Epilogue

They were grown men who had climbed the mountain together, spoken to the gods, and returned to the valley, where they once again became mortal.

The Philadelphia Enquirer, writing about The Band
This Wheel’s On Fire

Elements of Instability

Rock music, as I have described it here, turns out to be a difficult art form to practice over the long haul. Many of its defining elements are inherently unstable. All of the following factors have contributed to the relatively brief half-life of the average rock artist’s productive career, as well as the relatively brief flowering of the rock aesthetic as an artistic movement.

1. Difficulty of Sustaining Liberation

If, as I have suggested here, the basic theme of rock music is liberation, then this presents a problem for the artist: what do you do for an encore? If you have convincingly liberated yourself and your audience, then what do you do next? Since rock music is about a change of state, and not about the condition itself, it is impossible to convincingly repeat. This is in sharp contrast, for example, to a related form like the Blues. You can have the Blues — and play the Blues — forever, as practitioners like B. B. King have shown. As a matter of fact the Blues, almost by definition, is a chronic condition. Still singing about it forty or fifty years later is an affirmation that what you were singing about in your youth was real and true. On the other hand, when you once sang “Hope I die before I get old,” as did The Who, what do you sing when you are old? And when you make a career of liberating your audience from Victorian notions of morality, as did The Rolling Stones with songs like “Midnight Rambler,” what do you do when a member of your audience is murdered in front of your stage, as happened at Altamont? Liberation is exciting fare, but it is tough to make a career of it.

The task of sustaining liberation has also been made more difficult by larger forces at work in society. In retrospect, the sixties were an all too unusual time. So many of the liberating forces at work during that period seem to have reversed or closed down since then. AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases have eliminated the sense of sexual freedom. Environmental concerns and our apparent inability to do anything about them have destroyed much of our political optimism. Globalization of our economies has lessened our sense of economic security in the US and many other industrialized nations. Increased availability of media sources — in print, audio and video — has fragmented our culture, often marginalizing alternative influences and “dumbing down” our popular culture. Technological advances such as personal computers, cell phones, pagers and cable TV seem to have enslaved rather than liberated us, reducing or eliminating the physical intimacy and free time necessary to form musical groups and practice collaborative self-expression. Blacks and whites have retreated from the sense of a shared culture back into their own respective corners. Given all of these retreats, reversals, compromises and concessions, the sense of liberation evident in so many older rock songs can now seem quaint and old-fashioned.

One of the unfortunate results of this sort of “progress” is a reduction in scope of the sort of liberation suggested by rock music. Whereas the form once offered hopes of cultural fusion, individual freedom, collaborative community, emotional release, geographic mobility, and political transformation — to name just a few — later songs seem to have limited the elements of liberation to recreational excess in the areas of drug use, sexual congress, and violence. As manager Malcolm McLaren summarized his goals for his band, the Sex Pistols: “Be childish. Be irresponsible. Be everything this society hates.” (Miller 1999) If this is what liberation looks like, then it makes a hell of a case for repression.

2. Instability of Rock Groups

It has been hard to maintain rock groups as functioning artistic entities. As happened with The Beatles, partners tend to tire of each other, and sometimes outgrow the constraints and compromises necessary to maintain the integrity of a group as an artistic unit. In many cases, artists tended to outgrow the notion of functioning as part of any kind of permanent group. For example, John Lennon commented about the decisions he made when he first started to perform without the rest of The Beatles:

I told Eric Clapton and Klaus [Voorman] that I was leaving and that I’d like to probably use them as a group. I hadn’t decided how to do it — to have a permanent new group or what? (Later on I thought, “Fuck, I’m not going to get stuck with another set of people, whoever they are.”) (Beatles 2000)

Note that John felt this way, even though he also acknowledged, “The thing that I sometimes miss is being able just to blink or make a certain noise and to know they’ll all know where we are going on an ad lib thing.” (Beatles 2000)

At the same time, if a band member has had a group of musicians he has been really tight with, it is well nigh impossible to form such close bonds with another group of musicians. Most of the great rock groups grew out of childhood friendships, and there are a limited number of these to draw upon. Again quoting from John Lennon: “All my friends were The Beatles, anyway. There was The Beatles and about three other fellas that I was really close with.” (Beatles 2000)

Even when artists did join other groups, these relationships proved to have many of the same problems implicit in second marriages: unless you are very careful, the factors that caused the first relationship to fail will tend to crop up again with new partners. Witness, for example, the recording career of Eric Clapton, which featured him playing with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney and Bonnie, and Derek and the Dominos, all in fairly rapid succession.

Even for groups who have stayed together over the long haul, there are issues of staleness and artistic compromise that can creep into a band’s work. Groups who have had the most luck at remaining intact have been those in which the roles were clearly defined, especially in terms of singing and songwriting chores. Unfortunately for audiences, such affairs can easily devolve from high states of artistic collaboration to routine relationships of convenience — from rock group to singer/songwriter plus sidemen. Groups such as the Rolling Stones, The Band and The Kinks all experienced this sort of evolution to some degree.

3. The Stylization of Rock

During most of the sixties and into the early seventies, the best rock artists were known for continued experimentation and innovation. So while a group like the Grateful Dead was known for psychedelia, extended improvisational jams, and electric instrumentation, two of their most enduring albums were mostly acoustic, influenced by country and bluegrass, and seemed set in an earlier America (Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty). And while the Rolling Stones were known for hard rock and blues, many of their early hits sounded more like what would later be called “soft rock,” with “Lady Jane” and “Under My Thumb” being two examples.

In the seventies and following, though, different styles of rock became more distinct, and many rock singers and groups restricted themselves consciously to more focused styles, often as a means of catering to more specific and more fragmented audience expectations.

So while audience expectations in the sixties and early seventies were for rock artists to continually do something different, in later years audiences simply wanted a repetition of what they had heard before, with only the most minor variations. The former expectations, of course, were more in tune with artistic creation, while the later expectations were more attuned with the production of popular entertainment.

4. The Star Syndrome

Our culture and media contain a tremendous bias towards individual personalities as focuses of attention, and away from groups of collaborative individuals. Whether this is a hold-over from the Hollywood studio system, a convenience for our news media, an indication of how highly we value individualism — or some combination of these and other influences — it is apparently inescapable. Even the rock media that sprang up in the late sixties fell prey to this insidious influence. Suddenly John Lennon was the “real” genius of The Beatles. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Neil Young of the Buffalo Springfield, and Robbie Robertson of The Band were all similarly lionized by the media, giving the impression that the other members of their groups were easily replaceable at best, and creatively stifling at worst. Paul McCartney remembers that such thinking even caused him to doubt his own abilities.

When we started to bitch at each other I had quite a heavy period of self doubt. I’d be thinking, ‘Uh oh, John was the great one, I was just stringing along.’ But then I’d have to think to myself: ‘Wait a minute, he wasn’t a mug. He wouldn’t work with me all that time if it didn’t mean something to him.’ One of the nicest little moments I remember from those years was when John had said he liked ‘Here, There And Everywhere’ better than any of his songs at the time — there were those silly little things. (Beatles 2000)

It speaks to the strength of this star myth that even paul McCartney, a member of the most popular musical group of the 20th century, and half of the most popular songwriting team of his generation, could doubt his own abilities because of it. Unfortunately, few if any of these solo “stars” were ever able to live up to the hype that surrounded them, and their individual achievements never matched those produced when working as parts of groups.

5. Lack of Commercial Support for Rock Aesthetics

It is unfortunately true that our laws and commercial institutions make it difficult to practice rock music as a vocation. For example, laws ensure that royalties will be paid to composers, but not to musicians who recorded a particular version of a song. So songwriters are financially rewarded, and supporting members of groups are not — even though, in the case of rock music, the primary artistic unit is the recording, and not the song as written down on paper. Also, few groups worried much about fair financial compensation when initially signing management or recording contracts. So issues like ownership of the name of a group are often hard to nail down, in some cases provoking lengthy law suits to establish such rights.

Also, of course, financial rewards are inevitably diluted when you have a group of artistic equals. Following the course of Eric Clapton’s finances over the course of his career, Christopher Sandford points out in his book Clapton: Edge of Darkness, that Clapton’s years as part of various groups brought him only limited financial success; yet in his years since, working as a solo artist, he has been able to become seriously wealthy. (Sandford 1999) It is much more convenient and lucrative to hire sidemen when you need them, than to form messy long-term relationships with co-members of a group. Here is how Kenney Jones, drummer for The Faces and The Who, described it.

I mean, I didn’t actually go out and buy a set of drums to become rich and famous. But now you get kids who go out and buy a guitar or drums because they figure that’s the way to become rich and famous. In the sixties, we didn’t even make money when we became rich and famous. (Weinberg)

6. The Tenacity of the Composer/Interpreter Model

In some art forms, the separation of the artistic duties between composer and interpreter strikes us as completely foreign: the idea that we would assign value to a painter who had “reinterpreted” a classic Picasso, for example, is close to meaningless. Yet in other forms, such as the theatre, it is hard to imagine the form working any other way: a play is meant to be performed over and over, without any subsequent participation from the original author, and with each new director and cast providing some new interpretive dimension to the work, if their performance is to be deemed worthy of the term “art.”

All forms of music — other than rock — have relied completely on this composer/interpreter model. Whether it is John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things,” or a symphony orchestra playing Bach, or Sinatra singing Gershwin, one can easily separate the work of the composer from that of the performing artist, and document and compare different interpretations of the same composition.

To a large extent, though, the rock aesthetic was all about demolishing this model so that, just as with film, the work as recorded and ultimately released was the result of a seamless collaboration, so that artistic contributions and products could not be reduced to their separate parts. And while the artistic worth of such an integrated model is clear, it is much more demanding of the artists involved, in that once a work is produced and released, the artists often draw no further sustenance from it. If you were paid to contribute to the recording sessions, then you have received all the financial compensation you are going to receive for that particular work. And, if the recording is the primary work, then there is nothing else for you, the artist, to do, other than to move on to your next work.

To support a transition to this sort of model, though, really required the development of an entirely different artistic support system. Think about the way poets, or filmmakers, or visual artists, or novelists, have built entire careers out of their work. The parts available to actors change over time. Film directors continually work with new writers, new actors, new cinematographers and others, to keep their work fresh. As artists mature, they teach, or lecture, or speak at seminars about their earlier work. They continue to draw respect from a supportive artistic community that maintains attention and interest in the way their work will continue to evolve and mature.

Unfortunately, this transition did not happen in the world of music. Perhaps it was too much to expect. For the path of least resistance has certainly been to fall back on the composer/interpreter model. For the composer, this means that one can continue to draw royalties and artistic respect as others reinterpret your work over a period of decades. It also leaves you free to compose new songs, with the assumption that it will take time to determine whether interpreters take up your work.

For the interpreter, it means that you can continue to make money and earn artistic respect by providing your own unique interpretation to a continually broadening field of others’ work.

And for those who do both, it means that live performances can be more than sterile attempts to reproduce a recorded work note-for-note on stage: instead, each new performance can become an opportunity to provide a fresh interpretation of your classic songs.

We don’t have to look far to see examples of the composer/interpreter model at work among rock artists: Bob Dylan continually reinterpreting his own work in concert; other artists reinterpreting classic Dylan songs such as “All Along the Watchtower”; Springsteen recording an album of Pete Seeger covers; Eric Clapton recording an album of Robert Johnson covers; Rod Stewart recording the Great American Songbook; newer performers recording an album tribute to composer Ray Davies; Herbie Hancock recording an album of Joni Mitchell compositions; Jackson Browne recording two albums of himself playing solo acoustic versions of his songbook… and the list goes on.

While this sort of work provides ongoing support to the artists involved, it does nothing to further the rock aesthetic that I have described here.

7. Fame

As rock musicians became famous, the subject matter of their songs often became more constrained and often more artificial. When first starting out, rock artists had a chance to observe all segments of society under all circumstances. As they became “rock stars,” however, they became less able to observe society around them, as they themselves became more intensely observed by fans and the media. Bob Dylan commented on this problem in a 2004 Newsweek excerpt from his book.

Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key elements is missing, it doesn’t work. It was impossible now for me to observe anything without being observed. (Dylan)

8. Difficulty Balancing Live and Studio Work

As we have seen, members of a rock group need to:

  • be good at playing their instruments,
  • be connected to their audience,
  • have an almost telepathic connection with other members of their group.

All of these attributes are fostered by performing live, night after night. Almost all great rock groups began their careers with repeated live performances in small venues, as with The Beatles in Hamburg.

At the same time, though, rock music as I have defined it is essentially a recorded medium. So at some point in the careers of all great rock groups, they turned their attentions from live performances to studio work.

This model — years of hard work performing live in small venues, followed by a few years of intensive studio recording — worked well for many groups as a means of starting their careers. The problem lay in how to continue and extend their careers.

There are many disadvantages associated with too much studio work. As implied above, a refusal to play live can isolate artists from their audiences, and give them too little time to play together. John Lennon commented on this period in The Beatles’ career:

With The Beatles it got less group-like. We stopped touring and we’d only get together for recordings, so therefore the recording session was the the thing we almost rehearsed in as well. So all the playing was in the recording session. Sometimes it would be a drag — it’s like an athlete: you really have to keep playing all the time to keep your hand in. And we’d be off for months and we’d suddenly come into the studio and be expected to be spot on again. (Beatles 2000)

In some cases, it also left groups with frankly too much idle time on their hands. If you spend one month a year recording a new album, then what do you do for the other eleven months, if you are not touring? Recording without touring was also difficult commercially. The Beatles could get away with it because of their immense popularity. For most groups, though, the economics of the industry required them to record and tour, since each activity helped to promote the other, and since touring could often earn a group as much or more money than recording.

On the other hand, touring has its own disadvantages. It can be physically and mentally draining. For very popular groups, it can be artistically frustrating: your concerts become cultural rather than aesthetic events, with your fans more interested in seeing you on stage than in actually listening to your music. Since rock music is essentially about recording, even fans who show up for live shows paradoxically want to hear a band’s greatest hits, sounding just the way they do on their albums. So playing live becomes a futile and mechanical attempt to reproduce on stage, night after night, music sounding as close as possible to the recorded sound already available on CD. Credit The Beatles for realizing that this was an artistic dead-end, and for refusing to play along with it.

9. Drugs

For most rock performers, drugs seemed an avenue towards liberation. Most groups started with socially acceptable drugs like alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. Amphetamines offered an escape from fatigue and rigid schedules, and helped young rock groups play several sets a night, party afterwards, and perhaps travel to another town the next day. Marijuana seemed pretty harmless, and offered liberation from goal-oriented accomplishment, and into a new appreciation for the here and now: what better temptation for an artist? From there, though, it was an easy leap to LSD, heroin and other more dangerous and addictive substances. Too many great rock artists lost their lives due to substance abuse. And many others had years of painful recovery in order to kick their self-destructive habits.

The use of drugs as part of the rock culture also contributed to what Ken Wilber has called the “pre/trans fallacy.” Many rock artists, upon discovering drugs such as marijuana and LSD, found that use of such substances helped them transcend their normal, rational, states of consciousness and achieve a sort of mystic realization of the unity of all things. And this led some of them to seek other routes to such transrational, integrative states, such as meditation.

Unfortunately, use of other drugs, or overuse of the same drugs, or any drug usage that started at a lower state of consciousness, could simply result in a prerational state of consciousness. Since both states were nonrational, they could easily be confused. But while transrational states transcended and included rational states, prerational consciousness was simply delusional or narcissistic. Unfortunately, the culture of the time mostly lacked the ability to discriminate between these two states, so advocacy for the freedom to use drugs often resulted in lower, rather than higher, states of consciousness.

10. Too Much Technology

While technical enablers were essential for creating the rock aesthetic, further advances in technology, along with a slavish belief that more is better, have actually helped to undermine that same aesthetic. This is how session drummer Roger Hawkins describes advances in studio technology over the years.

At first it was one mike over the drums and a mike on the bass drum. Now they put a mike on everything. You can’t hardly start out from a whisper and go very loud. The drums just don’t speak that way when they’re miked really close. (Weinberg)

In the same reference, Hawkins speaks of factory techniques being applied to music production, with the drummer coming in to the studio and laying down a basic rhythm track, and other musicians coming in later to lay their tracks on top of the rhythmic foundation. Hawkins sums up the experience in the following way.

To me, that’s sickening. That’s not music anymore. It’s not a meeting of the minds. It’s business. (Weinberg)

And Ringo Starr reflects on the use of electronic drum machines, as well as click tracks, that play in the background and allow the musicians to keep a perfectly consistent beat.

No drummer can hold the beat perfectly throughout the whole song. Listen to The Beatles’ records. There’s a little bit of speeding up and a little bit of slowing down, but the band is all doing it together. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a natural thing. We’re not machines, we’re human beings. With Paul [McCartney] now, it’s a click track all the time, because he wants it perfect. I’m not putting him down for using one, but we never had a click track, The Beatles that is, and we didn’t do so bad. (Weinberg)

Unfortunately, where technology once offered a means of extending the artists’ humanity, in recent years it has too often been used as a replacement for it.

11. Feedback Loops

In music, a feedback loop is created when the sound being output from an amplifier is fed back into the microphones connected to the amplification circuit: the result is escalating amplification, spiraling upwards, distorting the original sound through repeated playback and amplification.

Something similar eventually happened in rock music. As I have pointed out, one of the key characteristics of rock was its ability to use recorded music as input to its creative process. As rock evolved, however, the albums that were output from this process were then used as input later. The result in many cases was a loss in the variety of musical influences. Music being produced today, in which samples from older recordings are used verbatim as parts of newer tracks, are good examples of where this trend has taken us.

12. An Art-Adverse Culture

Listen to the experience corporate fool Gordon MacKenzie describes when visiting elementary schools in the US to teach them about sculpting.

Sculpting in steel had already been a passion of mine for four or five years when a colleague at Hallmark asked whether I would be interested in giving a demonstration of my craft to the students of the grade school where his wife served as the cultural arts coordinator (a.k.a. Picture Lady). I accepted the invitation and found it such a delightful experience that I made visiting schools part of my sculpting adventure for the next several years. I always began with the same introduction.

“Hi! My name is Gordon MacKenzie and, among other things, I am an artist. I’ll bet there are other artists here, too. There have to be with all the beautiful pictures and designs you have hanging in your classrooms and up and down the halls. I couldn’t help but notice them when I first got here this morning.

”Beautiful pictures. They made me feel very wonderful! Very energized! So many bright colors and cool shapes. I felt more at home when I saw them because they made me realize there are other artists here, besides me. I’m curious. How many artists are there in the room? Would you please raise your hands? “

The pattern of responses never varied.

First Grade: En masse the children leapt from their chairs, arms waving wildly, eager hands trying to reach the ceiling. Every child was an artist.

Second Grade: About half the kids raised their hands, shoulder high, no higher. The raised hands were still.

Third Grade: At best, 10 kids out of 30 would raise a hand. Tentatively. Self-consciously.

And so on up through the grades. The higher the grade, the fewer children raised their hands. By time I reached sixth grade, no more than one or two did so and then only ever-so-slightly — guardedly — their eyes glancing from side to side uneasily, betraying a fear of being identified by the group as a “closet artist.” (MacKenzie)

To elaborate on this most fatal influence on the development of rock music as an art form, let us return to the quotation from Henry Miller with which this book began.

Men are not suffering from the lack of good literature, good art, good theatre, good music, but from that which has made it impossible for these to become manifest. In short, they are suffering from the silent, shameful conspiracy (the more shameful since it is unacknowledged) which has bound them together as enemies of art and artist. They are suffering from the fact that art is not the primary moving force in their lives. They are suffering from the act, repeated daily, of keeping up the pretense that they can go their way, lead their lives, without art. (Miller)

This point has been made all the more forcibly to me recently by the publication of Bob Dylan’s new book, Chronicles, Volume 1, (Dylan) and by the reception it has received. This autobiographical account reveals Dylan to be a shy, sensitive, perceptive soul who was keenly aware of art as a living force around him. He speaks, of course, of Woody Guthrie, and other folk singers. He also reveals blues singer Robert Johnson to have been a major influence. But he also talks about literature, about theatre, about visual artists, including Pablo Picasso. He speaks of sharing apartments in New York with other folk singers and intellectuals, speaking with as much fondness for the books that lined their walls as for the flesh and blood cohabitants. As with many personal accounts of some of the greatest rock musicians, he reveals an artistic consciousness, an awareness of himself as an artist working in an artistic landscape, of having a relationship to other artists, and of drawing from and contributing to a living, aesthetic river flowing around him and around all of us.

He also speaks in this book about the attitudes towards him, the way he was treated once he became famous. But rather than dwell on the past, just look at the present.

The publication of this first volume of his autobiography was treated as a major event by the news media. Dylan has been excerpted and interviewed and discussed as he hasn’t been in years.

But what has mostly been missing, now as before, has been any acknowledgment that Dylan is an artist, working in and himself shaping an artistic tradition. Instead he is treated like some sort of circus oddity, some freak of nature that has no parallel before or after. Or he is asked questions about politics, as if he were running for office or starting a new party. Or he is treated like the golden goose, some mythical beast impossible to understand because it is not quite real, and yet still expected somehow to produce a series of new golden eggs on a regular basis.

Some of Dylan’s accounts of his treatment in the sixties and seventies come as no surprise. Yes, of course, we are almost tempted to say, of course you had people breaking into your house at all hours of the night and day, of course you had strangers showing up on your doorstep expecting instant enlightenment, of course you had the press barraging you with nonsensical questions — after all, you were a star, weren’t you? And this is the way we treat such people — it goes with the territory.

But other accounts are truly terrifying. Most memorable, for me, was a recollection of fellow musician and band-mate Robbie Robertson turning to Dylan and asking, so where are you going to take this whole thing next?

Let us be clear here: the road staked out by any serious artist is hard enough, requiring dedication and persistence and a sort of splendid isolation of artistic vision, an unwavering resolution to preserve one’s independence of perspective at all costs.

But to then be asked to lead an entire cultural and political movement, to take one’s most intensely personal expressions and treat them as if they had been written as political propaganda, to be asked to take up banner and pulpit, to have one’s works regarded, not as complete and beautiful objects unto themselves, but as means to some sort of political ends...?!

What this sort of treatment created, inevitably, was a terrible sense of alienation, a sense of Dylan himself feeling alienated, not only from the culture he was criticizing, but from the new culture he helped to create and might himself have been a part of, from the “counter-culture,” if you will. For what was lacking, ultimately, in both cultures, was any sort of lasting appreciation for art and artist, any sort of acknowledgment of an established role of art and artist in society.

It was almost as if, as a culture, we lacked any ability to distinguish between an internal state of consciousness and an objective, external reality. For Dylan, I am sure, it seemed quite enough of an accomplishment to have produced works of art that could evoke feelings of beauty, awe, enlightenment and understanding. This is the work of an artist. And it might then be reasonable to expect appreciative listeners to be moved to go forth and influence others, perhaps even to make changes in our society and cultural institutions that were reflective of these feelings.

But instead Dylan found himself faced with people who expected him, not just to produce altered states of consciousness, but to alter reality. In addition to creating art that spoke out about the senseless cruelty of war, they expected him to take the steps necessary to halt wars, and to prevent future wars from starting. They even seemed to turn to him with disappointment that all of this hadn’t already happened, and with eager expectancy that he was about to wave his magic wand and make it so. Lacking any understanding of art, they viewed him not as artist but as magician, ready to turn on him in an instant if his magic powers ever seemed to falter, to themselves have been a hoax.

This society and culture, of course, this “Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” was the same one that Henry Miller wrote of, the one he fled from in order to do his best work, the one he retreated from as much as possible when he returned to his native soil, taking up residence in the artistic community of Big Sur, where the physical environment was too harshly beautiful to long accommodate any but the most dedicated aesthetes or other pioneering spirits.

13. Normal Aesthetic Evolution

If we look broadly at a number of different art forms, and how they have evolved over time, then we can see a certain pattern that repeats itself:

  1. Technological and/or social changes create an opportunity for some new form of artistic expression.
  2. A number of innovators spring up, working in parallel, each developing different techniques.
  3. One or more masters come along who are able to synthesize these different techniques, commanding them all, employing each where most appropriate. These masters attain great popularity.
  4. Imitators spring up, mechanically imitating the success of the masters, often with overt goals of commercial success, and cheapening their artistic success.
  5. Other artists, reacting against this crass commercialism, deconstruct the original form, and reconstruct it in surprising, original ways. These works sometimes achieve great artistic success, but fail to achieve great commercial success, often because these artists are specifically avoiding crass appeals to popular taste.
  6. Those pursuing commercial success become less and less artistically motivated, and those pursuing artistic originality become increasingly fragmented and obscure.
  7. Some new art form or aesthetic movement comes along, seizing the interests of a new generation of fans, and the cycle begins again.

Viewed from this perspective, the rise and fall of rock music as an aesthetic movement can be seen to be part of the natural order of such things.

Survival Tactics

Rock artists dealt with these problems in varying ways, with varying degrees of success.

One approach to the problem of liberation was to continually seek new constraints from which to be liberated, new levels of liberation. John Lennon probably practiced this as successfully as anyone, with a succession of songs and personal choices that increasingly liberated him from social, artistic and personal restrictions. Another less productive way to solve the problem (or at least escape it) was to kill oneself through a drug overdose, symbolizing for many the ultimate liberation from earthly cares.

Another way of dealing with these growing pains was to retreat from rock into older forms. Eric Clapton, for example, has made much in recent years of a return to the blues, after a period during which he came close to destroying himself through substance abuse. Neil Young has flirted with country music. Bruce Springsteen seems more enamored of folk music forms. These pursuits are all worthy choices, but imply something different than rock music as I am describing it here.

The Kinks took an innovative approach to the problem of balancing live and recorded music. Ray Davies began to compose elaborate albums of songs that were thematically and dramatically related to each other. On record, these songs worked as rock recordings. On stage, while the group reproduced the studio sounds as faithfully as possible, they added a whole other dimension to the performance with elaborate costumes, acting out the songs and turning them into dramatic performances. This practice allowed them to maintain the rock aesthetic, while adding something to their live shows that kept them from becoming stale.

Reason to Rock?

I don’t mean to imply that rock music is dead or dying. But it is a demanding aesthetic, and pursuit of these ideals has been made more difficult by lack of recognition for the form’s essential attitudes and practices. I only hope that this book can help in some small way to sustain and encourage those who decide to rock on.

Hail, hail, rock and roll.
Deliver me from the days of old.
Long live rock and roll.
The beat of the drums, loud and bold.
Rock, rock, rock and roll.
The feeling is there, body and soul.

— Chuck Berry
School Day

Next: About the Author