[29 May 2008]
Nothing gold can stay, wrote Robert Frost. And believe it or not, he wasn’t actually talking about the Greasers and the Socs, or even Ralph Macchio’s ability, post Outsiders, to convincingly play high school kids well into his mid-20s (making the other ageless wonder, Family Ties era Michael J. Fox look like Methuselah by comparison). Frost, of course, was speaking of more poetic matters, like springtime and flowers and innocence and all that CliffsNotes crap.
What he was not talking about, since it had not yet been invented, was rock and roll. So he could not have known that he was providing a very prescient epitaph for what is often the rule and seldom the exception with every great rock band: they age poorly. Aside from the requisite stints in rehab, the Botox and the damage done, and the increasingly profitable reunion tours, not a lot of memorable music gets made after age 30. Consider how many groups have blazed like fevered comets into the public consciousness, then flamed out, leaving a body of work—and sometimes their bodies—behind.
Not counting the careers cut short by death (think Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain or Clapton…wait, Clapton didn’t die? Never mind), and not cherry-picking the no-brainers like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Who, it’s actually easier to identify the groups that have managed to produce work worthy of their salad days—much less work that is worthwhile. The very recent efforts by Portishead and the Breeders, as well as the fairly recent masterpiece by Sleater-Kinney (please come back!) prove that it can be done. The fact that those three bands are fronted by females is noteworthy, and fodder for further discussion: women rock harder and make better music, after 30, than men? It would seem so. Then again, King Buzzo might have something to say about that, although he is probably too cool to even be considered human, much less a man.
But why is this so rare? Certainly the impetus of lean and hungry desperation (not to mention drugs) inspires rock music in ways not especially amenable to other types of art, like literature. Robert Frost was 49 when he dropped Nothing Gold Can Stay; Pete Townshend was 20 when he wrote “I hope I die before I get old”. By the time he was 49, The Who were already recycling their better days on the arena rocking chair circuit.
There are still some legends thrashing about in the mud and the blood and the beer: Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, for instance. Their best days are undoubtedly far behind them, but at least they’re still trying. And yet, the issue isn’t really about trying, it’s about an end result that passes the smell test (mosh pit or mothballs?), regardless of intent or integrity. Perhaps it’s appropriate that one elder statesman who is defying the trend is the golden god himself, Robert Plant. While the world waits to see if the mighty Zeppelin will glide again, Plant paired up with the beguiling Alison Krauss to create Raising Sand, an effort that, not so ironically, sounds better with time. In fact, it surpasses just about anything Plant’s peers have been able to manage since John Bonham died (doing his part to ensure that the best band of the ‘70s would not embarrass themselves in the ‘80s). Granted, Raising Sand is not (nor is it pretending to be) rock music. Perhaps that is the entire point. To be a rock and not to roll? Perhaps this is what Plant meant, way back whenever. Or perhaps it is just the forests, echoing with laughter.
TO BE CONT’D.