Photo credit: Buck Ennis
This past Saturday I went to Little Steven’s “International Underground Garage Festival”, a curious name, because it took place above ground, in a field on Randall’s Island, with a lovely view of a Triborough bridge ramp in the distance. And I was surprised that there was not a single big parking-structure construction firm represented. There were a lot of mediocre rock bands there, impossible for any but the hardest of hardcore fans to differentiate, and the sameness tended to diminish them all. And there were a few legends who tried to recapture their magic from decades past. Some succeeded (David Johanssen, Iggy Pop, and most implausibly, Richard and the Young Lions) and others failed (the Pretty Things, and Bo Diddley, who, inexcusably, performed a rap song).
There were numerous technical difficulties and the ominous perpetual threat of rain. With the rotating stage, there wasn’t supposed to be any break between bands, just non-stop music, but when that stage broke, it led to endless delays and truncated sets for most of the 40 bands scheduled. And worse, it led to there being a stream of people filling time with endless yammering. For a while Kim Fowley could entertain with his rambling non sequiturs (“Donuts are the food of young gods!” he proclaimed at one point) but the British radio hack who co-emceed was awful and the parade of celebrities sent out to eat up time was embarrassing. It was sad to see Sopranos actor Tony Sirico up there trying to ad-lib and connect to an audience he had nothing to do with. And it was all unnecessary, since everyone in the audience would have preferred silence while the bands set up. But the promoters seemed to think the show was to be like a radio program, and that dead air was anathema, as if we would go home if we weren’t continually distracted by noise. But all this noise had nothing to do with entertaining us; it affirmed that we were a captive audience. Like commercial radio, the concert offered music as bait to make us listen to promotional messages for the show’s sponsors and for Little Steven himself, as he tries to make himself the brand name associated with garage rock. All the blather was an attempt to co-opt the genre, for which the audience has a true and sincere passion nurtured independently of the major marketing arm of mainstream radio, and saturate it with the names of Dunkin Donuts and Pepsi and Q104 and Little Steven. The between-set jabbers talked on and on about how much we should thank Little Steven for making this festival happen and for “saving” rock and roll by getting it on the radio again, offering hollow testimonials to how much they love rock and roll and what it means to them.
All this did convince me once and for all that rock and roll is utterly dead as a genre, quickly going the way of traditional jazz to become a solemnly lauded museum piece, a specialization for avid superfans eager to tunnel into a subculture of nostalgia. With its eccentric fashion statements, an uneasy mishmash of Carnaby Street flash and Austin Powers parody, and its vigilant gatekeepers preserving the sacred knowledge about things like vintage fuzz pedals and the teen-rock scene in 1960s Wichita, garage rock fans can satisfy themselves with their arcana while criticizing anything not sufficiently faithful to the strictures delimited by the Beatles and the Stones and the Who. Rock and roll might have once been about rebellion and teenage angst and youth and new horizons of cool, but now it is undeniably a geek scene, and this festival was a Star Trek Convention with amplifiers. Like Trekkies, garage fans are absolutely shameless about their love for their obscure niche, but unlike Trekkies, they are apparently unaware of how marginalized their passion makes them and seem to believe instead that they are on the vanguard of a cultural movement instead of the comet’s tail.
People, mostly in their 30s and 40s, came dressed up in their costumes—their fake-vintage mod trousers and their tour shirts for bands whose last meaningful tour was 20 or 30 years ago and their Cavestomp shirts, testimony to their having gone conventioneering before and their white go-go boots and their miniskirts and the rest) and they passionately swapped cherished bits of hopelessly obscure information that no one else in the world cares about while their aging, decrepit heroes emerged from retirement to go through the motions of their heyday 30 or 40 years ago and mouth platitudes about the significance of the audience’s enthusiasm, collectively vindicating what often seems to be an insane preoccupation, perhaps even to those laboring under it. No angst, no innovation, just a reiteration of well-cherished truths, a kind of day-long sermon.
Band after band testified to the all-important power of rock and roll—to do what? Inspire you to “rock” more? Usually rock and roll is supposed to have changed the world, and we the audience were making it happen still, keeping the tradition alive, as though it were a suppressed religious faith and we were contributing to some as-yet-unfulfilled prophesy. How has rock and roll changed the world, though? It changed some fashions and it altered the contours of pop music for a while, but “changed the world?” It may once have been the soundtrack for young revolutionaries plotting to throw monkey wrenches into the workings of consumer society, but that revolution was squelched and co-opted in 1968. These days, garage-rock fans are intent not on changing anything about the world but on consuming as much as possible of a narrow subset of production. Whatever computer hackers are listening to as they are retooling their viruses, that is the revolutionary music of today. (I’m guessing it sounds like Four Tet, which is as uncompromising and unlistenable as I would expect truly revolutionary music to be).
In a sense the audience for this festival is “underground,” in that they have been marginalized by mainstream indifference. But this underground carries none of the subversiveness of other underground scenes—this group threatens no established order. Would it be right to call the people who hang out in comic-book stores the “Comic Book Underground”? So why should we call the music of people who hang out in record stores “underground music”? Even more than a Trekkie, a garage-rock fan is like the comic-book collector, who brings the same amount of articulate and obsessive passion to his particular field, which the average person finds equally baffling for an adult to be invested in, even as aspects of the peculiar obsession bubble up now and then to mass awareness. Bands like the Strokes (who put on a pouty, petulant performance, knowing the crowd was too old and too narrow for them and would resent them in comparison to the Stooges and the New York Dolls, whom they were sandwiched between, and perhaps knowing also that they shouldn’t identify themselves too closely with this set of fans, lest they get stuck on the senior circuit forever) bring elements drawn from garage rock geekery to the charts, but they don’t signal a return of rock any more than Spider-Man 2 signals that you’ll be seeing people on the subway and at the lunch counter reading comic books instead of the Da Vinci Code.
Over and over, Steven Van Zandt (and his sponsors, Dunkin Donuts and Pepsi and Sirius satellite radio) was thanked for “saving” rock and roll by working hard to bring it to more people via his syndicated radio show. But if that is what it means to “save” it, it seems strange to cling to the word “underground”. Can you have it both ways? Can rock and roll be saved by being popular yet remain cool for being underground? The incoherence of this points to the fact that we’re dealing with pure fantasy here, aggrandizing the fans (and Van Zandt) and pandering to them with little recourse to reality. It doesn’t matter, really, if rock is popular or underground, if rock is “saved” or not. What matters is that people can invest themselves in it with a missionary zeal, even if they aim for no converts. They can consume pop culture with a religious fervor, which puts them squarely in the main current of American society even as they feel beyond it and better than it, feel like they’re in a position to try to rescue it with precious rock and roll. Hence they are quintessential consumers, buying significant objects for something above and beyond their use value, pursuing a meaning that is only evoked by the objects but not contained in them, and it will take a lifelong commitment to buying more and more to keep the dream of achieving that meaning alive, even as it never is reached. This is what it means to save rock and roll.