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Waiting for the Rails to Rumble: The Cycles of Rock Music

Benjamin Barrett
Photo: Hand in rock n roll sign via Shutterstock.

The romantic sentiment that rock was better in the past and has, as they say, given up the ghost, is a charming but misguided notion.

As I sit in an undisclosed location, the same undisclosed location I find myself in every morning after my cup of coffee, I peruse an article in Playboy by the eloquent Rick Moody, lamenting the expiration of the rock icon ("In Search of the Lost Rock and Roll Icon", January 2014). While reading through the article, I am struck by the odd familiarity of his words, a profound sense of déjà vu which settles in like a cat in front of a warm fire.

The romantic sentiment that rock was better in the past and has, as they say, given up the ghost, is a charming but misguided notion. Sure, rock music has seen better days, but as a society of rock consumers, we have been to this same sullen spot before, regretting the inevitable passing of the species, wondering if there is any way rock can possibly survive the most recent virus with which it has been infected. Yet rock is a resilient beast that has recovered from each and every recession with a David Bowie-esque style worthy of the most ardent rock icon and will keep on truckin’ for any foreseeable future.

How do I know rock will survive? Because of what it is. At its core, rock is rebellion. Yes, it has distorted guitars and stacks of Marshalls, but rock, real rock, in all its different guises and various genres, rebels against everything and everyone, from the established music of the day, to established social norms, to the political establishment (Go Pussy Riot!). And, yes, it rebels against its very own fans and it does so defiantly, and with great volume. What the folk music of the '60s said politely, rock screams at the top of its bleeding lungs.

Rock is not a song or a sound, but an attitude. It is the musical version of every high school hoodlum and loner and stoner with middle fingers raised high, the soul of every self-conscious teen who doesn’t quite fit in. Rock is not a decorative gem that is mined and polished; instead, it is quarried out of sweltering garages, musty basements and sleazy dive bars the world over. Rock never pretends to be what it’s not, though many pretend to be rock, and it never, ever gets its start in an expensive studio with a producer and publicist hovering over calling the shots, although it often ends there.

In spite of the genre in which they reside, or the distortion level of their guitars, some bands are rock, some are not, and some were, but are no longer. And sometimes, every so often, an artist or band comes along that so embodies the very essence of rock that the most rare, most admired thing of all is created: the white whale, the rock icon. In the end, as long as a band can fend off the onslaught of fame or the handcuffs applied by an industry run by stock holders of giant conglomerates, the longer they will continue to represent all those high-school hoodlums, well-seasoned barflies and silently screaming moms with rebellion in their hearts.

Throughout its existence rock has been at constant odds with the music industry, proving to be both extremely popular with the consumers, and also an extremely unwieldy, unreliable product.

That is to say, the longer a band can retain that its erect center digit, harness that unruly spirit, that furor that stoked the creative fires back in those old abandoned warehouses and damp cellars, when there was no album deal, or publicist, or personal assistant, when they played pawn shop guitars through blown amplifiers and scrounged for a buck and a beer and loved it, the longer it will continue to rock.

But just like any rebellious teenager, rock, and perhaps more poignantly rock icons, are notoriously difficult to control. These icons also don’t tend to take very good care of themselves. They make bad choices, throw terrible tantrums, know absolutely everything, and are basically hell to live with. And there’s the rub. Throughout its existence rock has been at constant odds with the music industry, proving to be both extremely popular with the consumers, and also an extremely unwieldy, unreliable product.

Corporate executives try to subdue rockers by throwing cash and cars at them, hiring handlers, committing them to rehab, but these efforts rarely seem to work. After all, rebels are, by definition, uncontrollable, not to mention very rare; thus, most big record companies have found that creating a dozen copy bands in a lab in hopes that one will catch on to be a far more reliable strategy for a profit hungry industry that by its very nature thrives on the things against which rock rebels most; control, unoriginality, reward before risk, among many others.

Sadly, music spawned in a test tube not only has the undesired effect of watering down the pot; most importantly, it is invariably missing the marrow, the soul, the oomph. These Xerox copies inevitably end up inducing an adverse reaction, a visceral pushback, like townsfolk rising up against Frankenstein’s monster.

Corporate owned radio doesn’t help matters, either. Radio does its best to perpetually supply a scarce resource, but when it can’t, it attempts to quell the cravings for rock by force feeding us studio produced mock-ups and finely sculpted, family-friendly versions of former rock bands, musical high-fructose corn syrup, then subsidizing these pseudo-rock bands with endless steaming piles of pop.

Rock, in turn, responds by changing its sound, and the industry scrambles to produce new forgeries and process begins again; it is an endless game of cat and mouse. However, rock is a living, a breathing entity, a natural, unprocessed phenomenon incapable of being cloned. It’s your grandmother’s jambalaya: you simply can’t dehydrate it, box it, label it and sell it on some supermarket shelf.

Yet, as is the case with most living things, rock has ebbs and flows, seasons of growth and decline that repeat over time. It is in these down times when the music industry has, perhaps inadvertently (perhaps not), nearly snuffed out rock on more than one occasion. The first major crisis that rock experienced was such a potentially fatal blow it was nicknamed “the day the music died,” yet somehow, someway, rock not only survived, but thrived.

Popularized by the Don McLean song “American Pie”, “the day the music died” is often glossed over as a singular tragedy in which three fairly popular musicians met their end in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. What is uniformly forgotten about the event is the two years that preceded it. The plane crash was not what killed the music; it was, in fact, the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, the last blow of a vicious combination that left rock and roll flat on the canvas groping around for its dislodged mouthpiece.

Long before rock music grew into an audacious youth, it was birthed deep in the Mississippi Delta, brought into this world on a train stop bench from an old Spanish guitar with a pocket knife for a slide. It hitched itself a ride up to Chicago and Memphis and was finally introduced to the rest of the world on the back of a country and gospel singer who never forgot where he came from. This earliest incarnation of rock, an interesting combination of rhythm & blues, gospel and country we nostalgically refer to as rock and roll, became extremely popular in the mid-'50s.

Unfortunately, during a few short years in the late '50s, the vast majority of rock’s original icons, and with them the rock and roll genre, were decimated by a combination of bad luck and bad decisions. Elvis Presley joined the army in 1958 taking the foremost rocker and number one hit machine on what ended up being a somewhat permanent hiatus. Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year old cousin and was rightfully ostracized from decent society, while Little Richard had his own airplane scare which caused him to quit music altogether and go into preaching. Chuck Berry’s string of hits had shriveled up and he would soon be arrested and jailed under the Mann Act for transporting a 14-year old girl across state lines. Even Alan Freed, the DJ who helped launch the genre and coined the very phrase rock and roll, was stripped of his TV and radio shows for letting a white girl dance with Frankie Lymon on live TV. He ended up drinking himself to death in California.

Thus, when the legend Buddy Holly, the kid Richie Valens and the singer/songwriter known as the Big Bopper, the man who is actually credited with making the very first music video, all perished in that four-seated single-engine comet over the Midwest, rock and roll had literally no one left on which to lean. A year later, when the up-and-coming 21-year-old Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”) perished in a car accident, the last breath of a dying era was squeezed from its collapsing lungs.

Yes, the early ‘60s had so completely siphoned the life out of music it actually created a rift in the fabric of space-time, a vacuum of talent so massive, so complete, that the next generation of rockers would be sucked all the way from the other side of the Atlantic like pigeons through a jet engine.

The next four years would suck the marrow out of the limp corpse. As the music industry would have it, for every Little Richard there was a Pat Boone and, unfortunately, the airwaves from 1960 to 1964 were chock full of dreadfully boring Boone tunes, tame acoustic folk music, highly polished girl groups (the Supremes, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Shangra-Las) and oddball novelty songs like “One Eyed, One Horned Flying Purple People Eater” and “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” In fact, for several years in the ‘60s, radio sounded an awful lot like it does today, infected with acoustic-guitar strumming singer/songwriters, young, strong-voiced, strongly manipulated female pop stars and odd one-hit, blurred line wonders who will wash away with the next high tide (with any luck).

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