Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Virtual Hep

Early in the virtual 2007 of Wild Palms, there's a cameo for William Gibson. "He invented the term cyberspace," someone gushes, but Gibson is having none of it: "And they'll never let me forget it." A few months further into real-time 1993, we can see what he means, as not one, not two, but three certified old farts, each representing his own rock generation, strive to prove how undead they are by riding into the technofuture on simultaneous cybertronic concept albums. How postmodern. How retronuevo. How hep.

Gibson is a mere shadow on Pete Townshend's Psychoderelict, where science fiction buffs will recognize the conceit of the "Grid" as a counterpart to both Gibson's cyberspace and the "net" of Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net. And his vision of computer-generated reality is mostly background on Donald Fagen's Kamakiriad, "an album of eight related songs" set "a few years in the future, near the millennium"--the likely inspiration for such details as the holographic sex dolls and the high-tech midway where affluent thrill-seekers get to reexperience their own memories. Only Billy Idol's Cyberpunk, the stupidest of these records by popular acclamation and God's great will, is so shameless as to try and steal Gibson's thunder from under his nose--by naming the album after the movement he epitomizes, naming a key song after his first novel, and then, lest anyone miss the point, citing him in a high-density 3.5-floppy press kit that says most of what it has to say in a paper-and-staple version thoughtfully provided for journalists who lack access to a 6.0.7 Mac with a 12-inch color monitor.

It would be naive to get indignant about this on Gibson's behalf. Like Spaceship Earth, he'll survive, and who knows whether he'll prove any more crucial an artist than Townshend or Fagen, who earned their reps as '60s and '70s avatars, if not the vast fortunes that ensued. And Idol deserves credit for outlasting his contemporaries on greed alone--at least his show of relevance is 'orrible in a way that induces the world to sneer back, which is more than old pros like Lydon or Weller or Strummer or Jones can manage these days. Even if his interest was originally piqued by the dollar signs that appear in front of his eyes whenever he encounters the magic rune p-u-n-k, that's the fate of any good idea--sooner or later it touches people who have no deep connection to it. Which is why it's also naive to get indignant on cyberpunk's behalf. No matter how modish and clichéd virtual reality's dystopia/utopia has become, I believe the subject fascinates every one of these artists. The problem is that they have so much less to say about it than Gibson--or Sterling, the social engineer to Gibson's rebel poet, or others I don't know as well.

Gibson can map his projected inner realm, and the surrounding sociotechno terrain, because he knows it well enough to take it for granted--to look around without getting distracted by moral judgments. But for Townshend, Fagen, and even Idol, virtual reality is simply another place where a guy finds himself struggling for, over, or with authenticity, a rock obsession they've always kept at arm's length and never escaped. At the dawn of hippie, pop-art fan Townshend elaborated the implicit role-playing of his London colleagues--the swinging irony that separated the Beatles and the Stones from Buffalo Springfield and Jefferson Airplane--until he came up with, you know, rock opera. Some seven years later, Steely Dan defeated AOR sincerity and their own slick licks with a willful obscurantism that seemed vaguely hostile when you could make it out at all. And in the punk moment that followed, which incredible as it now seems was the one time in history when British rock and rollers claimed to reject image and seize the real, Billy Idol sold himself as a punk version of the kind of pop star who had just been relegated to the dustbin of history. Yet even though they never bought the counterculture line, Townshend and Fagen remain products of the '60s, and in their distinct but equally ironic ways are now positing a crisis of meaning. Idol is the only one of these well-heeled veterans who doesn't fall into the old-fart trap of doubting other people's reality.

Let me add instantly that Cyberpunk is still a dreadful record, and will remain one even if "Wasteland" ends up as some wise guy's catchy cover. In fact, much of what I surmise about Idol's ideas is based on the press kit's futuristic interpretations, presumably dreamed up by Idol's hired cadre of fanzine intellectuals, of what one might otherwise mistake for more of the broadcast-ready technorockametal he's been refurbishing for a decade. "Adam in Chains," which after a long spoken invitation to autohypnosis devolves into what any outside observer would assume was his latest love-gone-bad rant, is described as "a prayer for the tomorrow people and power junkies," and the deathless "Suck on my love meat" of "Power Junkie" itself is of course intended as a critique, not a celebration. Clearly, Idol wouldn't think of offending this new punk generation he's read about, but doesn't want to alienate his old market share either. Nevertheless, he comes out looking smarter than he is just because he's willing to pander to a young audience that seems unlikely to get fooled the first time. Neither Townshend nor Fagen is so lucky.

Having already recorded the nondramatic portion of Psychoderelict, Townshend considered what might have been his sparest, strongest, sweetest set of songs in years and decided they didn't mean enough. Granted, maybe he just decided they wouldn't sell enough, but I don't think so. It's long been evident that what turned Townshend on about pop art was the art rather than the pop--he didn't want to drag opera down to rock's level, he wanted to raise rock to opera's. From A Quick One While He's Away, which beat Sgt. Pepper and Frank Zappa to the song cycle, to Tommy on Broadway, carried by stage voices (and cockney) that greatly enhance one's appreciation of Roger Daltrey's rough-hewn egomania, he's made it his mission to translate deep thoughts into rock. Compared not just to Billy Idol but to many deep thinkers, Townshend is far from a dummy--his press kit, for the stage version of Psychoderelict that's due August 7 at a pay-per-view near you, is a tour de force from one of the music's great interviews. Its explanation of Psychoderelict's plot--in which the Grid (a precyberpunk concept Townshend started playing with on the Who's aborted, endlessly recycled Lifehouse project) is only a figment of '60s avatar Ray High's imagination--will stand as either a model of multileveled postmodernist self-referentiality or a mess as hopeless as Quadrophenia. Every tired Townshend tic--the "great artist," the omnipotent press, jeeze--is not only fictionalized (Townshend doesn't call himself a great artist, Ray High does) but undercut by Townshend's kindly, self-deprecating insistence that his seriousness is a joke. He even calls one song "Let's Get Pretentious."

Lurking in the mess, however, is the conviction that the "life-experience grid" is a con if not an "apocalypse." "I believe you need truth to develop morality and decency," says the twice-fictional teen rebel Spinner. Or as Ray High puts it: "Whatever you read in the newspapers, we still don't have any alternative reality. It's all games now, all lies and deceit. What happened to the truth?" Which insofar as it's a truth is a rather less startling one than Townshend obviously believes, since he wrecked his record with voiceovers and bad dialogue designed to make it as explicit as multileveled self-referentiality can be. Donald Fagen seems to share the conviction--his holographic sex dolls aren't all that fulfilling or fun. But he's too great an artist to let it interfere with his music.

Because Walter Becker produced and played guitar and bass, Kamakiriad has been taken for a Steely Dan revival. But its jazzy music and realistic narrative make it the long overdue follow-up to Fagen's 1982 The Nightfly, a supposedly minor record whose account of the '60s is forgotten because Fagen doesn't much care about hippies. His '60s are the Kennedy years, when a smart, somewhat shallow suburban white kid could dream of Brubeck and bohemia and bomb-shelter wingdings and transoceanic rail links to exotic locales. Kamakiriad takes the same kid into middle age, where he appears to make good money on some vaguely shady fringe. Although that train to Paris never got off the ground, there's a sporty, hydroponic steam car to name his mock epic after and a big, bleak country to cruise around. As always with Fagen, the bland landscape is strewn with mayhem and desolation. But Kamakiriad's hi-fi sci-fi isn't imagined anywhere near as acutely as The Nightfly's cultural autobiography is recalled--compared to the cyberpunk guys, his sense of tech and its psychological correlatives seems pretty, well, shallow. On the other hand, it is witty and evocative, and its aural correlatives are rich. Throughout, and especially on Fagen's wiggy horn arrangement for the redemptively sleazy "Teahouse on the Tracks," he realizes his old fusion dreams--honoring not just Duke and Prez, but the unhip late-'60s Miles and maybe even Brubeck. And the gold-plated CD (a limited edition, natch) makes his fascination with sound signify. I'm no audiophile and proud of it, but Kamakiriad's mellow highs, textured bass, and 98.6 percussion will be something I go back to until virtual reality is a reality.

But although Fagen at least intuits that his protagonist's shallowness is his fault, not the technology's, he doesn't have a clue what a bore it is anyway--how specific to his own artistic vision. All three of these affluent avatars confuse their own current struggles for, over, or with authenticity, struggles that for them are occupational hazards of having once caught a zeitgeist by the tail, with their audience's, which may be scarier but aren't the same. If they're worried about the postinformation age, that's because they're in the information business themselves and are afraid of getting left behind, and also because they're so obscenely rich they don't have to worry about where their next hydroponic car is coming from. About that Townshend is right, after all--before there's a virtual reality, there has to be a material one.

Village Voice, Aug. 10, 1993