complication-irony-analysis-expressive-detail-wordplay/soundplay in such an improbably accessible setting. But their involvement was more than mind games. Just as their interest encouraged ambitious music-making, so their example encouraged ambitious listening by the larger audience.
Of course, not all of the adventurers, by any means, I arrived at such an extruded aesthetic, and neither did those who created the aesthetic objects. Like their fans, rock musicians were becoming more sophisticated--they still loved rock and roll, they still were out for a good time, yet they had outgrown (not abandoned) the truths it was invented to deal with. But they too stopped at different levels--for every Randy Newman or Peter Townshend there were five Roger McGuinns and Jeff Lynnes, not to mention 20 Kenny Logginses and David Byrons. And not all this development was neatly progressive, or neatly divided into levels.
The rock audience as I've recalled it peaked around 1969, when there were some 59 million people between the ages of 13 and 30 in the U.S. Back then, an album which sold two or three million copies was considered a miraculous smash. This suggests how partial (or inactive) (or unrationalized) a "mass" audience can be. My generation, by which I mean those born 1939-45, numbers about 18 million. If you were to define a fan as someone who buys 10 albums a year, you might guess that 25 per cent of my generation qualified, but even such a conservative estimate would probably be rather high, for that would make perhaps 8 per cent of the 13-to-30s responsible for at least $220 million of a total retail gross--tapes, 45s, country music, everything? that was then less than $1.6 billion. Even among younger people it is unlikely that more than 50 per cent were active. Among aesthetes and politicos, however, the percentages were much higher.
It often happens that aesthetes and politicos ignore (and are left out of--the aversion is mutual) popular culture; in the '50s, for instance, teenagers from "cultured" homes often shunned rock and roll and only rarely lived for it the way other kids did. But in the late '60s their disproportionate involvement turned culture heads--people capable of something more thoughtful than a reflexive identification with counterculture usages--into an influential bloc. Often this vanguard allied with the audience's natural self-educated leaders--those fans who by virtue of their openness, low tolerance for bullshit, sensitivity to the Zeitgeist, and good ears tended to support adventurous music early and awaken the uninitiated--and sometimes they turned into leaders themselves. They were a finicky lot, though, and began to desert as soon as the rock-is-dead rumors began; their visionary costumes and astute heckling were missed at concerts by 1970, and once their absence was felt the fun went out of live music for a lot of others. I've labeled these early deserters faddists, and I was never crazy about having them around, but faddists have their uses--their unreasonable demands for innovation keep things moving. Instead, the music seemed to slow-down, Altamont and the Beatle break-up kicked in, and soon the vanguard bloc had deteriorated badly. Even some of the natural leaders gave up, and those who stayed in became obsessed with technique. Increasing record sales merely diluted what power the remnants of the old alliance retained.
In the industry, this process was regarded as both inevitable and meaningless when it was noticed at all. It's hard, after all, to hold on to a demanding, nebulous sub-audience; if one translates "hard" as "impossible" (i.e. not cost-effective) then one will inevitably let that audience go, for, after all, what the loss will mean can never be measured. It's certainly true, however, that by the mid-'70s the audience as a whole had lost most of its passion/taste/tolerance for the genuinely visionary, as opposed to the escapist, and the genuinely critical, as opposed to the fecklessly pessimistic. And it would appear that after a time lag this letdown was absorbed by veteran artists as well. John Lennon and the Rolling Stones, each of whom helped define rock's unique fusion of visionary kinetics and critical Úlan with two early-'70s albums (Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street), followed with product that was wan and repetitive, their worst ever. The Who and Neil Young outdid themselves on Who's Next (1971) and After the Gold Rush (1970); neither the self-referential Quadrophenia (1973) nor the fine, harrowing series of albums that begins with Time Fades Away (1974) approached the old expansiveness. And the two veterans who did do accessible and exciting work in the mid-'70s, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, both played off invidious trends--laid-back easy-listening rock (Clapton's 461 Ocean Boulevard) and arena bombast (Dylan and the Band's Before the Flood).
Granted, the causal connections in this mess cannot be mapped. If I were a rigorous Marxist or a smooth-talking capitalist I'd probably blame it all on the economic base, that's certainly where a lot of the blame belongs. But as a Marxian moralist with an unnatural fondness for art that makes trouble (whether it makes money or not), I resent those in power. For it's undeniable that among major labels, even in the late '60s, only Warners--sparked by copywriter (later vice-president) Stan Cornyn--pursued rock's vanguard audience with anything resembling enthusiasm. Soon growth-obsessed corporations were eagerly snipping a little off the top of their audience in an effort to broaden its base, automatically sacrificing the marginal artist to the potential biggie. A more arrogant version of that attitude thrives today.
By top I don't mean age--the cut-off year has remained around 30. Mean purchasing age, however, has been inching higher, and it will get higher yet. I spoke not long ago with a demographics expert at a major label who advocated spending $900,000 promoting one $100,000 artist rather than signing 10 for $100,000 apiece--the sort of capital-intensive reasoning responsible for the record ads now proliferating on TV. This fellow pooh-poohed the conventional wisdom about a specialized music market. His company would sell more records, I was told, by inducing every 30-to-40-year-old to purchase one a year than by getting all the kids who bought one a week to buy two. Rock fans shouldn't let this worry them, he went on, because "musical tastes remain unchanged" with age. Although, actually, there was "a change in the use of music as one gets older." An example? Well. "I continue to love the Beatles but can no longer stomach the Rolling Stones."
This demographics man is an extreme instance. Most modern record executives did, after all, choose music as their field; lip service to the creative process--sincere lip service--comes naturally, to them, and it's a little shocking to encounter somebody preoccupied so exclusively with rationalizing the profitability of the classy merchandise. But it does help one understand how inoffensiveness becomes a conspicuous goal in culture sales. With the big-money success of albums--real (if contained) rock albums, not inspired rockish MOR in the manner of Tapestry and Bridge Over Troubled Water--like Fleetwood Mac and Frampton Comes Alive!, the music industry seems to be flirting with a blockbuster mentality like the one that dominates movies. Now, The Godfather is a great film and Jaws quite an entertaining one. But if Fleetwood Mac is our Jaws, Frampton Comes Alive! is more like The Poseidon Adventure. And The Godfather may have been a fluke.
The rock audience today can judge good product but seems to have no instinct for interesting music, which it stumbles upon as if by accident; those with the instincts are either too isolated to exercise economic power or out of the market altogether. That is, the logic of profit would seem to have created a market too large for the genre. But what if the market were to get smaller? This may sound unlikely after all my plaints, but not everyone thinks so. The rationalization of rock is a fact; the growth rate of the music in the four-year period preceding Beatlemania (the Dick Clark era) was 16 per cent, while the rate in the 1970-1973, the four years after Altamont (when corporate rock took hold), was 27 per cent and increased to 81/2 per cent annually over the next two years. All this occurred even though percentage increases become harder to sustain as raw numbers get bigger, and even though the industry was much more dependent on rock in the '70s than in the early '60s. But the 1970-73 growth rate didn't approach that of the first four Beatle years. What's more, it reflected not LPs sold but list price dollars--inflationary dollars. In fact, between 1973 and 1975, the first three years the industry reported unit sales, the number of albums to cross the counter remained at around 280 million, although tape sales did increase.
It is said that the figures for 1976 will be higher, but it is also said that the relief will be temporary. For the rock generation is the baby-boom generation, born 1946-55, and, theoretically, it is running out--soon more people will leave the 13-30 age range than will enter it. This statistic is enjoying a vogue in the industry right now, which is one reason the idea of selling an LP a year to everyone 30-40 suddenly seems so brilliant. But although the people who are now 30 to 40 were the record market not long ago, nobody seems to know how to get them back. Given this quandary, the bland-out approach will of course be favored. As it happens, Tapestry and Frampton Comes Alive! and Fleetwood Mac were all freak hits by artists who'd been around for years with no notable commercial or musical breakthroughs, but industry strategists will try to duplicate them anyway. If they're smart, they'll support likely artists rather than attempting to order up such product by fiat--for it also happened that two of those three all-purpose best-sellers (not Frampton's) are much too personal, even idiosyncratic (even visionary, if one can speak of pleasant visionaries) to be ordered up. The industry strategists may succeed, too, but I wonder if their success will be cost-effective. For there is as yet no indication that even artists like Fleetwood Mac, epiphanies of homogenization and all, can be sold to large numbers of over-30s. Too loud.
Non-leisure-class art consumption automatically drops off as people busy themselves with the commitments of adulthood, a tendency exacerbated by television, which provides audiovisual diversion at the flick of a switch--take it or leave it, no purchase necessary. But even movies (which at their shrillest zap level offer the escape of a night out) or Gothic/sex/detective fiction (which is silent, and who needs more noise when there're children around?) are more easily adapted to the needs of settled young parents than raucous rock and roll records. So are many of the higher-status forms, for that matter. Nevertheless, the one sub-audience that might value the sheer physical challenge of rock and roll, a challenge the young find exhilarating, is the same legion of aesthetes who left the music under mysterious circumstances six or seven or eight years ago. A test market of about 180,000--just one per cent of us 18 million 1939-45s, say--would ease the minds of industry worry worts, providing a creative entree to the lost 30-40s. Too bad.
If that sounds like a fantasy, which of course it is, well, maybe the baby-boom disaster is also a fantasy. Not that it isn't a powerful one. Stan Cornyn, the very same copy-writer who put Warners on top of the youth market in the * late '60s with his Fugs Dream Date and Happy The Mothers Day ads, is among the concerned. He recently told Ken Emerson in New Times: "When the last of the baby boom is buying refrigerators, when they walk out of college and into the church or synagogue and get married, that's when the trouble starts." Emerson added: "Statistically, this translates into three or four years from now." But this hermeneutic applies only if we're discussing the baby boom--not the collapse of the under-30 market. For the baby boom was a wonder of rates and percentages based on the abnormally slow birth patterns of the Depression and World War II. There were about four million more Americans born in the decade after the baby boom than in the baby-boom decade itself. The number of 13-30s should rise well into the '80s, declining only when the lowered birthrate of recent years is felt; even so, there will be one or two million more 13-30s in 1990 as there were in 1972.
Nevertheless, the reasons a scare might arise aren't hard to deduce. Foremost is that the logic of profit dictates growth; no single market can expand fast enough when there are other markets out there begging for exploitation. A related factor may be that the birthrate is lower among affluent whites than among blacks and others with less discretionary income. But there may be a more compelling motive, psychologically. The whole aim of rationalization, after all, was to suck in kids who weren't naturally attracted to the music, and now--especially with no counterculture rhetoric to provide a semblance of fellow feeling--the modern, rock-savvy execs often find they don't much like the people they're selling their product to. They seem so young, and not so classy; real adults would be reassuring. When you're always thinking bottom line you begin to perceive everything in terms of statistics anyway. Why not attribute the miraculous ascension of rock and roll to demographics rather than to any qualities of its own?
None of which is to suggest that a scare couldn't have real effects; that's why stock market crashes are called panics. One can envision a music industry geared to investment in so-called adult rock overextending itself into a expensive background music that mysteriously fails to generate enthusiastic sales. In that instance, venture capital for the rare young rocker with bite and drive and wit and originality might well dry up altogether. For despite everything I've said good music has survived and in fact thrived in the interstices of the system. Not everyone in the business is a glib asshole, even the glib assholes have been known to lapse into courage and passion, and the smarts and dedication (even the sheer quality) of certain artists--still aided, on occasion, by inspired-impresario managers--have proved irresistible. My own bottom line is records--how many make me really happy. And while there was definitely a lag around 1975 and 1976, they haven't stopped coming, between 30 and 100 per year depending on how loosely I define happy, many of them as good as or better than any of the records that got me here in the first place. The only problem is, I can't trust people to buy them anymore.
In trying to explain the formal thrill I got from rock and roll--an aesthetic sensation I was (and am) sure transcended my nostalgia, my ignorance, and my base nature--I used to posit outreach as a formal quality. I insisted that the music did more than organize notes, rhythms, timbres, and words, for often the most interesting facet of a rock musician's sensibility involved assumptions about audience, and the music could take me to them. Sgt. Pepper connected me with an imagined fellowship as real and rich, aesthetically, as any other idea or image it evoked. Perhaps it could even be said that this connection existed in an as yet unrecognized aesthetic dimension that was the special province of the popular artist--call it the communal dimension. Sadly, the music I like doesn't take me to that dimension much anymore; an imagined community has been destroyed, at least for me, with the rationalization of the market.
But by obliging me to perceive rock and roll from a more conventional artistic perspective, the loss of that dimension has brought home what less extruded listeners have always known: that rock and roll holds its own as a mere organization of notes, rhythms, timbres, and words. Just as some people love dance for its special revelations regarding space, motion, and the human body, I love rock and roll for its special revelations regarding class striving, youth and age, race, and the urban environment, to start with the obvious stuff. My political assumptions of a decade ago remain firm: I don't know how anyone can care about class and community in America without paying attention to what the music has to say. Not that the message can't be repetitive--most fans and artists turn its form into an excuse for their own stagnation, trafficking in received ideas about generation, energy, rebellion, and good times that lack the conviction of discovery even when they're true. But the pissed-off working-class intelligence of a Graham Parker or the wryly neurotic extended adolescence of an Alex Chilton is available nowhere else, and if you think none of that has to do with you anymore, then you're very different from me.
Whether artists like Parker and Chilton represent last-gasp attenuations of a moribund tradition or genuine fresh air can't be known for certain, but despite the lag of the last two years they are definitely on the increase. Many of them work out of New York, which is appropriate given the consciously aesthetic cast of the trend, but there are certainly dozens of demotic geniuses hidden away in odd and not-so-odd corners of this country and the rest of the world. Meanwhile, veteran rockers, like any artists, seem subject to creative ebb and flow--who knows when or whether John Fogerty (or John Lennon) will come up with another great album, or where the next Bob Seger (or Fleetwood Mac) is coming from. Furthermore, there are related satisfactions outside the strict rock tradition. A rock-inspired anti-sentimentalist reaction has put a lot of new life into country (and western, too). Folkies have survived the folk-rock panic of the late '60s to work in candidly pop formats, return to relative purism, or tend to their hybrids. Years of vaguely rockish electronic noodling in Europe are finally bearing music. Even in jazz--much more an art music, at least since the '40s, than these other-forms--a new generation of players seems equally comfortable with abstruse modern experiments and the humble usages of the '20s and before.
Not many such artists enjoy a mass audience, although almost all enjoy loyal if not luxurious support, at least around their home bases. In some cases--as in the expanding cults of Lou Reed's children now discernible--along the mid-Atlantic corridor and in certain Midwestern cities, particularly Cleveland and Detroit--this support is reminiscent of the rock vanguard I've been bemoaning, and it is usually young. It is a commonplace that, compared to the idealistic youths of the '60s, Today's Young People are passive conservatives caring only for own survival, and anyone who attends a lot of rock concerts can understand where that image is coming from. But apparently the rationalized rock audience is so large that it has produced a backlash of Major proportions--a backlash inspired by '60s expectations. No matter how defiantly they reject the sentimentalities of hippie-style bohemianism, even Lou's children are defining an "alternate culture" of their own; the supporters of the best jazz and folk and country music often pine unabashedly--and sometimes rather sentimentally, I'm afraid--for such a culture. Are these tendencies elitist? Of course they are, with all the short-sightedness and snobbery that implies. But they do support a new generation of artists who epitomize--and, as usual, improve upon--the various sensibilities involved. The fact that popular culture serves as a corrective to elitism does not mean it can survive without leadership; at least its best elites are meritocracies, and its standards of merit generous, flexible, and imaginative. And for organizing notes, rhythms, timbres, and words--an order of business that must precede any larger cultural mission--these upstarts will do just fine.
I don't know how large the new vanguard might be, but I do expect it to create a certain commercial spillover, so that records are at least produced and further artistic action inspired, at least until the music biz's venture capital really does dry up, if it ever does. And even in that case I can't believe it would be so minuscule as to be worthy of no inspired impresario's time. One of the unanticipated resurgences of the middle '70s has been that of the indie labels, less like the fly-by-nights and small-time regionalists who made pre-Beatles rock happen than like the self-reliant jazz companies, but something like both. They're most prominent in folk, where Philo, Rounder, Flying Fish, and Adelphi have all achieved a foothold, but the most successful financially has been Matthew King Kaufman's Beserkley, which has thrived in a small way by going with too-weird-for-Warners Jonathan Richman. Of course, such companies are self-reliant but not upwardly mobile or materialistic, unlikely ever to provide more than the beginnings of living money for their artists, or the most specialized kind of fame. Can rock and roll remain rock and roll without making its practitioners rich and famous? And if it does, what will that tell us about our combative, individualistic, hedonistic people? I'm willing to find out.
Village Voice, May 2, 1977