We are living in grievous times.
Did anybody see it coming with Prince? 57, vital, youthful, eternally-relevant, publicly visible in spite of his reputation as something of a recluse, ever funky. But there it is, Prince is dead, another unthinkable casualty in rock and roll’s war against Father Time (Not to be confused with Morris Day & The Time).
One year ago, we put together a list of artists that we considered to be the greatest living musicians. Prince was on that list. So were B.B. King and David Bowie. We had no plans on updating our list so soon.
We’ve all heard the theory that rock and roll is dead. People have been making the case since the start of the disco era. These days, it’s getting hard to disagree. Its champions are dropping off so frequently it feels like an epidemic. Really though, this is just the rate of attrition for life on the road, life on stage, life in service to the muse. It’s exhausting, the road never ends, and there is no direction home. That was Bob Dylan’s whole point. Once you’re on it, you’re a rolling stone and the only way to gather moss is in your grave.
Apparently, 2016 is the year it all comes crashing down. It’s only May but last call has come and gone for the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Keith Emerson, Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White, Dan Hicks of the Hot Licks, Mott the Hoople’s drummer Dale Griffin, Tower of Power’s founding trumpeter Mic Gillette, one-hit-wonder Thunderclap Newman, guitar scion Lonnie Mack, Philly soul man Billy Paul, country outlaw Merle Haggard, Tribe Called Quest frontman Phife Dawg, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Guy Clark, and the fifth Beatle, that great gentleman Sir George Martin, who took his final tea at the age of 90.
And then, of course, there was Bowie. His passing was perhaps most shocking because David Bowie didn’t seem like a guy who actually could die. I remain at least partially convinced that God is simply summoning his prophets back to the mothership. I don’t know if it’s a sign of the apocalypse but I’m not willing to rule it out either.
Of course, no one can outrun the icy clutch of death. (Cue obligatory Keith Richards/Highlander joke).
Quite in spite of the high casualty rate in rock and roll—a profession whose death toll in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s rivaled life on a volcano-adjacent oil rig—we hold our superstars up to the unrealistic expectation of immortality. Those who in their heart of hearts believe Elvis is still alive must surely concede that he probably doesn’t look great.
My intention is not to be morbid so much as to point out that we have lived in an extraordinary time; the historical period in which rock and roll was born, lived, and died; a period which is shuffling toward a certain type of conclusion.
All the highlights in my biographical filmstrip come with a rock and roll soundtrack.
When I was eight, I got a portable Fisher Price tape player. I jammed Michael Jackson’s Bad into it and, as if overcome by some invisible possession that I could neither understand nor control, I scrambled wildly from room to room, bounding and yapping like a puppy without a brain.
When I was thirteen, I won the Cassingle for Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” while playing limbo at a Bar Mitzvah. I took it home, played it, rewound it, played it, rewound it, obsessed over it, was entranced by its mystery, confounded by its lyrics, moved to imagine dreary England, far-away, sepia-toned, and, at least from my suburban Jersey bedroom, exotic. I didn’t have much music at the time. I played that thing over and over until my sister burst into my room: “Stop it! Stop! You’re killing it!”
Indeed, it was the first time that I ever murdered a song out of love.
Then there was 17-year-old me, the one who had just gone to the DMV and acquired his get-out-of-jail-free card. I was blasting Van Halen’s “Eruption” at brain-damage volume the first time I ever got pulled over. What I was listening to before any of the next dozen traffic stops, it’s hard to say. But as much as the four wheels, the road, and every convenience mart stop along the way, rock and roll was part of that freedom, part of the teenage rite of driving (and yes, State of New Jersey, I know it’s a privilege, not a right).
But rock and roll is more than just moments and memories. There are ideas, values, and philosophical imperatives that also become impossible to shake. Rock and roll raises you to perceive rebellion as necessary, to regard conformity with suspicion, to rankle at the very thought of droning through a life of complacent acquiescence.
There is an arrogance, an ego, a sense of self that rock gives you, and that you hold on to with a white-knuckled deathgrip as the world demands that you gradually temper your ambitions in preparation for adulthood. Rock and roll always carried a proudly American revolutionary fervor.
One wonders, in its decline and disappearance, if rock and roll is leaving a generation of youth without the capacity to resist, without any occasion to rise to, without the ferocity to make revolution, not just in protest, but in how they live. Do Justin Beiber and Taylor Swift and Kanye West strike you as figures that give a flaming pile of digital dookie whether you rage against the machine or not? Today’s popular music is the soundtrack of concession. What distinguishes rock and roll–and hip hop at its late-’80s/mid-’90s peak–from the glittery tapioca pudding pop that oozes from radio today is its gleeful sense of abandon, its willful suspicion of authority, and its ambition to push boundaries, be they cultural or artistic.
Parents love Taylor Swift. She seems like an exceptional role model, presuming you aspire to raise an Instagram star. As artists go, she’s about as bold and interesting as a juicer infomercial. There’s nothing wrong with pop music, per se. But its current dominance suggests a generation without an imperative for artistic adventure.
This means that the talent which is departing us in 2016…there’s nobody and nothing to replace it. When Jimi Hendrix died, those who worshipped at his altar became the next generation of greats. But there aren’t legions waiting in the wings anymore. There are proud and pure rock and rollers out there, but they aren’t revolutionaries. They are revivalists, even the most inventive among them.
The leading music streaming service, Spotify, offers extensive analytics on the listening habits of its users. In a breakdown of 40 American universities, Spotify revealed that pop music rules the dormitory roost, accounting for 58.9% of all listening. Electronic and dance music make up 25.6% of plays; Hip Hop, 21%; R&B, 18.6%. After each of these, rock music earns a 17% share of listens. Metal gets 1.05% and Classic Rock makes up its own data slice at a minuscule .99%. And if you must count Phish, the “jam band” genre earns a crunchy .42(0)%.
So Rock music isn’t quite polka or musique concrete, but it borders on the jazz and classical side of obscurity for young listeners. The number of those worshipping at its altar are far fewer and suggest that its ability to reach into future generations and survive is up for debate.
So when you start to lose people like Bowie and Prince, you realize that we’re on the dreary side of history looking back. All those men and women that changed the world—well those that survived to reap senior citizen benefits anyway—have a lot of hard living under their belts. I hope everybody that is still with us lives to be 120 years old. If the Rolling Stones have a 75th anniversary tour, I’ll cough up 5000 Space Bucks for the event.
I’m not even saying that all these guys are perfect angels who bleed love and defecate rainbows. I mourned Lou Reed’s death even though most people who knew him said he was an irascible jerk pretty much at all times.
But we know the reality. The reality is that rock and roll had its history-shaping, world-changing moment, and that it was a force of powerful cultural importance for some 50 years. Those that made it a reality are increasingly less likely to be with us each revolution around the sun.
So consider yourself among the fortunate few billion who lived during such a time in history that you actually observed these figures as they walked among us. Just think, you could have lived in a time and place where people only listened to ominous orchestral music in dimly lit cathedrals or else just hung around digging on the latest gregorian chants. In America of the 1890s, the most popular records were generally those in which European-descended white folks used blackface, mocked foreigners, and harvested laughs at the expense of religious minorities.
And quite frankly, I don’t envy those of you who only came of age in the 2000s. I’d take me some gregorian chanting over Nickelback any day of the week.
But for those who lived in the sweet spot—basically anybody who was a teenager between 1955 and 1994, between Elvis Presley and Kurt Cobain—you know what I’m talking about.
And you understand and struggle with the feeling that its peak is behind us. You connect it to your own age and the passage of time and the things that you remember from long ago that you will never have or feel again.
Rock and Roll has a Hall of Fame, which means that it’s not just a niche genre. It also means that it’s history. It’s a museum subject, and have you seen the stuffed taxidermy projects that reunite every year for the induction ceremony All-Star Jam?
So the party is unceremoniously over. And it’s not like the hug-it-out-and-stumble-home brassy blues at the end of a Saturday Night Live episode. It’s more like Paul McCartney getting denied entrance to flash-in-the-pan rapper Tyga’s post-Grammy party (which is a thing that actually happened). Rock and roll is no longer on the list.
Basically, somebody has to die to get any attention around here.
But I, for one, will continue to treasure it as long as it exists. The day Prince died, I immediately went online and bought a raft of concert tickets. I’m seeing all the legends that are coming through my town this summer before it all becomes a part of history. And I won’t even mention any names. I don’t want to jinx it. 2016 has been hard enough already.