Rock That Should Have Died Before It Got Old

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    What got us started was a monstrous Dorian Grey p.r. photo of Kim Simmonds that I have up on the wall. Simmonds was?if you want me to say is I'll have to do it like "is"?guitarist for Savoy Brown, one of those ancient and mostly mediocre British blues rock bands of the late 60s and early 70s, like Spooky Tooth or Free. Alan Cabal remembers seeing Savoy Brown in an early 70s edition of the Guinness Book of World Records for having set the record for the most personnel changes of any single rock band in a year. Upwards of 50 guys cycled through the band that year, as he recalls.

    Simmonds passed through town recently on a "reunion tour" with something calling itself Savoy Brown, and I have his horrific p.r. photo?he looks about 75, with one of those terrifyingly runny melting-cheese faces old British guys get from a lifetime of hoisting pints, under what looks like a dimestore "Rock Star!" Halloween wig hat of stringy hair, like a squid with hairy legs has clamped itself to the top of his skull and is sucking out what's left of his brains?on the wall to keep me focused on a major theme of my next book: boomer rock that should have died before it got old.

    You know my thesis: rock is youth music that should not be played by middle-aged men with three chins in hairy wig hats. The Rolling Stones, only the most obvious example, don't make rock anymore and haven't for 20 years; they make stadium events.

    The only thing amazing about this simple and quite evident notion is how easy it is to start an argument with it. If you're between the ages of 35 and 50, I guarantee I can push one of your personal hero buttons with a very short list of washed-up has-beens I say shouldn't be performing anymore. Stones? Iggy? Neil Young? Springsteen? Dylan? Elvis Costello? Blondie? Chrissie Hynde? Tom Waits? Cher? Bowie? Sting?

    Which one did I get you with? I can see the mail now: "You asshole, Kim Simmonds rocks!" I get at least one every time I make this case.

    It's not just about getting old. Who doesn't get old? Besides dead rock stars? It's about aging gracefully. Plenty of people know how to do this, but rock stars, like movie stars, seem to find it extremely difficult, and for the same reason: they continue to pretend they're young and sexy long after they're neither. Mick Jagger and Susan Sarandon are equally embarrassing pretending to still be sex idols. It's about the pretense of youth. The other night I was at the Joyce?my wife takes me?watching the José Limón dance company. Two of the women in that company are in their 50s if they're a day, they've been with it since the 60s or something, yet they're both still limber, dancing with care but with grace, and they look hot up there. They're authentically sexy without trying to be. Nobody says a word about old poets, jazzbos or tango dancers. If Mick Jagger wants to sit on a stool at the Blue Note and croak de blooz with Keith on an acoustic guitar, I wouldn't say a word. It's Mick butt-shaking and pretending to be really into "Satisfaction" for the umpteen-thousandth time that's unseemly.

    There's an extent to which Dylan, Cher, Waits and Sting are ringers on that has-beens list above, because folk and pop music aren't as affected by aging as rock. (Well, Cher looked like a wax effigy of herself on that tv special; all she needed was a wick in her head, but she's always been a "special" case.) Adam Heimlich recently lent me the second, revised edition of Joe Carducci's Rock and the Pop Narcotic (1994), which stresses a distinction that's too often blurred. Rock is rock and pop is pop. Rock is made when some variation of a bass-drums-guitar group comes together because they just gotta rock. Pop is made when some congregation of disparate elements?often a producer, an engineer, a cute vocalist and session men or machines (cf. Britney Spears, Billy Crawford, Brandy, et al.)?comes together with the express purpose of charting a commercially successful song.

    By this definition Motown was not rock, though you often hear rock historians refer to it that way. Jackson Browne was not rock. Funk is not rock. Savoy Brown was rock (if mediocre rock) but the Beatles were not; the Beatles were a pop group that very occasionally rocked. By this same definition, the Sex Pistols were not only not the zenith of punk rock bands, they weren't really a punk rock band at all: They were a pop band mining and refining punk idioms and gestures, just as Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit have successfully plundered hiphop. (Carducci would say, in fact, that pretty much anything that comes out of the UK recording system is by definition pop music that is often mistaken in America as real rock.)

    This is not to say that rock can't be popular, obviously, or that rockers don't want to be rich and successful?but it's not their original or primary reason for making music in a rock group. They start out making rock because they just gotta rock. When a rock band becomes more interested in making hits than in making rock, it isn't making rock anymore. It has become a pop band.

    It's part of my argument that it's easier for pop singers to age gracefully than rockers, because of rock's unique youth orientation. Rock is a distillate of youthful energies, youthful innocence, youthful ignorance, youth rebellion, youthful discovery, youthful hormones. It takes a very special 40-year-old, let alone 50-year-old, to portray those qualities on stage or record without coming off like a pathetic idiot. But a pop singer who started out crooning commercial ditties, a Tony Bennett, a Sting, can, as long as he keeps his health, go on crooning pop ditties his whole life.

    Compare the new Sting and Bowie records. Bowie, a rocker who always wanted to be a pop crooner, has aged very poorly; he's trying to make Easy Listening adult contemporary Muzak and sounds awful. It's not in his chops or his training. I suspect he knows it and that's why he's throwing up all the and Bowie Inc. flak to distract you from the actual quality of the music. He's doing a Todd Rundgren, unable to keep up musically but desperate to appear still with-it and hi-tech. ("You asshole?Bowie rocks. Check out his freaking website, man.") Iggy's having the same problem. He was a great rocker for longer than most, but he doesn't want to rock anymore?which is fine?and he's having a terrible time trying to make the transition to the laid-back beatnik type he portrays, so badly, on his new album.

    Sting, on the other hand, is quite at home making Easy Listening adult contemporary Muzak; it's what he's always done. (The Police, perfect example of one of Carducci's British pop bands mistaken in America as a rock band.) He's the pop vocalist Kenny G. That recent photo in the Post of him doing a kick with a line of Rockettes kind of summed up his aspirations. His new record is not a good one in any sense, but it's not the excruciating pain Bowie's is. It's not a failure the way Bowie's is?it's just Sting being his usual mediocre cheesy self. Of the two, he's certainly the more comfortable in the Perry Como role.

    So Doughty's standing over my shoulder scanning the November Teen People, the one with Jennifer Love Hewitt on the cover. Or does every magazine have Jennifer Love Hewitt on the cover? Should she not change her name to Jennifer Ubiquitous Little Love Bunny Cutest Navel? This is the one that also has Silverchair's Daniel Johns' private battle with anorexia on the cover. And an article, or should I say "article," inside called "What's in the Bag? We asked nine stars to spill their secret beauty and grooming stashes." And there, along with movie stars James DeBello and Kirsten Dunst and Garbage's poppet Shirley Manson displaying the contents of their makeup bags, is my little pal Doughty, showing what's in his gym bag. Edge shaving cream and Johnson's baby shampoo and a nail brush "because guitarists' nails can get mad grungy!" Aw.

    Now Doughty, I say, can you picture Teen People asking Kim Simmonds what's in his tour bag? Can you imagine the horror? And do you know why they wouldn't care? Because he's an old fart and young people don't want to know what brand of ointment an old fart rubs on his?

    "But you don't understand," Doughty insists. "Rock & roll is all these guys know how to do."

    "Yeah, so?" I reply. They say that about football players too, but they don't let them keep pretending they can play when they can't play anymore. They make them retire and become coaches or preachers or open hamburger joints. We should do the same for rockers who can't rock anymore.

    "But do you know how much money Kim Simmonds is pulling down on this tour?" Doughty insists. "Your generation loves this shit."

    How very post-rock and mad popstarish of you, my little friend, to bring it all back down to the bucks, but that's a nonargument. I'm not saying they don't pay for it; I'm saying they shouldn't.

    If I'm not a respectable enough source, I say to him, go to the October GQ and check out Will Self on the Rolling Stones, ranting about their "senescent antics" and "grotesque parody of youthful abandon" and Mick's "consummate naffness" (dweebishness). Self agrees with me that rock is "a young people's (and by young I mean teenage) art form" and that both the Beatles and Sex Pistols were pop bands; he even agrees with Carducci, saying that "British rock and roll is an oxymoron... Pretending rather well to be rock and rollers is a lot closer to the mark..."

    The Stones embarrass me because I'm a boomer. They embarrass Self because he's a Brit. Either way, shouldn't they cut it out?

    Art Noise Doughty decides, quite rightly, that I shouldn't be telling him to shut up 20 years ahead of schedule, and wants to strike back. He sees the copy of David Sandlin's latest art book on my desk?Road to No... Where, a silkscreen limited edition of 400 published in France by Edition Cornelius, unpaginated, $80?and quips, "How early 90s." Harsh. True, Sandlin's gotten a lot of work in the last decade; his ghostly illustrations have been as near-ubiquitous as Jennifer Love Hewitt's adorable melons; he's been around long enough now that there's a next-generation of identifiable Sandlin imitators (one does work for NYPress). But that's all because he's a fine illustrator and beautiful printmaker, and the books he constructs continue to be gorgeous collector's objects. Road to No... Where is the third in his autobiographical-allegorical series about Bill Grimm's progress through a modern world of sin (truckstop floozies, bars, gambling joints) and redemption (or "Sellvation"), incorporating Sandlin's stiff-necked family roots: He was born in Northern Ireland to stout Orangemen, then grew up in rural Alabama. No wonder his work is so filled with Protestant torment and guilt.

    Road to No... Where is his usual meticulously turned-out production, with a story that runs front-to-back and back-to-front across the full-color silkscreened pages. There's a center gatefold that's a board game where each move relates to a specific page of the book. The Cornelius edition is a smaller reproduction of a large-format series Sandlin silkscreened and constructed by hand, in a special artist's edition of 25. Pages from it, along with other Sandlin paintings and objects, are on the walls of Gracie Mansion Gallery in the East Village through Oct. 23 (54 St. Marks Pl., 505-7055). You can buy a copy of the book there, or down at Printed Matter (77 Wooster St., 925-0325).

    (Speaking of Gracie Mansion, did you see the October Artforum with its special section, "The East village 1979-1989: The Rise and Fall of an Art Scene"? Oy. Boomer rock nostalgia isn't bad enough, we have to get Carlo McCormick, Nan Goldin, Ann Magnuson, Glenn O'Brien and a bunch of others pining away for the (their?) golden age of the EV 80s? ("You asshole. The East Village in the 80s was special, man. There was magic.") In this context, Gary Indiana's trademark sourness and bitchiness offer a handy reality check: "There was something never quite credible about the explosion of galleries and artists that happened in the East Village in the mid-'80s," his contrarian piece begins, and he goes on to savage most of the scene and its "feral" scenesters.)

    Meanwhile, an artist who wants to be anonymous dropped off the drawing reproduced here, making a Celtic-looking puzzle interlocking four highly recognizable symbols?this artist calls them the four greatest "symbols of hate" in the world, which this drawing finally "unites" into one harmonious image after centuries of them all trying to eradicate one another: a cross, a Star of David, an Islamic crescent and a swastika.

    Partly the image is the artist's reaction to recent events. The artist was not just struck by the virulence of conservative Catholics' response to the Brooklyn Museum show, but also by Cardinal O'Connor's recent apology to the Jews for all the trouble the Church has caused them over the centuries. If the Cardinal is so apologetic, why didn't he resign his post? Why has he continued to be a high-ranking officer in this organization that has done such wrong? "Isn't that a bit like the Grand Wizard of the KKK apologizing to blacks for all the lynchings?" the artist wonders. Also, the artist quips, "It's not like any Jews are going to be putting crucifixes up in their homes just because this guy apologized. It's meaningless."

    I tell the artist this thing would look good as a pendant in silver, and am told it's in the works. In the meantime, given recent events the artist professes to be paranoid for his/her family's safety and jobs should there be angry reaction to the piece from any or all of the communities represented in it, and that's why he/she's staying nameless for now.

    Afterwords On a vaguely related musical note, Washington City Paper music critic Mark Jenkins took umbrage at Michael Moore, "the savior of the Midwestern industrial working class," in his online "What Goes ON?" slot last week . "Moore's status as one of the few leftists you might see on TV is easily explained by the crudeness of his commentary: There's no nuance to distract from the next SUV commercial," Jenkins observed, before taking Moore to task for claiming in Forbes ASAP that rap is "the dominant music" of the 90s. Jenkins, as straight-up old-school rockist as they come?I remember him writing for Baltimore's City Paper in its early punk and new wave years?goes to the Recording Industry Association of America annual report for 1998 and finds that the "Rap/Hip Hop" category "dominates" only 9.7 percent of sales. The real sales were with Garth Brooks, Celine Dion, Backstreet Boys, all the pop stuff. It's "white-liberal sentimentality" of Moore types, Jenkins decides, in partnership with hiphop's own aggressive hype, that's "propagating the myth" of rap's dominance.

    You know something's up when the October issues of both Details and Scientific American run articles on the same topic. It's hepatitis C. The Details article, "Hep-C Generation" by Mark Ebner, is a scare story on the epidemic spread of the virus in Hollywood, "the land where bodily fluids are mixed like cocktail beverages." The Scientific American piece, "The Unmet Challenges of Hepatitis C," is in its more sober way just as worrying. Something like four million people in the U.S. have the virus, but because of the slow and sneaky way it manifests itself, many don't even know they have it.

    We've run an article or two on hep-C in the past. I know two people who've been diagnosed with it?legacy of misspent youth, they both figure; bad needles are apparently a major vector for its spread. It's no joke. It's far more likely than A or B to lead to serious liver damage, including cirrhosis or cancer, and there's currently no vaccine. One of my two friends is bombing himself with some alterna-med herbal-vitamin supercocktail he believes is doing him good.

    Watch for an epidemic of scare stories on hep-C to sweep the major media in the coming months; it's potentially the best post-AIDS health scare in some time.

    Among all the other things there are to say about how lame and deflated Talk is just three issues on, let me only mention the condescending page of advertorial for Barnes & Noble, the "talk10" list of books. "We read them. They're good. The 10 best books of November," the page claims. To which one can only reply, "No you didn't, they were handed to you over lunch by agents and publicists and/or Tina ordered you to get them in the magazine. Shut up. Why would we trust the syngergistic Talk to tell us the best books of the month?" A new Scott Turow thriller is the highlighted "Top Choice." Is Harvey in the bidding for the movie rights? Opening line: "Scott Turow is to courtroom literature what Harrison Ford is to action-adventures: the class of the field."

    Pull the plug.