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The New Classic Rock

The New Classic Rock

I’ve written a lot in this blog about classic rock music, but that very term classic rock has actually been causing me a little bit of confusion for some time now. There’s a very definite sense of what I think of whenever the topic pops up in conversation. Everyone knows rock music attained its full-on classic status after hitting its scientifically verified peak in the late 1970’s, right? Well, okay, perhaps that idea is only applicable to those who are a part of my generation. Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, The Allman Brothers Band, The Eagles…. No question! My peers and I grew up knowing those guys were decades in front of us, but they were the ones we spoke of in hushed tones when we stated our cases for the greatest classic rock band ever!

We’re still in that mindset; or I am, at least. Buffalo’s popular music station 97 Rock was where all the dinosaurs thunderously trudged in order to show us young whippersnappers how it was done. Every band they played on that station had already been around for decades, and so us young people were lulled into a false sense of security about just how much the popular culture landscape could change. To us, once a classic rock band, always a classic rock band. The 60’s and 70’s monsters stayed in the 60’s and 70’s and didn’t violate our young, cool turf in the 90’s. Until a couple of years ago, that is, when I casually flipped on 97 Rock to hear some of my favorite hard rock staples and was immediately immersed in “Enter Sandman” by Metallica.

97 Rock had expanded their playlist. No biggie – all the stations had to do that in order to survive, and I think the last time 97 Rock did something with theirs, it was still in the 60’s and 70’s. Besides, Metallica had been around a long time itself, so hearing them on 97 Rock shouldn’t have been the strangest feeling in the world. I let it go, but a few weeks later, I flipped on 97 Rock again and heard the distinctive chorus of Nirvana playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Every year, 97 Rock does some kind of charity event where it plays any song requested by anyone over a 24-hour period, and for a minute, I wrote off this freakish new Nirvana spotting as a song in that marathon. Then it ended, and the deejay gave us his usual rundown of the tunes he had just spun, naming the classic Nirvana song as if it were just another regular old song on their playlist. Of course, that was only because “Smells Like Teen Spirit” really was now a song in their playlist canon.

Just like that, my nice, safe way of defining what’s classic rock was destroyed like one of The Who’s stage sets. Life’s good misunderstood friend Time was now here chonking on the rock music of my own generation, and now there’s no way for me to define classic rock by using its passage anymore. Pearl Jam is now being lumped into the same (very broad) pile of bands as The Beatles, AC/DC, and Van Halen. Even though Pearl Jam is the 90’s band whose music most closely resembles that of the classic rockers I fell in love with, my head is still having trouble ringing it up. I grew up listening to bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and other grunge and post-grunge bands. Technically, they all got thrown under the rock section at the local CD store so…. Wait, you don’t know what a CD is? Er…. Go ask your parents. Okay, now that you’ve satisfied your curiosity, even though every band I’ve mentioned so far is a rock band, I’ve gotten used to placing them into two different mental compartments: The “Back Then” compartment and the “Here and Now” compartment, and now it seems like “Here and Now” evicted all its tenants and so they’re subletting in “Back Then.”

See, hearing grunge on 97 Rock was important. I’m not at the age where I can still be called a young man anymore, but hearing grunge on the local classic rock station was my first experience with the generational gap. People who were kids when I was in high school had now grown up, and the musical torch was passed down to newer bands like The Black Keys and Arcade Fire while the groups of my youth gracefully moved aside and accepted their new designations as elder statesmen. Therefore, grunge’s new home was a final signal that I wouldn’t be keeping up with what was new and hip anymore.

There’s no doubt in my mind that all those bands I loved in the 90’s will still go on to create millions of new fans. I did spend most of my childhood listening to 97 Rock, after all, and became a diehard fan of many of the bands who get played on the station. But it’s odd to think that if I get involved in an argument at school over who the best classic rock band is, I’ll have firsthand experience as I tell them about the glory days of REM and Weezer, the year when Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was the greatest rock album ever produced and how Billy Corgan’s behavior in the ensuing aftermath pretty much fucked up The Smashing Pumpkins for good, more era-specific bands like Goo Goo Dolls and Oasis, and of course the real giants of classic rock – guys like Black Sabbath and Bruce Springsteen, who were the classic rock staples of my own childhood. Telling them about that last one will inevitably be their cue to give me quizzical looks and ask “Who?” And then refer to those guys as the moldy oldies when I tell them.

That will, in turn, be my own cue to mention that this is going to happen to the rock bands of their generation one day.

Authenticity, Angst, and Nirvana

Authenticity, Angst, and Nirvana

The act grew old a long time ago, and let’s face it; its always been pretty pathetic. In case you don’t know – and on the off chance that you really don’t, lord knows you will soon enough if you pay attention to current events – 2013 marks the 20th Anniversary year of the release of In Utero, the final album from Nirvana. Kids, go ask your parents about them. That means there are a billion fawning odes to In Utero, Kurt Cobain, and Nirvana, and we’re likely to be suffocated in the overwhelming avalanche of pithy remembrances next year, which is the 20th Anniversary year of Cobain’s suicide.

I like Nirvana a lot, but I think I must have missed something somewhere. I didn’t become acquainted with their work until after Cobain’s death, so that perhaps puts a slight handicap on my understanding of the Nirvana cultural phenomenon, despite the fact that I was twelve years old when he put that shotgun into his stomach and therefore more than old enough to have had a fully formed flashbulb of it. It was still a little too early in my life to be serious about musical tastes, though, so I missed all the original vigils. When I finally started to come around about two or three years after the fact, it was the radiant power of Nirvana that first struck me. The angst had nothing to do with it, but as Cobain was canonized and deified by the march of time, it was the angst which appeared to come out and take center stage.

That’s something I can’t live with. My viewpoints on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana are politically incorrect, but they’re correct. My personal distaste for Kurt Cobain the person grew as time revealed more facts about him to me. On my most recent visit to Chicago, I lamented this to a friend. “The more I learn about Kurt Cobain,” I said, “the more I hate his guts.”

Much as I like Nirvana, I do find them overrated; and Kurt Cobain, doubly so. Cobain’s talents are given far more attention than they actually warrant. Throw in any Nirvana record and take a real close listen, breaking the songs down to their individual components and it will reveal a serviceable musician and decent singer. The one major talent Cobain really had going for him was his ability to construct songs – he wrote songs in such a way that they were able to consistently highlight the strengths he had. In every other way, time managed to prove that he wasn’t even the most talented guy in his own band. That would be Dave Grohl, the drummer who did the whole phoenix rise routine when he stepped up as the frontman of his own band, the Foo Fighters, after Nirvana didn’t exist anymore. Time also somehow managed to put a muzzle on Nirvana’s Seattle competition. When Nirvana busted loose out of the early Seattle grunge scene in the late 80’s and early 90’s, they were still just one of a handful of wave-riders. In a course of all of three proper albums, an MTV Unplugged album, and a B-side collection, Nirvana decided it wanted to eschew musical growth. Meanwhile, superior bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains – all of whom did take legitimate musical risks – are somehow considered Cobain’s tailcoaters. (For my money, Pearl Jam’s debut, Ten, is the classic album of the era.)

Seriously, did Nirvana ever really grow in a musical sense? Like, at all? It’s easy to scour all the words written about Nirvana, be they online or in print, and see all authors print the word “authentic” as their reason for bowing down at the altar of Cobain. After giving that a little thought, I don’t buy it. Nirvana did change their sound more than once, but that wasn’t a natural growth from a band that wanted to expand and challenge itself. Every gear shift happened because of Cobain’s outright contempt toward his fans and his apparent need to show them how many shits he didn’t give about them. In Utero was an admitted fight to alienate people. Cobain threw a hissy about the production of Nirvana’s breakthrough album, Nevermind, because he thought the sound was too mainstream, and he went as far as to try to call it Sheep as a stealth insult to those who liked it. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York album is a beautiful piece which features a bunch of covers and the taming of their primal rage. Everything about Cobain’s so-called authenticity comes off as a change carefully calculated to project middle fingers and an attitude that he didn’t care what anyone thought. If that’s authenticity, then I’m the Lizard King.

What about the idea that he brought a stripped-down form of rock music into vogue? One that was rougher and rawer than anything released in the musically shimmered-up 80’s? The counter-argument about this rabbit hole starts in 1987 and a convenient blackout by rock critics who believe Guns ‘n’ Roses and their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, went the way of Axl Rose by spacing out somewhere. Now, Appetite for Destruction wasn’t some insignificant little speck. As of date, Appetite for Destruction and Nevermind have both topped sales marks of 30 million, but what people are forgetting is that relative to their release dates, Appetite for Destruction totally dwarfed Nevermind and it remains the highest-selling debut album ever. Nevermind’s release was low-key and virtually ignored. The albums are similar in the fact that they both captured a less synthesized, darker, more guitar-driven, and more personal feel than anything released in the 80’s. Appetite beat Nevermind to the punch for four years, though, and if you’re smart and courageous enough to try to bring Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, into it, it’s still a nice two-year start. Whether or not Guns ‘n’ Roses wrote better songs than Nirvana is perfectly debatable, but the musical quality just isn’t. Kurt Cobain was decent at best as a musician, and he carried the bulk of Nirvana playing guitarist and singer double duty. Guns ‘n’ Roses – at least for that single album – had one of the great underrated drummers in rock music with Steven Adler; with Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin came the driving forces behind Appetite for Destruction; Slash is one of the top-tier guitar gods; and Axl Rose is favorably comparable to Robert Plant in every way when he decides he actually wants to show up. Everything Nirvana did on Nevermind was done better by Guns ‘n’ Roses on Appetite for Destruction.

Cobain’s anger over his fame holds an echo similar to that of John Lennon, who hated the fact that his band was given a boy toy makeover in order to give them over to a mainstream following. Lennon was fed up to the point that he changed his lyrics in live shows because he knew fans wouldn’t be able to hear the difference. There’s a difference between Lennon’s anger and Cobain’s though; Lennon’s anger seemed more rooted in his image. Before the British Invasion days which came to define The Beatles, The Beatles were a more badass band than Ed Sullivan would have anyone see. Onstage in their German club days, The Beatles swore, chowed down on fried chicken, and nailed condoms to the wall and set them on fire. Their mainstream audience makeover removed the wildness of their shows, and that didn’t sit well with John because audiences weren’t getting to see the real John. When real John finally attained enough power to drop in on the world, he seemed pretty comfortable with his spot in the world, and he was happy to be spreading peace/love messages to anyone who would listen – and man, a lot of people wanted to listen.

Cobain was pissed at his image too, but in a different way. Nevermind hit it big because producer Butch Vig gave a slight little sheen to songs which were a lot rougher, and Cobain hated that people weren’t hearing the real Nirvana. Yeah, he got angry at his producer, but he got even more pissed off at the fans for having the gall to listen to his music. It had something to do with them not being the right kind of fans. Not being the right kind of fan is one thing if your listening contingent is mostly Nazis, but in Nirvana’s case it meant his music was resonating with more people than a very narrow demographic he apparently had in mind. I would think that being authentic would mean being appreciative of the fact that there were more people finding the authenticity in your music than you ever thought possible, not trying to shut out all your fans. By all means, his so-called authenticity appears more to be a certain brand of elitism worthy of fundamentalist religion; fuck you, you’re not worthy, you can only come in if you follow my ridiculously specific guidelines.

It seems a harsh thing to say, but Cobain’s death may be the best thing that ever could have happened to Nirvana and its legacy. What would have happened if Cobain managed to reach a peak of absolute power in the music industry with his attitude? You’re almost certainly looking at a gradual degradation of sounds until Nirvana started splicing random sounds together and calling it music. Cobain’s attitude toward his fandom would have gotten out and made him a pariah; provided, of course, that he didn’t just willingly lock himself away and become the ironic soul buddy of Axl Rose, who Cobain famously hated (for absolutely no reason, if the account of rock journalist Mick Wall is to be believed).

I’ll continue to be a Nirvana fan. Don’t expect me to revere Kurt Cobain as my angst voice, though; U2 and Rush have that spot filled nicely, and Cobain probably wouldn’t have appreciated me anyway. Nirvana is becoming more of a corporation, an irony which Cobain probably would have despised; and yet, one which the afterlife’s ironic punishment division would almost certainly see fit to suit a person like him.

Me and The Beatles

Like every other city in the world that rocks out to the old classic bands, Buffalo has always had a very strong relationship with The Beatles. Two of the local radio stations play Beatles songs at particular times every day, and one of them even plays a two-hour bloc of Beatles music every weekend. When that radio station recently created a list of the 100 great vinyl albums ever made, two Beatles albums – The White Album and Abbey Road – placed in the top five. It’s a pretty reverential way to treat a rock band that was so popular, it never got around to swinging by Buffalo. We know the songs, we can quote the lyrics, we argue over the quality of the albums.

And yet. To me, The Beatles were always a kind of the odd man out among the British invasion bands. It’s extremely important to note a few things right now: First, I am a Beatles fan. Although I never bought any of their music on CD, I own several of their albums; Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Abbey Road are all in my iPod, and I will soon be adding Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And second, I understand why they have attained their status as the greatest rock band of all time. The barriers they broke down in their full realization of studio musicianship are inarguable in their importance and the role they played in the development of modern rock music.

I have, however, had a few problems with the band that many who know me don’t share. In conversation, I’ve often come off as someone who hates these four unlikely Liverpudlian scousers because I’m not capable of elevating them to the critical immunity they have apparently attained. First, John Lennon: My great respects to him for his talent as a songwriter and experimenter. However, in the later days of The Beatles, his songwriting comes off like he cared more about his public’s perception of him as a serious artiste than he did about making music he truly believed in. While he eventually came around again during his solo career, a lot of his later Beatles music just comes off as pretentious to me. Second, I hate the weird feud between the John and Paul factions because they act as if John and Paul were the only two songwriters in the band. They were prominent, but that contest is only a contest at all if you believe quantity means more than quality. Both of them paled in comparison to George, whose output was less because he wasn’t constantly teaming up with anyone. Hell, you could include Ringo if you like. He only wrote two songs for the band, but one of them was “Octopus’s Garden.” Third, no one – John or Paul people – appears to be giving Paul any of the credit he deserves as an experimenter. Everyone concentrates on his ability to write catchy pop tunes.

I didn’t automatically develop a taste for The Beatles, as most of my more artistically inclined friends did. It gradually evolved as I slowly came in later ages to appreciate lyrical and sonic depth. Even counting this, though, a ton of their work is still rather hit or miss. I can appreciate the beauty of the string instruments on “Eleanor Rigby,” but that song evokes a lot of old feelings I’ve had for extended periods in my life and would rather avoid remembering. I have that same complaint about “Yesterday.” I think the entire White Album is overrated, having lost any sense of passion or meaning in an array of competitive artistry and studio wizardry.

I faced a lot of put-downs because I tend to concentrate so much on what I don’t like about The Beatles in conversation. I’m a contrarian, so that’s instinctive. But there is one universal facet of Beatles music which I don’t believe even their most fervent supports can argue: They don’t have the sense of passion, anger, or fun that so many of the other bands of that era had, and for a blue-collar city like Buffalo, that should make them the odd band out. In my personal pantheon, it DOES make them the odd band out. Yes, John sang out for a world-changing revolution in the wonderful song “Revolution,” but as much as I love that song, it lulls and rings flat and hollow when compared to The Rolling Stones and the springy, urgent guitar rhythm in “Street Fighting Man” as Mick Jagger desperately ponders the situation of a restless poor boy in London. Yes, “Eleanor Rigby” is a soul-haunting song which captures the sorrow of loneliness, but it can’t compare to The Who playing “Behind Blue Eyes” as Roger Daltry’s monotonous, growling vocals capture not only the the sorrow, but the anger, resentment, and total mental alienation of loneliness as well. “Back in the USSR” was a cute, clever practical joke on global politics which missed because it was also a cute, clever knock at The Beach Boys as well. Cute, clever, and missed points are all applicable terms which aptly describe another great song about global politics by another great British band: The Clash and their song about unrest in the middle east, “Rock the Casbah,” which about 90 percent of people hearing it for the first time mistake for a sexual anthem.

The Beatles were born into the working class in Liverpool after the Luftwaffe bombings, but I never was able to get the feeling they’ve actually been there. Even at their angriest, most passionate, or most fun, The Beatles sound like they’re forcing themselves to emote. In Buffalo, I get the feeling they’re the local rock band of suburbanites; they look at the issues from afar, thinking they’ll never have to contend with them in their lives. They show concern, but that concern never goes beyond the occasional check for a private charity.

In the meantime, The Rolling Stones and The Who are the passionate fighters for justice, fighting the root causes of the problems with all their rage. They have been the more relatable of the great British bands to me. The Who in particular – although, ironically, I only own one of their albums (Who’s Next) – seem to have a song for everything that strikes a chord with me. They’ve captured my alienation (“Behind Blue Eyes”), my eventual empowerment and embrace of my outcast, rebel status (“Baba O’Riley”), my fascination and eventual disillusionment with populist movements (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”), and even the way I used video games as a means of escape when I was a kid (“Pinball Wizard”). The Rolling Stones captured my depression (“Paint it, Black”), and inspired me to keep fighting for my goals even when they don’t seem attainable (You Can’t Always Get What You Want”). Led Zeppelin captured my imagination in virtually every way. The Clash captured my frustration with corporations. The Police I just love to listen to.

As for The Beatles, they’re a truly fantastic band, and I love listening to their music. I cannot, however, revere them as invincible musical demigods.