The past few nights, I’ve dragged myself to Greenpoint, a Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn, to go to Cavestomp, an annual garage rock festival the brings together reunited bands from the 1960s with revivalist bands inspired by them for recitations of songs that generally were written and performed by teenagers for teenagers. Of course, there are no teenagers at Cavestomp, by and large. It seems mostly to be people in their 30s watching people in their 50s and 60s perform. I saw the New Colony Six, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and most notably, the Sonics, who apparently were playing for the first time in 40 years. They drew the most enthusiastic crowd; whether that had anything to do with a song of theirs appearing in a Land Rover commercial is an open question.
Like any convention, the principal draw seems to be an opportunity to spend money on something you love and have a lot of identity invested in. If you can’t spend money on something in a consumer culture, you can’t prove that you really care about—purchasing is the measuring stick of caring: You have to put your money where your mouth is.
I’ve mocked these sorts of things before as Star Trek conventions with guitars: most everyone gets into elaborate costumes and tries to escape into a world that never really existed. But that should probably be celebrated rather than mocked; the attendees at Cavestomp aren’t afraid to be publicly enthusiastic about something that could make them seem weird, and that enthusiasm can make them seem like they have a secret knowledge about how to come to terms with oneself that maybe we can all profit from. Of course, it can make them seem to be in state of arrested development as well. It seems like the fetishization of garage has something to do with preserving certain elements of teenagerdom—to hell with parents rules and the nine-to-five dork schedule and the mindless conformist drones in suburbia—and keeping them accessible to oneself in adulthood, but in a safe, carefully controlled manner. Like the music itself, this repository of teenageness is made into a formulaic genre with very definite rules, and the predictability of the formula, given expression in a variety of subtle variations, ultimately supplies the satisfaction. The chaos and hurt of being on the brink of unwilling adulthood is tamed into three-chord rock songs about heartbreak. Listening to the music takes you back to the pre-adult moment and offers the fantasy of imaging it was possible to make different choices, to refuse the compromises of adulthood and stay forever true and completely authentic to oneself.
So if Cavestomp is supposed to be a respite from the pressure and compromises of adulthood, it doesn’t really help to have the performers joke about how old and out of touch they are, as the New Colony Six singer tended to. It doesn’t help either when they look like a bunch of math teachers or retirees on a CostCo outing—though I prefer this actually to when they try to look “cool” and end up looking like geriatric Fonzies. An old man with a Stratocaster or a leather jacket just doesn’t fit the image one has of rock; it’s kind of like when people put sunglasses on babies—allegedly cute but sort of pathetic.
I tend to forget just how long ago the 60s was—it was the time just before I was born, which conceptually doesn’t seem so long ago. But it’s more than 40 years now, and the bands of that era are now composed of really old men. But it occurred to me as I was watching that what was happening at Cavestomp was not merely some escapism into a carefully patterned world of genre and youth symbolism, but was actually a strange form of paying respect to one’s elders and trying to establish a bridge between generations for people who feel, perhaps, desperately misunderstood by their own actual parents. Though these old folks seem at times ludicrous as performers, singing simple songs they wrote as teens about high school sweethearts, the crowd is eager and respectful, palpably yearning for reasons to give applause and recognition. And the bands respond with genuine expressions of gratitude, something increasingly rare in the commercial entertainment world that has in some ways crowded out the humbler forms of entertainment that were intergenerational in the past—the kind of folk festivals depicted in early Hardy novels, or the archetypal barn dance conjured by this image from today’s NYT.
Caevstomp, then, is a interstitial version of those lost kinds of entertainments, existing in a niche where it can thrive without getting commercialized and made cool and therefore spoiled. But that Land Rover commercial, though, may be a bad omen.
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