Sometime in the deep gray fog of the late 70s, I found myself in a great seat in the old Westchester Premiere Theater, a suburban shed where old-timey crooners in shaggy toupees shook their leisure-suited hips for the station wagon set. I was thinking: this ain't no Mudd Club, no CBGB. Until the bands came on. Jerry Lee Lewis. Carl Perkins. The Coasters. And the incredible Chuck Berry.
It was an oldies tour, plain and simple. Hits were played. Local musicians were hired. And the word went out on local radio that the "sounds of the 50s" would "turn back the clock" so that moms and dads could feel young again, and remember - for two hours - those carefree days of jukebox romance, sock hops and chocolate malteds. But I remember that Berry, playing with what seemed like a high school pickup band, rocked the joint, blasting those two-note jumped up blues chords far, far into the rafters.
If my math holds, he was an archaic 52 at the time - or nearly a decade younger than Pete Townshend was last night, when he took the stage out at Jones Beach and smacked 6,000 fans of all ages in the gut with some expansive new music and traditionally vicious power chords. And well more than a decade older than ole Bob Dylan, whose album is number one on the pop charts.
The boomer rockers are defying the gravitational pull of age in rock and roll, changing the genre entirely; now it's fun for the whole family. The Stones are the biggest touring act. Springsteen moves big-time units doing folk covers. Ray Davies cuts a masterwork. The New York Dolls get dirty again. Tom Petty's going' back down south. The Who's on tour and has a new album in the wings - we heard a seven-song mini rock opera from it last night, and it was definitely not "vintage" Townshend; it was new Townshend, using some of his trademark techniques to be sure - and telling the same basic story of growing up again - but the music stretched, his guitar playing has gone in new directions, his sense of rhythm has broadened. I loved the new stuff - and I bounced around to Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere until my back started to ache.
And of course, Dylan's number one. This bothers certain young critics. The Cornell Daily Sun's reviewer, Shuja Haider, has had it with fogey rock being praised by boomer reviewers (and presumably consumed by the generations that still pay for music).
Old folks, including every single commentator in the entertainment media, tripped over each other’s canes praising Dylan’s “comeback”—after thirty years. Over the next decade, Ol’ Man Dylan put out an amazingly prolific one album, the universally adored Love and Theft, wrote one bestselling autobiographical book, Chronicles, and was the subject of one of legendary director Martin Scorcese’s only documentaries, No Direction Home. Needless to say, there’s been plenty of hoopla over all of it from the baby-boomer crowd, to the point of getting nauseating. Maybe some of you have even heard it from your folks.
Haider excoriates the traditional hagiography surrounding the classic rock greats, and claims that old people really don't get the whole modern music scene. Dylan's new record, he snarls, looks backward to older forms while pretending to be modern - the work of an old man. But the kid is playing it too cute; indeed he's not just a clueless innocent; that's just a stance, a Dylanesque pose. He obviously knows the Dylan canon (he claims Blood on the Tracks is overrated) - and should therefore know that Dylan has always looked backward, that his sense of musical evolution - American musical evolution - has powered his greatness as a songwriter.
Old man Dylan "is grasping back at a time before even he was born," he writes. But in the same review, he claims hip-hop as today's ascendent form. At last today's college kids are "smart enough to notice that Bob Dylan is a pop musician, who has much more to do with the Spice Girls than with Yeats, and that’s what is good about him, and if he has literary inheritors, they don’t publish poems or even write songs, they rap."
Except that, er, they've been doing that since before Shuja Haider was born. Mainstream rap is almost 30 years old now, older actually than Chuck Berry's music was when I saw him play as a skinny, punk-obsessed teenager - and its antecedents are centuries old.
Last night, Pete Townshend extended the pre-punk My Generation into an exploratory jam that lasted many minutes past the two-minute classic. Floating discordant arpeggios off the two basic chords, he began to chant.
Hope I die before I get old...
Hope I die before I get old...
Hope I get old...
Hope I get old before...
It wasn't one of his comic throwaway lines about age (and there were a few in the cool Long Island night) - it was a serious statement. Townshend has that creator's gleam this year - a year of dinosaurs emerging from the back catalog muck with new verve, and evolved ideas and perspective. I, for one, need those ideas. Hey kids, pay attention. Long live rock, I need it every night.
UPDATE: Tons of terrific stuff to add, particularly Jason's meaty follow-up to this post:
That boomer rock continues to dominate the marketplace for pop music is an accident of demographics about which I've written before. But the social and artistic shadow cast by boomer rock, and rock in general, since rock and roll is THE quintessential cultural expression of the boomer generation, is another matter entirely.
With the rise of rock and roll in the 1950 and 1960s pop music reached a cultural apotheosis. Suddenly pop music was something other than material for entertainment, it was in the center of a surging, violent cultural upheaval. The music one liked was a source of tribal identity the way religion and ethnicity once had been.
Definitely true, but no longer really; music is only a portion of it, and generally isn't even the main emblem in these media saturated times. So icons like Dylan and The Who go back to being artists, really - very famous and well-paid ones, but artists nonetheless. And the depth to which rock has suffused the culture makes that artistry viable; Jason again:
If the demographics of the baby boom have given boomer rock its commercial staying power, the cultural politics of boomer rock have given the music its cultural staying power.
I thought Jon Pareles in the Times pretty much saw the same show I did at Jones Beach, noting this:
Mr. Townshend has never been subdued onstage, but now he is more clearly than ever the band’s vital center. Mr. Daltrey’s voice is weathered, straining at high notes, and when he twirled a microphone on its cord, it looked hokey. But Mr. Townshend’s guitar — in power chords, wailing blues lines, probing modal phrases, architecturally placed riffs and savage little trills — is still a bulwark and a goad.
Very true, and the audience clearly fed Townshend, easing a hunger he still feels four decades in. This from an interview in The Republican in Massachusetts:
This new, large-scale adventure is not intended to suggest a last gasp. I simply wanted to make sure as many people as possible heard about our new music, and got to enjoy our old music, while Roger and I are still fit and strong. While we can, we will always perform together now in some shape or form. This is not an end, it really is a beginning for us. We two old buggers have one of the great banners of rock history to wave, and we are determined to wave it, partly in memory of our two buddies who flew the coop. Roger and I have each other, and that means more today than it did when we first crossed angry paths as kids in Acton in 1960, 46 years ago.