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.